ADDICTED TO YOHJI: A conversation with Wim Wenders

On Super Bowl Sunday I skipped the 3rd quarter of the big game to spend an hour with one of cinema’s finest champions. I had the pleasure of speaking to Wim Wenders, the Yohji Yamamoto obsessed auteur who when asked about his relationship to clothing spoke for 13 minutes straight completely uninterrupted. I was in awe of his response to the question which in turn answered a dozen others I had ready for him. Wim spoke to me about the specific dress that sparked his interest in clothing, his relationship to cars and how one model became his most emotional possession, wearing decades old Yohji, his on set uniform, his music discovery process, and so much more.

Thank you to our wonderful friends at NEON for making this conversation happen!


Hagop Kourounian: Can you tell me about your personal style? What’s your relationship like with clothing?

Wim Wenders: It doesn't occupy much time in terms of I don't spend much time shopping or spending much time in the morning thinking what I’m gonna wear. I learned a lot about it, I think I was in my mid to late thirties, when I met a man who knew so much about it and I wanted to make a film about a fashion designer because I started to understand how fashion influenced how people feel and how fashion is linked to a feeling of identity. I had noticed that in movies how much different actors feel if they wear different clothes so I wanted to find out more. I thought I better find out from a specialist who designs clothes. 

My girlfriend at the time was wearing a Yohji Yamamoto dress at the end of ‘Wings of Desire’ and I think that’s where my relation with fashion started and my consciousness of how clothes change a person and how much they give a person in terms of structure or self value. It all started with that last scene of the film, the whole plot drives to that moment. It was so important what she was wearing and also for the actress because she was gonna not let him speak but have a big monologue all on what she was hoping from their relationship and from that monologue she needed to be prepared and she needed clothes to help her with the confidence, it was almost she was a knight and needed armor. We looked and didn’t find anything then one day I came upon this dress by Yohji Yamamoto and she said “oh wow that is what I was looking for” and we actually bought it we didn’t have any connection or anything I just bought the damn thing. 

It was wonderful, I noticed how much stability it gave to her character as it was a very tricky situation as she had all this long dialogue in German as a French girl and was very nervous but it was all gone when she was in that dress. It gave her a lot of self confidence, it was remarkable. That made me think about clothing and actually I looked at the label and I checked out this guy and realized what he was doing for fashion, for men, for women, everything I saw I liked. Eventually I got to meet him because he did two shows in Paris every year, he was still quite kind of young, maybe in his early forties. We started to talk and one thing came to another. I was interested to find how he produced his clothes, what kind of work goes into it, what's his method? What does he know about people? We liked each other and we said let’s not just talk, let’s make a movie while I ask these questions. Yohji was a bit reticent; he didn't want to have a movie crew invade his studio, he certainly didn't want a movie crew watching when he was working or designing. I said ok I can do it on my own, I can handle it. Only if we shoot a fashion show or something I’ll need some help. It’s just gonna be the two of us, you and me, you do your work and I’ll film. And I can do it on video and I can also bring a little film camera. 

We spent almost half a year together, we did several shoots, some in Tokyo and some in Paris. In that time I really got a crash course in fashion. Not in fashion in the sense that what suits me and what looks good on this girl or on this man or on me. I got a crash course in fashion rather in what it takes to design clothes for people, men and women, so that what they feel and what they wear makes them not only feel good, makes them feel confident, gives them a sense of their own history and in the end has works on the sense of identity. All of Yohji’s work was on that topic, he looked at old history books and photographs from the 19th century and he loved one book by my favorite photographer, August Saunders, a German photographer who worked in the ‘20s and photographed crafts people and people of different professions in their clothing. Yohji was in love with their clothing. He said his dream of clothing is that you live with it. The ideal clothes a man or woman has is the stuff they want to wear everyday and that becomes them. 

I started learning more and more and for the first time wore stuff that he had made and realized what it did to me and how I was so much more myself in Yohji’s clothes. It added to my sense of identity to my self image not in a sort of vain sort of way but it concerned my soul and who I was. The more I got used to his clothes the more I liked what he invested in them and what I got out of them and how they changed me. Eventually, after Notebook on Cities and Clothes I must say I wasn’t wearing anything else anymore except every now and then I wore some jeans here and there. When I was in public I was wearing his stuff because I felt it was simple, practical, and it was holding for a long time. 

