Obituary | The founder of his namesake label succumbed to this year’s most dreaded disease
One death from COVID-19 that was widely reported last night did not emerge from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Maryland, Washington D.C., but from the American Hospital of Paris in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a commune in the West of the French capital. According to numerous news agencies, Kenzo Takada passed away due to complications from COVID-19, making him possibly the first renowned fashion name to die of this coronavirus infection. The founder-designer of the eponymous label—now owned by LVMH—was 81, and succumbed to his illness just five days after the spring/summer 2021 showing by the label’s current designer Felipe Oliveira Baptista.
With a style considered by many to be a “free-spirited aesthetic”, Mr Takada was what we today would call a trending sensation. In the ’70s, he, alongside Yves Saint Laurent, proved that ready-to-wear could be creatively conceived as the next (big) thing to haute couture and its attendant system. For four years he worked as a free-lance styliste—as Karl Lagerfeld did—after getting to Paris in 1964, the year of Japan’s first Olympics in Tokyo. Members of the media hitherto like to say how he arrived in the port of Marseilles by boat (as if it was more exotic. Mr Lagerfeld surely did not arrive in Paris via sea route!). Although commercial air travel had been available for 50 years, it was still expensive at that time to travel by air. Mr Takada himself recalled that back then in Japan, it was easier to get a passport than a plane ticket. The boat imagery would not fade. According to some reports, one Parisian astrologer told Kenzo in 1969, “You are going to be world famous and rich… rich enough to travel around the world in a huge boat!”
He was born about 50 kilometres to the east of Kobe, in a rather isolated town of Himeji, known for the stately, 674-year-old Himeji Castle (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which remained intact despite heavy bombing during World War II by the United States’ XXI Bomber Command. Mr Takada’s family operated an inn (some reports say teahouse) when he was a boy, growing up in a household of seven children. To satisfy his parents’ wishes, Mr Takada, at 18, attended the University of Kobe, where he studied literature, but found the subject unsatisfying. He dropped out and moved to Tokyo to attend the famed Bungka Fashion College, where he was one of the first batch of male students (another was Mitsuhiro Matsuda). In 1960, he won the prestigious Soen Prize and the rest was fate prepping his impending renown.
Mr Takada’s designs were not what Parisians familiar with couture were used to: youthful, loose-fitting, light, fun, and a mish-mash of ethnic influences
Mr Takada’s early professional days in Paris was as a freelancer. His first sketches were sold to Louis Feraud, whose wife Gigi reportedly bought five of them at US$1 a piece. In April 1970, just five years after stepping on Parisian soil (on which he had initially thought of staying for just six months), Mr Takada debuted a collection in his first boutique—called Jungle Jap—in Galerie Vivienne, a covered passageway/arcade first built in 1823. That collection, by most accounts, was considered a success. There were mini-kimonos in floral prints, knitted shorts, playful scarves, and even aprons in conflicting colours. It was all rather a happy clash—pieces of fabrics, mostly cotton, found in Paris and pieces bought in Tokyo (he returned home before the first show), pulled together with folksy embroidery. Everything could be mixed and matched. Mr Takada’s designs were not what Parisians familiar with couture were used to: youthful, loose-fitting, light, fun, and a mish-mash of ethnic influences, not always from Japan. The French—and soon global—press loved this cherry blossom-dappled blast from the East.
Kenzo Takada’s popularity, especially in his adopted city of Paris, was amazing for a newcomer and a non-European. At that time, he was the only Asian designer working in Paris. Unlike the other Japanese after him, Mr Takada arrived in the French capital as an unknown: In Tokyo, he was only an anonymous “company designer”, as such a job was known then (the one company often cited was Sanai, a now-defunct chain store). His compatriots who came later—Issey Miyake (1973), Hanae Mori (1977), Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (both 1981) were, more or less, established designers back home (Ms Mori started in the ’50s). It could have helped that the set-up of his first boutique in the space that was then described as a “dump” was the anti-thesis of a couture atelier, augmenting the exotic factor of his origin story. He spruced up the place himself, painting the walls with tropical leaves and flowers, as homage to Henri Rousseau’s Snake Charmer. Upstairs his friends sat behind sewing machines to sew. The clothes flew off the racks.
There was a social component too. Back in the ’70s, Mr Takada was very much a part of the Paris beau monde, and hung out in the same club that Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld did: Le Sept—the Paris version of the New York discotheque Studio 54 (but Le Sept opened earlier, in 1968). It was a heady mix of thumping music, total glamour, and free-flow of alcohol. According to Loulou de la Falaise, Mr Saint Laurent’s veritable muse and a friend too of Mr Takada, in all the partying, “Kenzo and Yves were the ones who paid, the ones who could foot the bill.” This could be indication that Mr Takada was already sufficiently well-known and financially successful in the early ’70s (with a reported revenue that amounted to US$10 million by 1977). According to Ms de La Falaise, “Kenzo was the first competition Yves had in years. They greatly admired each other. Kenzo really invented the laid-back look; his stuff was not so proper.” In 1976, Jungle Jap gave way to Kenzo and a spanking new flagship in the more upmarket Place des Victoires.
In the ’80s, winds of change could be felt in Paris, but this time, without the whiff of cherry blossoms. The duo anarchists of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo (via Comme des Garçons) had arrived in Paris, with deconstructed looks that suggested “Hiromshima’s revenge”. Everyone in Paris was talking about them. Mr Takada, too, joined the conversation. “(They) were a big shock to the system,” he later recalled to the media. “But I understood their construction of the garment. What really threw me were (Thierry) Mugler and (Claude) Montana, and then Azzedine (Alaia). For me, someone like Montana was the polar opposite of what I was doing. Fashion had changed completely.” Not only was the wind from Japan blowing, the dizzying mood from within Paris was rising: Mugler with a vampy space cadet look, Montana and his suited fierceness (and upturned collars), and Alaia with his concentration on the body.
The pressure was on. Rumours emerged that Kenzo the label was not doing well and the designer was under tremendous stress to churn out clothes that had to capture the rage of the moment. By the mid-’80s, while the company was growing, the turnover declined. “I had to follow trends and I was not happy,” Mr Takada had said. It seemed Kenzo had stalled on a creative plateau. The unhappiness permeated the brand and it lost the energy with which it seduced the world in the ’70s. In 1993, Mr Takada sold his brand to LVMH for a reported US$80 million, and continued designing till his retirement in 1999, which coincided with Kenzo’s 30th anniversary. After he left the fashion house he built, he turned to painting and costume design; he also dabbled in home furnishings through Gokan Kobo, the lifestyle brand he conceived in 2004 and interior design through the firm he co-owned, K3, formed early this year.
In the past decade, Mr Takada was a rather frequent visitor to Singapore under the auspices of the now-quiet, mission-unclear Asian Couture Federation (ACF), spearheaded by the also now-muted Frank Cintamani. In one of his last sojourns here—in 2014, when he attended the 1st anniversary gala celebration of the ACF as its Honorary President, Mr Takada told SOTD that he was “happy to be an observer of fashion.” He added cheerfully, “I don’t have to do it to enjoy it.” When asked if he could contribute to a couture (by name mostly) federation when he had not been a couturier, he seemed amused, and said cheerfully, with diplomacy intact, “I am just supporting them. There are many talents in Asia.” For many that night, Kenzo Takada was the elder statesman of Asia’s still fledgling fashion world. In Paris yesterday, mayor Anne Hidalgo posted on Twitter that the city was “today mourning one of its sons.”
Photo: Zhao Xiangji. Sketches: Kenzo