When it came to his career, Kenzo Takada only wanted to be known as someone who constantly pushed boundaries. The iconic Japanese designer — who sadly passed away on 4 October 2020 in France from COVID-19 complications — will be remembered for exactly that: breaking barriers through his designs that fused Japanese structure with Parisian ease in a way that was bold and wholly singular.
From his earliest design days, Takada used his clothes to challenge social convention. In 1970, he launched his first boutique in Paris and calling it Jungle Jap, thus reclaiming a Japanese pejorative as part of his new, positive design identity and becoming the first Japanese designer to establish himself in the city. Six years later he launched KENZO and continued to gain recognition as one of the most cherished — though also loudest and most unexpected — voices in an often over-saturated industry. Takada focused on innovation, using bold colours and silhouettes to communicate his vision, and even after his retirement in 1999, the brand continued to build upon his legacy: innovative design with an important message.
Oyster was lucky enough to speak with Takada last year for our Obsession Issue, which coincided with the release of the ACC Art Books-published book, Kenzo Takada. A celebration of his decades-long career and written by his close friends, the book showcases dozens of sketches, photographs, and letters from Takada to his mother. He spoke with us about his time growing up in Japan and his desire to incorporate that culture into his fashion fantasy. He also reflected on his years at Kenzo, and everything he’d experienced along the way: “I would have changed a lot,” he said, “and at the same time, not changed anything about my journey.”
Read our interview with the designer and see select images from Kenzo Takada, below.
This interview was originally published in print for Oyster Issue 116: The Obsession Issue, published in April 2019, which is available to order from the Oyster Magazine Print Shop.
In 1964, Kenzo Takada left his small Japanese town, taking his first sea voyage to Paris, where he would settle and begin selling his work. In just five years, he started a colour revolution. This was the beginning of his ‘Jungle Jap,’ his East-meets-West approach, his print on print on print, and his self-painted homages to Henri Rousseau.
An inheritance of traditional kimono fabrications and a wonder for nature — particularly her florals — and a budget allowing only for market sale textiles, informed Takada completely. Over the course of three decades, for which he helmed his namesake brand, Takada injected a wildness into fashion that was his own — provocative, but distanced from carnal provocation.
The recently published art book, Kenzo Takada (2019, ACC Art Books) celebrates his brilliant career — stacked with sketches and photographs and, best of all, the letters Takada sent his mother during his rise. Written by his friends Kazuko Masui and Chihiro Masui, it’s the most complete documentation of Takada’s work at Kenzo.
Hayley Morgan: You were young when you realised you loved fashion — when you started reading your sister’s magazines — how old were you, and what kinds of things drew you to fashion?
Kenzo Takada: I was attracted to arts and being a creative from a very young age, probably as early as 10 years old. I built an interest in fashion by reading through the fashion magazines that my sisters were bringing home. Paris was illustrated as a central pillar of fashion in those magazines, which really drew me into it. I used to flick through them and see the positive and colourful environment that fashion was bringing. It was a very grey era in Japan after WWII, so those magazines were a source of joy.
When you started studying fashion, it was an interesting time because your school hadn’t been accepting males for a long time. Was there a stigma against men in fashion, socially, and within your family?
At the time in Japan, the idea of a boy studying fashion was not really accepted. Initially, men were not accepted into fashion schools — fashion schools were mostly to teach women how to sew and make clothes. One day, I saw a poster informing the public that [Tokyo Fashion College] Bunka was accepting men. Despite my parents’ strong refusal, I sprung at the opportunity and applied to the college, paying for it with the wage I got from my painting job over the summer. Since being male and studying fashion in Japan was not exactly encouraged or common at the time, I found my inspiration coming from designers in France, such as Yves Saint Laurent. It was only later on that my parents accepted the idea of me working in fashion when they realised how motivated and committed I was.
“I have always been obsessed with the act of creating and expressing. I am trying myself at different styles to improve my work, it is very challenging and thrilling, but I continue to learn every day.”
I’ve read that your signature of colliding patterns is the result of only being able to afford fabrics at market sales. At that time, would you have preferred to be working with more minimal fabrics? What was your ideal?
I have also loved working with Japanese fabrics and patterns. I was particularly inspired by the kimonos that I used to see my mother and sisters wear. I have always adored working with colours because I am drawn to things that exude joy, optimism, and positivity. When I started in 1970, before the Jungle Jap brand, I realised that I needed to create my own creative identity. I quickly understood that I had to go back to my roots. I travelled to Japan and purchased kimono textiles, which I combined with European style, mixing them with cottons from the flea market as I didn’t have any money. Nature is also very important to me. I think that my love for flowers in my designs stems from the prominence of the flower in Japanese aesthetics and history. This was my own way of reinterpreting my cultural influences.
