Born in 1939 in Himeji, Japan, Kenzo Takada rejected the label of ‘Japanese designer’. Rather, Kenzo considered himself a part of a then-emerging global fashion community. Alongside the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, who passed away in 2008 and 2019 respectively, Takada pioneered the concept of ready-to-wear and brought disruption and acclaim upon his arrival to Paris in the mid-1960s.
Despite selling his label to LVMH in 1993 and officially retiring in 1999, Kenzo Takada is immortalised in the global brand that bears his first name. A label loyally worn by a whole new generation thanks in part to Carole Lim and Humberto Leon, whose knack for combining the boldness of Takada’s motifs with street-readiness brought new life to the house.
In addition to the ready-to-wear, the perfumes that carry the Kenzo name also remain a staple at department stores and airport retailers from London to Shanghai. Today, the Kenzo brand continues to flourish under the creative direction of Felipe Oliveira Baptista.
By all accounts, despite being an octogenarian, Takada looked and moved like a man decades younger. With his hair dyed black, save for a signature white streak, he remained a regular on the front row and pursued new creative endeavours, and was awarded the French Légion d'honneur in 2016.
“It is important for me to transmit as much positivity as possible,” Kenzo told L’Officiel just last year, on the eve of the release of an eponymous book celebrating his career.
Following his death at the age of 81 from complications of coronavirus on October 4, Takada was laid to rest in his adopted home of Paris. Here, we reach to his muses and models to recall their time in Kenzo’s kaleidoscopic world.
Akure on why she loved Kenzo.
“Kenzo made doing his shows an absolute joy. He was as playful and as bright as his designs. And he celebrated Black Women. I loved being invited into his world.”
Brenda remembers her final meeting with Kenzo-san.
“I absolutely adored Kenzo-san. When I first met him in Paris (having moved from Japan as a student to model) we got on like a house on fire. He was very traditional in so many ways, including not speaking Japanese with gaijins! We used to crack up with my impersonations of famous Japanese comedians like Sunchan. And we would tease each other about our funny accents in each other’s languages."
"Kenzo was so polite and formal and traditional, despite having completely eschewed the traditional Japanese way of life. I think he saw an opportunity to bring Japan to the world and blend the beauty of his childhood to the city he loved – Paris. He went back to Japan all the time, but I never saw him without a scarf either. I had the honour of having dinner with him and my daughter this summer in the south of France. He had not changed at all. Polite, regal, charming and shy. Before dinner, he and I took a walk and as we approached the sea he spoke of the tradition of honouring those that passed away before us: I could not ask for a more meaningful last encounter. I know with all my heart that he feels us honouring him now.”
COLLEEN SAIDMAN YEE
Colleen on making the cut for Kenzo’s show.
“When I was fresh out of Indiana and landed in Paris as a startled teenager, I started going on auditions for runway shows and basically got laughed at at every casting because I walked like I just got off the farm - even though I never lived on a farm! Feeling embarrassed and ready to quit, I went to see Kenzie and surprisingly enough, he loved my walk and put me in his show. As a bonus, I had no idea what an honor it was to be photographed by Peter Lindbergh for his campaign that followed.”
MASOOD ALI KHAN
Khan recalls his most memorable moments with Kenzo.
“I first met Kenzo in Paris in 1987 for his men’s fashion show at Place des Victoires. There were so many great memories from his shows in Paris, Europe, Asia and South America. Possibly one of my favorites was our time in Himeji, Japan, part of a 3-week tour around Asia. It was a huge 90-minute show with so many fun and creative scenes – a beautiful, elegant collection presented in a stunning way. His legacy is clear: Joy, playfulness, elegance, colours and a celebration of beauty, diversity and life.”
Veronica on Kenzo’s genius.
“Kenzo was one of the kindest and happiest people I’ve ever met. His warm laugh and beautiful smile welcomed everyone and lit up the room every time I saw him. He was one of the Godfathers of Bohemian chic and one of the first to bring the ornate fabrics and the gorgeous geometric shapes, which are the hallmarks of Asian couture, to Western fashion."
"We first met in Paris at his workshop and store on the very chic Place des Victoires in 1986. It was a joy to walk Kenzo’s shows, swathed in a rainbow of silks and linens, looking like a Silk Road warrior princess. From the remote deserts of Morocco to desolate glaciers in the arctic circle, working with Kenzo sent me around the world modelling his clothes in places that reflected his love of nature, peoples and cultures. You will be missed. Your smile. Your laugh. Your talent.”
Gunilla recalls the atmosphere of a Kenzo show.
“Kenzo was eternally young. His was always my favourite show to do. All the models were girls doing magazines, not the shows. Kenzo was one of the first to book only editorial girls. So they were all my friends. We had so much fun. The shows were usually 1-2 hours late but nobody cared. This was the show to see. Everybody wanted to come in."
"I saw Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent there. They all loved to see a great spectacle. This was the early 70s and everybody was wearing Kenzo clothes. I remember I had a pair of hot pants in some beautiful Japanese fabric. Even my husband got a beautiful coat from him. In 1999 he invited all the old girls from the 70s to do his last show. Fantastic. Those were the days!”
Satya on his decades-long friendship with Kenzo.
“The encounter was life-changing. Rue Etienne-Marcel. Kenzo was surrounded by his casting team, sitting at a large table, reviewing portfolios, looking for the models that would give life to his new collection. When my turn came up, I approached him, intimidated, and humbled by his compelling aura. As he lifted his gaze towards me, the reaction was immediate, clear yet silent. His eyes expressed a blend of interrogation, attraction, revelation and fascination. I understood years later that I embodied the essence of his creative aspirations."
"In a few words: atypical, colourful, timeless, multiethnic, offbeat. He told me that on that day, he was intrigued and blown away by a firework of ideas exploding in his mind, enthused at the prospect of unravelling more ‘Kenzo craziness’ with me. I was twenty-something, he was 37. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration, friendship, may I even say kinship. Working with Kenzo was inspiring, joyful, always enriching. We would start early mornings in his atelier, and at some point, one of us would just take the other by the hand and we would go for lunch around the corner, “chez Issey”. Sitting “en tête-à-tête” we talked for hours about art, beauty, our passions, Japan, new ideas for future collections… I felt so privileged!
"These are my fondest memories. Kenzo knew how to create intimate and genuine moments of sharing, that felt like a peaceful bubble in the midst of the fashion industry whirlwind. The quality of his presence was precious to me – and to everyone who had the chance to know him personally. Kenzo is a character, a story, a style, and a philosophy in himself. His heritage started with his desire to blend what he had learnt in Tokyo’s Fashion College with the eclectic fabrics and patterns he discovered at Marché St Pierre in Paris. Kenzo transcended the codes, broke the rules, went into colour frenzies. The world is forever painted by his sense of beauty, his passion and generosity, his positive creative energy, the scent of a poppy flower, the vividness of a jungle.”