The formal innovation of Yamamoto’s work is still evident from images dating back to his London Fashion Week debut in 1971. His sassy knit playsuits, which revealed legs, chests, and thighs, must have been shocking to a country in which knitwear is something of a national obsession. Taking inspiration from the Japanese concept basara, a style of flamboyance and extravagance, Yamamoto’s silk capes and separates were printed with Ukiyo-e paintings—kabuki actors with their faces wrenched in high drama—at huge, gorgeous angles, and he cinched sleeves and waists with lengthy leather tube belts. Even today, when designers like Undercover’s Jun Takahashi have pushed these large-scale printing techniques into the 21st century, and Doublet designer Masayuki Ino is making hilariously inventive knitwear, the vintage goods look wild.
Japanese fashion has long been the toast of fashion’s avant-garde, but remember that the great debut of Japanese fashion in Paris—the arrival of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo—was nearly a decade away, and Yamamoto’s designs were intended for women, which made Bowie’s adaptation of them even more shocking. In the early ’70s, London was still bopping along in the miniskirts of Mod innovator Mary Quant, and the bohemian glitz represented by the store Biba. In Paris, the most exotic thing going was the designer Yves Saint Laurent interpreting styles from Russia, the Middle East, and Asia—mostly places he’d never been. To see a Japanese designer implanting Japanese culture on European runways was revolutionary.
Even outside of his reputation as a cultural collider, though, Yamamoto wrote a significant chapter of 20th century fashion. What Bowie was after with his legendary Stardust invention was an alien figure, something utterly unfamiliar, though undeniably beautiful and therefore slightly disturbing. The most progressive designers of the day-—André Courrèges, Pierre Cardin, and Quant—were designing in a Mod style that foretold of a streamlined, cool, and possibly emotionless future. Yamamoto’s designs pointed to another world—“half out of sci-fi rock and half out of Japanese theatre,” Bowie once said—that was expressionist and organic. Look at the way he handled vinyl, which was also a popular material for his Mod peers, in that famous Yamamoto-Bowie striped jumpsuit: rather than rigid and machine-made, it looks light and even botanical, like someone sliced open a mysterious plant that landed with a thud from outer space.