Kenzo Takada Dies at 81 of COVID-19-Related Complications

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PARIS — The fashion world remembered Kenzo Takada as a fashion innovator who brought a gust of color, energy and freshness to the Paris fashion scene since the Seventies — and who also made an indelible mark on the fragrance world.

Takada died Sunday in a Paris hospital at age 81 due to complications related to COVID-19. His passing was revealed by K3, the luxury homeware and lifestyle brand he introduced last January, almost 50 years after founding fashion brand Jungle Jap, which later became known as Kenzo.

Takada’s death added a somber note to Paris Fashion Week, and also brought the coronavirus pandemic further into sharp relief as U.S. President Trump’s infection dominated world headlines over the weekend and as France grapples with a spike in cases and mulls further restrictions to stem the spread of the disease.

The designer left his namesake fashion brand in 1999 after it was acquired by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, but he continued to support the brand under several creative configurations, and remained a popular and bubbly figure on the Paris fashion and social scene.

“From the Seventies, Kenzo Takada brought to fashion a light, poetic touch and a free spirit that has inspired many designers in his wake,” said Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH. “In the same fresh and spontaneous spirit, he also made a lasting impact on the world of fragrance. The maison he founded, Kenzo, remains faithful to this vision. I am profoundly saddened by his passing. I express my sincerest sympathy to his family and friends.”

The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode noted that Takada presented his first collection in 1970 and was one of the founding members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, du Prêt-à-porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, created in 1973 — one of the three pillars of what today constitutes French fashion’s governing body.

“With its inventive cuts, multicultural inspirations and exotic prints, Kenzo has undeniably contributed to write a new page in fashion, at the confluence of the East and the West,” Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, said in a statement.

Jean Paul Gaultier paid tribute to the designer for pioneering a new approach to fashion with his exuberant catwalk shows.

“Kenzo was the first major Japanese designer to settle in France in the late Sixties and to bring a breath of fresh air to fashion: a mix of cultures between East and West, with a free, joyful and positive spirit that was in tune with his era,” he said.

“His innovative fashion shows were like parties. With him, magazine cover girls replaced couture models on the runway. I deeply respect him,” Gaultier added.

“I was a fan of the brand in the Seventies when he started. I think he was a great designer,” said Sidney Toledano, chairman and ceo of LVMH Fashion Group, of which Kenzo is part. “I’m very sad. He was a great guy.”

Toledano noted that Takada “supported the previous team” and he came to the first show of Kenzo’s new creative director Felipe Oliveira Baptista in March, though he was too ill to attend last week’s runway outing for spring 2021.

Baptista, who took over as creative director of Kenzo last year, paid tribute to the label’s founder.

“His amazing energy, kindness and talent were contagious. His kindred spirit will live forever. Rest in peace, master,” he said in a statement.

Sylvie Colin, ceo of the house, shared in his sadness.

“For half a century, Mr. Takada has been an emblematic personality in the fashion industry — always infusing creativity and color into the world. Today, his optimism, zest for life and generosity continue to be pillars of our maison. He will be greatly missed and always remembered,” she said.

François-Henri Pinault, chairman and ceo of Kering, lauded Takada as “one of the creative spirits who contributed to making Paris the capital of fashion.”

“His fashion resembled him: at the crossroads of cultures, creative, joyful and generous,” Pinault added.

“He was the first to do many things, a great designer and a great human being,” reminisced Inès de la Fressange. “It’s really sad, the fashion world is in mourning.”

Takada was the first to put her on the runway, she said.

“I was horribly shy, and people found me strange,” she said. “He was very shy, too, a bit like Saint Laurent, and he took me on straight away for my very first fashion show.” Just last year, de la Fressange worked with Takada again on a show for Japanese television.

“We’ve forgotten today that haute couture labels, with the exception of Yves Saint Laurent, didn’t interest anyone at the end of the Seventies,” she said. “People would fight to get into a Kenzo show. It was the most glamorous show you could do at the time, because not only was he the first to show with lots of models, he was the first to put celebrities on the runway.”

Chantal Thomass knew Kenzo since the early Seventies, when she staged a joint show with him and Dorothée Bis that marked a break with the era of solemn haute couture shows.

“We had never done a show of that kind before. There were tons of models and it was a big venue, and he showed up like a professional with his dressers, models and racks of clothes all perfectly organized, whereas we were still putting things together overnight,” she recalled.

“His shows were truly extraordinary,” Thomass added. “I think he was the first to really put on these spectacular displays. The girls would dance, there were tons of models, and I think he even put animals on stage.”

Takada also loved nightlife, and never missed a soirée at Le Sept or, later, the legendary Le Palace.

