NEW YORK — Seated on one of three Mah Jong sofas that he reimagined for Roche Bobois in its Madison Avenue showroom here, Kenzo Takada reeled through his career and described his post-fashion life.
His latest collaboration with the French furniture brand is one of many and further evidence that his decision years ago to ditch plans to become an accountant was the right one. Having been in Japan, Paris and New York in the span of three days, the designer was fending off the 12-hour jet lag that accompanied that jaunt. But his deceptively energetic appearance even gave passport control officials reason to pause. “Two days ago at U.S. Customs, the person took the passport and she said, ‘It’s not true. That cannot be the right date.’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m 78,’” Takada said. “I’m very lucky to keep my health and just to have my mind.”
Of course, he has much more than that, having built a global fashion brand and licensing empire, which is now owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Not one to detail his achievements, never mind boast about them, when asked, Takada, said he is most proud of the fact that his name has survived “across so many years which is quite rare. “What I am most proud of is I opened the roads for much younger people from around the world, who probably think they can be a hit in fashion in Paris or London. They can come and try to do that.”
His determination to be among the first men enrolled at Bunka Fashion College meant his parents declined to pick up the tab for his tuition. So he started painting the interiors of houses on the side. A few years later when the Olympic Committee offered to pay him to leave his home in advance of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, he did so. With that payout and the money he squirreled away as a painter, Takada set out for Paris, following a teacher’s advice to go by ship, traveling past China, India and Africa in the process. For a non-traveler, that voyage left him with a lasting multicultural view of the world and fashion.
“I was not hippie or haute couture; it was something very different. It was also the start of ready-to-wear. There were no real brands doing that. I started fashion shows for ready-to-wear because I didn’t understand why there weren’t any. The syndicate of the haute couture didn’t recognize this so I started to organize shows with Chantal Thomass and my friends for ready-to-wear,” he said.
Now removed from the grueling pace of fashion, he dedicates his mornings to yoga, sports, or massage to be healthy and energetic. Afternoons are spent concentrating on art and working with the young talents of his team. When time allows, he likes to visit museums and “go shopping a lot like everybody.” After 50 years of living in Paris, he is rediscovering Japan and visiting factories and artisans in Tokyo, Kyoto, Kitakyushu, Kumamoto and other places from the mountains.
While he attends Kenzo shows, as he did for the Humberto Leon and Carol Lim’s men’s show on Sunday in the scorching heat of Paris, Takada said he still misses fashion — the speed, ambience, heavy work, dealing with manufacturers, the whole process. “I love fashion. I worked very hard for 30 years. Now it’s been almost 17 years since I left. I like fashion people, they’re very funny and can be joyful, sometimes a little crazy, but so nice,” he said.
Regarding the all-Asian casting at last weekend’s men’s show, which paid tribute to his muse and longtime model Sayoko Yamaguchi, Takada said, “They made the decision to do an all-Asian cast. I don’t disagree with that. It is a one-time occasion. It may influence an increase. It is also the new market where trends tend to look to.”
Although he is not in touch with Lim and Leon regularly, he likes what they are doing, especially with La Collection Memento N°1. As for the signature collection, he said, “It’s different than what I did, but at least they are clear about what they’re doing and they have the guts to do it. That’s what I used to do. And it has nothing to do with previous designers that were at Kenzo. In terms of trends, they’re not too much into them. But they do what they want to do and make it dynamic and young. That’s how I was.”
One trend he led was collaborating with The Limited in 1984 for a diffusion line. The concept was so foreign that Barneys New York wanted to drop his signature collection. More current trends of see-now-buy-now and computerized design are not something he is completely on board with. “For me, it is too quick. I’m not that technologically savvy. I don’t understand the concept of how people can buy something without trying on to see if it fits. But we need to adapt to the need,” he said. “It’s nice that with a computer you can change a color or even the shape of things in a second — boom, boom, boom. But I like to hand draw in a more classic way. My assistants are very good with the computer. Sketching with the hand first there is much more depth. I am really into the ancient method — completely.
“There are so many houses now and they change designers so often that it is very, very hard to keep up. What they did at Valentino was fantastic. They completely revived Valentino with Pierpaolo [Piccioli] and brought it back up to the forefront.”
This week in New York one must-see for Takada was The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons” exhibition. “She is great. I have never spoken with her. She is very shy — me too, at times,” he said.
His legacy is not something that he considered until biographers and journalists approached him in recent months. At the end of 2016, The Nikkei in Japan published daily articles about his life for a month. Describing his life was a very personal process and looking back made him realize that he did many things. “People are starting to realize that I changed so many things in fashion and improved so much. I was one of the first to do collaborations, to fuse origins and cultures. I am realizing at the same time as the journalists what I did. I didn’t really think about that in the past,” Takada said.
Arriving in Paris when there weren’t any Asian people working in fashion, he said he started the shop to go back to his roots, getting inspiration from Japanese cuts and textiles and mixing them with European fashion before turning to other cultures. Takada said, “I look to the future completely but we still have to have a real strong understanding of what happened prior. Young people are coming out of school and are interested in learning different crafts. That is a very good thing. And I think it is something new that is happening.”
The son of innkeepers, Takada said living in Japan right after World War II led him toward fashion. “It was a very dark era. There was really nothing. The only kind of happiness that I could grab was through magazines and TV. That really drove me to be very interested in fashion. I was very attracted to either moving to Paris or New York. I wanted to go,” he said. “’Little Women’ was the first movie I saw — wow.”
While he hasn’t spoken with filmmaker Wes Anderson about collaborating, Takada loves films and actually worked on a film years ago. “I did one. It was no good. In 1980, I did ‘Dream After Dream.’ It was in August when I was on vacation. We did the shoot in Morocco but we didn’t expect it was during Ramadan. So it was complex. We worked very hard for one month in the desert all over. We were doing all these rushes of heavy, heavy work but we couldn’t review what we had filmed. It wasn’t until we came back to Paris that we saw everything, but we couldn’t change it.”
Not ruling out working in fashion again, he prefers to work at a more measured pace in other areas. With the Summer Olympics returning to Tokyo in 2020, there are rumblings of collaborating with an airline about a customized exterior design. Takada said, “I’ve had a lot of success but I’ve had a lot of mistakes as well. But I am a person who tries. I have a good time and I stay. I have a lot of chances.”