Kenzo Takada: Man with a vision

Even at 79, Kenzo Takada is unstoppable. His décor line for Roche Bobois is part quirky, part sublime.

By Nidhi Raj Singh

Kenzo Takada created his eponymous brand that was essentially French with a Japanese influence, a near impossible fête to achieve. The man with an endearing smile is often spotted in the front row of Kenzo’s show applauding its young creative directors, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim. What is it about his designs that still make so much sense to the fashion world and in general that he has never practically hung his boots even after handing over the reins of Kenzo, the eponymous brand he founded in 1970, getting into exciting collaborations? We try to find out in an exclusive interview with the man himself.     

What keeps you busy these days?
I work and find some excitement with the projects on hand. I start my day with a workout and some yoga to stay healthy. In the afternoon, I join my team to check on aspects that require my attention. I also travel back and forth between France and Japan, a few times a year. I love visiting my native country. 

Were you always inclined towards fashion and design?
I knew at a very young age that I wanted to create. It could have been anything. It was during my teens that I realised that I wanted to be in fashion, since my primary influencers were films and magazines from Europe and the US.

Were you influenced by anyone’s sense of style while growing up?
Not particularly. But, when I flipped through my sister’s fashion magazines, there certainly was an impact. Japan was going through a very sobre period following the World War II, and it was a treat to see the joy of colours in magazines and films. Another influence was probably observing my mother’s kimono wearing process, with its many colours and graphics. The process of putting on a traditional kimono is long and not easy. In fact, it is very ceremonial. 

Your designs have a beautiful balance between Japanese and French sensibilities. How do you achieve that?
French design is, of course, more Western, influenced by its imperial and architectural origins. It can be art deco, with a certain sophistication, which is always eye-catching. In Japan, design is a lot more minimalistic, with a lesser presence of surrounding environments. When I started my brand in the early ’70s, I had to look for an identity, and I quickly realised that I had to go back to my roots. So, I decided to mix Japanese and occidental influences in my designs. Later on, I began mixing various cultures from around the world. For example, Mah Jong from the home decor collection that I designed for Roche Bobois, has a multicultural aspect to its design. It could easily belong to many different cultures. With its textiles based on No Theatre, we were able to reproduce elements from various cultures resulting in a single collection.

It is mostly unusual to see a designer retire from the brand he has built, and hand it over to someone else. How difficult was it for you to make that decision? 
Well, it obviously something that can be questioned, and at the time, I had my reasons. There were several factors that pushed me to do it. It wasn’t a financial one, mostly personal. However,whatever is done is now in the past. I like to look forward.

Did you always have a back-up plan for yourself?
Not really. I had to do what I do for many reasons. I did not plan anything. Even when I left LVMH, towards the end 1999 and early 2000, I thought I could retire, travel the world and do nothing. But, several months later, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to work again. It gives me a purpose, and I love to have things to do. I guess, I cannot live without work. But, I now rely a lot more on my team.

How do you feel when you see a Kenzo show now from the front seat? Do you miss 
the backstage? 

I think Carol and Humberto are doing a great job of rejuvenating the brand. It is not an easy task, and they managed to do it well. It is not exactly the same identity that I was working on, but they did a good job of revamping it. Their last memento collection inspired by Henri Rousseau is a great example of modernising a brand through creativity.

How has the world of interiors fascinated you after having a successful career in fashion?
Maybe as I grew older, it came naturally. I started to take more interest in the field of interior decoration. I have always loved working around the home environment. I mean, you can do so many things and there is also a wide set of skills you can apply. It has a different pace in comparison to fashion, which suits me better now. Considering my age, I really enjoy it! 

What is your personal taste when it comes to interiors, something that we can see in your home or studio?
My home is very Parisian or Haussmanian, if you prefer. But, there always will be a touch of the Japanese influence.

What inspires you to design? Do you still use a pencil to sketch?
Yes! I still work the old fashion way, but my assistants make magic with computers. I prefer hand sketched graphics or design because you can create more depth. This is something I am teaching them every day, as computer graphics tend to be plain, a little soulless I would say. It is important to have some skills by hand before applying a graphic or a particular design to a computer. 

What has been your favourite destination in terms of design? Do you collect artefacts on 
your travels?

Recently, I have enjoyed in sourcing ideas from Japanese culture. I have been traveling to Japan a lot more to rediscover its culture. I always find new influences there. Japan’s history is so rich, and I love to incorporate old Japanese crafts into my work today. I love bringing home artefacts, from pottery to old relics. With the Mah Jong collection for example, there is a multicultural aspect to its design, as it could come from many different cultures. With its textile based on the No Theatre, we were able to reproduce all these elements from various cultures to make one single collection.

Tell us about your collaboration with Roche Bobois. When did the discussion begin? 
I met Nicolas Roche, creative director of Roche Bobois and his team through mutual friends over two years ago and quickly agreed that we should work together. We needed to decide on a theme, keeping in mind the project, and how it has to have its own identity. We always needed to keep our minds focused on the end result. It began with us choosing three different topics each of which were based on Japanese cultural influences, a constant source of inspiration for me.

What was the inspiration behind this collection? How did you pick this colour palette?
I wanted to bring a certain Japanese touch to the graphics in the collection. I admire the No theatre and was inspired by their Kimonos usually made of jacquard, silk, and cotton, among other textiles. The graphics are very peculiar, not like other classic kimonos, since it is a play acted by men, which in the old days was done by Samurai warriors in masks. Once we narrowed down and selected the right graphics, we decided to choose different times of the day to reflect the colour themes. For example, crisp pastels for mornings, bright colours for midday, and cool hues for the night. I thought it would bring a certain romance to the collection while weaving a story.

How much time did it take for the design to take its final shape?
It took us long. We had to rework it several times. We also reviewed the prototypes on my pieces of occasional furniture until we found the right colour balance and graphic placing. We decided to concentrate on the Mah Jong first and then later add more elements to the collection.

How much of your personal design sensibility can be seen this collection? How did you balance it with Roche Bobois’ brand DNA?
Roche Bobois gave me a lot of freedom, even though sometimes it was very challenging to understand certain technical aspects. They gave me full freedom to work on my ideas and their skilled team complimented my team beautifully. We got along really well and that allowed us to be very productive. Together, we managed to create this beautiful collection. 

What have you taken away from this collaboration?
We had a fantastic chemistry, a lot of fun working together. I am proud of what we have achieved. I am not used to working in the home décor aspect of things, and yet it was something I really enjoyed, and am curious to discover more of now, as I go along. 

Will we see more such collaborations? 
Yes, probably. Since I love setting out on new adventures and working with companies that are experts in their field.

What does 2018 have in store for you?
Only time will tell!

BY Nidhi
Managing Editor

Nidhi Raj Singh is the Managing Editor of L'Officiel India. You can find her hidden behind a book when she is not writing or taking photos.