I still wear some of the stuff I got in the ’80s from Yohji, if they get worn out I fix them… actually I do some of it myself. I like when they have patches, when clothes are sewed and still holding up. They become your own more and more, it’s like your second skin. The second skin and the first skin become almost the same, it’s your protection. What's between the world and your soul, in a strange way it’s what you wear. I got very addicted to Yohji’s clothes and we became very close friends and as a nice advantage of the film I got a nice reduction anytime I went into any of his stores, I got the employee reduction which is nice. I threw everything out slowly and replaced it all with Yohji. I can still wear my first suit that I bought, it has been repaired quite often. I have shoes he made that I bought in the late ‘80s and I still wear them. I had to take them to the shoemaker to have a new bottom, how do you call it a new sole S-O-L-E, still the same soul S-O-U-L. They are almost like my feet themselves, they fit as if they were a part of me. 

That is my relation to clothes. Every now and then when I wear something or somebody thinks I should have a piece of clothing and then I wear it and realize it’s not me. The me that I like the best and I feel comfortable in and is structured and can think like me is the me in Yohji’s stuff and that goes down to shirts etc. I learned very much from this man, we became almost like brothers. He became my Japanese brother and I’m his German brother. He’s three years older but when you get into your seventies that doesn’t matter so much. 

HK: You mentioned still wearing Yohji you bought in the ‘80s and repairing old clothes to give them new life… does that mean you don’t shop for new clothing anymore?

WW: I still shop every now and then. In New York not long ago in between interviews I walked around the block and there stood right in front of me was Yohji's new store. I realized I had half an hour, I walked, they recognized me (and my employee percentage), and I got the most beautiful coat that I’ve been wearing ever since. Every now and then at the Oscars or at the Premiere Imperiale award in Tokyo Yohji will make something for me and he will let me keep it. In my wardrobe you won’t find other stuff. I’m an animal of habit, so I put on a suit and then I most likely wear it for two weeks till I feel it needs to be cleaned or I realize it needs some work. All I change is shirts but even then I like to have the same. I don’t really worry in the morning what I’m gonna wear.

HK: I notice you’re always wearing those blue glasses or suspenders or your watch over your shirt. Would you say you have a uniform of sorts? 

WW: They’re part of me. When I got my first watch as a boy for my first communion. I was brought up Catholic. I was 10 years old, I got my first watch and I was told to put it on my arm and put the shirt over it and I was completely against that idea. I was so proud to have a watch I was gonna wear that watch on top of my shirt. In order to read the watch you almost had to with difficulty pull the shirt over it. So I put my watch on top of my shirt, my father thought it looked ridiculous when he had given me that watch. Everybody thought I was out of my mind but I insisted. First of all I wanted people to see my watch and second I wanted to see the watch without having to pull down the shirt. Ever since I think it does not make sense to wear a watch any other way than on top of your shirt.

I wear suspenders because I have a huge aversion against belts. The idea to put on a belt that in order to work has to push in your stomach a bit otherwise you don’t need a belt… I just don’t feel comfortable, I like suspenders. In high school they called me Wenders Suspenders because I was always wearing them but it was not for fashion reasons strictly because you could wear your pants looser without the suspenders they would almost fall down. You didn't have that feeling that you were tying your body down, I just always hated belts. It’s such an uncomfortable piece, the only good thing is you can hang something on it. 

HK: What about on set? Is there something you’d feel lost without while shooting a film?

WW: When I’m shooting I’m a little bit superstitious. I always wear the same stuff. It’s the same jackets because they have lots of pockets. Yohji once made clothes for a film of mine Until the End of the World and he made clothes for the two male characters, William Hurt and Sam Neill.

HK: I loved Sam’s linen suits, they were beautiful.

WW: Yeah those suits… but Sam was not my size that was a problem. William Hurt was exactly my size and as he is the geologist in the film I told Yohji I want you to make a suit with so many pockets that you don’t even count them. He made that suit with 23 pockets and he made an extra suit for me and when William finished the movie I had two of the same. I was wearing these for shoots for twenty years with all these pockets everywhere. I love pockets. They’re essential, especially if you make a movie you need to know exactly where is what. You need to know where your stopwatch is, where your notebook is, you need big enough pockets for your phone otherwise you lose all your stuff. 

