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Japanese Fashion Designer Kenzo Takada Dies At 81

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were life changing for Kenzo Takada. Not as an athlete - he just happened to live where the government was building its facilities. So they paid him to move out. Takada used that money to take a short trip, ending up in Paris. And he stayed there for the rest of his life, becoming one of the first Asian designers in the high fashion scene. Takada died October 4 from COVID-19 complications. He was 81. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: You can find video of Kenzo Takada's 1977 show in New York online caught by filmographer Anton Perich. It's at the legendary Studio 54. Models are on stage dancing in these oversized outfits, some in drapey dresses with bold stripes going across, others in bright skirts and matching cloche hats. Then the stage clears and...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ladies and gentlemen, Grace Jones.

LIMBONG: ...Grace Jones comes on stage to perform "I Need A Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

GRACE JONES: (Singing) I need a man.

LIMBONG: Balloons drop and all the models come back and start skipping and goofing off with each other. At the time, Takada's reputation in the U.S. was complicated. His brand was originally called Jungle Jap, unaware of the baggage the term had in the U.S. His previous show was faced with protests from Japanese American groups. But on this night, the brand was just called Kenzo. And there's a real loose energy to the whole affair.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

KENZO TAKADA: Fantastic - everything is fantastic.

LIMBONG: After the show, he gives an interview, and not speaking English, he gives one-word answers to most of the questions until the interviewer asks, how expensive are your clothes?

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

TAKADA: No expensive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Not expensive?

LIMBONG: He says his clothes are for young people, and so they pay attention to their prices.

DANA THOMAS: And that was the beauty of his clothes is that, you know, even at 18 and 19, we could afford it.

LIMBONG: That's Dana Thomas, longtime style writer and author of the book "Fashionopolis: The Price Of Fast Fashion And The Future Of Clothes."

THOMAS: It wasn't fast fashion prices, which are, you know, artificially deflated, but they were reasonably priced clothes for good fashion. And when you wore it, you always got compliments.

LIMBONG: Kenzo Takada was born in 1939 in Himeji, Japan. Against his parents' wishes, he studied fashion and started designing for a department store. And when that offer from the government came up to give up his apartment for some money, he didn't go straight to Paris. Instead, he traveled the world by boat, visiting Hong Kong, Egypt, Djibouti and more before ending up in Europe. There, he established his brand in Paris' high fashion scene, a world that was exclusively white.

HUMBERTO LEON: To be out as an Asian gay man designing in Paris, I think there's a lot of monumental steps that he had to take in order to establish the brand in that way.

LIMBONG: Humberto Leon is a designer. He and Carol Lim are co-founders of the fashion company Opening Ceremony. They shared a love of Kenzo's floral and animal prints and Asian sensibilities. Takada retired from his brand in 1999, and in 2011, Leon and Lim started an eight-year run as co-creative directors of Kenzo, a big deal for a couple of designers who looked to Takada as their Ralph Lauren or Karl Lagerfeld. After their first show, Takada sent them a note. Here's Carol Lim.

CAROL LIM: And he wrote, I can see that you have brought and you have embraced the DNA of the brand that I started, which, you know, is a huge - I don't think you can get paid a higher compliment from someone who could see that we were trying to do something in the spirit of what he had created but in a modern way.

LIMBONG: And that spirit, says Leon, was joy. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEED A MAN")

JONES: (Singing) I need a man. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.