It’s been just over 50 years since the Japanese designer Kenzo Takada, one of the first men allowed into one of Tokyo’s top fashion schools, boarded a boat and started a months-long journey to Paris. When he arrived there in 1965, it was still the era of Chanel and Dior, with traditional couture dominating the fashion scene. It took just five years for Takada to change all that: After opening his first boutique, Jungle Jap, in 1970, he quickly revolutionized the city, replacing its dreary traditionalism with Tokyo-friendly splashy prints and flowing silhouettes that had Grace Jones and Jerry Hall clamoring to be his muses. Takada continued his bold work even after LVMH bought the house in 1993, all the way up until he left it to Antonio Marras and retired in early 2000.
In recent years, though, you may have noticed Takada has resurfaced. He’s been popping up more and more in the front row at Kenzo shows, thanks to a friendship with Carol Lim and Humberto Leon. And, in his home atelier in Paris, he’s also been designing again. This month saw the release of the Kenzo Takada Collection, a collaboration with the Parisian design house Roche Bobois, which has worked with designers like Christian Lacroix, Sonia Rykiel, and Jean Paul Gaultier. Like many designers-turned-interior decorators, home has a special meaning for Takada. He recalled there was no time—or money—to spare as he was getting ready to launch his original namesake label—for too long, all there was in his apartment was a Norwegian sofa, which still took him a decade to buy.
Takada is 78 now, but looks spry. Outfitted in skinny jeans and leather sneakers, and cozied up on one of his new, kimono-inspired creations at the Roche Bobois store in midtown Manhattan, Takada took the time this week to talk the cushions, ceramics, and the legendary mah jong sofas that make up his new collection, with the help of a French translator. Plus, of course, his thoughts on Lim and Leon’s recent all-Asian Kenzo show.
What's it like having designs out there under your own name that are actually by you again?
At first, in 2000, when I stopped working with Kenzo, it was a bit awkward to see my name everywhere. But now, I feel really comfortable working for myself and on different collaborations.
How did this collaboration come to be?
Roche Bobois approached me about two and a half years ago, and for about two, three months I was hesitating on how to do a project with them. Then, once I agreed, we eventually arrived on something based on the Japanese kimono and Noh theater, which traditionally in Japan is acted with men and samurai wearing masks and kimonos. I wanted it to be masculine, but also have some pop and lighter colors, we decided to divide it up into times of day—morning, midday, and dawn—and work with the mah jong sofa, which has been around pretty much since the same time I started in the '70s. I’m very picky when it comes to what I want with coloring, but I really like working with houses that have a strong know-how and that are able to process my ideas. Roche found a solution even at the latest stage, three or four months before, when I wanted to redo some of the prototypes because the colors didn’t exactly match my vision. I just wanted to make sure it was comfortable, but also keep that element of fantasy.
You’ve been working with kimono fabrics since the beginning of your career, when you used scraps to put together some of your first collections in Paris. What’s it like to revisit them in this context?
I’ve always taken pleasure in working with different materials—finding them and figuring out new ways to work with them, to mix textures. It’s something I used to really work with in the fashion industry, and something I was glad to find I could do again in home design products, too.
When you went to study fashion in the ‘50s in Tokyo, your school was originally only for women. Did you ever think about doing interior design instead, when you were almost forbidden from studying fashion?
No. [Laughs.] It was fashion or painting. And I do still paint from time to time.
Do you still keep up with fashion?
A little. I sometimes go to runway shows. I actually went to see Kenzo‘s spring 2018 show on Sunday.
What did you think about Carol Lim and Humberto Leon casting only Asian models?
Well, they were paying tribute to one of my muses, Sayuko [Yamaguchi], who was a very big Kenzo model. I didn’t know it was going to happen, but I was very happy to see they were paying tribute to Sayuko, because I worked with her a lot.
The first time you met them was actually when W got you together for a story in 2015. Do you still keep in touch?
Oh yes, I see them more often. I saw them three days ago, and before that, at their show in March when they did another collection based on my sketches for Memento [Kenzo’s Fall 2017 collection dedicated to the house’s archives]. So I see them quite often because they pay a lot of tributes to me; they try to bring me to the shows as much as possible to ask my view on things. But when I went to Memento, I had no idea what would happen, either. I saw my designs coming out again on the catwalk and was like, "My god." But they refreshed them, because they’re not scared—just like I wasn’t.
Who are your favorite fashion designers working today?
There are many, many young designers now, so it’s hard—it changes so quick! But Pierpaolo [Picciolo] and Maria Grazia [Chiuri] really revived Valentino, before Maria Grazia left. I also really like Carol and Humberto because what they do is so young and fresh; they managed to change the identity of Kenzo to bring it to a younger crowd. But it’s difficult because everything changes so rapidly now. I just saw the men’s collections, which had a really fancy season. It’s sometimes difficult for me [to keep up].
Yes, of course. This is a direction when you work in fashion, because you work with different styles and textiles. It automatically becomes very appealing. To work on furniture itself and furniture structure, though, is a different kind of job.
How does the process of designing interiors compare to fashion?
With fashion, you concentrate much more on a specific season or period—finding your theme, and being able to bring it out through silhouettes, textures, colors, and everything. The process has some similarities to home design, but with home, you have to look more at the harmony between elements and the longer term, as you won’t buy a sofa every season for your home. So you make it contemporary, but also respect the past. But obviously for me, with both, you have to bring some kind of a dream or something that really is appealing.
Have you ever owned a mah jong sofa?
No. [Laughs.] But I’ve known about them for a while; I’ve always seen them and was interested. But when I moved to Paris in 1965, I had nothing. The first sofa I bought for myself was in 1975. It was Norwegian. I remember I had a small party in my apartment and I had nothing, only one sofa. [Laughs.] But after I moved, I slowly, slowly, began to buy more pieces and decorate more—more and more and more.
Right, I can’t imagine you brought along much on the boat from Japan to Europe. Has Japanese design always been so central to your aesthetic, or did that influence come out more when you moved?
Before 1970, when I was sketching, I was mostly following trends, looking at couture fashion shows, doing it the very classical European way. It was only in 1970, when I started my brand and I had to really find an identity and make something new that I realized I had to go back to my roots. So I started mixing Japanese influences with European culture, bringing Japanese materials and cuts to European fashion. And then I quickly got influenced by other cultures and mixed in elements from around the world. That was very fresh to the market at the time—it was a whole new way of doing things. But from the beginning, I really wanted to do something different than everyone else. And I wasn’t too scared, so I just did it. And it did work in the end.
Is design still a part of your life these days, apart from this collaboration?
Of course. But the morning is now when I just take care of myself and I don’t work. I do yoga. And in the afternoon, I work. I want to work, but I have to take care of myself as well. And do I go back home to Japan more often.
It’s difficult to tell, but I’m always working. Not so much, but I do never stop.
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