In this weeks blog post, I was planning on talking about a figure in fashion who impacted the fashion of the past and whose work continues to inspire now. Sadly, Kansai Yamamoto, a designer who fit this description perfectly, recently passed away of leukemia at the age of 76. Most famous for the designs he created for David Bowie, Yamamoto’s bold and colorful work was integrated with traditional Japanese style.
Yamamoto was born on February 8th, 1944 Yokohama, on the east coast of Japan. His parents divorced when he was 7 and he was sent, along with his two younger brothers, to live in children’s homes across Japan for the rest of his childhood. He first studied civil engineering before going to Nippon University in Japan in 1962 to study English. It was there that he first starting designing clothes, while being entirely self-taught. In 1973, at the age of only 28, he founded the Yamamoto Kansai Company, and had his London debut later that year.
On Monday, July 27th Yamamoto’s team released this statement on social media, saying “As he fought his illness, he remained always positive, never lost his passion toward creation, and was strongly determined to recover and come back with fully charged energy to see you again. ‘Human energy is limitless’ was his motto he would never let go, and he bravely kept challenging no matter hard the situation. We sincerely would like to thank you all for supporting Kansai for so many years.”
Yamamoto was most active during the 70s and 80s, during which he worked closely with David Bowie, as well as Elton John and Stevie Wonder. He was influential in creating looks for Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, making unusual and colorful pieces which allowed Bowie to dress beyond gender roles and create the character his music was working to convey. On working with Bowie to influence his persona and music, Yamamoto said: “David was a true vanguard — he was making waves in the musical landscape of the time. His energy resonated with my own desire to venture out into the world. I think David felt that the energy in my designs contributed to his own energy. He knew that when he wore my clothing onstage, he could elicit a strong reaction from the audience.”
The teamwork between Bowie and Yamamoto was what allowed Bowie to become the legend he is today, not only a talented musician but one whose style and the reactions it received meshed with his songs to create an entirely new kind of star. The two artists worked together to subvert gender roles and change the way the world thought about fashion.
Not only did he make runway looks or ones for Bowie to wear in sold-out stadiums, but his work was wearable as well. This vintage Yamamoto sweater is one of my favorites, featuring a bold dragon design reminiscent of his runway work, but with a more muted silhouette that allows for it to be the perfect statement sweater. This shows his range and ability to create not only the looks that made Ziggy Stardust a trailblazer and icon, but also clothing anyone could casually wear that would look fresh and interesting even today.
After his peak in the 70s and 80s, Kansai Yamamoto continued to create “super shows” in the 90s, taking the idea of a traditional runway show and transforming it to be new and different. These were more than just models on a catwalk, and featured everything from wild lights and music to inflatable whales. He had dreamed of doing a “super show” with Bowie before the singer’s death, in which he would dress Bowie and provide the “spectacle” of the show, which would include two 35-foot hot air balloons Yamamoto owned (despite not owning a car). Sadly this show never came to fruition for the duo, but Yamamoto said, “To have Bowie sit atop those air balloons, and have him sing his songs, was my dream.”
Yamamoto was a pioneer for Japanese designers in the world of high fashion, becoming one of the first Japanese people to hold a show in London in 1971. More than just being from Japan, Yamamoto utilized the traditional style of his country, using the bold silhouettes and color of the designs, taken from Japanese Kimonos and medieval samurai to inspire his own work. He adhered to a Japanese concept of basara, which relates to color, flamboyance, and maximalism, in contrast to the Buddhist idea of wabi-sabi, which focuses on minimalism, modesty, and imperfection.
Today, the idea of unisex clothing and fashion that doesn’t conform to gender roles is more popular than ever, and many of the designs that exist today draw similarities to Yamamoto’s work. For example, the cover of Harry Styles’ newest album, Fine Line, features him in a custom Gucci pink blouse and high-waisted white pants. The feminine style draws many similarities to Yamamoto’s creations for Bowie, especially in the silhouette of the wide-legged trousers and heeled boots.
I was saddened to hear of the passing of this icon in fashion yesterday. Yamamoto will be dearly missed by the world of fashion, and the impact that his work has made will continue to be seen throughout the world. The designer’s motto was always “human energy is limitless” and I think to take that idea to heart and let it inspire our own work is a great way to remember Yamamoto.