Kenzo Takada story
The first Asian designer to conquer fashion Olympus with his unconventional thinking, far from stereotypes.
on October 4, 2020, Kenzo Takada died of a coronavirus infection, one of the most legendary designers of the 20th century. The fashion designer had an interesting life story: he worked his way up from the son of a tea house owner in the Hyogo province to the creator of one of the most popular clothing and perfume brands in the world.
Kenzo Takada was born on 27 February 1939 in Himeji, in western Japan. His parents ran an establishment where geishas entertained guests by playing classical Japanese instruments, dancing national dances, and hosting tea ceremonies. From a young age, little Kenzo observed the beauty rituals of geishas, and many years later created similar outfits in his collections.
Kenzo was adored by his sisters. They often asked the talented boy to draw dresses for their paper dolls, and then began to kindly exploit his brother to sew clothes for them as well. Parents did not like their son’s passion for clothes – they considered it a woman’s occupation. This conflict led Kenzo to enrol in a foreign language institute to study English literature, but his creative nature took its toll.
He quit hating his studies and got a job as a housepainter to finance his dream. So he manages to raise money for the Bunka Gakuen School, where he becomes the first male student. This distinction did not bother Kenzo in the least: he enjoyed his studies, and immediately after school he found a job as a designer at the Sanai shop in Tokyo, sometimes modeling himself. He flipped through fashion magazines, wishing one day he were on their pages. He memorized by heart every detail of Pierre Cardin’s and Yves Saint Laurent’s collections. Kenzo was desperate to “dress the big-eyed daughters of the West”.
Kenzo worked day and night in the shop, dressing the wealthy ladies, but that was not enough for him. There was no freedom of the designer’s “word”: he couldn’t translate his fantasies through fabrics one hundred per cent, because he knew he would definitely be rejected by society. That’s why one day in 1965 the young man sold everything he had, quit his job and bought a ticket to Paris.
Not having much money, not knowing the language and culture, Kenzo still made this decision, which became a fateful one. Since the young man was poor, he had to buy a ticket for the cheapest mode of transport – a ship. The journey took many months, but for Takada it was a true gift of fate. The journey across half the globe became an inspiration: calling at ports in Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Colombo, Mumbai, Djibouti, Alexandria, Barcelona and Marseille, Kenzo drew and wrote down everything that left an indelible imprint on his memory. This planted the “seeds” of ideas that would later germinate throughout the couturier’s career.
The coveted Paris… disappointed the young Kenzo. The grey and dreary streets were nothing like the bright and cheerful pages of glossy magazines. It was a real blow, but the young man was in no hurry to give up: that was not why he had come all this way, was it?
“I remember taking a taxi and thinking – how dreary Paris is. It was the same Paris, the fashion capital, 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 recalled in an interview.
And that’s when Kenzo decided to give the Parisians the gift of bright colour.
“I wanted to mix the two things I loved, the jungle and Japan. When I created it, I thought of Henri Rousseau’s 1910 painting ‘Dream’.”
Henri Rousseau, ‘Dream’
In Paris he took on any job that got him any closer to the catwalk. He sketched designs for clothing shops and ateliers, selling them for 20 francs a sheet. At the time, his fellow student Atsuko Kondo was working in the French capital and decided to help out an old friend. Together, they established their first business, a little shop, Jungle Jap, where Kenzo displayed his love of bright colours and crazy prints. He even painted the walls with Henri Rousseau-like patterns and hung loose dresses with psychedelic patterns on the racks. Unfortunately, Parisian women were in no hurry to buy “gut-wrenching” clothes. They came in, tried on coloured dresses, admired Kenzo’s talent and… left.
Finally, after 5 years of hard work in Paris, Kenzo achieved what he craved. In 1970, the issue of the French Elle appeared, on the cover of which appeared the model in a floral Kenzo dress. And the next day Takada woke up famous. Hundreds of Parisian women stormed his small boutique, hoping to buy the very dress “from the cover”.
