Catching up with Kenzo Takada, the fashion survivor

Photography by Christophe Boisvieux via Getty

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.

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