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“He brought us colors and freedom to our silhouettes,” said French President Emmanuel Macron last month, offering condolences to fashion designer Kenzo Takada’s friends and family. The founder of the eponymous Kenzo brand passed away at the age of 81 on Oct. 4 after contracting COVID-19. Takada was the first Japanese designer to gain international success out of Paris’s competitive fashion industry, standing at the frontline of the then-novel production concept of the time, ready-to-wear, making a wide variety of designs accessible and affordable.

“Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Kansai Yamamoto and many Japanese talents emerged in Paris fashion week from the ’80s, and Takada was a pioneer in paving the way for Japanese designers in Paris,” says Seijiro Ogawa, a veteran fashion journalist who reported on Paris fashion news from the ’70s to the ’80s. “A leading Japanese department store in importing haute couture, Seibu, started to look at emerging ready-to-wear talent in the ’70s and invited a group of designers to Japan. One of them was Takada, which was a triumphant return for him,” Ogawa continues. “He was showered with attention. I remember he was never the one to explain himself verbally, but spoke through colors and flowers.”

Takada enrolled in Bunka Fashion College in 1958 as one of the first male students to attend a fashion school in Japan. After graduating as an honor student — his graduating class was nicknamed hana no kyūki sei (“Flowering Ninth Class”) for its cohort of outstanding talent, including Junko Koshino and Mitsuhiro Matsuda, who went on to shape Japan’s modern fashion industry — Takada leaped on an opportunity to take his skills to Paris in 1964, when the Tokyo Olympics liberalized travel for Japanese citizens. Takada rapidly emerged in Paris’s fashion scene, dropping in on prestigious establishments, from galleries to magazine offices to department stores, to sell sketches when he exhausted his travel fund.

Dream world: Iconic designer Kenzo Takada at his first Parisian show, Jungle Jap (later renamed Kenzo). The walls are illustrated with motifs from Henri Rousseau’s “The Dream.” | KENZO TAKADA ARCHIVES
Dream world: Iconic designer Kenzo Takada at his first Parisian show, Jungle Jap (later renamed Kenzo). The walls are illustrated with motifs from Henri Rousseau’s “The Dream.” | KENZO TAKADA ARCHIVES

Takada had said he was surprised people bought his drawings, since he was constantly told by his peers that Paris was not the place for a Japanese designer, and counted himself extremely lucky to break the drought. Takada’s business partner of over 10 years, Jonathan Bouchet Manheim, says that “(Takada) always said he was lucky to have his success, but it wasn’t coincidental. Kenzo knew how to ‘trigger it’ during a call interview.”

Takada held his first show in Paris in 1970 in a small shop located in Galerie Vivienne, decorating the space with hand-painted murals depicting Henri Rousseau’s “The Dream.” Takada said seeing Rousseau’s painting at the Louvre Museum came as a shock, and it remained the main symbol of his dream world, its motifs depicted on a range of products throughout his career. In addition to his vivid jungles and iconic floral motifs, it was his kimono-inspired silhouettes that helped Takada gain immediate recognition in the industry. From the vintage kimonos he picked from the flea markets of Tokyo, Takada adopted flat cuts and loose fits for his pieces to liberate female figures from the tightly tailored garments of the time.

Manheim says Takada grew even more interested in Japan’s traditional culture after moving to Paris: “He was a dreamer, and I don’t think he could have ever settled in one place. He was constantly in between France and Japan. We visited Japan about six times last year, and traveled to rural areas to study regional crafts or architecture. When you leave your native land, you begin to discover it again.”

Franco-Japanese artist and friend of the late designer, Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, remembers how Takada’s popularity quickly spread beyond France at the beginning of his career. “I was introduced to his designs during my term at Villa Medicis French Academy in Rome during the early ’70s, when Audrey Hepburn gave me a beautiful grey coat with floral prints on the sleeves,” says Klossowska de Rola. “She was a big fan of Kenzo, as were fashion figures like my daughter-in-law, Loulou de la Falaise, who was Yves Saint Laurent’s right-hand man. Japanese culture was not well known in Europe at the time, and I think Kenzo was a brilliant talent to emerge during Paris fashion’s golden era to highlight the modernity of kimono design.”

Free form: Kenzo Takada’s colorful sketches from 1972 | KENZO ARCHIVES
Free form: Kenzo Takada’s colorful sketches from 1972 | KENZO ARCHIVES

Takada’s Kenzo brand grew rapidly after the first show. Takada held his first shows outside of France in 1971 in the U.S. and Japan, eventually launching various specialized lines from menswear to denim, even perfume.

The French luxury house LVMH acquired the Kenzo brand in 1993 for $80 million. Takada resigned as Kenzo’s creative director in 1999, but Noriko Carpentier-Tominaga, the director of the French-Japanese Exchange Committee at the Paris Chamber of Commerce, says that Maison Kenzo by LVMH remains an active member of the committee and continues to promote cultural exchange. For instance, at the Japonismes 2018 festival, Maison Kenzo installed a giant inflatable tent designed to look like a furoshiki (cloth wrapping) in Paris to celebrate 160 years of Franco-Japan relations.

“Paris fashion week is a big international showroom today, but Japanese brands began to have a presence in it quite early on,” says Yuko Takada Hurson, the Paris general manager of Itochu Fashion System Co. Ltd. (IFS). The Japanese fashion research and consultation firm started operating in France in 1971, and developed a number of Kenzo’s trademark licenses for ready-to-wear and eyewear before LVMH’s acquisition. In 2016, IFS worked with Takada on a fashion collection when the designer was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest civilian award.

“As (President Macron’s) statement acknowledged, Takada’s colorful designs largely influenced the French design industry, but he also went beyond to gain international interest and triggered global interest in Japanese culture,” Hurson says. “Without a doubt, (Takada) provided an objective vision for the Japanese talent that came after him.”

Ode to life: A watercolor sketch for the vibrant Maiko (apprentice geisha) theme of Kenzo Takada’s luxury home and lifestyle brand, K3. | COURTESY OF K-3
Ode to life: A watercolor sketch for the vibrant Maiko (apprentice geisha) theme of Kenzo Takada’s luxury home and lifestyle brand, K3. | COURTESY OF K-3

Even after Takada’s retirement from his namesake label, he continued to collaborate with various brands from eyewear to furniture before launching his own luxury lifestyle brand this January, K3. Teaming up with his longtime creative assistant, Englebert Honorat, and Manheim, K3 presents Japan-inspired furniture, textiles and decorations in collaboration with both European and Japanese artisans. Honorat, who trained under Takada for 10 years, has been appointed as the next creative director, and Manheim says the brand will continue to stand for Takada’s legacy by constantly rediscovering Japan and honoring his enthusiasm and dreams that initially led him to Paris.

“He was always open-minded, generous and humorous, even at the hospital,” says Manheim, adding that Takada fell into a coma briefly at the American Hospital of Paris before regaining consciousness about a week before his death. “When he woke up from the coma, he said ‘I got to sleep a lot, and I have so many ideas now,’ and was just eager to get back to the drawing board.”

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