The designer went even bolder and went all-out: he took elements of national costumes of different peoples, creating something globalist and at the same time “native” and recognizable in every heart. Kenzo gave French elegance to ethnic costumes, whether Japanese kimono or Russian kokoshnik, and gave French classics the sizzling “spice” of the East and vivid patterns.
By the way, few people know that the Kenzo brand was originally planned as the Jungle Jap, but when Takada reached the US market, the name had to be drastically changed: the word jap is a derogatory reference to the Japanese in the USA. Takada said he didn’t take the issue seriously until the debut of his collection in New York caused a storm of outrage. The Japanese couturier was even sued, but all was resolved. Kenzo had to urgently think of a new name, and the solution was simple: in 1976, when the flagship shop was opened, he simply and modestly named the brand after himself – and so Kenzo was born.
Kenzo show in New York
Risk was a major factor in Takada’s early success. Floral patterns were used extensively in his kimonos and dresses – Japanese art has always had a maximum presence of nature. Cotton also played a role: the fabric, rarely used in Haute Couture at the time, allowed Takada to play with large proportions and silhouettes. The clothes – which mostly consisted of puffy sleeves, pleated trousers and delicate kimonos – were casual, atypical and fresh – Kenzo’s clientele was noticed first among Chanel and YSL girls.
One of Kenzo Takada’s shows
Kenzo Takada emerged on the world stage thanks to his directness and an unconventional (as he said, wild) view of fashion. And so began the history of the Kenzo brand, and Takada quickly developed his fashion house. He put on a real show of shows. Once he organised a fashion show in a circus tent in Zurich and personally rode an elephant to the guests. This magnitude could not go unnoticed, and the unusual cut made Kenzo clothes the object of desire all over the world. And by the end of the 1970s it had become the best-selling brand in the world. Kenzo fulfilled his childhood dream and finally became friends with Yves Saint Laurent, and Karl Lagerfeld was almost like a brother to him – Takada was perfectly happy in those days.
Kenzo was a big bully. He was one of the first to introduce pret-a-porter production and showed spring collections in the spring because he thought it was “very logical”. Also, the brand started releasing perfume before it became the norm. The first King Kong fragrance was a failure, even though it was Takada’s favourite, and in the 1980s Kenzo released several successful fragrances, including the iconic Flower.
Kenzo Takada and Karl Lagerfeld
Unfortunately, Kenzo Takada’s popularity was too fleeting. In 1984, the designer made the fatal mistake of signing a contract with mass-market brand The Limited. Together they created a line of affordable clothing, after which many luxury retailers stopped cooperating with Kenzo. Takada has always said that many factors influenced this decision. With the arrival of the 1990s, fashion simplified, became too commercial, and the spontaneity and joie de vivre left it. Couturiers became too “black and white” and models no longer had fun. Apparently, he didn’t have as much fun either.
Takada said more than once that he was a great designer, but at the same time just a terrible businessman. When his lover, Xavier de Castella, with whom he had lived for many years, died in 1990, and design partner Atsuko Kondo suffered a stroke in 1991, Kenzo became desperate, having lost both his lover and his right hand in the business within two years.
“My broken heart has not healed. My dream is gone too,” Kenzo Takada wrote.
Kenzo Takada and Xavier de Castella
After leaving Kenzo, Takada decided to devote himself to interior design. He has been quite successful at this too – in 2017 he was already working with Roche Bobois, the iconic Parisian furniture atelier that has collaborated with Christian Lacroix, Sonia Rykiel and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Kenzo has created amazing and unique pieces of interior design, as well as hand embroidered sofas and other furniture.
Although Kenzo has left the fashion industry to devote himself entirely to creating fragrances and designing interiors, he has retained his authority and influence. Millions of Japanese fashion students have been, and still are, inspired by the amazing success story of the hardworking Kenzo Takada. He became an idol for Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto: Kenzo opened the door to Haute Couture and gave them an eye for style, forever integrating oriental motifs into European culture.
Unlike other designers, Kenzo Takada has never been offended by the new owners of the brand, who have always come up with new ideas. On the contrary, after his departure, he has often appeared in the front row at Kenzo shows, enjoying seeing fresh ideas from young designers.