“He really knew how to have fun. I remember we used to go to the Idea Como trade show on the shores of Lake Como. There was a nightclub and we would be dancing until 4 a.m., and the next morning at 9 a.m., we would be checking out fabric swatches,” Thomass said.

French photographer Jean-Luce Huré was selecting photos of Takada for a book he is compiling on the Seventies when he learned of his passing.

“For more than 25 years I kept taking photographs of him and his collections. It was pure joy. Kenzo was joy himself and he made it real in his collections. He had a great sense of color,” he said.

Huré recalled that Kenzo set up a circular catwalk like a boxing ring in the Bourse de Commerce in Paris.

“Girls and boys were having fun, feeling free to kiss each other while running around the ring. There was Jerry Hall, Toukie Smith, Katoucha Niane, Grace Jones, among many others. It was very romantic and young,” Huré said.

Giambattista Valli said Takada became one of his first friends when he arrived in Paris about 20 years ago, and they often traveled together to places like Phuket, Thailand, and Tangier, Morocco. With his joie de vivre, ebullient personality and generous spirit, Takada personified his fashions, he said. “He was the king of positivity.”

Valli also marveled at Takada’s eclectic interests and curiosity.

“He was always meditating, or painting, or taking belly-dancing classes or Japanese cooking lessons,” he recalled. “He was the youngest soul I’ve ever met.”

Kenzo staged his very first fashion show in April 1970 at his boutique in the Galerie Vivienne in Paris.

“Not since the days when Gerard Pipart was starting in rtw have I seen a single designer influence fashion to this extent,” said Madd Boutique’s Roger Leon, talking about Takada, in a WWD article dated April 3, 1972. “Everything you see on the street this spring and half of what you see in the boutiques is Jap-inspired. Without Kenzo, there would have been no fashion this year.”

Takada was born on Feb. 27, 1939, to innkeepers in Himeji, Japan.

“It was a very dark era,” he once said, recalling what life was like in Japan in the years after World War II. “There was really nothing. The only kind of happiness that I could grab was through magazines and TV. That really drove me to be very interested in fashion. I was very attracted to either moving to Paris or New York. I wanted to go.”

He attended Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion College as one of its first male students.

Takada started painting interiors of houses on the side. A few years later, when the Olympic Committee offered to pay him to leave his home in advance of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, he did so. With that payout and the money he squirreled away as a painter, Takada set off for Paris, following a teacher’s advice to go by ship, traveling past China, India and Africa in the process.

For a first-time traveler, that voyage left him with a lasting multicultural view of the world and of fashion.

“I was not hippie or haute couture; it was something very different. It was also the start of ready-to-wear because I didn’t understand why there wasn’t any. The syndicate of the haute couture didn’t recognize this, so I started to organize shows with Chantal Thomass and my friends for ready-to-wear,” he said. Takada’s first job in France was in a style bureau, where he sometimes designed up to 20 collections a year.

He started his own boutique not much bigger than a freight elevator. And from that tiny beginning grew the Jap phenomenon.

Takada said he felt he could last as a fashion influence for another five years. “By that, I mean that’s how long I think I can stick it out. Then I’d like to take two years off to paint,” he said in a WWD article in 1972. “I just want to be free. So far, I don’t have a lot of complexes and I want it to stay that way.”

But Takada kept to fashion design for more than two decades longer.

After signing an agreement with the Japanese-American community in 1972, Takada discontinued using the labels bearing the name Jap or J.A.P on his merchandise and switched to the Kenzo label.

Takada was in the big leagues in the Seventies. In April 1974, WWD wrote: “You have to have a lot of talent to outdo your copiers, and in a season where everyone is doing Kenzo, Kenzo did just that. He started Big Skirts and the loose, big, droopy look, and now the Big Droop has taken over Paris….He makes it work. He makes it young. He makes it move.”

The likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Sonia Rykiel, Issey Miyake and Pierre Bergé attended his show.

Takada was the only France-based designer whom almost all of the other French designers openly admired. Yves Saint Laurent called him “a great talent” more than once in print.

“It sounds like fashion hyperbole, but Kenzo Takada is a bit of a deity in Paris,” WWD wrote in 1977. “His reputation was made long before he moved his company from the Rue Saint-Anne to bigger, posher headquarters at the Place des Victoires last year. From his first collection in 1970, Kenzo’s fame has rested on young designs for young women. And more importantly, for breaking all the classic rules with a sure style, for his adventurous taste and for a spirited unorthodox sense of color and print. Today, young French girls collect Kenzo clothes the way older women once collected Balenciaga.”

Kenzo staged a show in New York’s Studio 54 in 1977.

