It’s pretty amazing, but the figure of Kenzo Takada has been closely associated with his brainchild, even after the designer retired from Kenzo fashion house in 1999. Having founded Kenzo in 1970, he was putting up his company brick by brick for thirty years — and devoted himself to free creation afterwards. The upcoming Kenzo creative directors who headed the brand in different years tried carefully to keep up the philosophy crystallized by the founding father. But Takada was unique.
Kenzo Takada died of COVID-19 complications on October 04 in Paris. The bitter news immediately shook up at the time running Paris Fashion Week. The previous seasons Takada was a frequent and desired guest in the space of PFW, while new collections by Kenzo fashion house were still lightening up the runway and astonishing the viewer. In 2020 the brand celebrates its 50 year anniversary. Kenzo Takada would probably like being remembered as the one who had brought freshness and revolution into fashion. A little story below is a tribute to him.
How that all began
Kenzo Takada was born into a family of small entrepreneurs in Himeji, Japan, in 1939. His parents Kenji and Shizu Takada were running a hotel and led a modest life, since the family had 7 children. Kenzo recalled flipping passionately through his sister’s fashion magazines as a kid, dreaming of designing clothes for the wide-eyed Western women. However, Takada’s parents didn’t encourage his emerging interest in fashion, rather stimulating the boy to find a solid job. To satisfy his family’s wishes Kenzo Takada began studying literature at Kobe University but dropped out soon (obviously, to his mum’s and dad’s great disappointment).
What made him act so carelessly? A timid step to his dream: Takada entered Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, quite a famous Japanese vocational school with a focus on the fashion industry. Yet, it was tough in the beginning. The famous couturier used to say, university wasn’t his thing, and that also matched his study at Bunka.
‘When I entered the school of design in Tokyo, <…> I wasn’t at that level, I couldn’t understand everything’ (Kenzo Takada)
And yet, the designer made a big progress at the time. He won the Soen Award established by the so-called Japanese magazine, in 1961. After graduating from Bunka college, Kenzo Takada worked for the Sanai department store for a couple of years, where he gained some good experience in designing female outfits.
All roads lead to Paris
Kenzo was advised to head for Paris still during his college studies. The designer would probably never decide on such expenses, if it wasn’t for the chance. Takada was provided with some monetary compensation, when his flat was demolished by the government in preparation for the Summer Olympics in 1964. So, Kenzo took a boat trip to the world fashion capital, making stops at various cities such as Saigon, Hong Kong, Mumbai, and others along the way.
Against expectations Paris didn’t inspire Kenzo much, rather looking to him as a dismal and bleak place. However, obviously it was the city of opportunities. Initially planning to stick around in France for half a year, Kenzo Takada spent the rest of his amazing life in Paris creating the first world-famous Japanese fashion brand, blending haute couture with hipster outfits, and just revolutionizing the world of vogue.
During his first years in Paris Kenzo made a living selling fashion sketches and working at the Pisanti textile manufacturer. Expensive materials were above his pay grade, so the emerging designer spent hours at the flea market looking for proper scraps to further combine them with some fabrics preserved from Japan. So naturally Kenzo’s signature manner of blending Eastern and Western influences arose (adding to this the designer’s admiration for his mother’s kimonos).
Kenzo Takada got the lucky strike selling a few of his fashion sketches inspired by the futurist designer André Courrèges to Louis Feraud fashion house. This accomplishment as well as his experience as a company designer in Paris made Kenzo think of setting his own brand.
A day has come
It happened in 1970. Kenzo Takada occupied an unkempt clothing store in the Galerie Vivienne, manually decorated its walls, and hosted the first show by the newly minted brand. The original name of the label was Jungle Jap, which caused a big confusion: to Japanese ear the word ‘jap’ sounded offensive. Although Takada’s intention was rather to redefine the expression, he wouldn’t insist on that and named the company after himself instead. Clothes from the Kenzo first collection were featured on the cover of Elle magazine right away, and that was just the beginning.
