Yohji Yamamoto is not a new first baseman for a major league team. Neither is Rei Kawakubo. Both, however, are the subjects of two fascinating photo books about the influence of Japanese designers on the world of high fashion. “Yohji Yamamoto” and “Rei Kawakubo,” two photo-centric coffee table books, provide a brief history of each designer and depict the evolution of their designs. The two hardcover books are marketed as companion works.

Between each 120-page book, we learn that the two designers grew up in post-World War II occupied Japan and began their fashion careers by starting their own design companies in the early 1970s. Yohji Yamamoto lost his father in the war and was raised in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area by his mother, a dressmaker. He cites his unconventional designs as a reaction to some of the Japanese women, customers of his mother’s shop who wanted to dress in “feminine imported clothes.”  This reaction motivated him to design “clothes that allow women to express their own individuality freely.” Not following fashion trends, Yamamoto’s signature looks are often oversized silhouettes in black with varying textures.

Rei Kawakubo, also born in Tokyo, began her career in the late 1960s as a stylist for the advertising department of a textile company before striking out on her own as a freelance stylist. Unable to find the kind of clothes needed for her advertising work, she created her own garments. Although not formally trained in fashion design, Kawakubo started her own fashion label, Comme des Garcon, a name holding no special meaning to her other than that she liked the sound of the words. Like Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo searched for new ways of artistic expression through clothing, pushing the boundaries of what was considered beautiful for the time. Kawakubo’s clothes are sculptural, concentrating on structure rather than surface.

In 1981 the two, who were romantically involved at the time, brought their collections to the Paris runways and shocked the fashion establishment with what was immediately dubbed “Hiroshima Chic.”  These fashions featured all-black clothing, distressed fabrics, and unusually shaped garments on models who wore flat clunky shoes — none of which had ever been done or seen before.  Their groundbreaking work continued to heavily influence fashion leaders worldwide for more than thirty years, including designers Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford and Alexander McQueen.

The two books — extra large in scale for maximum visual impact — dramatically showcase Yamamoto’s and Kawakubo’s avant-garde designs spanning several decades to the present. Page after page of atmospheric black-and-white photos chosen from the archives of London-based fashion magazine i-D showcase clothing that are akin to wearable art pieces.   Interspersed between the stark fashion images are full-color photos of their work that appeared in ads, brochures and runway shots. Along with these vivid visuals are the designer biographies, personal interviews in BIG print with odd margin spacing, narratives by various fashion professionals who have worked with them through the years, and sidebars and photos from Japanese folks of varying ages who comment on the designers.

Published by Taschen in 2012, the two books, “Yohji Yamamoto” and “Rei Kawakubo” are curated by Terry Jones, i-D Magazine editor in chief and art director,  who was long acquainted with both Japanese designers. Jones’ relationship with Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo provided special access to the two fashion innovators for a more intimate, closer look at who they are. Unlike media-shy Kawakubo, Yamamoto clearly enjoys sharing his thoughts on women, the female form and the process of creating avant-garde “Anti-Fashion” clothing in the international high fashion world. The “Rei Kawakubo”  book — though equally striking visually — tends to be less personal, focusing instead on her work and her vision for her future fashion-related business plans.

The two volumes, a compilation of collected images and i-D articles on Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, will challenge what might be considered traditional notions of “beauty.” Read together, the two books provide an excellent background for appreciating the Seattle Art Museum’s exhibition, “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion,” where Yamamoto’s and Kawakubo’s creations will be showcased through September 8.

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