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MARCH 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 8

The Magician
Although he has retired, Takada Kenzo's colorful visions ensure his place in the pantheon

Asiaweek PicturesKenzo worked his spells using simple cuts combined with a bold palette, ethnic influences, floral patterns and a pinch of fantasy
On April 14, 1970 about 50 people squeezed into a tiny boutique in the Galerie Vivienne in Paris to see the debut show of a talented young Japanese designer. At the time, French haute couture was closed to outsiders. But this Asian not only had an audience, he electrified it. He quickly earned a name for clothes that blended East and West, revolutionizing the art of modern dressing. That name is Kenzo.

Thirty years later, on October 7, 1999, Takada Kenzo bade farewell to the business with a fashion spectacular in Paris before a throng of nearly 2,000. From his first collection to his last, Kenzo explored the world's richly diverse cultures. His clothes were exotic and fun. They were ethnic but utterly modern. Like a tourist recording his travels, Kenzo presented collections that were snapshots of the colorful journeys he has taken. No pastiches of ethnic clothing. He created a communion between cultures that made the clothes look fresh, seductive - with just the right touch of fantasy. His designs revolved around several key elements: color and flowers, the kimono and simple shapes, tradition and folklore. Standard fare now, but new and exciting in the early 1970s. Classic Kenzo was never conventional. A tweed suit was styled as a kimono jacket with cropped trousers. He was one of the first designers to fuse Oriental with Occidental fashion and in the process globalized the look. Men's clothing was a hybrid of Western tailoring and Eastern sarongs, while women's wear combined Japanese cuts with Slavic embroidery. He pillaged national costumes - ao-dais from Vietnam, for example - and re-interpreted them.

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Reflecting on his career, Kenzo says: "I never thought I'd be able to work in Paris fashion. I arrived at almost the same time as Miyake Issey, a great friend. And as Japanese, we couldn't imagine we could achieve something like this. In the 1960s it was restricted and not many foreigners worked here. Now it has changed for the good, not only for the Japanese, but all nationalities." Modest to a fault, Kenzo never anticipated the praise prompted by news of his retirement. Miyake describes his friend as a charming and self-effacing man. "His amazing personality comes through in all his clothes. His fashion makes everyone happy." That exuberant spirit has been a feature of all his collections from the first show. Karl Lagerfeld called that debut spectacular "a not-to-be missed event."

Born in 1939, Kenzo was raised in his family's teahouse in Himeji, Hyogo. After graduating from the prestigious Bunka Gakuen fashion school in Tokyo, he dreamed of going to France. And when his home in Tokyo was to be razed to make way for a new Olympic stadium, the compensation helped pay for a ticket to Marseilles.

He arrived in Paris in January 1965. "In the beginning it was very hard," recalls Kenzo. "It was cold, I didn't know anybody, I didn't speak French. Money was very tight so I was not happy." But after two or three months, he wanted to stay. During that time he listened, watched and gradually learned. He never stopped sketching and later sought the opinion of Louis Feraud, one of the leading couturiers of the day. Feraud sent him to Elle magazine, which commissioned a capsule collection for mail order. He eventually managed to save enough for the little Paris boutique he called Jungle Jap.

Kenzo has fond memories of spending his nights painting the walls of his store in the style of the artist Douanier Rousseau's "tropical forests" while maintaining a design job by day. The exuberant interior set the tone for his debut collection. Kenzo manipulated color in ways never seen before. He imagined luminous blends, created unexpected combinations and clashing patterns of plaids, paisley and florals. "He is the magician of color," exclaimed Claude Brouet, then fashion director of Elle, who promptly put him on the magazine's cover.

"Kenzo was the first designer to have mixed different cultures. He challenged the rules of Western and conventional, bourgeois codes of fashion by freeing the lines, shapes and colors and bringing modernity and freshness to fashion," says Gilles Rosier, a colleague.

But Kenzo is 60 and feels he has achieved all he can in fashion. He wants time to himself because "so many of my friends have died before they could enjoy life." Since 1993, his business has been part of the luxury-goods empire, LVMH, and the designer has now passed responsibility for his label to Rosier (women's wear) and Roy Kejberg (men's wear). Retirement, however, doesn't mean the end of creative expression, Kenzo says. Last year he created the costumes and make-up for an opera at the Paris Bastille and there may be more work to come. But first he's taking some time off. "I will be travelling around Asia for a while. I always fly back to Japan three to four times every year to refuel." The regimen worked: There are few in the business who have not been affected by Kenzo's joie de vivre. "He is the first designer from Japan to have touched and moved the fashion world," says designer Yamamoto Yohji. Kenzo will be remembered.

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