Kenzo fashion show in 1979 was staged like a circus performance with female mannequins dressed in uniforms riding horses and Takada himself arriving on an elephant. In 1989 just before leaving his brainchild for good the designer organized an unimagined extravaganza where everybody danced, had fun, and just celebrated life. His fashion shows have always been memorable for the viewer and especially appealed to those young and young-hearted (as one of the fashion retailers who worked together with Kenzo used to say). So, what is the secret?
First, Kenzo Takada kept on balancing between Western trends and Eastern tradition. The thing is the designer wasn’t fond of his home culture much while living there but started appreciating it staying away from Japan. During his burgeoning career Takada used to travel often to Southeast Asia, willing to catch inspiration and motifs for his future collections. If anyone in the world ever refused to follow fashion fads blindly, it was Kenzo.
‘When you are forced to follow the trends you are not very close to, it imprisons’ (Kenzo Takada)
Second, the designer mixed ‘high’ and ‘low’ with gusto. He was surprised not finding anything in between haute couture and niche outfits, such as those of hippies, when arriving first time in Paris. Kenzo Takada was convinced that fashion shouldn’t be too serious and expensive. As Antonio Marras, the brand’s second creative director, used to say, Kenzo stood for freedom and regarded vogue as fun. In Kenzo fashion shows models smiled cordially and moved around at ease radiating pure vivacity.
Yet no doubt it was the personality of Kenzo Takada himself that made the spirit of the brand so enchanting. He was loved almost by everyone in the fashion world (where so many creatives are on the outs) for his energy, enthusiasm, and generosity. He was too broad-minded and creative to be mediocre, and he believed in the freedom of expression. ‘As a kid I felt like I don’t know how to speak’ — dwelled Takada on his childhood years of dyslexia. Should fashion have become the richest language for Kenzo?
Kenzo brand has undergone an entire evolution before becoming the world-renowned fashion house. Starting with femme collections only, the label introduced its men’s wear line in 1983. Kenzo for Women was the first female perfume issued by the brand (1989), while the pioneering male fragrance was Kenzo Cologne pour Homme (1991). In 2001 also a skincare line KenzoKi arrived but it was already after the milestone when Kenzo Takada left the company.
In 1993 Takada decided to sell the label to the French conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. According to the couturier, the world of fashion was getting too tense and materialistic for him.
Initially remaining the company designer, Kenzo finally stepped away in 1999 handing over the creative management of the brand to his adherent Gilles Rosier, whom he trained a few seasons before the designation. In 2004 Rosier was replaced by the Italian Antonio Marras, who, in his turn, gave way to the creative duo Humberto Leon + Carol Lim in 2011. Filipe Oliveira Baptista has been the chief creative officer of Kenzo since 2019 (his latest Bee A Tiger collection was recently showcased on Paris Fashion Week SS 21).
As for Kenzo Takada, he would never stop his search for creativity and freedom. Ultimately leaving the brand in 1999, Kenzo entered into free floating as a true artist. In 2004 he launched the Gokan Kobo lifestyle brand (in translation from Japanese the name means 5 senses). Reasonably, the label was composed of the five departments: the ties and scarf collection, beachwear, ready-to-wear, home, and fragrance. However, Takada’s interest in the homeware category didn’t end there. The fruitful combination between Kenzo and Roche Bobois furniture design company led to the creation of the innovative Mah Jong modular sofa in 2016, while in the beginning of this year Kenzo Takada announced the launch of K3 (originally, K三) the luxury lifestyle brand.
He would certainly go on and on astonishing us, the audience, by always new approaches and discoveries. Unfortunately, we will never know what other talents the enigmatic and wonderful Kenzo Takada had, but his mere legacy gifted to the planet is precious.
Rest in peace, Kenzo Takada.
Cover: Kenzo Takada salutes the audience at the F/W 1998—1999 collection presentation. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images