What other things do you love?
Fun and joy. You could add nature and colour, and since I was young, I have always been obsessed with the act of creating and expressing. I like to paint whenever I have time. I am trying myself at different styles to improve my work, it is very challenging and thrilling, but I continue to learn every day.
I find it quite amazing that you rode in on an elephant for your fashion show. I have so many questions! Was this your idea? Were you nervous? Had you done this before? Were the logistics crazy?
I guess I am a little superstitious and I believe that elephants bring luck. They are also majestic and graceful animals. I have a lot of respect, appreciation, and admiration for them. When we had an elephant for our fashion show, we would spend a lot of time and money on the logistics as we had to make sure that the animal was transported safely.
You explored fashion against your family’s wishes, so was it difficult to retire from Kenzo? What urged the decision? Did you fall out of love with fashion?
Numerous factors contributed to the decision to retire from Kenzo. At the end of the 80s and early 90s, a few of my close friends passed away including my associate and partner in life. Fashion was changing, the pace was changing. Fashion was not the same as when I started. I would never fall out of love with fashion — I am still attending fashion shows and I am always curious to see how fashion will continue to evolve, and how technology will influence it. Nowadays, I am more interested in working on new collaborations within other creative fields and industries. I am learning new things every day and it is very exciting and refreshing to work with young professionals and talented people.
“Coming from a small town in Japan all the way to Paris defined my journey and career, and I would never change that. I will never regret having taken such a big step.”
After you retired, you took a break before you started designing home objects — what were the most important things you learned or resolved during this break?
I thought I could retire in 2000 and keep travelling to discover. But I quickly came to realise that work was giving me a purpose and that working with people was important to me. The only thing I resolved was that I knew I had to continue, and working with young talents is very energising. So, just after a year, I wanted to get back to work, and explored various fields of creativity with different partners. Home and design are interesting to me and it became one of my main activities.
As you look back on your work in this book — the clothing, the illustrations, the people you’ve worked with along the way — how do you feel about yourself, your life, and your accomplishments?
I am very proud of the book, and it has also made me feel very proud of Kenzo. The book is in a way a memoir from the 70s to 90s in the fashion industry. It is a collection of 300 of my sketches, which best represent the identity of the brand. I really enjoyed putting together the book as each sketch reminded me of individual moments of joy, hope, and sometimes pain. I enjoyed the memories that this book brought back to me while working on it, it allowed me to relive the stages of my career. The book is a colourful tribute to the brand.
What is the achievement, if you can name one, that has made you most proud of yourself?
Seeing the Kenzo brand growing was definitely one of the best moments of my career. When choosing sketches for the book, I realised how much work had gone into Kenzo — I am so proud of the brand. Coming to Paris all the way from Japan was also a big achievement for me, which I recently realised. It allowed me to push myself out of my comfort zone and explore the unknown. I am truly proud. It is true that sometimes you really have to push yourself to live and gain new experiences.
If you could change anything about the journey, would you? And what would it be?
I don’t know really. I consider myself very lucky — I would have changed a lot, and at the same time not changed anything about my journey. Coming from a small town in Japan all the way to Paris defined my journey and career, and I would never change that. I will never regret having taken such a big step. I love dreaming and having a goal to achieve — I think it is important. What’s more important though are the new adventures and discoveries it allowed me to step into.
“I thought I could retire in 2000 and keep travelling to discover. But I quickly came to realise that work was giving me a purpose and that working with people was important to me. The only thing I resolved was that I knew I had to continue, and working with young talents is very energising.”
Do you think there can be a problem with being in love with your job, being emotionally invested in the thing that makes you money?
For me, I have always enjoyed working because I love my job, and this is what fuels me. I have always had so much fun and have loved everybody that I have worked with, which probably helps keep my energy levels high. It is true that when you are emotionally invested, it might make it a little different, but for me, I love to be generous with what I do.
Do you think it is important to step away from the things you love for a while?
Sometimes it can be good to take a step back. But then, why would you want to separate yourself from something you love? Too difficult for me to answer — I am a very sensitive person and I don’t like to regret too much.
All images featured are from the book Kenzo Takada (2019) by Kazuko Masui published by ACC Art Books Ltd.