PARIS — It took nearly 20 years for Kenzo Takada to complete his first book.
The fashion designer was approached by author Kazuko Masui moments after he left his namesake brand in 1999. At the time, Masui had a plan to make a book of Takada’s drawings, more than 5,000 of them. It since blossomed into a full-fledged biography, opening with the letters a young Takada wrote to his mother upon first arriving in Paris in 1965 and ending with dozens of pages dedicated to his final show at the fashion brand, held at the Zénith concert hall in 1999. Around 400 drawings still made the cut.
Born in 1939, Takada studied at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo before setting off to Paris to pursue his career. After a couple of years working for a design agency and selling drawings of his designs, including to the house of Louis Féraud, Takada opened his first shop in March 1970, named Jungle Jap.
It was an immediate hit, with Takada’s colorful cotton designs and Japanese kimonos gathering press attention. The brand officially launched as Kenzo in 1976 when it inaugurated its flagship on the Place des Victoires in the center of Paris. Takada quickly became part of Paris’ vibrant ready-to-wear scene, leading LVMH to buy the company in 1993.
Published by Editions du Chêne, the designer’s first biography features a personal collection of photography retracing his career, including previously unpublished images documenting the creation of one of the designer’s iconic looks, the wedding dress for the fall 1982 collection, entirely crafted out of ribbons.
Ahead of a book signing in Paris, the designer sat down in his office on the Left Bank to look back on his life in fashion:
WWD: What was your first impression of Paris when you arrived in 1965?
Kenzo Takada: It wasn’t a good one! It was the first time I had ever left Japan. I traveled by boat for a month, and arrived in Marseille in January 1965. I came to Paris with a former classmate at Bunka Fashion College. I didn’t speak any French, I didn’t know anyone, it was cold and gray. This was before the Parisian buildings were cleaned up in the Seventies: all the facades were black. I imagined Gare de Lyon would look like the beautiful stations you saw in films and I was disappointed. I didn’t have any money and didn’t understand any of the menus in restaurants. Then my friend left and I started to question my decision. I bought a guide on how to survive in Europe on $5 a day, and started taking French classes at the Alliance Française. Then spring came, you could sit outside at café terraces, and everything was amazing.
WWD: You were among the first male students at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. What was that like?
K.T.: My sister was studying at a sewing school in Kobe and it really interested me. I contacted the school, as well as two others nearby in Osaka, but they didn’t accept boys at the time. So I went to university in Kobe instead. But about a month after starting, I saw an article in the newspaper about Bunka Fashion College accepting male students and I immediately dropped out to move to Tokyo. The school aimed to teach girls how to sew their own clothes, to get ready for married life. At the time there wasn’t any ready-to-wear, not much was going on in fashion. I asked my tutors if there were any jobs in fashion I could aspire to after graduating. They said, ‘Not really.’
WWD: Jungle Jap was an immediate success. Why do you think the fashion world was so responsive?
K.T.: When I arrived in Paris at the end of the Sixties, all there was was haute couture. At the same time in London, there were the Beatles, the Stones, the Mods and Carnaby Street — “Swinging London.” It was a lot more dynamic, even in fashion: in France there was Sonia Rykiel and Dorothée Bis, but in London there was Biba and Mary Quant. There was something missing in Paris. I started out when there wasn’t much going on, and I used color, different textures, a lot of cotton I bought cheaply from the Marché Saint Pierre. At the time, the most daring thing the girls wore in Paris were the Liberty-print Cacharel shirts. I think that’s what made us stand out.
WWD: In 1982, you designed a couture wedding dress made exclusively out of ribbons. What was the idea behind the piece?
K.T.: In Japan you couldn’t really get any ribbons. So when I came to France I would go to the flea markets or to the shops on the rue Sainte-Anne and buy pieces of lace and ribbon. The theme of the collection was Russian dolls, so I thought, why not use my stock of ribbons to create a dress?
WWD: The Eighties were the heydays of Japanese designers in Paris, with both Comme des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto launching in 1981. What was your reaction to their arrival?
K.T.: Issey Miyake was already in Paris, he arrived around the same time as me and went to train at the couture houses. When Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo arrived…ah! I knew I had to be a bit careful. I knew Yohji from Bunka, I had seen some of his work when I was in Tokyo. Those designers were very traditionally Japanese: a lot of black, very sober. I chose to go the more theatrical and Kabuki-inspired way.
WWD: You left the fashion house in 1999, after it was sold to LVMH in 1993. What is it like to see your brand live on under your name, but with a different designer?
K.T.: It was weird at first, but I got used to it. I didn’t really want to use the name Kenzo, it’s a bit of a serious name in Japanese, like a lawyer’s name. And now it’s everywhere.
WWD: What do you think of the direction Carol Lim and Humberto Leon have given the brand ?
K.T.: They are doing a very good job. We are in contact, the brand reached out to me to introduce them. They have a lot of respect for what I’ve previously done and look back to my archives. They really understand today’s youth, they were the first to really reach out to them and use the Internet. They were disruptive eight years ago, and they are still growing.
WWD: Do you have any regrets?
K.T.: Sometimes I ask myself why I sold the brand and why I didn’t continue a little longer. But I had a good run.
WWD: Are you nostalgic?
K.T.: The Seventies were great. We were very free and did what we wanted. But then came the Eighties, a lot of my friends fell ill and the economy got bad. I still enjoy Paris today, I’ve never moved back to Japan. I considered it in 2000, but decided to stay.
WWD: Do you still design clothes?
K.T.: Two years ago I collaborated with a big department store in Japan. But if you want to be successful in fashion, you can’t take breaks. If you stop only for a couple of seasons, new materials, technology and trends have cropped up in the meantime. I like fashion, but I would need to devote all my time to it. I don’t have the courage.
WWD: What do you think of today’s saturated market ? Do you think there is still room for innovation within fashion?
K.T.: You never know. Everything has changed so much. Today fashion has a greater importance, everyone is interested and knows what’s going on. Open any magazine and it will have some fashion content. Before fashion used to be niche, now it has truly entered people’s lives.
WWD: What are you next projects?
K.T.: I designed a perfume with Avon and I still work a bit in interior design. And I’ve started painting again. I’ve not found my style yet, but I’m enjoying dabbling a bit.
WWD: Do you use social media?
K.T.: My team created an Instagram account for me last month, but I don’t know how it works. I think it’s great, but I can’t do it. Fashion has become so crazy, now it seems more important to have influencers at shows than important journalists. Everything has changed since my time. Before, you weren’t even allowed to have a camera with you at a fashion show, and the official pictures came out months later. And now, people at fashion shows look at silhouettes through their screens.
WWD: Do you think you would have liked to be a designer in this era?
K.T.: I preferred it before. It was more human.