Photography by Christophe Boisvieux via Getty

Catch­ing up with Ken­zo Taka­da, the fash­ion survivor

George Wayne meets the 80-year-old to chat through his histrionic contributions to fashion and how he first came to Paris by boat from Japan.

It’s 10:05am and Ken­zo Taka­da is as buoy­ant as ever. I’ve been grant­ed this spe­cial audi­ence with fash­ion roy­al­ty on a sun-splashed Man­hat­tan morn­ing in the ante­room of his exec­u­tive suite of the Four Sea­sons uptown. Per­fect­ly lit and per­fect radi­ance – not that Ken­zo needs it. He’s the most incred­i­ble 80-year-old-who-looks-like-a-40-year-old that I have ever met. 

When the next astute fash­ion bessie decides to write some fash­ion-bible-ency­clo­pe­dia and they get to the Chap­ter K, it will have to be all about Ken­zo Taka­da. Ken­zo is core to the parthenon of mod­ern fash­ion his­to­ry: a leg­end and a vision­ary, a fash­ion force majeure. 

Kenzo’s influ­ence and his inso­lent mix of mad­cap print and colour and tex­ture was pio­neer­ing. Before there was Yohji, before there was Issey, before there was Rei – there was Ken­zo. He was the first – the king of the loose lay­ers and wrap­ping and all that East Asian aes­thet­ic, which still res­onates today. And so we sat to speak, though I will have to say that his grasp of the Eng­lish lan­guage is sur­pris­ing­ly worse than Gior­gio Armani.

Click the ques­tions to reveal the answers…

I trav­el to New York fre­quent­ly for work, so I like to have a place that I feel com­fort­able and relaxed in. And I espe­cial­ly like the loca­tion here for the con­ve­nience and to con­duct meetings.

I took a six weeks long cruise in 1964 from Japan, which passed through Hong Kong and Saigon and Sin­ga­pore and Sri Lan­ka and Bom­bay and Egypt before I end­ed up in Paris. It took six weeks and it was great for me because it was the first time I had ever left Japan and with every port of call I dis­cov­ered some­thing new.

I try to eat healthy. I stopped smok­ing 25 years ago and I don’t drink.

I don’t know if I am allowed to tell you what that is.

After about five months of liv­ing in Paris I start­ed sketch­ing and first sold a few to a friend of Brigitte Bar­dot who then took my sketch­es to Elle mag­a­zine and a few oth­er mag­a­zines.. And so I would sketch and sell the sketch­es. And then I found this lit­tle store front and opened a lit­tle shop which I called the Jun­gle Jap” and start­ed mak­ing clothes to sell in the shop.

I am always try­ing to keep busy. Apart from this new book I have been con­cen­trat­ing on design­ing prod­ucts for the home… the home space. And I am also work­ing on cos­tumes for the Japan­ese opera and a pro­duc­tion of Madame But­ter­fly which will debut at the Tokyo Nikikai [Opera The­atre] and then the pro­duc­tion will move on to Ger­many lat­er in the year.

I think my Autumn/​Winter show from 1971 was the break­through. Because in 1970 when I first opened my lit­tle shop this was the first time I showed a col­lec­tion that April in 1971 and it real­ly brought some­thing new to the mar­ket that was nev­er seen before. I remem­ber two months after the show Diana Vree­land vis­it­ing my lit­tle atelier/​shop and just lov­ing every­thing. She came alone and I remem­ber her being so chic and very qui­et and she didn’t real­ly speak that much. But that was the moment when my design career took a very impor­tant step.

Yes, there was a rival­ry between them. In the begin­ning they were very good friends, but I think that Yves tried to steal Jacques de Basch­er [the then-boyfriend of Karl Lager­feld] from Karl. And then there was a big fight between Karl and Pierre Bergé at Club Sept and that was the end of their friendship.

I was in Mex­i­co City and all these phone calls sud­den­ly kept com­ing ask­ing me to com­ment. Jour­nal­ists were call­ing me and want­i­ng my com­ment and all that.

It was one of the par­ties when Stu­dio 54 first opened. I always remem­ber my very close friend Grace Jones singing. This was just about the start of her career. Andy Warhol and Palo­ma Picas­so were there and Grace sang I Need A Man and that’s the only song she need­ed to sing! [laughs] Pat Cleve­land and Jer­ry Hall were in the show. I love Grace I have not seen her in two years.

They are young and fresh and, yes, it’s now more streetwear but I like their energy.

I broke the rules of fash­ion. When I start­ed there was no such thing as the pret-a-porter… the ready to wear. No one took the ready-to-wear seri­ous­ly. There were no fash­ion shows for ready-to-wear back then. In fact the begin­ning of the ready-to-wear began with a show I did at the Orsay. There were so many peo­ple! And it was after that moment when the idea of launch­ing the pret-a-porter shows in Paris actu­al­ly took shape. Not many peo­ple know that. This was in August, 1972. That was the begin­ning. Dorothee Bis and Chan­tal Thomass and me all did a show and that set the motion in place. After that they decid­ed to stage shows at the Palais des Congres.

00:00 / 00:00