All photos by Erin Leydon
About five years ago there were a couple of big auctions that sold off the majority of the Yuki archives and I still regret not buying all of it. This is the life of a vintage dealer - you have to either buy when things come up or the chance is gone. A lot of dealers I have known that don't ultimately make it, over-buy themselves right out of business because they can never say no, or others have failed because they don't make it happen when they need to. It is not like a regular retail buyer who sets a budget each season and then merrily works their way through the collections, picking and choosing what will work that season. I am not only buying for the shop right now, but constantly deciding what might work for the shop next month, next year and sometimes even a couple of decades from now. It is an incredibly odd way to run a business but after all this time it is almost second nature to me.... but, I still have the occasional regret. If I was being perfectly honest I can tick off the pieces I have passed by and than later cursed at my own hesitation like a roll call. It is like a vintage version of Arya's kill list from Game of Thrones, except mine is a list of regrets. (sorry for the random reference if you are not a fan of the show, but if you are, I know you totally get it)
All those lost Yuki dresses still rate high on that list.
The Yuki label was designed by Gnyuki Torimaru who was born in Japan and is woefully overlooked when the clever fashion people start the whole "Japanese avant garde" dialogue. Exhibits like the current one at The Metropolitan Museum showcasing ReiKawakubo/Commes des Garcons, have put a mainstream spotlight on the movement. For insiders, sky-rocketing prices realized at recent auctions for the work of many Japanese designers have caused a fervor with collectors. Yet the work of Yuki is still largely ignored and the name unknown outside of die-hard vintage lovers.
Since I am wearing a fabulous Yuki caftan and turban today, I decided to dive in and see what I could find out about him. The info is scant and scattered and most is just a repeat of the same couple of paragraphs but I did dig up a few interesting things. If nothing else, hopefully this will string together some of the odds and ends all in one place.
During my research I kept coming across a reference about a retrospective at the V&A in 1973. This seems to be a mystical, much repeated, based on nothing non-fact. I was not able to verify its existence. If you are reading this and have actual information that it happened, please pop me an email and share so I can update this paragraph. But you better be ready to show me proof. To me it seems to be either an outright error, or at best a constantly misprinted date. If for nothing else but timing, it seems impossible - he only launched his label in 1972 - so to have a museum retrospective the following year seems to me to be very odd. There is apparently a book out there on his work but again, its impossible to track down. I have kept an eye open for a decent priced copy for years now.
To be perfectly frank, it seems there is a lot of contradictory information out there on Yuki period. Gnyuki is still alive and that should make clearing up the misinformation fairly straight forward, but unfortunately my attempts to verify the facts have so far come to naught. And boy, there seems to be a few contradictory versions of the details out there. Let's go through a few that seem to be well established and agreed upon, and then turn to the more mysterious ones, shall we?
So we begin at the museum and it only made sense for me to start at the Victoria & Albert Museum as I tried to pin down the whole retrospective thing mentioned above. No luck on that, but in the collection notes under one of the Yuki pieces held in their archives, there is the following blurb:
Gnyuki Torimaru, also known as Yuki, studied architecture before he became a textile engineer at the London College of Fashion in 1966. He has been based in England since the 1960s and launched his first own collection in 1972. Among his clients were Twiggy and the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
And under another garment, also held at the V&A, is a slightly expended version that reads:
Yuki (Gnyuki Torimaru), was born in 1937 in Japan. He trained as a textiles engineer before moving to Europe. He studied at the London College of Fashion and gained design experience at leading houses, including Hartnell and Cardin. Yuki launched his own label in London in 1972 and quickly built up an international reputation for his fluid, draped, jersey garments. His designs have always been body-conscious, and he is admired both for his craftmanship and for the fact that his designs suit larger as well as smaller women.
So far so good, though I have seen references in other career run-downs for him that he also spent time working for Louis Feraud which is not mentioned above. Now we get to the tricky part...
In addition to his mainline, couture Yuki label, you will also see dresses with a Yuki for Rembrandt label in them. Popular lore has that label coming into existence after his own label did so well during its first couple of years that he was invited to team up with the Rembrandt company. This collaboration resulted in a line of dresses that were a little less expensive then his couture range but that had the same attention to drape and line as the more expensive mainline Yuki label.
However, I found an alternate version of his timeline that actually dates his work at Rembrandt prior to launching his own label. Which would make the Rembrandt designs a forerunner to his couture work, rather then a reflection of it. A rather fascinating difference from the perspective of seeing how his work developed over time. It's a kind of chicken or egg vintage couture mystery.
