In April of 2008, the famous Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto unveiled his "Y's" line in a most unusual place: the Ancestral Temple of Beijing's Forbidden City. The unconventional choice of venue was, of course, entirely non-accidental; the venerable 76-year-old designer had actually been invited by the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign countries to showcase his collection at this most important of Chinese cultural sites. As if this wasn't strange enough already, according to one of Yamamoto's spokesmen, the show itself was the designer's personal attempt to release tension from the China-Japan relationship and apologize for the war crimes Japan committed against China during the Second World War. The clothes that were walked down the runway were moved to the auction house two days later and sold to establish a fund—The Yohji Yamamoto Fund for Peace—to kick start the careers of one Chinese fashion designer and one model each year in Japan or Europe. Though it didn't come to much—the show received almost no press after it happened—Yamamoto's was certainly an innovative take on building peace between nations. Looking back six years later, the Y's Beijing Show stands as a moment of great, but unrealized potential, offering several insights for the future.

The first thing to consider is the possible political implications of the event. Though Yamamoto himself insisted repeatedly that the exhibition carried no political implications, the reality is that both the show and the Fund for Peace could not possibly have registered in the minds of most Chinese as anything other than a reversal of the paternalistic cultural relationship that had existed between the two nations for centuries when China was at the height of its powers. In China's dynasty years, the nation exerted enormous soft power through cultural imperialism, and assimilated all of its neighbors into its own culture. Later, during the country's century of humiliation, China was completely cut off from foreign influence. Indeed, the introduction of a foreign cultural presence in China is only a recent phenomenon—one in which China came out unfavorably. While South Korean entertainment and Western luxury brands flood into the country, nothing comes out; despite being the world's workshop, China today is decidedly a consumer, rather than a producer, of culture, and therefore soft power. The Yamamoto show, as a reversal of the centuries-old older brother-little brother cultural relationship between China and Japan, must have served as a painful reminder of this fact.

So what can we learn from Yamamoto's experience in Beijing? When asked about why he chose China, Yamamoto named two reasons: "It's a little complicated. Of course, I am going because I was invited to show my work as an artist. In Japan I am not treated as an artist because, in Japan, fashion is not treated as a form of culture. So this is going to be a message to Japan for them to start "Looking back six years later, the Y's Beijing Show stands as a moment of great, but unrealized potential, offering several insights for the future." changing their view on fashion." On this point, unfortunately, Yamamoto was somewhat misguided. It is widely held that a country's market for fashion goes through a "flashy" maturation phase, during which low-risk, stable, and prestigious brands—such as those currently popular in China—take precedence over niche brands like Yamamoto's. For most Chinese, who are accustomed to the conventional style of the country's most popular luxury brands (Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Prada, and the like), Yamamoto's fare—ruled by asymmetry, a Victorian romantic sensibility, and the color black—strayed far outside the comfort zone. This transition may be reflective of a general trend in a desire for status versus individuality; in any case, China's market is not yet at the point when it can truly embrace such a niche product.

"The second reason," Yamamoto continued, "is a bit different. I was a war widow’s single son, so I became naturally, almost instinctively political. Japan and China’s relationship is very naive, complicated, difficult—we have to be very careful. If I can make sure the Yohji Yamamoto fund helps young Chinese students, that might be a small message and a way to help some young people find their future.” Yamamoto clarified this idea in the following statement: "We're going to help them. In China, they must have so many angry young people. Being a fashion designer or an artist, you have to be angry." As an artist, Yamamoto's conception of international relations is certainly an intuitive one; he imagines relationships between countries as being inherently ruled by emotions that just need artistic outlets to cool down. What he doesn't consider, however, is the political nature of art itself. Art is not only the expression of emotion, but also its catalyst; never was this truth perceived more clearly than by the Communist Party during the years of the Cultural Revolution. Embedded in China's cultural history is a legacy of censorship, and state seizure of the nation's cultural assets. Art was taken from the hands of the artists and used for narrow, political reasons—to mobilize the people. It is a legacy that persists today in the form of internet censorship and the ban on art by contemporary figures like Ai Weiwei. Unfortunately for Yamamoto, and indeed the world, there never will be a detached, aesthetic artistic culture in China.

This does not, however, mean that Yamomoto's mission is entirely pointless. There is, rather, a pressing need for an independent Chinese cultural identity that fashion has to be a part of. When the Cultural Revolution smashed the remnants of traditional Chinese culture, there was nothing left to fill the void; following Deng Xiaoping's market reforms in the 90's, what China was left with, in place of culture and religion, was a frenzy of consumerism that has persisted to the present day. Yet this consumerism is not a simple absence of culture, but a serious threat to it. China's rising demand for luxury goods is being supplied not by domestic designers who are deeply connected to a distinct Chinese tradition, but by Western fashion houses pursuing purely economic objectives—a sort of contemporary cultural imperialism. If the status quo persists, an essential component of Chinese culture will forever be missing. But how to break out of it, to create a fashion identity distinct from the West? As Yamamoto suggests, the answer may lie in cooperation with other Asian nations: "It is vital Asians support one another." But is such cooperation really feasible? If so, it will rest on a basis of true cross-cultural respect and equality.