Kenzo Takada: The Designer Who Introduced Japanese Fashion to the World
Before Kenzo, it was challenging to envision an Asian designer reaching the pinnacle of Parisian haute couture. However, Kenzo Takada, a Japanese native who passed away on October 4 near Paris at the age of 81, brought the volume and shape of the kimono, along with bold floral patterns and tropical prints, to modern clothing.

"My goal was to 'free the body from clothes,'" Takada wrote in a series of autobiographical essays for the Nikkei newspaper published in December 2016. "Rather than tightly constricting the body, I wanted to make clothes that prioritized the comfort of wearing a loose silhouette."

Takada was known for featuring a diverse array of models on the runway long before it became commonplace. He was one of the pioneers of pret-a-porter, introduced the "see now, buy now" business model, and held shows for spring collections in the spring, as it seemed "very logical" to him.

Born on February 27, 1939, in Himeji, near Kobe in western Japan, Kenzo Takada's parents ran an establishment where women entertained guests by playing classical Japanese instruments like the three-stringed shamisen. As the fifth of seven children, his tastes were influenced by his two older sisters, whom he studied art with and read their magazines.

Under parental pressure, he initially enrolled in university in Kobe to study literature. However, Takada noticed an advertisement for Bunka College of Fashion in Tokyo that stated it would accept male students. This led him to join a class of future fashion stars, including Junko Koshino, making him one of the first male students at the university.

Takada recalled, "I was once told that there was no chance for a Japanese man to work in the fashion industry in Paris. Men were not allowed into design schools, and in the 1950s, creativity was not accepted in Japan at all. Most importantly, my parents did not want me to work in fashion."

While working as a designer in Tokyo's Ginza neighborhood and creating 40 garments each month, Takada planned a trip to Paris. Encouraged by a teacher to explore the world, he embarked on a voyage in 1964 on a passenger ship from Tokyo, making stops at ports including Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Colombo, Mumbai, Djibouti, Alexandria, Barcelona, and Marseille. This journey left an indelible mark on him and planted the seeds of ideas that would shape his career. He never returned to work in Ginza, focusing on a career in Paris.

Upon his arrival in Paris in 1965, the young Kenzo Takada was initially underwhelmed:

"I remember taking a cab and thinking - how dull Paris is. It was the same Paris, the capital of fashion, the city I had dreamed of for so long, and it all looked so sad and not at all like in the magazines," the designer later recalled.

Initially, Takada sold his designs for 25 francs each to French fashion houses and magazines. By 1970, he had opened his own tiny boutique at Galerie Vivienne near the Louvre.

"My vision was to merge two things I loved - the jungle and Japan. When I created my pieces, I often thought of Henri Rousseau's 1910 painting 'The Dream,'" Takada reminisced about his early label.

Bold patterns and unconventional colors were central to Takada's success. He frequently used cotton, a fabric seldom seen in high fashion at the time, to craft his garments. With this fabric, Kenzo began exploring volumes, crafting airy kimonos and pleated trousers.

However, a change in the brand's name became necessary. His initial label, Jungle Jap, contained a derogatory term ("jap") in the United States, which Takada did not take seriously until the debut of his collection in New York led to significant outrage over the name. The solution was simple: in 1976, when he opened his flagship store, he renamed the brand after himself. Thus, the Kenzo brand was born, destined to outlive its creator.

This marked the beginning of the Kenzo brand's history, and Kenzo Takada began making revolutionary decisions. In 1977, the brand's show took place at Studio 54, set to the music of Grace Jones with Jerry Hall as a model. In 1978 and 1979, he organized fashion shows in a circus tent in Zurich and even rode an elephant to greet the guests. Such grandeur did not go unnoticed, and Kenzo's unique cuts made his creations objects of desire worldwide. By the end of the 1970s, it became the world's best-selling brand.

Furthermore, the brand ventured into perfume production even before it became a trend. The initial fragrance, King Kong, flopped, but in the 1980s, Kenzo released successful fragrances, with Flower becoming a bestseller.

In 1984, Takada took another groundbreaking step by partnering with the mass-market brand The Limited. Together, they created a line of affordable clothing, a move that led some luxury retailers to stop working with Kenzo.

Takada confessed that he was more of a designer than a seasoned businessman. He encountered friction with his managers over the years, and in the early 1990s, the brand faced a crisis. His partner, Xavier de Castella, whom he had met at Paloma Picasso's birthday party and lived with for many years, passed away in 1990, and design partner Atsuko Kondo suffered a stroke in 1991. Two years later, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton acquired the Kenzo brand for approximately $80 million. In 1999, Kenzo left the brand.

He penned his feelings at that time: "My broken heart had not healed. My dream is gone too."

Kenzo Takada also explained to The Financial Times that he sold the company for a variety of reasons: "Everything had become too commercialized. Fashion was changing, the pace of work was changing."

After leaving the brand, Kenzo delved into interior and furniture design. In 2017, he collaborated with Roche Bobois, the iconic Parisian furniture atelier that has previously worked with Christian Lacroix, Sonia Rykiel, and Jean-Paul Gaultier. He also designed opera costumes and Japanese uniforms for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Kenzo Takada has inspired a generation of Japanese designers, including Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, paving the way for high fashion and instilling them with a unique sense of style that synthesized Japanese perspectives with European culture.
March 26, 2024