“Cotton poet” latest victim of COVID-19:

Obituary, Takada Kenzo

Tets Kimura, Flinders University [About | Email]

Volume 21, Issue 1 (Discussion Paper 2 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 14 April 2021.

Abstract

This obituary reviews the life and career of Takada Kenzo, an innovator and icon in the Japanese fashion industry, who passed away from COVID-19 on 4 October 2020.

Keywords: Takada Kenzo, fashion, haute couture, COVID-19.

The latest victim of COVID-19, announced on 4 October 2020, was Takada Kenzo, 81, the founder of Kenzo, a pioneer of luxury ready-to-wear clothes. In the era when women still wore elegant and tight Haute Couture dresses, Kenzo stood among innovative French designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Sonia Rykiel, who produced loose pret-a-porter for independent women that caught metro trains on their own.

Born in 1939 in Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture, where his family ran a machiai tea house called Naniwaro near the Himeji Castle, the kimono and its accessories were within reach of Kenzo’s early life, even though sartorial Westernisation accelerated in post-WWII Japan. He was also influenced by his older sisters, who were regular readers of fashion magazines, eager to learn the latest trends. His career as a fashion designer started when he left Kobe City University of Foreign Studies and entered Bunka Fashion College (where my late great-aunt, Nakazawa Ryoko, 1930-2017, taught textile for 25 years), when the college removed the female only policy. Studying together with Koshino Junko, Matsuda Mitsuhiro (of Nicole), Kaneko Isao (of Pink House), and Kitahara Meiko (of Mine May), Kenzo won the 1960 Soen Award, regarded as a promising young designer.

After working for a year for the apparel company Mikura in Tokyo’s Akihabara district and four years for Sanai in Ginza, Kenzo took a cargo boat to Paris via Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The various places and cultures he observed on this trip contributed to his later inspiration as a fashion designer. In April 1970, he opened his first boutique store, “Jungle Jap” in Paris, and not realising that the name was sensitive, he renamed the brand as Kenzo. His designs made the front cover of the magazine ELLE, followed by various newspapers. He said “Thanks journalists for making me survive the first 10 years [of Paris]. Nowadays, unless you join a large corporation with a huge advertising budget, you cannot be noticed by the media. I sympathise with young designers.”[1] He was aware that he had lived in the good old days. In his view, the fashion industry became more systematised and market-oriented since the end of the 1980s, and the fashion cycle became faster. Kenzo said “I don’t understand what is the point of the new styles that come and go one after another.”[2] In 1993, his brand was sold to LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, but Kenzo still designed until 1999 when he could no longer keep up with the large company’s management structures. Staying away from the commercial world, he then designed the Japanese Olympic uniforms for the 2004 Athens games.

By breaking common practices, his designs were seen as highly original. He not only presented new impressions, such as large straight cuts, multiple layers, primary colours, and combinations of floral patterns and stripes, he also innovatively used cotton for autumn and winter clothes, traditionally a summer material. In Japan, he is labelled as the “cotton poet.”[3]

Koshino Junko, through Japan’s national newspaper Asahi Shimbun, said that “I am shocked by this sudden news. Kenzo was a beloved international icon. But for me, he was my best friend ‘Kenchan’, whom I shared so many memories with since we were students.”[4] All the major Japanese media outlets reported Kenzo’s tragic death as soon as it was announced in Paris, where he was hospitalised in early September due to COVID-19.

Kenzo received a number of national awards from France and Japan; Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1984), Japan’s Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon (1999), and Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur (2016).

Notes


[1] Takahashi, Makiko. 2009. Fashion Designer, Takada Kenzo, Tsuioku no Fukei, Ginza Miyukidori, Asahi Shimbun, 19 September, accessed 6 October 2020, https://www.asahi.com/fashion/topics/TKY200909190177.html.

[2] Takahashi, Makiko. 2009. Fashion Designer, Takada Kenzo, Tsuioku no Fukei, Ginza Miyukidori, Asahi Shimbun, 19 September, accessed 6 October 2020, https://www.asahi.com/fashion/topics/TKY200909190177.html.

[3] Takahashi, Makiko. 2020. Prêt-à-porter no Shinjidai wo kizuku, Shinnen Tsuranuita Takada Kenzo san, Asahi Shimbun, 5 October, accessed 6 October 2020, https://www.asahi.com/articles/ASNB50DFRNB4UCLV00D.html?iref=comtop_ThemeRightS_02.

[4] Takahashi, Makiko. 2020. Prêt-à-porter no Shinjidai wo kizuku, Shinnen Tsuranuita Takada Kenzo san, Asahi Shimbun, 5 October, accessed 6 October 2020, https://www.asahi.com/articles/ASNB53473NB4UCVL011.html?iref=comtop_ThemeRightS_03.

About the Author

Tets Kimura is Research Associate in Creative Arts at Flinders University, South Australia. He holds a PhD in International Relations. His latest publications include Exporting Japanese Aesthetics: Evolution from Tradition to Cool Japan (2020, Sussex Academic Press), an edited collection that brings together historical and contemporary case studies addressing the evolution of international impacts of Japanese culture. His current research activities focus on Japanese history in Australia, and Asian fashion and art in modern and contemporary history that (re)map and (re)construct Asian identities. He has received an Asia Study Grant (2021) from the National Library of Australia.

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