Kenzo Takada, who retired from fashion more than 20 years ago, is now channelling his creative juices into styling homes and interior design. Despite the change, the 80-year-old innovator, who remains rooted in his design philosophy, discusses his legacy and the recurring Japanese influences on his bodies of work.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Kenzo Takada, who retired from fashion more than 20 years ago, is now channelling his creative juices into styling homes and interior design. Despite the change, the 80-year-old innovator, who remains rooted in his design philosophy, discusses his legacy and the recurring Japanese influences on his bodies of work.

To say that Kenzo Takada is one of the most influential Japanese – nay, global – fashion designers of the 20th century would not be an overstatement. A flag-bearer for “stopping at nothing to achieve your dreams”, Kenzo was the first male student to attend Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion College. A few years later, upon the urging of his teacher, he took a boat (he could not afford a plane ticket) to Paris, stopping by India and Africa on his way there, and finding inspiration in their rich fabrics and vibrant colours. Once in Paris, he would slowly start to make waves with his distinctive aesthetic that was miles apart from the prim and proper looks espoused by couturiers of that time such as Dior and Chanel.

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Kenzo with Andy Warhol.

His loud prints and bold colours were at odds with the prevailing aesthetic of that period, but editors and customers lapped them up. In 1970, he would open his first boutique called Jungle Jap, where he fused Japanese elements, exotic flavours, tribal prints, unusual silhouettes and vibrant colours to create oftentimes outre collections. 

While Kenzo is often uttered in the same breath as other pioneering Japanese designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons, the truth is that he conquered the Parisian market a good decade before them, and paved the way for his contemporaries. 

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(Left) Kenzo’s hand-drawn sketches; (Right) His studio is filled with bright colours and natural light.

He sold the business to LVMH in 1993 and retired from the limelight in 1999. Today, the Kenzo brand is still alive and doing exceedingly well under its current designers, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, who often invite the eponymous founder of the maison to attend their shows and visit the workshops. 

Kenzo himself turned 80 in February and continues designing. This time, he’s expanded his creative universe to the home interiors space and has collaborated with Roche Bobois. He’d previously partnered cosmetics brand Avon on a fragrance, and eyewear company Masunaga on the award-winning Campanule K18 frames.

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(Top) Kenzo at the launch of the Jungle Jap collection; (Bottom) With his grandmother.

His aesthetic is still defined by his Japanese heritage and his love for colour and prints. On continuing to work at this age, he explains, “I have to continue working. Otherwise, I would get really bored, I need this stimulation in my life. I love taking on challenges, it keeps my mind running. I’m a curious person, I love trying new ventures, exploring new limits. In order to maintain my general creativity, I try to continuously listen to friends, collaborate with my young team, travel, visit museums, and always maintain a certain interest in different things. Working is something that keeps me up-to-date and energised.”

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Shiro Hanawa occasional tables by Kenzo.

While he remains passionate about fashion, he enjoys the languid pace of creating and collaborating with a home interior brand. He says, “Designing for fashion is extremely challenging, and requires you to blend all kinds of skills together, especially nowadays. It’s definitely my passion, and being able to create in general is an important driver for me. However, given my age, I now prefer to work in a more long-term environment. Home decoration is a passion that came later in life. Collaborating with different companies around the world is so interesting. You get to meet new passionate people and talents, and always learn about new creative areas.

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With Yves Saint Laurent.

“I have always loved interiors. It is something that started to interest me at a later stage in my life, so it was a natural progression for me. It is definitely a less fast-paced environment than the fashion world, which suits me better now. I have more time to work on the design process, and the time frame for creation lasts several years and not just a season.” 

That said, Kenzo’s fashion background still continues to strongly influence his creations. “My designs are always colourful and graphic. I like them this way. I want them to be full of joy, so it is important for me to transmit as much positive energy as possible through my designs.” 

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A version of the Mah Jong sofa Kenzo designed for Roche Bobois.

Hence, his collaboration with Italian powerhouse Roche Bobois is an effervescent ode to Japanese culture, a recurring theme in Kenzo’s works. He reinterpreted the signature Roche Bobois Mah Jong sofa designed in 1971 by painter, designer and sculptor Hans Hopfer. The modular creation inspires unbridled creativity and has been interpreted by the likes of Missoni and Jean-Paul Gaultier in the past. Under Kenzo’s direction, the Mah Jong incorporates bold graphics and vibrant colours influenced by Japanese culture. “The first collection was influenced by the traditional kimonos of the Noh Theatre and all the graphics you could find on these kimonos, which were full of patterns, and made of jacquard, which I love,” he explains.

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Kenzo seated on his design for Roche Bobois.

I have always loved InterIors. It Is somethIng that started to Interest me at a later stage In my lIfe, so It was a natural progressIon for me.

Kenzo’s collaboration with Roche Bobois started some three years ago, when he met its creative director Nicolas Roche and the team through some common friends. “We quickly agreed to work together on this great project. Our teams got along very well, and the process took some time but was a real pleasure to work on, as they made everything possible. Roche Bobois is a very well-known brand and I’ve owned some of its pieces in the past.”

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Aka Hanawa vases, Gara Juutan rug and Aka Muji tableware.

On the creative process, he explains, “Right after the first few meetings, we decided to work on several concepts inspired by Japanese crafts. The creative process was long, and we reworked the different graphics, textiles, colours several times and later added more elements to the collection. Roche Bobois really allowed me to express myself freely, and didn’t obstruct any part of the creative process, but actually allowed me to go beyond my expectations thanks to their excellent savoir faire and manufacturing capacities. 

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Series from the Salone des Beaux Arts exhibition.

Even if certain technical aspects were sometimes very challenging, the brand’s knowledge was a fabulous asset to myself and my team. In the end, it really came naturally. I always loved and enjoyed working around the home environment.” 

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Another version of the Mah Jong sofa.

Kenzo is not slowing down either. In February, he hosted a big bash for his 80th birthday at Pavillon Ledoyen, Alleno Paris. “The theme rotated around the colour gold, which represents 80 years old in Japan’.”

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The book cover of his biography.

Of life in his 80s, he says, “We have several projects coming up in Japan, Europe. Testing myself on different projects is a great challenge. The art world fascinates me, I have a lot of respect for artists who bring new ideas and new thoughts.”