Style & Design

Kenzo Takada adds to a legacy of operatic style

by Jae Lee

Contributing Writer

In the winter of 1964, when Japan was still celebrating its first Tokyo Olympics, Kenzo Takada slipped off on a six-week-long boat trip to France. At the age of 25, the young designer had already had some success on his home ground, including winning the 1961 Soen Award and a designer position at the Sanai department store.

Inspired by the emerging haute couture designers of that time, such as Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, he chose to move to France, becoming one of the first Japanese designers to settle in Paris.

It wasn’t easy. He had to overcome what he describes as prejudices held against Asians in the creative industry at the time, bu he gradually gained attention and built a reputation by showing his sketch books to department stores, fashion journalists and galleries, eventually opening his own small boutique in 1970. Shortly after debuting his first women’s collection, Takada’s kimono-inspired silhouettes combined with vivid floral motifs spread like wildfire from Paris to New York and Tokyo. His brand, Kenzo, expanded into multiple lines in the 1980s — starting with a men’s collection then a children’s line, denim and perfumes. Then in 1993, Kenzo was acquired by LVMH and Takada left his label on its 30th anniversary in 1999.

It has been 20 years since Takada’s official retirement from Kenzo but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped creating. In 2004, he launched Gokan Kobo, a lifestyle brand featuring tableware, accessories and interior decoration items. In 2016, the Constitutional Council of France awarded him a Knight of the Legion of Honor for his achievements as a foreign designer excelling from his humble beginnings in France.

In 2017, Takada added French furniture brand Roche Bobois’ iconic Mah Jong Sofa to his oeuvre by upholstering it in Japan-inspired patterns. He also published a book of illustrations with the lifestyle writer Chihiro Masui. This February, at his lavish 80th birthday bash at Pavillon Ledoyen, he shocked guests with his eternally youthful demeanor and a stunning gold slim fit suit.

Still busy at his drawing board, Takada’s latest project takes his work back to Japan. From Oct. 3 to Oct. 6, Tokyo Nikikai Opera Foundation’s production of “Madama Butterfly” at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan will feature his costume designs. Starring Mari Moriya and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-san, the production will travel from Tokyo to Yokosuka and then to Dresden, Germany, in 2020.

“It’s a challenging project,” says Takada during a recent interview with The Japan Times, “to coordinate the costumes to the director’s guidelines and the vast amount of components that go into a musical production.”

Some aspects came naturally to the designer, such as finding aesthetics to please both Japanese and European audiences — something Takada pioneered before Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake appeared at Paris Fashion Weeks.

The “Madama Butterfly” heroine’s costumes will feature floral graphics, while the surrounding characters will be donning simple pastel-toned costumes to complement the leading actress’ outfits.

“I wanted to respect tradition as much as possible,” he says of the designs. “I’ve always believed that kimono look very modern and perhaps this could be an opportunity for some to witness that modernity, whether it is in Tokyo or Dresden.”

In the recent years, Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera depicting a tragic love story between a Japanese woman and an American lieutenant has been criticized for irrelevancy and exoticism, but Takada says, “I see the story as a love poem, what is true love?”

He adds, “As a costume designer, I tried to grasp Puccini’s narratives while drawing Japanese spirituality as accurately as possible. It should make the audience dream and travel in ecstasy.”

“Madama Butterfly” is playing at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan on Oct. 3, 4, 5 and 6. For more information, visit www.t-bunka.jp/en/stage/3564/