Closeup/Fashion

All the rage in Paris

If you have to ask who he is, you can’t afford him

Marci McDonald August 8 1977
Closeup/Fashion

All the rage in Paris

If you have to ask who he is, you can’t afford him

Marci McDonald August 8 1977

All the rage in Paris

Closeup/Fashion

If you have to ask who he is, you can’t afford him

Marci McDonald

In the hallowed concrete hallways of Paris’ Palais des Congrès where Kenzo Takada was scheduled to show his fall-winter ready-to-wear collection, panic was accumulating like stormclouds. “No more seats,” bleated the frantic-eyed door guard, tottering on a tabletop which had been pushed into service as a battlement against the thousand corneas staring up at him in horror and stunned incomprehension. No more seats. The cry ricocheted down the neon corridors and rippled through the sea of brandished invitations, gathering momentum and fury. No more seats! It was impossible, it was unthinkable, it was—well, 500 of the world’s most fashionable women who in Other less semantically perilous times might have been referred to as perfect ladies reacted in the only way that seemed to sum up just what they felt it was: they erupted into a howling, rampaging mob.

Imperturbably coiffed matrons suddenly aimed exquisite uppercuts at shoulderblades blocking their progress, delicate white elbows swathed in silk took to stabbing ribcages right and left with all the politesse of seasoned linebackers. As the guard vainly puffed on his police whistle.

frizzed-up freaks in khaki harem pants and gold lamé cowboy boots wrestled their way past Vogue editors and impeccably mixand-matched New York buyers.

Pushing, shoving, kicking, clawing, they surged forward in one great tidal wave of tangled flesh and shattered chic, haunch pitted against superbly clad haunch, thigh locked against immaculately conditioned thigh, tearing seams and tousling hairdos, knocking spectacles askew and sending notebooks flying, hurtling over the barricades, feet first, false eyelashes first, whatever could get there first, finally spilling over into the aisles of the grand salon itself, dazed smiles of triumph starting to take shape among the smeared lip gloss.

“Whew!” breathed a New York fashion writer, hastily recreating herself out of the ruins. “This always happens at the Kenzo show.”

In fact, not always. Some years it has been worse. Once 5,000 people tried to storm 3,000 seats under a Porte Maillot pavilion, creating a mob scene something

akin to the Cairo food riots. In the six years since he first burst onto the French fashion scene, Kenzo’s twice-yearly tours de force with inspiration and scissors have become the consistent scene-stealers of that weeklong, trend-setting circus that is better known as Paris’ semiannual prêt-à-porter salon.

With a high-wire walker’s surest instincts, he has pulled off an improbable balancing act between utter zaniness and sheer contemporary pragmatism, producing some of the most farfetched and liberating looks of the century. With all the canniness of a crystal-ball gazer, he has launched almost every major fashion trend of the decade, from the layered look to the Romanian gypsy revival, from the pup tent dress to the draw-string pantaloon—in the process not only setting the silhouette of the Seventies, but recutting the entire fabric of fashion itself. The kimono cut, the quilted Chinese cooliejacket, the king-size skirt and the cotton sling mini-purse— what shop windows and shop girls sport as today’s clothing clichés, he was pulling out of his sleeve at least two years ago, making him perhaps the most copied designer of this generation.

In the past 10 years only one other designer has had his influence—Yves Saint Laurent, who calls him “the most original creator in fashion, after me, of course.” But Saint Laurent was heir to another, older tradition—at 21, on Christian Dior’s death, the dauphin suddenly named to inherit the king of the haute couturiers’ throne. Kenzo somersaulted into the spotlight six years ago out of a dingy backstreet boutique with $200 worth of mismatched bargain-basement cotton and an irrepressible flair for the outrageous— as shocked as anybody else to find himself suddenly hailed in the same breath with Saint Laurent.

But Saint Laurent was French, of course. In an era when France was threatening to lose its grip on the world’s closets and clothes racks for the first time in a century, Kenzo cavorted into centre ring and saved the national show—a Japanese of all things, but a Japanese with a showman’s unerring instincts for the irreverent who promptly sent even himself up and christened his $20-million ready-to-wear empire Jungle Jap.

