At my mother's shop, around the time I won the Soen Award. (Photo courtesy of Bunka Publishing Bureau)

The worst humiliation of my life: Yohji Yamamoto (11)

Being left behind the epoch - from haute couture to prêt-à-porter

After graduating from Bunka Fashion College in March 1969, I decided to go to Paris, the center of mode, to study for about a year. Having received a round-trip ticket after winning the Soen Award and the Endo Award, it seemed like a good chance.

I found a cheap apartment near the Odeon Theatre in the Rive Gauche and took up lodging there on my own. It was a shabby room, equipped only with a bed and a water tap. At the time, it cost 360 yen to buy a dollar. The yen was weak, and I could afford almost nothing. I would eat sausage sandwiched in a baguette day after day to cut down on my food expenses.

Around this time, my relationship with Toshiko Ota, whom I had met at Bunka Fashion College, had grown deeper, and we married. It was in Paris that I learned of the birth of our first son, Yuji. I remember the lady owner of the room smiling as she handed me the telegram from my wife in Japan. "Congratulations! You're a father now although you look very young," she told me.

"I'm going to test my ability as a fashion designer at the center of mode."

I was full of enthusiasm.

I had started a family and won the prestigious Soen Award. I was a shining new fashion designer who had been praised as a "major newcomer" by the bigwigs in the industry.

But my confidence was soon shattered.

As I settled in Paris, I decided to take my fashion sketches to publishers and contacted famous fashion magazines like Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire one after another. But every one of them slammed the door in my face. Even if I could meet with the person in charge, the most I could expect was to have my sketches coldly handed back to me.

"I'm sorry, but this doesn't work for us. Maybe at another magazine."

It was one rejection after another.

My abilities as a fashion designer were completely useless in the center of mode. My pride was left in tatters, and I could not help but feel miserable. I would consider this the worst humiliation of my life.

Despondent, I wandered through the Luxembourg Garden, south of the Odeon. I sat beside the pond in the center and watched the scenery for some time.

I still visit this park from time to time, but when I'm there, my heart always aches as I am always reminded of the heartbreak of those days.

It was at the Les Deux Magots cafe in Paris that I recognized the huge difference in abilities between the top class fashion designers and myself. Parisians dressed in casual ready-to-wear clothes by Sonia Rykiel, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin would come and go through the revolving door. It was like going to a fashion show.

(It's totally impossible. I can't make clothes like this...)

I was overwhelmed.

In fact, the fashion world was at a major turning point around this time. There was a wave of democratization and popularization to make clothing.

Change was sweeping the world, as evidenced by the clashes between students and security forces in Paris in May of 1968 that led to a massive general strike. Protests against the Vietnam War, hippies, women's liberation... the Prague Spring and the occupation of Yasuda Auditorium at the University of Tokyo also happened around that time.

A new trend of breaking with tradition was spreading throughout the world of fashion, and the center of gravity was shifting from haute couture (high fashion) for the wealthy to prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear) for the masses.

Until that point, I had focused my studies on haute couture. I was dismayed to realize that what was once considered the prestigious path of clothes-making had now been completely left behind by the times.

Kenzo Takada successfully rode this wave of change. In 1970, he opened his first directly managed store in Paris and came to prominence as the "new star of prêt-à-porter". My senior at Bunka Fashion College was a far greater existence than myself, and completely beyond my reach.

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