Kenzo Fashion Show Paris, France, 1982/1983 Sipa/Shutterstock
Art and fashion find themselves at an intersecting axis. They make not one straight line, but a complex angle on a spectrum of culture and personal insight. Through a career spanning almost three decades, late Japanese designer Kenzo Takada placed himself precisely on that scope. Between vivacious oriental prints and a rich colour palette, his approach to fashion stood on the precipice of wearable art. While Paris continues to mourn his passing, Takada leaves a global legacy that encompasses Asian heritage from the East and couture from the West. A vibrant spirit lives on in his design masterpieces, that upend traditional codes of couture for playful kimonos, collaged dresses and tunics.
Born in 1939, Takada blossomed from a humble childhood in Himeji, Japan. Flicking through copies of his sister’s magazines, the imagery sparked a creative fire that would later fuel his desire for luxury design. After following his parent’s wishes, a young Takada refrained from fashion to pursue literature studies in his teenage years, yet a thirst for progress and his father’s death meant he later took his own pathway. It marked an ongoing credo to be different, break rules and not treat life so rigidly. Being the first male student to enrol at Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion College, where he designed up to 40 dresses a month, Takada was trailblazing in both an industry and era that shunned anything but the normative. Recalling how his early years were impacted by dyslexia, Takada used his virtuous eye for drawing as an escape from hardships – although his pivotal escape came as a physical one, via a one-way ticket to leave the country.
Traversing by sea, Takada reached French shores in 1964, where he intended to stay in Paris for six months. The sojourn was proposed by his teacher as a cultural learning trip, though Takada initially struggled to adapt. “Paris was dark, cold and not at all what it looked like in the magazines,” he admitted. Armed with no acquaintances and little grasp of the language, the voyage was a gambit with one chance for success. His first weeks were spent selling fashion sketches for 25 francs a piece to costumiers including Louis Feraud, and later, he toiled as a stylist at local textile manufacturer Pisanti. Optimism and a charismatic smile propelled Takada further into the industry. The same progress could not be said for his finances, however. Spending no more than $200, his first collections were sewn entirely from cheap cotton, their only true value being the love and craftsmanship from Takada’s very hands. He could not afford wholesale fabrics, or factory production lines, and with that came the need for adaptability.
When picking his way through flea markets and the bustling stalls of Marché Saint-Pierre, a flair for eclecticism arose. Takada would collect silk swatches, and in doing so, grow his ability to merge a multitude of prints. This aesthetic, a bricolage of visual culture, came to define the brand identity. Such mix-and-match textiles are notable in his womenswear line, with Kasuri patterns evolving into distinctive stripes to achieve the post-1960s vigour for colour. Yet still managing to stray far from the space age and slender youthquake trends that had otherwise consumed the West. Takada chose to revive artistry over technology, so prioritised and took great pride in surface design.
Painting was a direct inspiration, particularly Henri Rousseau and his esteemed jungle works such as ‘The Dream’ from 1910 with its wild cats and dense forestry. This reference precedes Kenzo’s tiger motif from 2001, under the creative direction of Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, that can still be found emblazoned on jumpers and trucker caps alike. In the Takada universe, exotic animals and botany had always felt familiar. Indigenous dress in Japan used these symbols for centuries, making it a natural progression. However, more unnatural was Takada’s use of multi-culture; wrapping layers to create sweeping sleeves and doing away with European constructs like darting, seams and zippers. During an interview with WWD in 1976, the designer asserted that “peaceful internationalism” was at the core of every piece his team created. This traversed more than Japanese influence, it could be seen in Roman peasant skirts all the way to Mexican and Scandinavian appliqué. Takada would also dispense the confines of traditional Japanese form, choosing to cut dresses above the knee. The Kenzo girl dressed in bright ruffles, billowing tiered skirts, with enough juxtaposing fabrics to contest a textile mill’s inventory. The shapes were oversized, their flowery coverings were intricate.
