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Kenzo Takada, Who Brought Japanese Fashion to the World, Dies at 81

By Vanessa Friedman

Kenzo Takada, photographed in his Paris apartment in 2017.
 
Bea De Giacomo
Kenzo Takada, photographed in his Paris apartment in 2017.

Kenzo Takada, the designer whose exuberant prints helped bring Japanese fashion to the world, died on Sunday at a hospital in Paris. He was 81.

The cause was complications of the novel coronavirus, a spokeswoman for the designer said, adding that he had been sick for a few weeks.

Known for his beaming smile and mischievous sense of fun — one of his more famous sayings was “fashion is like eating, you shouldn’t stick with the same menu” — Mr. Takada, who was generally referred to only as Kenzo, shook up the established French fashion world after arriving from Japan in 1964.

“Fashion is not for the few — it is for all the people,” he told The New York Times in 1972. “It should not be too serious.”

Joel Saget/Agence France-PresseMr. Takada with his fall/winter 1998-99 collection presentation in Paris. “He was a cult figure for the young and young-hearted,” a former Barneys executive said.
Mr. Takada with his fall/winter 1998-99 collection presentation in Paris. “He was a cult figure for the young and young-hearted,” a former Barneys executive said.

Though he initially planned to stay in Paris only six months, he ended up living there for 56 years, and his work opened doors not only for the highly influential Japanese designers who came after him, such as Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, but also created a new kind of mix-and-match aesthetic that crossed borders, colors and cultures, embraced diversity, and influenced a generation.

“Kenzo Takada was a very special figure in the Parisian fashion world,” said Olivier Gabet, director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the applied arts arm of the Louvre. “So many people who disliked or hated each other very often did agree on the fact they loved him.”

Jonathan Bouchet Manheim, Mr. Takada’s partner in the lifestyle firm K3, said, “He imagined a new artistic and colorful story, combining East and West — his native Japan and his life in Paris.”

Born in Himeji, Japan, on Feb. 27, 1939, one of seven children of Kenji and Shizu Takada, who ran a hotel, Mr. Takada became interested in design after reading his sisters’ fashion magazines.

Though he studied literature at Kobe University to please his parents, who did not approve of the idea of a career in fashion, he later dropped out and applied to Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo, where he became one of the first male students.

In 1960, he won the Soen Prize, an award given by the prestigious Japanese fashion magazine Soen, and began his career designing girls clothing for the Sanai department store. His life changed, however, when, in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, his apartment block was torn down and he was given 10 months rent in compensation.

He used the money to travel to France by boat, passing through Singapore, Bombay and Spain, before ultimately landing in the French capital, where he rented a room near the Place de Clichy for 9 francs a day.

He began selling sketches to designers such as Louis Feraud, and by 1970 was able to open his first store, which he renovated himself, in the Galerie Vivienne. Inspired by Henri Rousseau, he painted the walls with wild florals and called the boutique, where he also held his first show, “Jungle Jap.” (The name was somewhat controversial, and Mr. Takada later rechristened his company Kenzo.)

Joel Saget/Agence France-PresseKenzo Takada in his home in Paris in 2019. “When I opened my shop,” he said, “I thought there was no point in me doing what French designers were doing.”
Kenzo Takada in his home in Paris in 2019. “When I opened my shop,” he said, “I thought there was no point in me doing what French designers were doing.”

“When I opened my shop, I thought there was no point in me doing what French designers were doing, because I couldn’t do that,” Mr. Takada told The South China Morning Post in 2019. “So I did things my own way in order to be different, and I used kimono fabrics and other influences.”

“His first fashion shows were memorable,” Mr. Gabet said. “Light and playful, with models more dancing and walking than presenting clothes, faraway from the hierarchical vision of French couture.”

Known for his sense of fun, Mr. Takada — who disliked being known as a “Japanese designer” since he considered himself a “fashion designer” first — staged shows in a circus tent, and with himself riding an elephant. They were “legendary, and the toughest ticket in town,” said Gene Pressman, former co-chief executive of Barneys. “He was a cult figure for the young and young-hearted.”

Mr. Takada introduced men’s wear in 1983, a jeans line in 1986 and perfume in 1988, but by 1993, struggling after his life partner died and his business partner had a stroke, Mr. Takada decided to sell his company to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the French fashion conglomerate, for approximately US$80 million. Though he initially stayed on as the designer, in 1999, he had had enough and decided to step away from fashion, with its increasingly frenetic pace and commercial demands.

“Everything has changed, from the way we make clothes to the way information spreads and how many seasons there are now,” he said to The South China Morning Post.

Though Kenzo, the brand, continued under a series of different designers — including the team of Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, who brought back Mr. Takada’s signature trendsetting tiger, and the current artistic director, Felipe Oliveira Baptista — Kenzo, the man, explored other creative avenues.

He designed costumes for the opera, created the Japanese Olympic uniforms in 2004, painted, and created a new homewares collection. He opened his archives for a coffee table tome of his work released in February 2019, “Kenzo Takada,” combining sketches, diary excerpts, letters and photographs.