"The clothes are so heavy next to the art," Yohji Yamamoto said, sighing, last week at a gala dinner in his honor at this city's historic Palazzo Vecchio. The legendarily pessimistic Yamamoto was referring to an exhibition of his work across the Arno at Palazzo Pitti, where amid the gravy-colored portraits of forgotten aristocrats and ponderous Academic nudes, his rigorously simplified clothes look, in fact, stark and ethereal.
The show was timed to coincide with Pitti Immagine Uomo, the big men's wear trade show held here each January, and the celebratory dinner was given by Leonardo Domenici, the mediagenic mayor of Florence and attended by a motley collection of fashion types and civic notables. It was staged in the vast Renaissance-era Lily Chamber, rarely used for anyone lower in rank than a head of state. Guests merrily tucked into plates of poached fish and glazed vegetables beneath a gilded ceiling and a famous Donatello depicting Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes, not necessarily everyone's idea of a centerpiece. Yamamoto sat amid the crowd and the hum, silently pushing his food around his plate.
In a sense, Yamamoto could be thought of as a world leader, since few in recent history have exerted half as much influence on fashion as he has. It is not so much that his austere and structurally challenging weeds have influenced generations as that, nearly alone among Japanese designers, his aesthetic has survived translation from cult status to the broader marketplace.
Somehow, his Y-3 line of sportswear manages to make yahoos on snowboards look as design-literate as Manhattan art dealers and simultaneously adds a fillip of snowboarder cool to the selfsame art dealers, for whom Yohji Yamamoto clothes are a default uniform.
Correspondences, as the exhibition is called, assembles 80 outfits and spreads them throughout Palazzo Pitti's Galleria d'Arte Moderna, modern here meant to indicate nothing later than the 19th century. Like the blockbuster Dangerous Liaisons show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last spring, Correspondences attempts to introduce liveliness to static collections by staging what some curators pretentiously term "interventions."
Clothes plus kitsch cliches equals visual dialogue, goes the thinking, whereas in reality, clothes plus kitsch tends to produce not lively cogitation so much as a separate new genre as dulling to mind as it is to eye. It is a pitfall of which Yamamoto is keenly aware. Seeing so many of what he calls his "back numbers" in one place "feels like punishment to me," he said. "Anyway, for years I hated the idea of a retrospective of my work, since it felt like proof of my mistakes." If punishment it is, Yamamoto is in for plenty more when a major retrospective of his work opens in April in Paris. "I think," Yamamoto added glumly, "it is enough to do this once every 25 years."
That Correspondences happened at all is extraordinary in a sense, since the show's sponsor is the Pitti Immagine Discovery Foundation, the cultural arm of one of Italy's big trade groups. Imagine something like a national polyester board footing the bill for a major Calvin Klein retrospective, and you'll get the idea. "It's natural for us to do things like this in Florence," said Francesca Tacconi, a foundation spokesman. The foundation, she added, "serves as a seismograph and catalyst for the trends that give shape to contemporary thought."