An Ode to Global Opulence

Open­ing image:
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.

Ken­zo Fash­ion Show Paris, France, 1985 Sipa/Shutterstock

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. 

Ken­zo Fash­ion Show Paris, France, 1985 Sipa/Shutterstock

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.

Ken­zo Taka­da Fash­ion Show Paris, France, 1978 by Chris Barham ANL/Shutterstock

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.