Born in 1939 in a small village within the city of Himeji, Takada was the fifth of seven children in his family. His childhood was complicated and with good reason: he suffered from dyslexia at an early age, and oral expression remains a challenge for him until this day. “I feel as if I don’t know how to speak”, Takada has said – an almost ironic statement from the man who amplified the means of expressing oneself through fashion.
Takada’s love for couture developed as a child when he would regularly read his sister’s magazines. As a young man, he followed the wishes of his parents by attending the University of Kobe to study literature – only to disappoint them by dropping out and enrolling in Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion College, becoming the first male student to ever be admitted.
“University … was not my thing,” he recalled years later, although the same could be said of his early experiences at Bunka College. He hated his first year of design, feeling woefully under-qualified: “When I entered the school of design in Tokyo, I felt I was beneath everything! I wasn’t at that level. I couldn’t understand everything.”
But he persevered and after graduating, worked for a department store in Tokyo and later for a magazine. But Takada had higher aspirations, and in 1965 he followed the advice of his old college lecturer, travelling to Paris by boat with the desire to become a fashion designer and discover a world outside the strict confines of Japan.
It was a bold gambit: Takada knew no one in the country, spoke limited French, and was essentially without a dollar to his name; he was forced to call upon his mother for support several times before she eventually cut him off. Early life in Paris, certainly, was far from the waking dream he had envision in Japan. He sustained himself by working as a freelance designer, sketching images and creating his own pieces.
His destitution in unfamiliar surroundings proved to be a blessing in disguise. The only fabrics he could afford in those early days came from flea sales, and so the burgeoning designer was forced to mix a multitude of bold materials, combining scraps he found in Paris with those he had preserved from Japan to form singular garments. It was an inspired combination of artistic dexterity and multiculturalist aesthetic that would come to define the Kenzo label.
His Japanese influences, so prominent in his designs, came primarily from memories of his mother:
“I was fascinated by mother. She was omnipresent, and incredibly elegant in the kimonos she wore so well.”
There were two types of kimonos in Japan during the early seventies: simple and very strict, or magical and colourful. Takada chose to exploit the latter in his designs, fusing the foundations of the kimono with traditional Western tailoring to create pieces truly unique in their inspiration.
But the true spirit of the Kenzo label lay in the man himself, and the bubbling sense of joy and enthusiasm he held for the world around him.
Takada describes his stint in Paris as “crazy years for me,” working tirelessly through the day and partying endlessly of an evening. On recalling his friendship with designer Loulou La Falaise he said,
“I think for a period of two years, we went out together every night. Whenever we went we danced til dawn! I just love to dance and to laugh!”
It was a light-hearted temperament the disillusioned Paris youth would latch onto in the coming years, weary of the selectivity that came from traditional couture and desperate for a sensibility they could identify with.
After months working as a freelance designer, Takada’s first big break came through a series of sketches inspired by Andrè Courrèges, a revolutionary French fashion designer renowned for his futurist vision; of the 30 designs he created, five were sold to the wife of Parisian designer Louis Feraud.
Takada eventually found work as a company designer in Paris, and after several years of experience decided it was time to establish his own store. He opened his first boutique in 1970, establishing his namesake label Kenzo the same year – a fitting blend of “East meets West” aesthetic that mirrored his experiences as a Japanese expatriate in Paris.
The boutique, Jungle Jap, was set up in an unkempt clothing store in the famous Galerie Vivienne. Takada renovated the store single-handedly and even allowed it to play host to his very first show. While the term “Jap” is commonly recognised as a derogatory word within the Japanese community, Takada reclaimed the word for his work, intending to redefine the slur by relating it to something beautiful.
Over the next decade, Takada ushered in a new paradigm of Parisian fashion. At a time when the historic couture houses of Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel dominated French fashion with their “bon chic, bon genre” exclusivity and institutional values, Takada injected a universal perspective on fashion that emphasised inclusion and enjoyment.
His understanding of the zeitgeist and cheerful, eclectic, idiosyncratic take on modern dressing cleared a pathway to prominence. Paris youth flocked to the bold new designer, who quickly became known for inexpensive collections that resonated with vibrancy and wonder – a direct contrast to the haughty couture of his esteemed competitors.
“I love the idea that Kenzo first introduced that fashion could be fun,” said the future creative director of Kenzo, Antonio Marras. “That fashion is creativity and not a status symbol; that fashion is freedom. It was a bold message about creativity and energy, global fashion and universal culture.
He broke into the fashion world and made it change, preparing the future for others.”
Indeed, Kenzo was one of the first labels to introduce “ethnic-chic” to the streets and embrace cultures beyond the traditional West. Recognising that the French found “exotic” elements to be appealing, Takada drew inspiration from ethnic cultures around across the globe – beginning with his roots in Japan, to Russia, Machu-Pichu and even the Czech territory of Bohemia.
