At a time when Parisian fashion was relegated to the elite, Japanese import Kenzo Takada stirred the established code of couture by cheekily breaking the rules and ushering in the notion that design need not take itself so seriously in order to be enjoyed.

With his keen eye for bold and vivacious colours, eclectic and multi-cultural patterns; and a flair for the theatrical that turned every collection into an eagerly awaited extravaganza, Takada injected fashion with a sense of joyous wonder that echoes through to designers of the modern era. 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 – and yet Takada is a man who has 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.

Takada had higher aspirations, and in 1965 he followed the advice of his old college lecturer, traveling 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 envisioned 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 multi-cultural 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.








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