In 1986, Worms et Cie, a French investment firm, raised its stake in Kenzo Jungle Jap from 20 percent to 25 percent, with Takada and his friends owning the balance. Financière Truffaut, a subsidiary of Worms, took the additional 5 percent stake in Kenzo for $1.5 million. Pechelbronn, another Worms subsidiary, had earlier purchased 20 percent of Kenzo.

Takada launched a men’s line in 1983, which became Kenzo Homme in 1987. The more casual sportswear lines Kenzo Jeans and Kenzo Jungle were launched in 1986.

In 1993, Arnault acquired Kenzo in two steps. Then Louis Vuitton, a subsidiary of LVMH, bought Kenzo from the family-owned holding company of Arnault. LVMH at the time said it paid 482 million French francs, or $81.7 million at the-then exchange rate, for the fashion house.

Takada’s commercial accomplishments and success in maintaining control over his collections and licenses made Kenzo a model for many young designers in Paris.

Upon his exit from the business, LVMH initially had Gilles Rosier and Roy Krejberg designing the women’s and men’s lines, respectively, until 2003. Italian designer Antonio Marras ultimately succeeded Rosier in 2004 and continued until 2011, when LVMH repositioned the brand in the-then burgeoning contemporary zone and conscripted Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, the duo behind American specialty store Opening Ceremony. At the time, it was understood that Kenzo’s business had ebbed in its traditional markets, and needed a boost of product and retail innovation. At the time the total value of Kenzo-branded products, including perfumes, was believed to be close to $1 billion if expressed at retail value. Leon and Lim departed in 2019, clearing the way for Baptista’s arrival from Lacoste.

The Kenzo fragrance business was operated separately from the fashion company and is now owned by LVMH.

Takada launched the King Kong fragrance in 1978. It came in a classic bottle with a whimsical box colored in red and blue on the outside and hot pink on the inside.

In June 1986, one month to the day after Pierre Broc became founding president of the Kenzo Parfums business, he took Takada to visit bottle designer Serge Mansau.

Takada immediately grabbed a large, smooth rock from his desk. “I like pebbles,” Takada recounted in a WWD interview in 1999. Mansau agreed, and the two sat down and began sketching pebbles as Broc hovered nervously.

“I also like flowers,” Takada added idly, about an hour later. Mansau picked up a plastic flower, snapped off the blossom and stuck it on the rock with a piece of chewing gum. That became the bottle for Kenzo Par Kenzo.

The Kenzo fragrance portfolio blossomed from there, including the launch of Kenzo Pour Homme, which made a splash after its launch in 1991, Parfum d’Éte in 1992 and the blockbuster Kenzo Flower, which was introduced in 2000.

In 2002, Takada ditched his retirement plans. He set out to launch a lifestyle brand called Yumé (Dream, in Japanese), comprising interior design and architecture, among other elements. LVMH was a minority shareholder in the firm.

Two years later, Takada introduced the Gokan Kobo brand, a range of home accessories, ranging from cutlery and china to linens and chairs. He said he approached the collection with an eye of a fashion designer, looking for harmony in color while creating alluring forms.

Around the same time, he launched a line of swimsuits and scarves licensed to Italy’s Ratti.

Gokan Kobo was renamed Takada by Kenzo and in December 2007 it was revealed that it would close. At the time, Takada was going to pursue personal projects, such as a collaboration with Baccarat and customized carpet maker Tai Ping. He was also tapped for a project with a major hotel chain.

His projects were plentiful until the end. He collaborated with Roche Bobois on furniture and Avon on fragrances, for instance.

Takada was never one to detail his achievements, never mind boast about them, but when asked by WWD about what he was most proud, he said it was the fact his name has survived “across so many years, which is quite rare. What I am most proud of is I opened the roads for much younger people from around the world, who probably think they can be a hit in fashion in Paris or London. They can come and try to do that.”

Removed from the grueling pace of fashion, Takada dedicated his mornings to yoga, sports or massage. Afternoons were spent concentrating on art and working with younger talents of his team.

A big birthday bash was held in Paris when he turned 80 last year. Many of his oldest acquaintances turned out, including Anna Cleveland, Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Thomass.

Most recently, he released an art book “Kenzo Takada.”

Takada’s joie de vivre came through in his fashion design. He always believed in living in the present. In a WWD article in January 1974, he said: “Every age and time has its problems. I escape a little bit from the tensions of today because I can’t read French so I never read newspapers. I think what is important is to be happy in yourself. If you are not happy you can’t create. I think everyone should try to be calm. Not to be aggressive with the people around you. That’s the biggest contribution each individual can make to peace.

“As for clothes,” said Takada, “they are a language. A way of speaking. People will always be interested in dressing up.”

Launch Gallery: Obituary: Kenzo Takada

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