Kenzo Takada died this weekend as a results of COVID-19. He was 81. Though perhaps not as familiar a name as Dior and Balmain, Kenzo held his own place in fashion, and definitely still has lovers of his line today.
Kenzo worked in a Japenese department store until he decided to head to Paris in 1965. He struggled as most designers do for several years before he enlisted a partner and started his “Jungle Jap” label with an investment of $4000. He came up with the name after painting murals of trees and exotic animals on his salon walls in Galerie Vivienne. He wanted a jungle themed name and decided “Jungle Jap” was the right sound and was funny. All went well until he tried to expand into the US and he was sued by the Japanese-Amerian Citizens’ League, who called the name “derogatory”, because of the visions it evoked of Pearl Harbor and World War II. He agreed to change it to Kenzo, as the League would not accept his idea of changing it to J.A.P. He was a bit mystified, as it hadn’t been problematic in Paris. The next year, he was sued again after Lord & Taylor continued to sell clothing with the J.A.P label. He sold the label in 1973 for a cool $20 million. His label after all of the controversy was simply KENZO.
Kenzo’s popularity in Japan didn’t happen until after he became a big name at Paris Fashion Week. He became so popular that by the early 80s, it had become customary to close Fashion Week with his collections. His shows were fresh and upbeat, much like he was. One critic pointed out his smiling face, reminding people that France had once offered cash to locals who would smile at touriests. They never had to paid out, as the French reportedly just did not smile. (Trying to remember if this was the case when I was in Paris, but I can’t remember.)
Kenzo’s collections had a multitude of looks. His 1970 show included toreador pants, riding breeches and sheer clown-type pants, as well as a whole selection of 1920s inspired looks, including pleated skirts. He was responsible for many of the mid 70s looks such as bat wing tops, narrow straight leg pants, big sweaters and the revival of trapeze coats. His weskit (waistcoat) looks were seen in Paris a year after he featured them in his collections. I wonder how much of the Annie Hall look so popular from the time was actually inspired by him. He rode a wave of popularity for years. He was the only designer who steadfastly refused to use man-made fibers, saying he “can’t stand the feel of them.” His collections were pure cotton, linen, silks and the like. His 1970’s line of sewing patterns by Butterick are still immensely popular.
It took Kenzo quite a while to build his business in the US, citing the high costs of French materials as well as the import fees in the US. He found it difficult to create garments that could be kept at an affordable price point for Americans due to the overhead. He eventually expanded here, and even created a line for The Limited in 1984, with garments priced from $75-100 (still pretty pricey for the time). For all of the success he had however, he lived a fairly low key lifestyle, riding the Metro in Paris and not having a maid. He retired in 1999 to travel and do art projects.