Designer Explores Charlie Chaplin's Wisdom

Yohji Yamamoto, the Japanese designer who sends models down Paris runways wearing one black coattail or an extra swatch of fabric fluttering over a fanny, has an unusual sense of humor. He attributes it, and the clothes that come of it, to an American wit--Charlie Chaplin.

Yohji, as he is known, was in Los Angeles to visit his own separate room at Maxfield in West Hollywood, a store so precise about fashion that for fall it stocked nothing but black or white clothes and a handful of earthy pastels.

More for Women

Yohji designs more for women than for men. But he says he is dedicating his next collection to Chaplin, because his comic-actor idol conveyed 50 years ago what men feel about themselves today.

"They try to live up to the social ideal and dress to show it," he says. "So their appearance is not the image of their interior thoughts. Women are the opposite."

His antidote is a dress style that says: "Let's joke about the social ideal, about power or getting rich." Along with men's one-tail jackets and shirts with origami-folded fabric in place of neckties, he is showing for women tulle balloon skirts with satin baseball jackets and suspender pants that end just under the armpits. Odd as these items sound, he manages to give them the Chaplin treatment, weaving elegance into the wit.

Yohji's favorite color is one he calls hazy black.

"I'm overstimulated by color," says the diminutive designer whose wispy hair seems to fray around his ears. "Silhouette is the most important thing in my work. I don't need color."

For all that is available to him he says: "In my closet are very few clothes. Five shirts, two pairs of pants and one jacket I wear until it is broken." His latest, a shawl-collared style that seems a bit large on him, has a Carter label inside. "I wear other designer's clothes, not my own," he says. "To wear someone else's is to catch their communication. To wear your own is to communicate only with yourself."

One of the things he likes about fashion these days is the way it overlaps.

"In Japan, people wear cowboy boots and blue jeans, and it seems new and a little bit funny," he says. "Not like when an American farmer wears the same things."

He says he has been asked certain questions more than once. Such as, what is sexy about his clothes?

Sexy Definition

"Sexy is in the imagination," he says. "It is what the mind imagines."

And, what is the right length or width or proportion of clothes for now?

"It is quite stupid to worry about such things," he says. He suggests another approach: "When you want to wear something, when you feel drawn to it on any day, do not hesitate to wear it. Because beauty is not proportion, it is spirit."

And, when asked about elegance, he says: "For me elegance means to do your best."

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