Kenzo Takada on His Very Creative Life Before, During and After Founding Kenzo

The designer opens up about inventing the mass-market designer collaboration model and what he misses about fashion.
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Kenzo Takada. Photo: Victor Boyko/Getty Images for Kenzo

Kenzo Takada. Photo: Victor Boyko/Getty Images for Kenzo

Kenzo Takada may have only stayed with his eponymous line until 1999, but the Japanese designer had shaken up the fashion industry so thoroughly by that time that we're still feeling his impact. From being one of ready-to-wear's early pioneers to essentially inventing the mass-market designer collaboration model that's so popular today, Takada changed the way that fashion does business.

In the almost 20 years since he left Kenzo, Takada hasn't been designing clothing — but that doesn't mean he's stopped creating. This week, he was in the U.S. to promote his recent collaboration with high-end French furniture company Roche Bobois, which is rife with bright patterns and colors, much like his old clothing designs used to be. 

When I met him in the Roche Bobois showroom, it was easy to see why he became a darling of the press. Looking a good decade or two younger than his 78 years, Takada wore a monochromatic navy outfit featuring pieces from Saint Laurent and Valentino — he laughed, saying: "After I left my own label, I could wear anyone's clothes I wanted!" — that coordinated well with the multi-patterned navy couch he designed. Though he had a translator present, he was so eager to connect that he often jumped in with a line or two of accented English spoken straight to me before finishing his thoughts in French. 

The riot of texture and color for which Kenzo came to be known originated from Takada's first journey to Paris from Japan as a 20-something. Having grown up in the '60s watching films that depicted Paris as the center of fashion, Takada was eager to visit the City of Lights after completing his studies as one of the first men at the formerly all-female Bunka Fashion College. Because he was low on cash, Takada followed a teacher's advice to take a boat, rather than a plane, to Paris — and the incredibly diverse textiles, cultures and styles he encountered on stops through India, Asia and Africa made a huge impression on him in a pre-Wi-Fi world. 

"Now it's the internet that brings everything to your door," Takada told me. "But this was December 1964. It was much less globalized and people really dressed different from each other."

Once in Paris, Takada quickly began to run out of cash. His solution was to visit haute couture houses trying to sell his fashion illustrations, and because his work was unlike what had been done before, he quickly picked up work from a few designers, as well as Elle. These early successes helped him make money and begin to build a network in the industry, so that when he launched his own brand a few years later, he already knew his way around.

In the following years, Takada showed that he had what it took to think in new and fresh ways about more than just fashion illustration. He was an early adopter of the ready-to-wear manufacturing model and he put out a fragrance before that was an expected norm for fashion designers.

"In 1979, I was young and wanted to do something quite provocative and strong," Takada explained. "But there was no real retail for fragrance. It was a much smaller market."

Takada laughingly explained that King Kong, Kenzo's first scent that he undertook "just for fun," didn't really work out. But once the label got serious about perfumes in the '80s, Kenzo produced some great hits, including Flower, a best-seller that was also Takada's last perfume before leaving the label.

Kenzo was also one of the first brands to pioneer mass-market collaborations. In 1984, Takada inked a deal with The Limited to design a more accessibly priced line. The move was so controversial at the time that some higher-end retailers stopped stocking Kenzo as a result. 

"For six months I was hesitating, thinking do we do it or not? Because it had never really been done before," Takada explained. "There was a huge risk behind it."

Although the collection with The Limited only ended up lasting three seasons, it paved the way for the now-commonplace designer and mass-market collaboration — including Kenzo's own wildly buzzy H&M collection last year. And while Takada had no personal involvement with the collaboration, he does keep tabs on Kenzo and speaks highly of current creative directors Carol Lim and Humberto Leon.

"They bring something very young, streetwear, very easy, casual," Kenzo said in English. "Something contemporary."

The fun, cool-kid vibe for which Lim and Leon are known seems like a fitting update on Takada's legacy, which was built on his love for parties — from the Studio 54 bash with Grace Jones to the 50-years-in-Paris celebration he threw himself a few years ago complete with elephants, dancers and Japanese drummers — in addition to his vibrant clothing.

It's the party-like atmosphere and people that Takada misses most from his life in the fashion world. 

"I wanted to continue to work, but at less speed," Takada said of his shift toward interior design post-Kenzo. "I'm a little bit nostalgic about the fashion shows and energy behind them. And what I miss most is the people working in fashion. They have a lot of fantasy; they're really creative and joyous."

No wonder Takada fit so well in the industry for as long as he chose to stay.

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