By Kelly Wetherille
with contributions from Miles Socha
 on July 27, 2020
Mirai and Kansai Yamamoto

TOKYO — Kansai Yamamoto, the visionary fashion and costume designer who dressed David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, died July 21 at age 76, according to an Instagram post by his daughter, actress Mirai Yamamoto. She had previously shared information that he had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in February.

Yamamoto rose to prominence in the early Seventies when he debuted his first collection in London, and was subsequently chosen to dress Bowie’s alter ego on his Ziggy Stardust tour. In the coming two decades, he also participated in fashion weeks in Tokyo, New York and Paris.

From the Nineties onward, he worked mainly in the entertainment field. His “super shows,” as he called them, combined elements of music, dance, acrobatics, traditional Japanese festivals and other spectacles, and were performed around the world, from Vietnam and India to Russia and Japan. The first such event, in Moscow’s Red Square in 1993, drew a crowd of 120,000.

Throughout his storied career, Yamamoto collaborated with various brands. Perhaps one of his most high-profile projects was his work with Louis Vuitton on a series of kabuki prints for the Parisian brand’s 2018 resort collection, which was shown in Japan.

“Kansai Yamamoto’s unique vision of the Japanese culture is mesmerizing,” said Nicolas Ghesquiere, artistic director of women’s collections at Vuitton. “The way he transcended Japanese codes and art de vivre to create something truly his own goes beyond fashion. I was very honored when Kansai accepted to collaborate with me for Louis Vuitton. He was a very kind and generous man.”

Yamamoto was known for his outlandish, avant-garde designs that often incorporated bright colors, loud patterns and exaggerated silhouettes. He had an equally large personality and aimed to spread the spirit of “genki,” the Japanese word meaning “energetic,” to the world.

Rick Owens, who name-checked Yamamoto for his fall 2020 collections and interpreted several of his outre styles, mused: “I wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t dressed Bowie?
“Their association just goes to prove the power and magic of having the right guy in the right one-leg bodysuit in the right place at the right time.”
Marc Jacobs posted his own Yamamoto story on his Instagram account: “At 17 years old, back in 1980, I had the the privilege and honor to be introduced to Kansai Yamamoto.  At this time, I was a fashion student at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. I was a huge fan of Kansai’s extraordinary creativity.  I was very different from my fellow students in that I was extremely outgoing and so full of ambitious enthusiasm, passion and unbridled energy. I was curious and hungry to learn all about fashion and wanted that education to come in part from my heroes.  Thru the jewelry designer, Robert Lee Morris, who my roommate worked for, I had my first opportunity to see a Kansai fashion show and eventually meet Kansai himself. 

“As I remember it, Kansai was so impressed by my youthful energy and creative spirit, that he offered me a dream opportunity – to envision and arrange a ‘Happening/after-party’ in celebration of The Kansai Restaurant, an imaginary place that was to be the theme of his next collection. How lucky could I get??!! Indeed luck was when ‘opportunity met preparation.’ I was more than ready to fully engage and realize a complete creative experience for all of the senses down to the very last detail. I rose to the occasion and learned many very valuable lessons. I was given the chance to share an experience that would eventually inform the way I thought about putting on my own shows in the years to come. 

“To this day I am filled with gratitude to Kansai for seeing in me a special spark, and, giving me the wings I needed to fly. I will miss you dear friend. Rest In Peace,” Jacobs concluded.

“In my eyes, my father was not only the eclectic and energetic soul that the world knew him as, but someone who was also thoughtful, kind-hearted, and affectionate,” Yamamoto’s daughter wrote on Instagram. “He valued communication and showered me with love throughout my entire life.”

Mirai said her father died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones, and she vowed to continue supporting his legacy.