Remembering The Life of Kansai Yamamoto

Fashion Designer and Bowie collaborator Kansai Yamamoto, has passed away at age 76. We dissect his legacy and what his tragic death helps us to remember.

Kansai pictured with a costume he designed for David Bowie | Photo credit: Shutterstock

Kansai Yamamoto’s very-recent death was a disappointing blow for the global fashion community. Sadly diagnosed with Leukemia earlier this year, Yamamoto did not see a full recovery. In light of his passing, it is important to reflect upon the astonishing life he led.

Born in Yokohama in 1944, Kansai was raised by war. Despite this, his surroundings did not deter him. Yamamoto sought to bring meaning to post-war Japan. His career would see him push boundaries and ultimately produce widespread optimism through his craft. Yamamoto’s personal ventures eventually lead him to study at the prestigious Bunka Fashion College. His Bunka alumni and successors include Junya Watanabe and most famously, Yohji Yamamoto.

Kansai is well-known for his loud yet avant-garde design philosophy, as-well-as making David Bowie the first cultural figure to fully embrace fashion in as early as the 1970s. Yamamoto’s prominence stems from his playful, fun reworkings of traditional designs. 1971 saw Kansai become the very first Japanese designer to present a show in London. It was here that he caught the attention of rising star David Bowie and many others.

After meeting Bowie, Yamamoto was hired to formulate and design a wardrobe for Ziggy Stardust (Bowie’s alter ego). Bowie’s persona was characterised by unique and influential elements of maximalism and was facilitated by Yamamoto’s newfound world of design. For many years to come, the two would work side-by-side in harmonious artistic partnership. Luxurious and dynamic, Yamamoto’s continuous work drew from many periodic inspirations.

Kansai Yamamoto’s references helped to ground his work, not only in a thematic sense but also in popularising androgyny in the early 1970s. More simply, his work might be reduced to an incorporation of elements from Japanese culture. Inspired by the unique costuming of Momoyama Period Art and the Kabuki Theatre, Yamamoto began to experiment with androgyny and pattern-cutting, honing his flamboyant aesthetic. Particularly enthused by the concept of “Basara” his famous 1971 London show was a hallmark of his potential.

Photo Credit: Alexandra Waespi

His references complemented his colours and fluid shapes, in the aim of self-expression for the wearer. Resistance to normal or typical clothing silhouettes mirrored Yamamoto’s disgust with the conformity of a rigid and stiff society. In addition to this, Kansai’s very will to express his clothing in this manner, negated the contemporary avant-garde/anti-fashion sentiments of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, arguably the two largest Japanese fashion designers during this period. Often, Kansai is overshadowed by these two figures, while in actual fact, he led the way to the International stage. Kansai was truly at the forefront of contemporary Japanese fashion.

Yamamoto’s penchant for designing extravagant, sculptural and structural pieces, was truly unconstrained and impressed many eyes (even within popular culture). The beginning of this “new age” for Yamamoto had inspired and brought confidence to many concurrent designers, who still deeply reference his work today. Kansai Yamamoto’s passing has ultimately taught the world to be radical and optimistic. Furthermore, his fusing of aesthetics has now passed onto the next generation.

His personal ability to inspire others stems from his motto “Humans are possessed of limitless energy”. Such a permanent and bold statement only cements his persona as loveable. He is now dearly missed. His commitment to fashion was not only sentimental but deeply personal as an expression of his value system. “Design is self-realisation” Kansai Yamamoto affirmed that expression and actualisation were important processes within human life. His unequivocal optimism still resonates with fashion lovers worldwide today.

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