Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Yohji Yamamoto: Dream Shop


Yohji Yamamoto: Juste des Vetements
Musée de la Mode et du Textile, Paris, France
13/4/05 – 28/8/05

Yohji Yamamoto: Correspondences
Fondazione Pitti Immagine Discovery, Florence, Italy
13/1/05 – 6/3/05

Yohji Yamamoto: Dream Shop
Mode Museum, Antwerp, Belgium
March 7 – August 13, 2006

Dream Shop represents the final in a trilogy of exhibitions about the acclaimed Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, which also included exhibitions at the Pitti Immagine Foundation in Florence and the Musee de la Mode et du Textile in Paris last year. Each instalment presented an entirely different approach to understanding and celebrating Yamamoto’s work with this final exhibition arguably the most experimental retrospective of the three. Taking Yamamoto’s challenging fashions as its cue, Dream Shop is designed to challenge three fundamental “taboos” of the fashion exhibition: the need for low lighting to preserve fragile fabrics in historic dress collections, the ban against touching objects on display and the viewer’s position as an observer outside the garments on display rather than the body inside the garments on display.

Tone is established early on – at the ticket desk in fact – where it is possible to catch a glimpse of the long black cotton “Dinosaur” dress from spring/summer 2006 displayed in an open-air courtyard amidst a shattering of mirrored glass. The installation gives the impression that the dress has burst through one of the glass walls that keep viewers from entering the courtyard. Sodden from the falling snow, the sacrificial image of the dress left to fend for itself against the winter elements sets the stage admirably for the experiments in exhibition design to come. Upon the grand stairs leading to the main exhibition room is a giant wedding dress from autumn-winter 1998-99. We are forced to step around the display, which is just beginning to make her ascent, and again sense the presence of the body inside the garment: a feeling that foreshadows the premise of the exhibition.

Designed by Masao Nihei, whose career is based around the lighting of catwalk shows, the second floor gallery space is lit “almost as though one were in a bubble, a place where something can happen that cannot happen in the rest of the museum.” This is the least successful element of the exhibition as the light is blinding, forcing the already trend conscious assistants at the exhibition to don their sunglasses. At first I thought I was simply oblivious to yet another trend (big sunglasses inside, mid-winter) but when my head started to thump I began to understand the need. Nonetheless, I did find myself questioning the cost at which I was experiencing the “dreamlike dimension through the visual phenomenon of juxtaposition with the surrounding white”.

The genesis of Yamamoto’s design has been attributed to a reaction against the 1970s Japanese woman’s wardrobe of “suits and heels imported from the West.” He presented his first collection to Paris for winter 1981/82 challenging the then popular trend of tailored looks with his deconstructive techniques and androgynous silhouettes. The designer has been quoted as saying perfection is an “ugly” word and the eighty odd garments on display certainly confirm Yamamoto’s longstanding exploration of the unexpected and slightly off-kilter. Dress forms are used to display some of the garments, interspersed with others hung on coat hangers from racks and divided into six themes: black, black versus red, uniforms, muslin, asymmetry and oversized.  Each rack allows viewers to touch the fabric and scrutinize the garment’s construction just as one would pick over a selection of clothes in a shop. In addition to this, garments ranging from party frocks to giant winter coats are available to try on. Several curtained private dressing rooms smack in the centre of the exhibition were constructed so that viewers can slip into the odd thing that takes their fancy and experience the garment from the perspective of the wearer rather than the viewer.

The implications of this gesture are, of course, huge. Frederic Bonnet, author of the catalogue essay suggests that the gesture “relieves clothes of their sacred status.” No longer exclusively the experience of the wealthy or the model’s perfect body, the opportunity for the public to don the displays allows high fashion to move – albeit fleetingly – towards the democratic. I stalked around the outside of this scene, not too keen on the idea of parting with much of my clothing alone in a gallery, in the midst of winter. I eventually chose a Harlequin coat in black velvet and off white wool from autumn-winter 1997-98 and approached one of the sunglass-clad assistants who began to remove the coat from the display. Muscle memory caused me to helpfully stick out an arm for the creation to be slipped on, to which the assistant calmly told me, “no, no sleeves.” She then explained that the coat had to be held, like a warm blanket, on the inside with my hands and a hidden interior belt around the waist.

This is what the dress historians mean when they call for object-based research. It is not until realising the implications of not understanding how a garment is to be worn, that I began to fully understand the value of this research method. I had managed to believe that the sleeves must just be somewhere within those luscious folds of cloth, never once questioning that there might be another way to shape a coat. Lesson learnt, I marvelled at the precision of this precarious design. The hidden interior waist belt created a flattering fold that seemed to occur of its own volition, while the need to clutch the lapels from the inside pulled the collar high around my face like a frame. I left humbled that I had fallen foul of such a simple assumption, but inspired by an exhibition that unquestionably presents the opportunity to set the record straight.

Selvedge Magazine (2006: 88)