Yohji knows this because he realized I did it but I did add pockets to some of the stuff I’ve bought from him… I made additional pockets, I made some big enough for the big Apple phone, the Pro Max. It didn’t fit so I had to make new pockets. I love pockets on the outside of pants and he rarely does that so I just add them and he rolls his eyes when he sees me and recognizes when I put pockets on his designs. I just need pockets, I’m a man of many pockets. I can organize myself better and I know where every item is. I hate it when you have all this stuff in one pocket and you have to fumble around, I have pockets for everything. I love suits and coats, especially big coats with many pockets. 

HK: I know this is a bit of a touchy subject but I’m curious to hear about your thoughts on Paul Harnden?

WW: Well my wife was wearing a lot of Paul’s stuff and I liked it on her. I liked the way she was wearing his coats. I finally got a coat of his, a long black coat but I realized I can only wear a shirt underneath because the arms were too tight. I could wear neither a jacket nor a sweater. Finally I murdered the coat and I had it opened up so I can wear a jacket or sweater underneath and I don’t know if he would have approved of that. I finally gave that long coat to a much slimmer man than me. He looks great on my wife, I must say. 

HK: I want to shift to Perfect Days for a second. I loved the film so much, especially that moment between uncle and niece and the conversation around physical vs digital media discovery. Do you still look for new music? Where are you finding and listening to new stuff?

WW: I do look for new music all the time, my musical taste is quite wide. I still like my old heroes, Lou Reed and Dylan are still among the things I hear a lot. Some of the old heroes are still producing, Dylan still has an insane output so I buy the stuff they do but I also try to know what’s happening today. I love African music a lot and I listen to classical music when I need it and feel like it, especially in the evening. I’ve always loved music when I’m writing or working. In my house my work room is soundproof because I love to have music very loud.

I love playing music all the time so I do try to stay on top of things. I buy contemporary music, hip hop, modern pop, African music, and every now and then a new classical recording although I don’t like so many. It always comes down to Bach and a few others but in classical music my taste is quite stubborn and simple. I discovered Billie Eilish a few years ago and thought she was an amazing songwriter and her music was deeply layered and really music not just pop songs. Maybe it’s because she works with her brother and they’re a great team. Sometimes I find something that I really love and try to have everything from them. When I like a band or a singer then I need to know everything. I'm old fashioned. It doesn't work if I just have it as a digital source. If it comes out on vinyl or CD or if I can get a high-resolution file sometimes I’ll buy both. I buy the vinyl so I have the information and the lyrics. I love covers. I buy a lot of albums strictly because I love covers. Very rarely has that disappointed me. Of course you buy nice covers and there can be trashy music in it but a good cover is very often a sign that people know what they're doing and there's good music inside. Even if the famous blues song is “don’t judge a book by its cover.” I do. 

HK: After our screening my friend and I were discussing the beauty of the Tokyo Toilets featured in the film. Which of the facilities were your personal favorites?

WW: Well my favorite was very clearly the Shigeru Ban toilet, the transparent one that got opaque when you locked it. Inside is so beautiful when it’s locked, you’re just surrounded by glass. You have a lot of light coming through as both of these toilets are in parks with trees around. You have these spectacles of the trees moving all around because they’re just glass and opaque if you use them. It’s so fun to open them up and see the landscape in a certain color and you open the door and enter reality again. These toilets are really fun and courageous to make because someone who doesn’t know is certainly reluctant to use them. When they’re transparent you see the wash basin, the toilet itself, they have lots of applications inside. It’s lovely, they are the favorite of these 17 Tokyo Toilet projects. 

HK: As someone who’s spent a lot of time traveling on the road, which cities are your favorite to drive in?

WW: I learned to drive in Paris. I went there as a very young man with my first used car, the cheapest Citrëon, the 2CV. I had just had my drivers license and I went to study painting in Paris. That’s where I really learned to drive, they drove just as recklessly then as they’re driving now. I learned to drive fast in the city and with that French touch. I can even drive in Rome. I like cities, I like to drive in cities. The most scary thing was when I was making the movie with Yohji he gave me his car because I was just alone with my equipment and it was too much to schlep around so one day he he says “here’s the key to my car, you know the way from here to the hotel.” So I drove for the first time on my own in Tokyo, well first of all you drive on the other side of the road like in England and second I can’t read the signs. But I knew the way and eventually I got cocky and started to drive other roads because somehow you’d always come back to a point where you find your bearings but it was a little scary to drive without being able to read signs. That’s the only town where my pulse got up a little higher while I was driving.

