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Beauty and the Beat: Yamamoto Rocks

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page C01

PARIS, March 2 -- It is not uncommon for designers to reuse pop cultural markers as a source of inspiration. But it is usually not particularly interesting to see the ways in which a horde of them might interpret the 1960s look of the model Twiggy or the style of Barbie during her Dream House heyday. This week, however, it has been a pleasure to see how Yohji Yamamoto applied his own esoteric aesthetic to early rock-and-roll style. It was also instructive to see another designer, Jean Paul Gaultier, attempt the same feat and fail.

Yamamoto's show on Monday night unofficially opened the fall 2005 collections here. And when the klieg lights came up, models moved down his runway with sloppy pompadours, keen-toed black shoes and the kind of nonchalant black suits that called to mind the bad boys of the 1950s. Yamamoto is not the sort of designer who translates ideas literally and so there were no silly rock star T-shirts, very little glitter and nothing so cliched as perfunctory nudity. Yamamoto is too good for that.

Jean Paul Gaultier also looked to rock - glam rock rather than vintage. But the creative energy of his clothes overwhelmed. (Maria Valentino - For The Washington Post)

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Ever since he arrived in Paris in the 1980s from his native Japan, he has been noted for his ability to tease out beauty from the starkest silhouettes and to reinterpret the traditions of French fashion through non-Western eyes. Indeed, one of his most memorable collections was inspired by the work of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, in which he toyed with her classic boucle jackets as well as her borrowed-from-the-boys philosophy.

Yamamoto has also been described as an intellectual designer because his work so often seems driven by thoughtful analysis rather than an impassioned celebration of color and ornamentation. Indeed, his work process has enough depth and consideration that it will be the subject of an exhibition at the Musee de la Mode et du Textile in April.

No one would be surprised that Yamamoto is not the sort of designer whose work regularly turns up on starlets hoping to get a little ink in the pages of Us magazine or on video stars doing a one-two step on MTV. One of the few gossip column regulars to wear his designs was Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, who before her death was building a public persona of icy sophistication.

The masterly grace of Yamamoto's fall collection lies in the pure ease with which the designer blends his reserved and intellectual approach to fashion with the sizzling, from-the-groin sensibility of rock. Yamamoto creates a visual dialogue -- a kind of aesthetic debate -- in which no one element drowns out the other. The psychedelics of the 1960s are expressed as a single violet coat with an unruly swirl of fabric that sweeps across the front. Multicolor prints are quieted with a scrim of black chiffon that calms the vibrancy without extinguishing it. A black coat cuts away in the front to reveal a skirt of layered chiffon that is reminiscent of a circle skirt from a sock hop. A dramatic black overcoat has its deep cuffs embellished with clear crystals the size of ice cubes. The coat speaks of Elvis and Bowie and Elton, all with a few bold strokes and a splash of glitter.

In some ways, Yamamoto is like the grown-up listening to kids' music and offering a response. Instead of condescending to it or mocking it, he allows himself to be moved. To be sure, Yamamoto's dialogue is with vintage rock. He is not conversing with Green Day or Scissor Sisters or even Beyonce. But it doesn't matter. Those performers have all modeled themselves on someone who came before. Yamamoto simply is starting at rock's beginning, too. And instead of teasing beauty out of starkness, he is finding his own drumbeat in the cacophony.

Gaultier never managed to make his personal rhythm heard in the glam-rock collection he showed Tuesday night. There were pompadours on his runway, as well as greasy hair slicked back or hanging lank, hairy epaulets and dark-rimmed eyes. The models stalked down his catwalk in sequin leggings and beautifully cut blazers.

There were some splendid coats reminiscent of the sweeping maxi-coats that one might see in yellowed photographs from the 1960s. A black-and-caramel-colored wrap coat was grand and striking with its deep barrel cuff, for instance. Short jackets with gilded adornment -- vaguely military, vaguely Sgt. Pepper meets punk -- showed off Gaultier's admirable ability to blend elegant tailoring with a jaunty sensibility. And blazers, which were lopped off on the diagonal, expressed the dueling sensibilities forever present in Gaultier's work: tradition and rebellion.

The jackets were beautiful. They overshadowed almost everything else -- except for a splendid tank dress in velvet and satin. There were startling moments when colors seemed to be loosed without thought and glitter poured down with the delicacy of a mudslide. A fuzzy, turquoise sweater dress with a low, drooping cowl neckline hung around the model like a sack. A multicolored, patchwork fur pullover had the visual effect of a squealing guitar solo gone on too long. And a white tulle ballskirt and its swirling top were splashed with gold sequins so indelicately applied they looked as though they'd been coughed up after a rough night. There is a lot of creative energy to be found in the grand flourishes of rock-and-roll, but there is little enticement in the tawdry remnants of a trashed hotel room.

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