Kenzo: star of the east

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For 40 years, Kenzo has embodied freedom and creativity. Harriet Walker on the clothes, the man and the brand

"It pleases me when people say I have influence," said the designer Kenzo Takada in 1978. "But I am influenced by the world that says I influence it. The world I live in is my influence." It was a disarmingly modest utterance from the designer whose very presence in Paris had all but revolutionised the historic centre of the fashion world with his exuberance, eclecticism and idiosyncratic take on modern dressing. But Kenzo – the label and the man – has always existed along a more humble branch of fashion, informed by a youthful and joyous enthusiasm for the colours and cultures of its surroundings. With inspiration coming from seemingly antithetical sources, made up in garish and deliberately clashing prints and shades, Takada's clothes have always very boldly led the way for fashionable innovation.

This year sees the 40th birthday of the Japanese label, among a rash of other anniversaries and retrospectives. The flamboyant Roberto Cavalli is also celebrating 40 years, Dolce & Gabbana have blown out 25 candles this year, Kenzo's compatriot designers Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons are currently being celebrated in an exhibition devoted to Japanese fashion at the Barbican in London, and Yohji Yamamoto receives his own retrospective at the V&A early next year. Fashion is preoccupied not only with its own sense of history, but also with the importance of the Japanese influence during the late 20th century. And Kenzo's sense of heritage and multiculturalism is integral to its position as one of the most influential labels of the latter-day fashion landscape.

"Kenzo was the first real outsider," says Antonio Marras, the creative director at the label since 2003 (Takada retired in 1999). "He broke into the fashion world and made it change, preparing the future for others."

Born in 1939, Kenzo Takada was one of the first male students admitted to Tokyo's Bunka College of Fashion in 1958. After graduating, he worked first for a department store in the city and then for a magazine, before moving to Paris in 1965 and setting himself up as a freelance designer. He knew no one, spoke limited French and was essentially penniless.

Parisian fashion at the time was dominated by revered couture houses, such as Dior and Chanel. Even one Yves Saint Laurent was seen as an irreverent upstart. Designs were prim, ladylike and aimed squarely at the "bon chic, bon genre" demographic, shown to exclusive audiences in small salon presentations. "All very institutional and stuffy," adds Marras. "Kenzo shows ... opened the way for other, more creative forms of fashion."

Known for their signature blend of ethnicity and exoticism, Takada's designs incorporated bright and breezy floral and tribal prints with experiments on volume and tailoring, mixing swatches of garish remaindered fabrics with grey flannel trousers and white cotton shirts, in an aesthetic that owes as much to haphazard layering as it does to the couture tradition. Collections have taken in everything from American pop culture and traditionally wrapped Chinese workwear to East Asian batik, Japanese weaving and European peasants' smocks.

"Kenzo substantiated his look very early on," says Iain R Webb, professor of fashion at Central Saint Martins. "His collections were all about fun, colour and drama, made out of remnants, from old finds. His eclecticism was very much in keeping with the ethnic style of the times and, for that reason, he was very popular among young people. French Elle embraced him very early on and that [magazine] really summed him up – he was youthful and joyous."

Alongside fellow Japanese designers Kansai Yamamoto and Hanae Mori, Kenzo infiltrated the Parisian fashion hierarchy steadily during the Seventies, beginning at the bottom of the food chain with a small independent boutique that he named Jungle Jap, in an ironic nod to his status as the proverbial étranger and to the overseas influences in most of his pieces. It opened in 1970, the year he set up his mainline "Kenzo", and offered the inexpensive new look that the youth of the city were so desperate for, unimpressed and uninspired by the more bourgeois offerings of the established couturiers.

"I have really fond memories of Kenzo," says Lucinda Chambers, fashion director at British Vogue. "It was the first designer label I spent money on. I remember saving all my Saturday job money, and will never forget a beautiful full, gathered flower print dress that I found in the £5 box in the sale. I was so thrilled that I saved up for the huge flower print gathered T-shirt too."

The "otherness", both of the designer and the clothes he was creating, was heightened by the sense that they were also entirely different from the shift dresses and tailored suiting on offer at Dior and Chanel; Kenzo's bright and colourful knitwear and dominant use of vibrant, Eastern colours with feminine Western print made for a sort of sartorial internationalism – one which became all the more relevant as Parisian fashion circles widened and admitted more and more new designers.

"I love the idea that Kenzo first introduced that fashion could be fun," continues Marras, "that fashion is creativity and not a status symbol; that fashion is freedom. It was a bold message about creativity and energy, global fashion and universal culture."

To date, Kenzo collections have mixed Scandinavian knits with Mexican rebozos and Romanian peasant skirts; they have blended Oriental sartorialism with Portuguese purses and Riviera-awning stripes (1975); Native American stylings with beads, feathers and ziggurats, found a bourgeois expression in 1976, while in 1984, North African culture met Indian Nehru suits. In 1988, Takada dedicated his mainline collection to Al Capone; more recently, for spring/summer 2006, tiered maxidresses were covered with the doodlings of primary school children. The label is nothing if not diverse.

By the time Yamamoto and Kawakubo began showing in Paris at the beginning of the Eighties, Kenzo was an established label. "What the Japanese designers shared," says Webb, "was the dichotomy of old and new. There's no denying the shared heritage they have all drawn on, and it's the fact that Japan as a culture is based both totally in the past and in the future, in tradition and progress."

"Kenzo stands for freedom," says Marras. "No limits in inspiration, all influences from every part of the world are welcome. No limits in shapes and volumes. That means freedom of movement thanks to no-couture patterns and kimono shapes. No limits in the vision; no dream is too far away, too crazy or visionary."

These days, the exuberance of the Kenzo catwalk can seem commonplace – his influence on young designers today is undeniable, as they turn to colour and frou-frou in the wake of a minimalist revival that seemed to designate them flippant and ill-suited to the Zeitgeist. But current collections from Meadham Kirchoff, Louise Gray and Michael van der Ham show more than a little of the gung-ho attitude that made Takada's collections so recognisable and so important during the Seventies and Eighties. "Even Mrs Prada's banana prints for spring/summer are imbued with that same humour," adds Webb.

Kenzo's wit was something that made the theatrical aspects of his catwalk shows infamous within the industry – every season was a spectacle, from the 1979 show in a circus tent, which ended with women in transparent outfits riding horses and Takada himself atop an elephant, to his final collection in 1999 which featured a giant retrospective with some of the biggest models in the business. The spring/summer 2011 collection, shown in Paris in October, featured a lively selection of past designs to celebrate the anniversary, while last month, the V&A dedicated one of their Fashion in Motion series to the label, showing a host of archive looks.

And 40 years on, Antonio Marras continues the work of the label's founder, with airy collections that combine his own concept of European sleekness with the label's traditional whimsy. "The Kenzo collections are a meeting point where opposite elements melt together to create something unexpected and beautiful," explains Marras. "I'm writing the new pages of Kenzo, and I'd love this anniversary to mark a new phase towards modernity. My vision is deeply linked to my being Italian, a love for beautiful fabrics and timeless elegance. But this is not opposite to the Kenzo spirit – it is just another element to melt into its very rich history."

The book 'Kenzo' is out now (Rizzoli, £48)

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