SAYING GOODBYE TO THE MASTER OF JOY, WE RETRACE HIS INCREDIBLE STORY LEARNING HOW NOT TO GIVE UP ON OUR DREAMS IN DARK TIMES
Text by Fiammetta Cesana
Amongst all the planetary recognition that Kenzo Takada achieved in life, what I believe is the master’s greatest teaching is to always be true to himself and to the inextricable joie de vivre of his soul and style. Actually, when you feel uncomfortable in the course your life has taken, unfit for academic studies, too different from “normal” people you know, incapable, or even disable, well, anytime you may feel you are failing and there’s no way to raise up, I strongly recommend you to take a refresher on Kenzo Takada’s story. His is a one-of-a-kind experience and at the same time so authentic that anyone can related to. Coming from tough childhood and adolescence, he completely changed his life and the rules of fashion industry, becoming pioneer of the so-called influencers, but never loosing his sincerity and humbleness.“It pleases me when people say I have influence, but I am influenced by the world that says I influence it. The world I live in is my influence”.
Born and raised in Japan, just after the war, Kenzo and his seven siblings had nothing but movies, he said. He used to watch Hollywood films at very young age, falling in love with western world, also thanks to his sisters’ fashion magazine, and started drawing. He suffered from dislessia and didn’t feel suitable for school. However, to please his parents, Kenzo enrolled in Literature degree, but then he moved to the design academy in Tokyo. That wasn’t his place neither, although his dream of becoming a fashion designer was bigger than ever. So, in 1964, the turning point occurred: for the Olympic Games he was asked to leave his apartment that would have been knocked down for the event’s constructions and he was given good reimbursement, good enough to take the sea and start traveling by ship to the West to fulfill his dream.
From Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, Kenzo finally arrived in Paris were he rented an apartment, planning to stay for few months and ending up living there for 56 years. Here he began to work for designers selling his sketches, while creating his own pieces by sewing together fabrics from Japan and those he could afford at Parisian flea sales. It was the time of counterculture, of flourishing ideas, and Kenzo finally reach his dimension being the first Asian designer who took the spotlights away from established maisons. After him, Yoji Yamamotho and Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons) could get through the door of Paris and affirm themselves in the global fashion panorama.
In 1970 his vibrantly colored East-meets-West garments already found home in the famous Galerie Vivienne in a little boutique, whose walls were painted by the designer himself with flowery prints inspired by Henri Rousseau’s 1910 painting ‘The Dream’ (Takada himself was a great painter too). The name of the shop, ‘Jungle Jap’, blending Kenzo’s eternal love for the vivacity of nature and his native origin, brought to a lot of controversies within the Nippon community since it sounded offensive. The designer, despite his young age and little experience, dealt with the situation with his big genuine smile and as only a real teacher capable of influencing the whole world could do, by arguing that if he had made something good those negative meanings would have changed. And so they absolutely did.
Jungle Jap hosted his first shows attracting international press and fashion leading figures who were looking forward to see the creations of this new off-the-grid talent who used inexpensive textures combined with foreign ones in the world’s capital of haute couture. His catwalks was true spectacle, more like dance-walk, with models dancing down the runway as in a living canvas, wearing incredible-volumes blouses, eccentric colorful scarves, turbans, male-styled pants and huge plants and animals embroideries. He obtained cover pages of major magazines already by 1971 definitively paving the way for his worldwide success. From the Jungle Jap, to Studio 54, to a circus tent where models ride horses with transparent suits and he closed the event arriving on a elephant, Kenzo’s shows turned to be pure magic.
The extraordinary mix of cultures as well as the intent of a genderless style in his collections anticipated, 50 years before, today’s dominant discourse of diversity and inclusivity. His was a liberating fashion, a celebration of the colors of life. “Kenzo stands for Freedom” said Antonio Marras who would take the brand’s creative direction at the end of the 90s.
Kenzo described his Parian days enthusiastically, working nonstop all day and then partying till the dawn. He was an obsessive beholder, spending most of the time observing people around Paris to understand their habits and style. Living abroad gave him also the chance to feel nostalgia for home making him profoundly appreciate the beauty and value of Japanese traditions. By taking as main reference his mother’s kimonos and including Japanese, Chinese and Korean models in the shows, Takada made Asian culture revive and find new modern significance throughout his clothes. The designer introduced the “ethnic chic”, laid claiming the importance of using fashion realm as a way to express different populations’ sentiments and symbols.
After luminous years of amazing ‘wild’ creations global success, and, above all, fun (he definitely introduced the idea that Fashion is Fun), 1990 represented for Kenzo the darkest moment. His great love and business companion, Xavier, sadly passed away. In 1999, after a memorable commemorative fashion show, he decided to sell the house to the LVMH group, and first Marras and then the dynamic duo Carol Lim e Humberto Leon, took his baton as creative directors. Leaving fashion design, Kenzo Takada has continued to find expressive outlet for his revolutionary instinct by creating unique home furniture pieces, till founding this year, 2020, the brand K3, whose products include ceramics, carpets and curtains, obviously with his distinguishable joyous tones.
Having chosen his own way, detaching himself from his partner’s and the whole world’s established rules, till being able to reinvent them for good, the battle that Kenzo Takada didn’t manage to win is the only one out of his invincible creative power. Last Sunday we had to say goodbye to this visionary master, because of the war we are all fighting, the coronavirus pandemic disease. However, the legacy of his 81-years-long story of joyous rebellion will never stop influencing, inspiring and encouraging us to stand up again from failures and darkest times. Today more than ever we need to keep close his example of high spirit and love for nature, beauty and life.