Over the course of four decades, Kenzo collections have combined a stunning array of countries and cultures into single collections: Scandinavian knits with Mexican rebozos and Romanian peasant skirts; oriental designs complimented by Portuguese purses and awning stripe shirts and dresses that evoke the French Riviera. The label has experimented with North American feather detailing, North African kaftans, Eastern European peasant apron and smokes and the Indian Nehru suit while squeezing in nods to American pop culture and an ode to prohibition gangster Al Capone. To say that Takada is diverse would be a profound understatement.
When asked about his search for inspiration and love of travel, Takada responded, “I don’t go around looking for influences. The energy arrives.” This may be true, but the designer is a self-professed observer; spending copious amounts of time “people watching” and studying shop windows when he arrived in Paris, as a means of understanding the Parisian culture and youth. His keen perception, paired with an ability to harmonise styles from across the globe, made it possible for Takada to penetrate the entrenched fashion hierarchy and become one of the most regarded fashion designers for over three decades.
“Kenzo stands for freedom,” says Marras. “No limits in inspiration, all influences from every part of the world are welcome. No limits in shapes and volumes. That means freedom of movement thanks to no-couture patterns and kimono shapes. No limits in the vision; no dream is too far away, too crazy or visionary.”
In 1983, Takada released his first men’s collection; three years later he dubbed a collection “Around the World in Eighty Days,” despite already being the preeminent traveller of fashion for over a decade. His fashion pallet has remained endlessly multicultural and syncretistic, filled with ethnic outbursts, flamboyant colour combinations and audacious prints.
He continued to develop his label in subsequent years: expanding into childrenswear and home collections in 1987, followed by fragrances for men and women in 1988 and 1991, respectively, and the launch of skincare line Kenzoki in 2001.
Takada imbues each of his lines with the same limitless wonder and theatricality he extends to his catwalk shows, a highlight of the fashion calendar for over thirty years. Every collection was an extravaganza, from the 1979 show in a circus tent, closing with women in transparent uniforms riding on horseback and Takada himself atop an elephant, to his final show in 1999 – a prêt-a-porter showcase commemorating his thirty-year carer with a stadium celebration that included an enormous Kenzo retrospective showcased by many of the world’s most famous models.
Like so many revolutionary designers, his success can be attributed to a refusal to follow the direction of temporary trends.
“When you’re forced to react to trends that you are not very close [to] … it imprisons,” Takada has said.
His resolve was to stay true to himself, and this is exactly how he approached the fashion scene – imbuing haute couture with colour, joy and an open freedom of expression that so closely resonates with his personality.
In 1993, French luxury goods company LVMH acquired Kenzo; six years later, Takada retired from his namesake label to pursue an art career, leaving his esteemed fashion house in the hands of his assistants.
He returned in 2005 to focus on a new form of design with the launch of Gokan Kobo, a home furnishings brand, whose name translates into English as “the studio of the five senses.”
Antonio Marras joined the Kenzo house in 2003, eventually becoming creative director in 2008. Kenzo moved in a more polished and feminine direction under the guidance of Marras, breaking away from its streetwear roots. As Marras explained during the transition:
“The Kenzo collections are a meeting point where opposite elements melt together to create something unexpected and beautiful. I’m writing the new pages of Kenzo, and I’d love this anniversary to mark a new phase towards modernity. My vision is deeply linked to my being Italian, a love for beautiful fabrics and timeless elegance. But this is not opposite to the Kenzo spirit – it is just another element to melt into its very rich history.”
These “new pages of Kenzo” failed to ignite public interest and in 2011 Marras announced his departure from the label. He was replaced by the dynamic duo of Humberto Leon and Carol Kim; founders of cult US clothing store Opening Ceremony. The new creative directors were determined to bring back the energetic, fun and high-spirited Kenzo that Takada originally envisioned, making the brand relevant again through their own street-led sensibilities.
A year after their appointment, Leon stated:
“Kenzo, as a brand, has such a rich and fascinating history, it can be hard to determine what exactly we have changed. With our new collections, we hope that we have injected the brand with a youthful spirit and a sense of fun and cheekiness. But we also want to respect and preserve the traditions of the Kenzo house, such as the importance of prints and the sense of worldliness and travel that has been intrinsic to every collection in the history of Kenzo.”
Under Leon and Lim, Kenzo has become more involved in the artistic elements of design – collaborating with avant-garde artists, musicians and actors with each new collection. In their fall showcase of 2014 they worked with filmmaker David Lynch, who mixed the soundtrack for the show and provided a large sculpture of his own design, and have even worked with luxury water company Evian to design Kenzo bottles – hardly a surprising move for the designers who, at Opening Ceremony, collaborated with everyone from Martin Margiela to the Muppets.
As for Takada, his legacy is entrenched in every designer with a penchant for colour and flair: from streetwear devotees to those who dwell in the loftiest realms of haute couture. Even his successors, Leon and Kim, owe a substantial debt to the man whose vibrancy and eclecticism changed the way the youth perceived high fashion.
But for the man who redefined dour and elitist couture as something to be adored, it was the work, never the accolades that sustained his joy:
“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.”