Here is that version of his story verbatim:
In 1963 he traveled to America to study the history of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago and the following year moved to England and enrolled as a student at the London College of Fashion, where he was taught tailoring skills. He left college in 1966 and worked first for the London fashion house Rembrandt, before becoming assistant designer for Michael of Carlos Place and then designer at Norman Hartnell. A year later he moved to Paris - having been offered jobs with Givenchy, Guy Laroche and Pierre Cardin. He chose Cardin and remained with him for three seasons - during which time he became even more adventurous and innovative as a designer. He left Cardin in 1972 and returned to London to set up on his own. Harvey Nichols offered him a retail space in exchange for an exclusive contract which he did for the first year of his independence. The first collection was dominated by the circle featuring jackets and coats with huge circular sleeves or circular pocket cut-outs, which are masterpieces of construction. Part of Yuki's huge success was because his softly draped jersey dresses were as successful on a size 8 as a size 20. One of his signature constructions was to make garments from a single length of cloth using just one seam and no fastenings.
Chicken or egg? Sixties or Seventies?
I actually tend to believe this version - it has a lot more facts and the Harvey Nichols reference makes sense for a young designer. From a design point of view it also makes sense that once he had complete reign over his own label he took the work he was doing already at Rembrandt and built on it, making the designs more elaborate and buying more expensive fabrics to meet a more couture clientele. It would also explain his fast rise to success. he would have had a client base familiar with his work already. Do you agree?
Regardless of which timeline is correct, I can absolutely tell you that I look for the Yuki for Rembrandt label almost as actively as I do his main line. The Rembrandt pieces were very well made and have the same aesthetic as his couture line. The main difference between the two was the fabric and how much was used. His own label tended to be silks and heavier crepes ,while the Rembrandt versions were mostly washable jerseys (though not always - the famous blue dress worn by Princess Diana for her trip to Japan was made from a polyester. If you follow the link under my signature below you can read a full interview on his perspective of that experience).
Even Elizabeth Taylor owned some Yuki pieces from both of his own label and the his Rembrandt days. If non-silks were good enough for her and for Lady Di, I am in.
Currently, I have three pieces by Yuki in the shop, and they all happen to be from the Rembrandt collaboration. Including the bamboo print, jersey caftan and turban set I am wearing here. Personally I love this fabric. The good quality jerseys of the seventies are one of my personal favorite vintage fabrics. They are easy to travel with, wash well, wear well and you don't have to fuss and worry once they are on. You just pop them on and forget about it. Plus, there is the added bonus of price - when you consider that his couture dresses sell, and sell fast, for more than double the price of any of the ones I have for sale right now... dollar for dollar it is a tremendous bargain for such amazing work.
The Yuki caftan dress I am wearing here, with it's matching turban and bamboo print, is almost stereotypical in its capture of the Yuki aesthetic. He was known for loose, flowing garments, that he would then often top with turbans in the same fabric. Mr. Torimaru said his approach to design was to start with an idea and see what he could strip away to arrive at the bare essence of a concept. "He was minimalist before anyone thought about minimalism," said Meredith Etherington-Smith, who was the London correspondent for the French edition of Vogue in the 1970's.
The best of his work was done in draped jersey. His trademark cut was one that utilized panels of fabric that were cut in a full circle and then allowed to drape down the sides to create elaborate draping. You can see this technique in part on the dress I am wearing here. This gives the dress fullness and ease while still being flattering, all while using the absolute minimal seaming. The drape and line that this creates instantly makes you feel taller and slimmer and the turban adds even more height, never mind the extra glam factor a turban gives. It is quite amazing really what is accomplished by the right draping. Especially considering that the dress in no way hugs or defines the body other then by the drape and cut.
It is a masterful feat and one that Gnyuki does to perfection.
Love it? You can see this Yuki and the other Yuki pieces I have in the shop here. For those that love to know my accessories - the sunglasses are Gucci and the shoes are Azzedine Alaia.
P.S. If you are a Princess Diana fan it might be of interest to you that Yuki designed a dress for her to wear in 1986 for her visit to Japan. He did an extensive interview on that experience and if you click here you will land on the page where it is so you can read it in full. A warning .... for some reason the majority of it is written in a white text on a light grey backdrop - making it virtually unreadable. The text is there though, and if you select it with your cursor it becomes white text on black and readable. You're welcome.