Picture this. It's 1981, and fashion in the West is all about sex; even more so than it is now. More was more. Designer Claude Montana seduced with his signature synched waist, as did Gianni Versace, while Thierry Mugler dared to bare more flesh season after season. But something else was brewing in Japan. In 1977, a then-little-known designer debuted a collection devoid of cleavage, sex, and even colour. The designer's name? Yohji Yamamoto.
'I love what he stood for,' Nick Knight, one of Yamamoto’s earliest collaborators, explains. 'I loved the fact that he was a male designer promoting women's intellect and not women's bodies. I believe he was probably one of the first to do that; his clothes did not show off your cleavage or waist but your soul. I thought that was always a rather beautiful sentiment.'
Before generation Yohji, the fashion scene was rooted in Europe, with little influence from overseas. It would be a fundamental error not to point out Issey Miyake here, but even he was a different thing altogether, not to mention ten years prior. 'Really, you were looking at designers like Montana, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent', said Knight. 'It was still very sexualised, and that's just what it was. But Yohji and Rei [Kawakubo] came along, and it was like they came from a different planet'. Instead, Yamamoto's designs replaced violet hues with dark shades of grey and primarily black, turning the decade's beloved shoulder pad on its head in favour of a deconstructed sea of black and midnight blue looks equally utilitarian as they were deeply romantic. 'People were starting to wear his clothes in London, and they looked so different from everything else. It's hard to imagine him now because, of course, it all gets assimilated into our current cultural vernacular, but I did find it quite hard to get behind some of the brands that were so overtly sexual and objectified women in such an obvious way. Yohji's whole way of thinking was very coherent with what I was thinking and hoping to find in fashion', Knight divulges.
Yamamoto made his Paris runway debut in 1981, and by 1985, his career had already reached meteoric heights. 'Every young photographer at the time wanted to do the Yohji campaign', Knight revealed 'because A, the clothes were brilliant and B, Marc Ascoli’s art direction; there was nothing else like it'.
What led Knight to working with industry greats like Ascoli and Yamamoto were his 100 Portraits series for i-D magazine to celebrate the publication's fifth anniversary in 1985. 'Marc was a very Svengali-like figure in fashion, responsible for discovering and promoting great new photographers, and also taking existing photographers and making some of their best work - he had seen my i-D series and wanted to meet me as he was seeing different photographers in London'. Ascoli then asked Knight to work on a men's catalogue which was shot akin to his i-D series 'before stepping up a gear and making it minimal'. Next, Yohji saw the work and he loved it, asking Knight to do the women's catalogue in the same season. Knight then called on Peter Saville for the graphic design and 12 catalogues later, the rest is history.
It must be said these weren't catalogues in the sense we imagine. 'They showed Yohji's dreams and aspirations and what he wanted those to look like - they were like a print version of a fashion film', Knight calrified. Clothes made up only a small part of it, and instead, the brief was as abstract as would allow. 'It was never about showing the sleeve length or the material it was made out of', Knight reveals. ‘It was about realising an expression of his dreams. The actual brief from Yohji to us then was, “Show me my dreams.” ’ And dreams they did show, as the catalogues in question weren't just lauded, they ended up revolutionising the face of fashion imagery.
The catalogues were then sent out to a highly-targeted list inclusive of architects, actors, poets and general figures Yamamoto admired, all comprising Knight's alluring imagery. 'We devoted so much time to these [catalogues], and Marc would sit there, and he would show me films, photographic works and talk about designers and models and photographers of the past, and you know, I would learn an awful lot. I also spent my whole time researching different photographic techniques and looking for something that hadn't been done before...when you worked with Marc, you just knew you wouldn't get anything other than the best lesson in how to take a fashion photograph and he was not an easy taskmaster, either. It really was my school in fashion.'
The experience of collaborating with Yohji Yamamoto was seminal for Knight for a multitude of reasons, partly due to the above and also because this is where the young image-maker had his lightning bolt moment of recording every studio session he did in the hopes of creating fashion film. 'It occurred to me that I should start filming my sessions because having seen Naomi Campbell in the early part of her career looking so amazing, dancing to Prince in a scarlet Yohji coat, I thought "this is fashion theatre", you know? Why the hell are only 6 people seeing this'. Lo and behold, that's how Knight's first-ever fashion film Arles came about.
'We didn't start filming until the very last one, which happened on location. All the others were shot in the studio. It was the first time we had gone outside and we went into a quarry near Marseille which was a John Cocteau location, all white slabs of limestone. I asked my assistant at the time, Jason Evans, to bring a camera to just film what we were doing so that’s what the film was.’
Despite taking the credit for being Knight's first fashion film, Arles was never released to the public. 'It was only me that wanted to do that. Nobody said ‘Oh well, Nick can you do that?’ I just thought "clothes should be seen in movement, let’s do it" so that’s why the film was never officially proposed to Yohji, he never saw it.'