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Fashion 88 : East and West: Designers Share Dramatic Views

Times Fashion Editor

Organizers got more (and less) than they bargained for, pitting Orient versus Occident in a panel featuring two of the world’s most directional designers at the International Contemporary Art Fair at the L.A. Convention Center this week.

On one side was Yohji Yamamoto, Tokyo-based guru of the Eastern school, master of dark anarchic styles that billow and tilt and fall into unexpected origami folds. Yohji--his fans refer to him by first name only--is worn by key people in the film and music worlds--Duran Duran, Sting, Jack Nicholson, Whoopi Goldberg, Charlotte Rampling, Bryan Ferry, Bruce Springsteen are among his devotees.

Romantic Movement

On the other side was Milan-based Romeo Gigli, new leader of Europe’s young romantic movement, a dreamer whose clothes twine tenderly around the figures of his fresh-faced models, swaddling them in murky shades of delicate cloth. Among his local customers: Molly Ringwald, Lisa Bonet, Demi Moore, Justine Bateman, Mickey Rourke.

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But the expected East-West confrontation didn’t take place. In fact, philosophy, not fashion, was the issue of the day.

Clothes are simply an avenue of artistic self-expression, the designers agreed. Ideally, what one chooses to wear--or design--is dictated by a deep inner source, shaped by individual experience and culture rather than by external trends. There is no East or West, simply a universe of inspirations from which to draw.

Sound inscrutable? Yamamoto went to great lengths to explain, often compounding complexities as he tried to clarify.

“There is a basic misunderstanding about Japan,” he began, attempting to set a record straight. “Many treat the Japanese as mysterious” and sad, but they are “a gay and happy people . . . sweet, cheerful, lovely, naive and fragile. The very graphic and daring beauty of Kabuki (theater) is based on happiness and joy,” he explained, in answer to a question nobody had asked.

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World War II totally derailed Japanese culture, he continued, and “if the Japanese people had not fortunately been beaten by America,” their entire artistic spirit would have perished.

Yes, but what does all this have to do with clothes? Everything, in Yamamoto’s philosophy.

From the “matrix of depravity” that gripped Japan during the war, “the real human beings were born,” he said. And that is when the modern history of Japanese fashion began. (Yamamoto, born in 1943, was raised by his war-widowed mother.)

It was now Gigli’s turn, although the moderator’s original question had long been forgotten and in any event might seem irrelevant by now. Gigli’s father was an antiquarian-book seller, he said, and he grew up surrounded and inspired by classical architecture and art.

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The design of a particular villa at Pompeii, for instance, has been etched in his memory since youth: “Its essential lines had communicated a serenity and profound interior elegance for so many centuries,” he said, that when he started to design, he knew he wanted to put “the same (enduring) purity” into the lines of his clothes.

Similarities between the designers, rather than differences, seemed significant.

Yamamoto burst onto the international fashion scene with his first Paris show in 1982, when he shocked the press with shroud-like, hole-riddled garments, which were immediately dubbed “Hiroshima chic.” He was controversial, to be sure. But the effect of his designs was felt worldwide.

He has since evolved to more body- conscious designs, and lately dreams of clothes meant for “a very fragile creature with a man to protect her,” he said in an interview before the program began.

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“It’s a reaction to the fact that women today must work hard and be very strong,” and are losing some of their natural delicacy.

In both cases--the early, oversize shrouds and now the more feminine styles--Yamamoto is only performing his artistic duty, he believes.

“I understand the traditional view of beauty, but as an artist you have to protest, to suggest there might be another approach.” An artist must protest the conservative view of the moment, he says. This helps conservatives to rethink and redefine, and perhaps move forward another step.

Yamamoto, pioneer of distressed (i.e. worn-looking) fabrics, has been known to hand-wash bolts of fabric in a nearby river and then lay them out to dry on the river bank before turning them into clothes. Why did he come up with the worn look? “Because cotton, wool and silk are alive and capable of change at every moment, with every new development,” Yamamoto says. “They’re a little like people in that way.”

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Claude de Loffre, West Coast editor for City magazine and Spanish Vogue, is an avid wearer of Yamamoto clothes. “They are comfortable, indestructible; they don’t wrinkle; you can breathe in them or even sleep in them. I always wear them for work and travel,” she said.

Richard Martin, dean of graduate studies at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, and moderator of the panel, calls Yamamoto “one of the most important designers working today. He has examined the history of clothing and arrived at a sort of asceticism, a reductiveness that never denies the body underneath. Gigli and Yohji have that in common, both are ascetic and monk-like in their personal style and in their work.”

It is true. Yamamoto glides into a room on soundless, rubber-soled shoes. He always wears black. And his wispy figure, with its crown of flyaway hair, gives an impression more of spirit than of flesh. It is an aura that increases when he speaks in an almost whisper, so that listeners must be absolutely still if they want to catch his words.

The designer smilingly admits he owns “only about five (pieces of) clothes” and wears only black “because it is comfortable” and eliminates worries about color coordination.

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Gigli too is a small, dark figure, his face clouded by a few days’ growth of beard. He leads “a quiet, country life,” he said, and it was only about four years ago, when he was 30, that he decided to show his designs in a whitewashed loft, far from the Milanese fairground where his slick Italian colleagues showed their sophisticated, shoulder-padded wares.

Gigli’s look was the opposite of all that: no pads, no heels, no jewelry, nothing artificial or contrived. Innocence, purity and discipline defined the style that made him a cult icon within two years.

“In my father’s library I saw all sorts of art, representations of women throughout history,” Gigli said. “I translate what I have seen for contemporary times.”

Kelly Chapman of the Gallay shop on Sunset, described Gigli’s clothes in words of which he might approve. “He’s a combination of the future and the past, very Renaissance and romantic but with a futuristic side. He invented a whole visual femininity, a fashion that is not pushy.”

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Asked how he works, Yamamoto offered this: “Every artist starts with a copy of something he respects. People say it’s not good to copy, but to be a good explainer of yourself you have to learn technique. You copy. And sometimes the original from which you copied can be transcended.”

An audience member asked about fashion in the future.

“I don’t like the future,” Gigli said. “For me it is disaster. I dream in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

Said Yamamoto: “I am not interested in the future. I say to people (who live) in the future, ‘You do it now.’ ”

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Hair and makeup by LOREN FERRANTE/ZENOBIA


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