HK: What’s your relationship like to the car? Are you an enthusiast?

WW: I had lots of cars in my life. I had lots of Citrëons, I had a liking for Citrëons. The greatest car ever made in my mind is the DS, the famous Citrëon, the round one. The shark.

HK: I’m in love with those cars, that hydraulic suspension is so special.

WW: I had three of ‘em! I had the old gangster Citrëon from after the war that made many movies in them. I put all my money into that car, it’s very expensive to have an old car, a real collectors car. I drove an old Citrëon from 1948, it took all the money that I had and earned. The Citrëons were my most emotional possessions. I really loved them. I had a couple of Volkswagens when I was a student in Germany, of course you had to drive a Volkswagen because it's the cheapest car and it’s great and I love the sound of it. 

In America I had an Oldsmobile convertible and it shows up in two of my movies. It’s in the second half of The State of Things, when the director drives through Hollywood that’s my very own car. It’s an Oldsmobile Delta 88 and it was convertible and it was a great car. I crossed the United States with that car twice back and forth. When I left Los Angeles it was useless to want to drive it Germany it used up so much gas. So that was a great car, right now I’m driving a VW bus. A new one, a modern one.

HK: You mentioned crossing the U.S. twice in the Oldsmobile and that makes me think of this famous photo of Marty Scorsese and Isabella Rossellini you took in the back of your car after you saved them from the side of the road. Do you remember anything about this day?

WW: I remember that day, the summer of ‘77. I was at the festival in Telluride in the mountains of Colorado for the first time. I think I was showing The American Friend and I was only there for a day or two. I was coming from New York by car and I was going to Los Angeles from there by car. I knew the festival director and he said you have to absolutely take this and this and this road down from the mountains from Telluride and you have to go to Monument Valley and then in the evening we're all gonna meet in Goulding’s Lodge which is where John Ford stayed when he made his Westerns. So I took that road but he must’ve given that description to somebody else too because I followed it exactly like Tom Luddy told me and in Utah we went off the highway into a dust road because he said you have to see the Valley of the Gods. It’s now a national park but at that time it was nothing, just incredible landscape. Nobody took that road. I was with my girlfriend and we were driving there for hours without seeing any other car, just wide open landscape. It was gorgeous.

I was scared my Oldsmobile Delta 88 would have a flat tire or so. Then we spotted a car in distress by the side of the road, the woman standing next to it was waving and there were feet of a man sticking out and they had a flat tire it was obvious. So we stopped and it turned out the girl was Isabella Rossellini and the man that crawled from under the car was Martin Scorsese. He then managed to actually jack up the car and take off the tire only to realize then he didn't have a spare tire in his fucking rental car so we had to take them in our car. There's that picture of two of them in the back of the car when we rescued them and still got to Monument Valley and saw the sunset over the famous mountains that appear in Fort Apache and all of these Westerns. I think Marty would’ve died out there because nobody else took that road. If Tom Luddy hadn’t given that same route to both of us at least he would've had to spend the night there in the cold. 

HK: Who do you think are some of the best dressed filmmakers?

WW: Well a lot of directores if you see them directing they are kind of formal. Hitchcock was always in a suit with a tie, it was a different job being a director it was not as today. You’re not hands on, you never took a camera or anything. But I still like these guys who were so gentleman-like. I think one of the more flamboyant characters was Nicholas Ray. I saw my all-time favorite director, my Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu was always with the same sort of hat. A practical hat and also a nice suit but it was more like a working outfit. I like that he didn't have a formal suit and tie. Most American directors were sort of gentleman directors and it’s just not practical to be on the set with a tie and a formal suit. 

I think Martin Scorsese is still one of the most elegant directors today. He’s really always stylish and it’s not overdone. He still incorporates that gentleman-ish image of directors of former days but he doesn’t look like a quotation from some other time. He’s built contemporary but I like that Marty’s always very correctly dressed. I just like him as a director anyway. 

Some directors just wear stuff with many pockets and that gets baggy. I don’t know if anybody stands out apart from the ones I like. I like Ozu in most of his working pictures, it’s kinda cool, it's a little floppy and it’s a little loose and in all other pictures he’s more formal. On the set I like the way he’s dressed. Kurosawa also was very conscious of his suits and the way he was dressed. He also was a very elegant man. The most elegant directors I remember are Nicholas Ray and Kurosawa…from the pictures I know of them.

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