The fur dress that won the Soen Award in the first half of 1969. (Photo courtesy of Bunka Fashion College)

The Soen Award, designers' gateway to success: Yohji Yamamoto (10)

'Major newcomer to the design world' wins critical acclaim


This special feature on Yohji Yamamoto's student days at Bunka Fashion College is supplemented by independent research and imagery interwoven with the original article published by Nikkei Asia.

His prowess for design is evident in these early works, which were selected and featured an exceptional 13 times for the biannual Soen Award through the March 1968 to February 1969 issues of So-en Magazine.

A rare scan and translation of his post-win feature published in the May 1969 issue of So-en Magazine can also be viewed at our library here.

In the design course of Bunka Fashion College, I was known as a "contest vandal," because I regularly won contests for younger fashion designers. I could make some extra money, too, since the contests offered prizes.

The most prestigious of these was the Soen Award, which was created to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Soen Magazine (published by Bunka Publishing Bureau).
Student work by Yohji Yamamoto in competition for the Soen Award, published in So-en Magazine March 1968.

In a review by designer Nobuo Nakamura, the design was evaluated as "youthful and fresh" yet notable for its sense of balance, such as the relationship between the width of the shoulders and the cuffs.

Student works by Yohji Yamamoto in competition for the Soen Award, published in So-en Magazine June 1968.

(Left) An entry selected and evaluated by Ms. Chie Koike, who praised the arrangement of black and white elements as being "dressy, in a humorous way", yet noted that there was a lack of space in the composition.

(Right) An entry selected and evaluated by Shigeru Harada, who notes, "the tailoring was beautiful and roughly matches the illustration, but the voluminous sleeves which were a highlight of the design were not reflected in the final garment. Straightening of the back and reduction of the cuff width by 1 cm would improve the design".

Junko Koshino and Kenzo Takada were previous winners of the award, which was considered a gateway to success for new fashion designers.
Winning entries for the 7th and 8th Soen Awards by Junko Koshino (left) and Kenzo Takada (right), 1960.

In my first year of the design course, in 1967, Kansai Yamamoto, who was about the same age as me, won the award. He was not a student at Bunka Fashion College, but after dropping out of Nihon University he went around to different ateliers and trained on his own.
Winning entry for the 21st Soen Award by Kansai Yamamoto, 1967.

"Good, good! Japan's greatest!"

When his designs appeared on the stage before the judges of the Soen Award, he would talk up his own work. Bunka Fashion College students made up the majority of contestants, so I guess he felt like he was struggling alone, without help.

Tokio Kumagai was one year behind me in the design course. He was four years younger than I, but had a keen sense of color and a brilliant design sense. He later moved to France and became a popular fashion designer before his death in 1987. We were friendly rivals, drinking together and competing for the Soen Award.

Kumagai won the prize in the second half of 1968, ahead of me. Unfortunately, I only received an honorable mention in that round. He had overtaken me, but I was not in a rush.
Winning entry for the 24th Soen Award by Tokio Kumagai, 1968.

At the time, Courrèges and Pierre Cardin were sweeping the world with their revolutionary new styles, and the influence on students among the Soen Award nominees can be seen.
Finalist for the 24th Soen Award by Yohji Yamamoto, published in So-en Magazine November 1968. This entry received the Hitachi Award as a runner-up prize.

"I was impressed because it was a very clean, sharp design. The balance of black and white elements are good, and the level of skill is reflected in the consideration of the design lines and their beauty when in motion. There are no shortcomings in either cutting or sewing. When the fabric is thin and double faced, the seam allowance will inevitably show through on the outside. This is of the things that bothers me, but I'd like to be generous and give it 90 points." - Sasahara Kiyo

The next round of judging, in the first half of 1969, was held on Feb. 3 at the Bunka Fashion College auditorium.

Student work by Yohji Yamamoto in competition for the Soen Award, published in So-en Magazine December 1968 (left) and February 1969 (right).

(Left) "A dress for young people with a joyous and fun atmosphere. I was strongly attracted to it. Clever usage of vinyl material in combination with grey and white wool." - Ms. Chie Koike

(Right) "There are no shortcomings in the design, color scheme, selection of fabrics, and sewing. I think it's a recent masterpiece (maybe a little too much praise?). But I feel like I can only see this level of work once every couple of years. While his sensibility is modern and sharp, he has an understanding of the traditional and classical form of clothing, and on top of that, I feel that his artistic approach, which aims for new formative beauty, has a rich future." - Sasahara Kiyo

A total of 8,416 designs were submitted. The field was narrowed down to 30 finalists, whose designs were made into actual clothes. After a rigorous screening process, my work was selected for the Soen Award.
Yohji Yamamoto’s winning entry for the 25th Soen Award, published in So-en Magazine April 1969.

The winning entry was a coat dress made of gray chinchilla and white double georgette fabric. I asked a seamstress from my mother's shop to do the sewing. I later learned that my worried mother secretly came to the venue.

"This one's definitely the winner."

During the judging, I remember Junko Koshino murmured this while looking at my piece.

As a "major newcomer to the design world", I was extremely grateful when the fashion designer Nobuo Nakamura, who had served as a judge, praised me with these words. I also won the Endo Award, which was established in 1963, and received a round-trip ticket to Paris as a supplementary prize.
Yohji Yamamoto’s winning entry for the 1969 Endo Award, published in So-en Magazine April 1969.

"I've finally fulfilled my wish. I want to improve my sense of design", I said nervously at the award ceremony, expressing my future aspirations.

However, to be honest, I was more confident about the previous piece that had received only an honorable mention. It was a gray and white wool dress that stood out for its simple A-line. It contained a glimpse of the clothes I make today. But I realized that simple designs don't often win awards, so I tried again with a more flamboyant piece that used fur.

Coming back from the award ceremony, I happened to be in the same car with Kansai Yamamoto. We knew each other, having had drinks together in Akasaka and elsewhere.

"Hey, I have a suggestion here. How about I change the name of my label to hiragana or katakana, and you leave yours as kanji from now on?"

I was surprised by Kansai's proposal that we use different characters to differentiate our names.

Since we both coincidentally had the surname Yamamoto, and both our given names were complex kanji characters, he was concerned that people would confuse us. I do not remember how I responded to his suggestion, but soon after that I noticed that he began writing Yamamoto using hiragana, as he proposed.

Back to blog