The press embraced him as a style-setting genius and contemporary fellow designers such as Karl Lagerfield of Chloe termed him a technical wizard whose penchant for the absurd masked a brilliant mastery of fabric, color and cut. But just as the paeans of praise were threatening to get too sober, Kenzo hired a circus tent for

his next show as a subtle reminder of just what he thought it was all about. To shock. To amuse. Those were his bywords.

When the international fashion press was raving over the revival of the classics, he threw them the oversized look, better known as Le Big and Le Droop. Then, just when they were getting used to that one, he turned around last year and brought back the miniskirt. Who would have thought it? After all the years and sneers, the miniskirt! “Sheer madness,” tsk-tsked three quarters of his colleagues—and within three months even the haughtiest of Paris’ haute couturier houses from Chanel to Pierre Cardin were showing hiked-up hemlines.

How, as the houselights dimmed over the Palais des Congrès, thousands of eyes were riveted on the palm-fringed runway, awaiting Kenzo’s latest hat trick.

The curtains parted and out pranced a model who gave the distinct impression she had just strayed from playing dress-up in Idi Amin’s winter woollies. To a vibrating disco-rock beat, she gyrated down the ramp, or at least one had the notion she gyrated, considering that she had all the curves of an enormous fuzzy Christmas tree ball. Yards of turquoise knit ballooned out from her neck and shoulders only to be caught up again in a thigh-high hobble. Her legs protruded in matching turquoise tights, knees exposed like some daft heron, and on her flowing blond mane

she sported a dustman’s peaked leather cap. She romped and mugged as she swung past the staccato applause of the cameras, but they barely had her into focus before the next one tumbled out and the next, each swaddled in more extravagantly voluminous minis, billowing cowl-necked woollen bags with dumpling-shaped shawl-collared short coats beyond the wildest imaginings of shapelessness.

Then, just as the audience looked as if they might catch on, out rolled a whole rollicking parade of variations—nubbly pink mohair bundles all blown up as if by cosmic bicycle pumps, then hobbled above the knee cap; striped woolly tea cosies hobbled below; mad plaid taffeta balls puffed out to ankle length.

Short, long—that clearly wasn’t Kenzo’s message this time. What he had to say now was about the shape of things. And the shape he had just pronounced as the commandment of the coming season was— why, it was bizarre, it was brazen, it was totally absurd. And he called it The Balloon!

Just in case anyone missed the point, as the final mannequin sailed out in a white taffeta bridal version that bore a striking resemblance to Viennese window curtains, the stage exploded in a show of confetti and kindergarten bright balloons. The crowd went wild. Suddenly two models reached behind the drapes and dragged out the hand behind it all, a slim wisp of a Japanese in a plaid shirt and jeans, all grin

and glasses, who looked somehow too small, too shy to have orchestrated this flamboyant brouhaha which the next morning’s papers would laud as the “Triumph of Kenzo.” They hoisted him up onto their shoulders, and, as the punk glitter set rushed the stage exchanging insults and swigs from champagne bottles, his grin spread wider and wider until there was almost no face left. But Kenzo was already thinking. How could he top himself?

Paris was having a brief fling with a heat wave and down on the main floor of the Jungle Jap boutique on Place des Victoires, Bianca Jagger was arming herself with a mini muu-muu. But upstairs in his airy fourth-floor atelier, the master himself was huddled over his drawing table behind a gigantic gum tree looking as if he anticipated snow flurries.

Over a red T-shirt, he sported a burgundy striped shirt which was topped by another green wool shirt which in turn was topped by a burgundy sweater, all under a green scarf and oversize brown corduroy Kenzo suit. But it was also a storm warning. Whenever Kenzo dressed up to do battle with the common cold virus, it was a sure sign that he was having trouble with his Muse.

“It’s hard to compete against oneself,” he admitted in his feathery, accented French. “The ideas don’t always come. I worry. I have fears about going dry.” He pointed to his elaborately swaddled neck. “Sometimes I even get sick.”

