Now under the creative direction of Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Kenzo is a brand that has always been bold and elegant.
Founded in 1970 by Japanese designer Kenzo Takada, Kenzo began life in a small Paris boutique called Jungle Jap – a name which brought its own problems to the young fashion house. Bold and colourful but always accessible Kenzo Takada’s designs soon had buyers flocking to his shows and whilst he retired in 1999 to pursue a new career in art, the Jungle Jap vibe of Takada’s original designs still underpins the Kenzo style today.
The story of Kenzo begins with a slow boat to Paris but before Kenzo took sail to the home of fashion his interest in fashion was sparked by what he saw in some of his sister’s magazines. He had been studying at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies but after being inspired by what he saw coming out of France and Italy he soon quit to enrol at Tokyo's Bunka Fashion College. Dazzling by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent his interest in Paris was further piqued by his college teacher at Bunka who had studied in Paris and in 1961 he won his first fashion design competition.
It was however in 1964 that Kenzo Takada embarked on a journey that would change his life and the world of fashion forever. His apartment had been demolished to make way for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo so with the compensation money he received, Takada bought himself a one-way boat ride to Europe. Along the way the boat stopped off at various countries including Hong Kong, Vietnam and Sri Lanka creating an unforgettable adventure for a young man who had never been outside of Japan. Looking back he said the journey inspired him to believe “the world is beautiful”.
Eventually he rocked up in France but Takada’s first impressions of Paris were not good. He thought the city looked “dismal and bleak” and the only thing about Paris he liked was the magnificent and iconic Notre Dame Cathedral.
When Kenzo Takada first arrived in Paris, he brought a new type of fashion with him. Inspired by his homeland and the sights he saw on his long journey to Paris, he created something unique. His Spring 1970 collection included kimono-inspired pieces that were unlike anything else Paris had seen. Takada rejected the space-age look of the 60s that was dominating fashion at the time. Instead, he created bold, colourful pieces that were loose-fitting and flowing.
Unsurprisingly Kenzo Takada struggled to break into the Paris fashion world but his lucky break came when he was offered some cheap space in a Paris flea market called the Galerie Vivienne, just north of the Louvre in the 2nd Arrondissement. Takada decorated his small shop in the Galerie Vivienne with a jungle-like design and named his new clothing brand ‘Jungle Jap’. With only $200 worth of fabrics, he created his first collection. When he showed this collection at his first Galerie Vivienne fashion show, he couldn’t even afford professional models. Even so, his work caught the eye of Elle magazine who featured one of Takada’s creations on its front cover in June 1970. A new star was born.
This did bring its own problems though. Takada’s decision to use the tongue-in-cheek name of Jungle Jap caused him some issues on a visit to America. The Japanese American Citizens League took the designer to court over the name. They objected to the use of the word Jap. However The State Supreme Court upheld Takada’s right to the use the word in his brand name. Even so, Takada and his team decided to rename the brand Kenzo to avoid any further controversy. Probably not a bad idea … Although Takada’s initial choice of brand name may not have been well-received his skill at creating unique fashion was captured the imagination of the press and public alike. In only a few seasons, Kenzo shows were packed out with the press, buyers, and fans.
Since Kenzo Takada retirement in 1999 Humberto Leon and Carol Lim have breathed new life into the brand, but the vibrant colours and distinctive designs still echo the designs of the brand’s founder. Whether it’s a Kenzo Tiger hoodie or t shirt, or the Kenzo blinking eye Tali handbag, Kenzo is still creating top-quality, unique fashion pieces. Kenzo Takada took a long route to Paris and brought with him some bold, new ideas. He created a brand that has made energy and colour its trademarks. Far from reinventing the wheel, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim say that Kenzo Takada is a great inspiration to them. Kenzo Takada has said that he would like to be remembered as a designer who crossed boundaries. There is little doubt that he will be and his legacy will live on in the Kenzo brand.