A Japanese pioneer in Paris

A Japanese pioneer in Paris

Wearing his signature sunglasses, framing a barely lined face and a debonair streak of white in his hair, Kenzo Takada is the consummate Parisian gent.

For the less well-versed in fashion history, it is almost impossible to imagine the blazer-wearing, soft-spoken septuagenarian as the same man who once sent a model on a white horse down the runway, or mixed Peruvian traditional costume with pret-a-porter.

It's only when he reveals that he was up till 2am the night before during a gala by the Asian Couture Federation, for which he was in town, that it's clear that here is someone who loves fashion and its colourful cast of characters.

"Singaporeans love to dress up, everyone was bling-bling last night," says Mr Takada with glee, who laments that while the Japanese love their designer labels, they avoid going all out with their sartorial selections during upscale events.

After all, the 1970s fashion maverick was famed for melding Eastern, Western and a smorgasbord of other influences into over-the-top, statement-making creations.

Before the Internet and the rise of cheap flights, Mr Takada was already making clothes for the global citizen, designing for the stylishly clad urban nomad.

He was an adventurer who ventured into an industry during a time when it was taboo for men to work in fashion.

In fact, although he attended the University of Kobe to study literature to appease his parents, he dropped out and left for Tokyo's Bunka Fashion College where he was one of the first male students to be admitted.

"When I was young, fashion was not a big business, but I don't know why, I wanted to work in fashion," recalls Mr Takada, speaking in French through a translator.

"When I went to school I asked to enrol in a fashion school, but there were no boys, not yet. The year after, I read in a magazine that one of the fashion schools in Tokyo was accepting boys. I applied immediately."

In 1960, he won the prestigious Soen prize and began working for the Sanai department store as a designer, producing up to 40 styles every month. But he was still dissatisfied, and left for Paris after working for four years to save money for the trip.

"In those days, the Europeans didn't know if we were Japanese, Korean or Chinese. There was no difference to them and the attitude towards Asians was almost condescending because in the 1960s, during the post-war period, 'made in Japan' was not good," says Mr Takada.

"I never thought that I could work in Paris, perhaps to visit for only five months and watch what was happening in fashion. Because, I came in 1965, there were not many Japanese and everybody said: 'You can never work in fashion in Paris'. There was only one famous Japanese, fashion model Hiroko (Matsumoto)."

The designer was introduced to the few Japanese working in fashion then and assisted in four haute couture fashion shows - Chanel, Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin and Pierre Balmain, while attending French lessons at the Alliance Francaise.

After spending about four months in the fashion capital, he was determined to stay on and decided to work on 30 fashion sketches.

"I took my drawings straight to the store of Louis Feraud, a fashion designer, and it was Louis Feraud's wife who welcomed me, had a look at my drawings, and bought five of my drawings," says Mr Takada. "That is the moment my life changed."

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