Exhibition Review: Yohji Yamamoto at the V&A

The V&A’s major retrospective exhibition of the life and work of Yohji Yamamoto is soon to close, but I want to open this post by recommending that you make the trip to see it while you can.  The show affords visitors the rare opportunity to see dozens of Yamamoto’s designs for both men and women side by side in both a specially designed gallery, and throughout the museum installed among the permanent collections.

The main room is a bright white space, like a photographic studio, characterized by “Yamamoto red” accents, pipe frame structures and geometric flourescent lighting fixtures dominating the ceiling.  In open plan, a myriad of mannequins clad in Yamamoto’s designs fill the floor, inviting close inspection and interaction. The white painted floors were scuffed with foot marks that belie the path of visitors around the garments, leaving white circles like spotlights at their feet. The clothes are presented without any labels, just numbers painted on the floor that correspond to the exhibit guide distributed at the entrance. While in the gallery, I never looked at it once.  There was no need to know when an ensemble was made or of what materials. It was far more engaging to just walk amongst ensembles, unobstructed by the usual museum trappings, and to feel like a guest at a fantastic party on a planet where there is only one designer – Yohji.

If you had descibed such a party to me beforehand, I would have envisaged a room full of people wearing black rather ill-fitting clothes. But, the exhibition proved my ignorance by displaying a wealth of both colours and silhouettes from Yamamoto’s oeuvre.  Playful and whimsical garments held equal ground with their more sombre and intellectual pieces, presenting Yamamoto’s work as a wide-ranging exploration of fashion and form.

Alongside one wall of the white space, a chronology of Yamamoto’s career was presented via texts, photographs, videos and various printed matter. There were some items here deserving of time and attention, but their placement along one side of the room divided from the garments by a scaffold made it feel truly like an “aside.” I think the intention was for visitors to walk along the wall tracing Yamamoto’s career in pictures and words, and then emerge into the pool of clothing (and then the gift shop) but I did the exact opposite. After viewing the garments, I walked back in time starting with Yohji’s recent autobiography My Dear Bomb, and ending with information and video of his early training in fashion. Also included in the timeline is Wim Wenders’ film Notebook on Cities and Clothes which features Yamamoto and is a brilliant insight into his working process and inspirational philosophy, and some candid photos of Yohji in his karate uniform by Nobuyoshi Araki.

Before indulging in a visit to the gift shop (unavoidable) I took out my exhibit guide and consulted the map showing that other installations of Yamamoto garments were scattered throughout the museum. Finding these satellite exhibits was a real treat, because they ensure that visitors to the exhibit traverse the museum and undoubtedly stop to look at other work along the way.  In fact, despite my frequent visits to see special exhibitions, I found myself wandering through some galleries I never even knew existed. 

Each of the installations was devised as a dialog between Yamamoto’s work and the environment of the museum and the poetry of these pairings is truly a challenge to describe in words. The photos give a pretty fair image of the rooms, but they can not capture the feeling of opening the door to the Devonshire tapestry room and coming upon the rich red Yamamoto coats spotlit in the centre of the dim gallery.  In this case they seemed to be imbued with the authority of museum guards,  the wisdom of centuries of designers, and the nonchalance of the casual visitor all in one. 

I sat on a bench beside them, and spent a very long time looking at the tapestries and appreciating the work and history they embody. The reds in the tapestries seemed to glow as if drawing energy from the Yamamoto pieces.  When I got up to leave I felt as though I had been lost in reverie for hours. Something had changed.  In my mind, there was now an indelible though unlikely link across time and culture.  I shall never see a medieval tapestry again without thinking of Yohji Yamamoto, and perhaps vice versa.

The exhibition is curated by Ligaya Salazar with art direction by Peter Saville, and exhibit design by Masao Nihu and runs through the 10th of July.

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