Remembering Kansai Yamamoto

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All clothing vintage Kansai Yamamoto.AnOther Magazine Spring/Summer 2008. Photography by Yelena Yemchuk, Styling by Karen Langley

The Japanese designer and David Bowie-collaborator has died aged 76

Trailblazing Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto has died aged 76, following a battle with acute myeloid leukaemia. Yamamoto’s daughter Mirai shared the news this weekend, saying that her father “left this world peacefully, surrounded by loved ones”. Taking to Instagram, she wrote: “In my eyes, my father was not only the eclectic and energetic soul that the world knew him as, but someone who was also thoughtful, kind-hearted and affectionate.”

Born in Yokohama in 1944, the designer’s career started out not in fashion but civil engineering, which he studied at school before reading English at the Nippon University in Tokyo. However, Yamamoto dropped out of university to turn his attention to fashion in 1965, making history a mere six years later as the first Japanese designer to present a collection in Europe with his legendary 1971 “womenswear” show. Inspired by the flamboyance of the Japanese idea of ‘basara’, Yamamoto’s radical designs were unlike anything seen on the runways of London before, and quickly attracted a fanbase that included stars such as Elton John, Stevie Wonder and, perhaps most famously, David Bowie.

Bowie became a lifelong collaborator of Yamamoto’s, who created several now-seminal garments for the musician’s 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour, and, later, his Aladdin Sane period. Bowie’s dramatic, androdynous style and Yamamoto’s bold, unrestrained pieces – which were frequently so artistic they appeared closer to sculpture than clothing – made for a perfect pairing. “It felt like the beginning of a new age,” the designer said, reflecting on his collaboration with Bowie, without whom, he once humbly joked, “[I] would still be sleeping at the corner of my little room in Tokyo”. 

In the decades since, Yamamoto’s pioneering, gender-defying designs have made an indelible mark on the world of fashion, influencing a new generation of designers from Jean Paul Gaultier and Hedi Slimane to Rick Owens and Nicolas Ghesquière, who featured a collaboration with the artist in his Louis Vuitton Cruise 2018 collection. Yamamoto – whose lifelong motto was “human energy is limitless” – applied his attitude to his 1990s ‘Super Shows’ too, which brought together elements of music, dance, acrobatics, traditional Japanese festivals and other spectacles, and were performed in historic locations around the world, including Moscow’s Red Square. “I try to create something that conveys more than just clothes,” the designer once said of his practice. “If I fell in love with someone over time I wouldn’t remember what they were wearing, you also need to focus on the importance of the mind.”