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."

Having sold his first drawings in Paris, the ambitious young designer decided to show his sketches to Elle magazine, which at that time produced fashion pieces for sale to its subscribers.

The publication snapped up a few of his designs and he was encouraged to show his works to stores such as Printemps and Galeries Lafayette.

Within a week, he sold all his designs and did not have to return home, working for several department stores before opening his first boutique, Jungle Jap, in 1970.

He began growing a fashion empire, expanding into menswear, fragrances and skincare, before selling his label to the LVMH group in 1993.

Today, the brand is experiencing a revival with the hottest names in fashion, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, at its creative helm since 2011.

The duo is behind multi-label fashion store Opening Ceremony, which has outlets in New York and Tokyo. "Of course, they are doing the design, drawing, and the collections," says Mr Takada.

"But for me it is something completely new, they are doing the design and at the same time they know how to sell.

"Because at Opening Ceremony, they select pieces by other designers and in the shop, they sell. They can do the shop windows and everything else. For me it is something completely new, the new generation. And the collection is very fresh, very young, (with lots of) energy."

Thanks to globalisation, Mr Takada believes that budding designers could hone their craft almost anywhere in the world, without the need to be based in the world's fashion capitals. But he adds that staying put in one's comfort zone might dampen creativity and imagination.

"The young Japanese designers don't want to, or think there is no point in going to Paris, so they'd rather stay in Japan, as there's less risk, and they don't want to take risks," muses Mr Takada.

"For us, we were forced to do it, because there was nothing in Japan, so we wanted that, we needed it, it was missing. We were dreaming about travel, about fashion, lifestyle, everything, and we needed to look at everything. Now, you have access to so much information, so you are no longer curious. It's a shame."

Since he handed the reins over to his assistants in 1999, before the entrance of Antonio Marras as creative director of the house in 2008, Mr Takada has not launched any major fashion collection.

Instead, he had created a tableware and furniture brand and paints in his free time, citing Matisse and Gaugin as some of his favourite artists.

"Because in fashion, if we're not continuing, if we stop for a few seasons, it is really hard to catch up. We have to always work, and stay working, otherwise it is very difficult," adds Mr Takada.

"But I will always love fashion, I love fashion people, this is true. Because in fashion there is a lot of business, but it is also a lot about the dreams, the fantasy, the people - everything."


This article was first published on Dec 13, 2014.
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