For an 80-year-old, Yoko Ono is incredibly cool. Take, for example, her outfit on The Jonathan Ross Show on UK television in May, where she rocked a chocolate leather jacket with peplum and a wide brim black hat, tilted just so. The evergreen artist and activist, who released her 13th studio album in 2012, discussed her role as curator of this year's Meltdown festival, which is on at the Southbank Centre in London this June.
Sporting a black trilby and the ever-present shades, with a soupçon of cleavage on display, Ono is also among the sprinkling of Third Age icons featured in Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld's coffee table tome, The Little Black Jacket: Chanel's Classic Revisited. (Some of the other 113 eclectic figures include Tilda Swinton, Vanessa Paradis and Edie Campbell).
Her sartorial taste may be distinctive, but for all her intentionally atonal, primal caterwauling as the frontwoman of the Plastic Ono Band, and zany antics as a conceptual filmmaker, Ono has never been that outrageous when it comes to fashion. Indeed, like many artists her clothes are a form of blank canvas, her Japanese roots always apparent. She favours androgynous, tailored black silhouettes built on clean basics like waistcoats, with trousers, v-neck tops and men's jackets custom-cut to define her waist and frame her bosom: an alpha female wardrobe, of sorts. Punctuation tends to come from those quirky hats and shades, whether Lennon-esque round glasses or bold, dark wraparound styles. She somehow manages to look extravagant without the use of colour or prints.
Ono is no fashion plate but instead projects an enigmatic, inscrutable aura that transcends mere clothes. She is a woman who can pull off a sack or sheet with poise, as she proved in her Bagism and bed-in days. For some, Ono's 1964 Cut Piece performance marked the high point of her style, where, in an abstract commentary on discarding materialism, she invited members of the audience to snip off her clothes with a large pair of scissors. New York-based label Threeasfour, who borrowed her dot drawings for its Spring-Summer 2010 ready-to-wear collection, staged a recreation of Cut Piece during their show, while singer Peaches performed the work as part of Ono’s Meltdown this June.
Shop ‘til you drop
Ono is a woman of contradictions. She wears the same outfit over and over, yet she is also known for her sporadic, voracious shopping sprees, one of which involved dropping $400,000 on 70 fur coats for herself and late husband John Lennon at Bergdorf Goodman. (Fur buyer Jack Cohen then had to lug them all over to their apartment on Christmas Eve).
The artist has collaborated with Swarovski on a jewellery line and designed an 18-piece men's collection for cult fashion emporium Opening Ceremony in 2012, based on a series of drawings entitled Fashions for Men she sketched as a gift for Lennon for their 1969 wedding. "I was inspired to create Fashions for Men [by] how my man was looking so great. I felt it was a pity if we could not make clothes emphasizing his very sexy bod," she told Women’s Wear Daily. “You can imagine how he went wild and fell in love with me even more." The fashion line – which included an LED jock strap, a hot-pink mesh shirt with cut-outs at the shoulder, white trousers with the shadow of a black hand at the crotch and a 'butt hoodie' (decorated with an illustration of a bottom) – was seen as provocative, though 'tongue-in-cheek' might have been a better assessment.
Ono has always had a sense of humour, even when, Sphinx-like in the 60s, she brooded behind curtains of centre-parted black hair. Back then she wore white, the colour of peace. Her wedding attire saw her as a cute hippie bride in a tiered crepe minidress, knee socks, plimsolls and a floppy sunhat, finished with – you guessed it – oversized black shades.
Indeed Vogue Italia's encyclopaedia classifies her style as "effortlessly outrageous... a shaded visionary, the epitome of a daring beauty". Toying with the era’s fashions, Ono always expressed her own spin. She also had a major influence on Lennon's latter-day style, with the singer adopting white suits, a beard and long locks as an extension of his newly politicised self. "She's me in drag," said Lennon of Ono in an interview with British journalist David Wigg at the Apple offices in London in 1969.
But for Ono, actions, be they artistic, political, or both, have always spoken louder than clothes. People who have met the artist will speak of her incredible aura rather than the outfit she was wearing. It is, of course, as the driving force behind the demise of The Beatles that Ono is popularly (if improperly) known, making her poise since 1970 all the more impressive.
Ono is, in a nutshell, a minimalist oddball who challenges perceptions of art and beauty, whether in spontaneous Ab Fab shopper mode, performing in a feathered hat on stage or in plain black slacks and flats, her head buried in an art installation. And whatever her incarnation – peaceful muse or grieving keeper of the flame – Ono always draws the eye.