Japan’s most famous fashion designer Kenzo Takada, founder of the global Kenzo brand, died in Paris on Sunday aged 81 after contracting Covid-19, his spokesman said.
Takada, the first Japanese designer to decamp to Paris and known especially for his signature floral prints, died in the American Hospital of Paris, the spokesman said in a statement.
His death comes 50 years after he launched his first collection in the French capital which he adopted as his home. “Every wall, every sky and every passer-by helps me build my collections,” he once said of the city.
He retired from fashion in 1999, six years after selling his eponymous fashion brand to luxury conglomerate LVMH, and dedicated his time to one-off projects, including a design collection at the start of this year.
– Dreamed of Paris –
Born in 1939 into a family of hoteliers, he chose to study art not catering, becoming a star pupil at Toyko’s Bunka Gakuen college, where he carried off the top prize. He went on to work for Sanai, a major chain of fashion shops, but dreamed of Paris.
The 1964 Olympic Games finally gave him his opportunity to come to Europe. The block of flats in which he was renting an apartment was to be demolished to make way for a stadium.
Like all the tenants, he was paid compensation and decided to blow the money on a one-way ticket on a cargo boat to Marseille.
Arriving in Paris in the winter of 1965, hardly speaking any French, the only job he could get was in a poodle parlour.
In 1970, however, he took the lease of premises in the Galerie Vivienne, then a rather down-at-heel shopping arcade. “With a few friends for three months we painted the walls with jungle scenes like Le Douanier Rousseau’s Snake Charmer and baptised it Jungle Jap,” he recalled later.
His first show using amateur models to save money was held there. One of the only 20 people invited included the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine who liked the collection so much she ran it on the front cover.
He became a name almost overnight. For financial reasons his first collection was made in cotton, often quilted, a look which young fashion leaders took to instantly. But his real impact was with his revolutionary and totally contemporary knitwear, which revitalised the industry.
In 1976 he established his studio and boutique in the Place des Victoires.
By the time the likes of Rei Kawakuba of Commes des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto arrived from Japan in the early 1980s, Takada was already well-established on the French fashion scene.
His first men’s collection was presented in 1983 and his first perfume, Kenzo Kenzo, in 1988.
From the early 1980s boutiques opened all over the world in New York, London, Milan, Toyko and Rome, followed later by Hong Kong, Munich, Venice, Bangkok and Singapore.
– Romantic style –
Kenzo’s romantic style, with its eclectic mix of colour, touches of exoticism, ethnic prints and folksy embroidery, suited the mood of the 1970s but adapted well to the sharper-looking 1980s and 1990s.
For inspiration, he drew on his travels as well as Japanese work clothes, such as his favourite military tunics and coats. Peruvian striped blanket throws, colourful shawls, oriental blouses, peasant smocks, printed velvet, were all part of his signature.
It was a measure of his success that he was notoriously prey to copyists. British designer Jasper Conran, interviewed on the problem, said he knew of a company in South Africa specialising in ripping off Kenzo, seam for seam. “They make a fortune — more than Kenzo I reckon — but there’s nothing he can do about it.”
He was made chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1986 by France in recognition of his career. He tried his hand at film-making with “Reve apres Reve” in 1980 and designed costumes for a Stockhausen opera.
Apart from travel, his other obsession was gambling. He guarded his privacy by building himself a house in the country in the very heart of Paris, only a few yards from the Bastille opera house, complete with authentic tea pavilion and a pool of carp.