By 1970, a boutique opening in Paris marked the debut of Kenzo Takada as a prominent fashion figure. The emporium was initially named ‘Jungle Jap’ in an ode to Rousseau, but was later made eponymous to avoid ethnic controversy. After moving into an old antique store in the Galerie Vivienne, the interior was decorated with climbing flora on the walls, opposing the golden, marble-fitted Parisian shop floors elsewhere in the district. To the then-elitist crowds, his work dismantled any lust for pompous frocks and infused buoyancy, even comfort, into luxury fashion. Women reached for unorthodox kimonos or knitwear, leaving debutante-style gowns on the hanger. This shift in taste ushered American Vogue and Elle, whose editors gave Takada a large front cover presence, the latter picturing a floral Kenzo button-up on the June 1970 issue. The designer remains something of a renegade, not only in his relish for clothing hybridity. In retail, his brand adopted an early see-now-buy-now model 45 years before it came to fruition across the industry. “It was just logical for me to show Spring in spring,” he said. Menswear became a brand focus in 1983 with its loose suits and Mao collars, followed by perfumes in 1988, but after a tumultuous year in 1993 when his life partner died and business partner suffered a stroke, Takada became distant.
After his retirement from fashion in 1999, the Kenzo brand continued below new direction, and today thrives under conglomerate LVMH. Takada left to explore new lands, he followed his heart into interior design, then dabbled in painting, always offering exuberant creative output into the world. One thing is certain; that each Kenzo creation is an heirloom. Treasure from a time when fashion first romanticised Japan, a tribute to the global ambition: “I am influenced by the world that says I influence it,” was a lasting mantra of his. Today, Takada remains a citation for the modern era of dress. He was the key that unlocked Parisian couture from its Western tethers, a designer that opened doors for Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo in subsequent years, and took tradition across continents. On his own version of a Silk Road odyssey, Takada brought fresh textiles to Europe, returning to Asia with newfound credibility and respect from the West. Much like souvenirs, his designs drew on elements from the journey, ultimately as mirrors into his experience; the cut-and-paste prints honouring his penchant for doing a lot with a little. This Takada approach was also interwoven in pattern-cutting where simple kimonos were met with bespoke draping and sold for the first time on a substantial scale. Those traditional shapes and cuts came primarily from memories of his family: “I was fascinated by mother. She was omnipresent, and incredibly elegant in the kimonos she wore so well.”
Takada did, however, oppose the creative oppression of his parents, who worked as innkeepers and could not understand his inventive mind. Each Kenzo catwalk acted as cultural theatre, incorporating dance and expression, which stirred the centuries-old decorum that Europe held. This advocacy for change was found in Takada’s own values. As a designer he wished to celebrate marginalised cultures and democratise fashion; making its joy available to the masses. “Fashion is not for the few – it is for all the people,” he told The New York Times in 1972. With this mindset, his designs were effortlessly free-spirited. They held a simple purpose to make the wearer feel happy and uplifted. For Takada it was never about commercial gains and adapting to Western trends – instead, every garment was a fragment of his youth, every garment was fun. Using passion against destitution was an evident formula for Kenzo’s success.
Where the brand prospered, so did the extravagance of each new collection. In 1978, Takada’s idiosyncrasy reached a new stage following a circus tent runway show in which he rode an elephant. Radical for the time, female acrobats wore sheer suits on horseback to demonstrate his artistic dexterity. It was carefree, it was Kenzo. The shows had an infectious energy, where his magical mind conjured up performances with waltzing models and upbeat musical scores. Alongside Issey Miyake, Takada was one of the first designers from the East to use bright colours in everyday dress. It stemmed from his adoration of the arts, ink paintings and fascination with Yves Saint Laurent, who is famed for Mondrian- style cocktail dresses. Never tentative, each Kenzo look managed to synthesise geisha brocades with much simpler cotton patchwork or folklore knits. This signature style carried through time and was later used to design costumes for the opera and Olympics. It reached a rank of distinction that goes down in history.
At age 81, the fashion visionary sadly passed away following complications with the coronavirus. In symbolic timing, his death occurred during Paris Fashion Week, on October 4th 2020, only four days after his brand showcased for Spring/Summer 21. Takada departed in a hospital near to the city where his career began. Paris – the same city where he intended to stay for only a matter of months, yet out of it forged a boundary- defying lifetime. His designs made the City of Light glow like a paper lantern, and they too warmed fashion crowds to the beauty of orientalism. Without Kenzo Takada, the colours of art are muted and the sparkle of fashion shines less brilliantly.