Fabric samples were heaped here and there in rainbow arrangements, experimental pattern pieces cut from his sketches stretched over tabletops and onto the floor, huge Chinese kites hung from windows, bunches of dried weeds cascaded from the walls. On the other, tonier side of town, Yves Saint Laurent presided over the hushed elegance of a gilt and burgundy brocade-draped salon, but despite the fact that he was the owner of these four floors and 2,500 square yards of some of Paris’s priciest real estate, Kenzo continued to refuse an office, preferring to plop down here each day under the branches of his potted jungle, content amid the communal mayhem and what appeared to be a small army of blue-jeaned Japanese.

In fact, only six of his 40-member staff are fellow countrymen who have been with him almost from the beginning—virtually the only reminder of the land where he was born 37 years ago. His parents ran a tiny traditional hotel in the city of Himeji, outside Osaka, but ever since he could first draw Kenzo had designs on becoming a couturier, inspired by an older sister who begged sketches from him for a sewing course. His family, however, had other ideas. But during the first year of university when his father died, he decided to drop out and strike out for Tokyo to enroll in Japan’s most prestigious design school, grad-

uating first in his pattern-making class. Later, turning out drawings for Tokyo newspapers, he fantasized about still farther fields. “It was my dream to go to Paris,” he said. “In Japan, everybody loves Paris. Paris means fashion.”

As it turns out, he wasn’t the only one of that opinion. For in the 12 years since his arrival, the City of Light has been virtually overtaken by an invasion from the Land of the Rising Sun. Japanese signs sprout in shop windows like lotus blossoms, Japanese restaurants have sprung up overnight like mushrooms. Twenty percent of all Paris’ haute couture now sells to the styleobsessed Japanese market. But the brisk clip of commerce has not been all one way.

Since Kenzo’s astonishing conquest of the fashion citadel, a half-dozen other Japanese designers have followed suit, names like Issey Miyake, Suzuya, Kansai Yamamoto and Yuki Tori becoming household words among the French fashion press. Last January, Japanese readyto-wear empress Hanae Mori, who already boasted a $75-million international boutique business, went one step further and became the first to penetrate the rarefied climes of haute couture. Still, if Kenzo is part of a larger Japanese phenomenon in Paris, he remains both its brightest star and pioneer. In fact, when he finally made the leap in 1965, it was at first only for a brief vacation. Three months later when his money had run out, he already knew

that he couldn’t go back home again.

That was the year London went on to steal the style thunder when Jean Shrimpton strolled out onto a race course with a thigh-high skirt that blossomed into the mini—the year that Saint Laurent descended from the lofty heights of his Right Bank couture salon and opened his first Rive Gauche boutique for the Left Bank hoi polloi.

If the glories of haute couture were beginning to fade in 1965, Kenzo for one didn’t notice. His first stop in Paris was at the Chanel and Pierre Cardin showings, which plunged him into abject depression. “It was so elegant, so beautiful,” he remembered. “I thought, ‘I could never do that.’ ”

Still, he signed up for French lessons, sold some designs to Elle magazine and landed a stylist’s job at a major textile house. In his off-hours, he hung out with the other hip young unknowns who were to become his fellow stars of the ready-towear industry, Karl Lagerfield, Tan Guidicelli and Sonia Rykiel. When an ancient crone from the Paris flea market offered Kenzo a hole-in-the-wall shop for his own in 1970, he didn’t hesitate.

With $200 in savings and six friends, he bought up the zaniest bolts of fabric from a Montmartre discount house, stitched floral prints, plaids and checks together in fey pastiches, stuck on outlandish sprigs of tulle and banana-split shoes, and threw a

party. When he had no money left to decorate, he painted surrealistic tropicana all over the walls and called it a jungle—inspiring both his shop name and two law suits by indignant fellow Japanese. When he couldn’t afford the usual hollowcheeked runway mannequins, a friend whose wife was a striking black photographer’s model recruited a motley crew of fellow refugees from the other side of the lens, one of them so motley that she showed up covered with acne—which prompted them to paint all her pimples green.

As they came out frugging and mugging to the rock beat blasting on the house stereo and fortified by liquid bravado, the fashion press went into shock—and utter ecstasy. Just as fashion was becoming an indulgent irrelevance ignored by the woman on the street, he sent up all the old rules and rituals and turned anti-fashion into a style of its own. And by the time the next morning’s papers hit the street, Kenzo had been proclaimed the new fashion prophet.

But here was a messiah who barely uttered a syllable and received in blue jeans, who shrugged off his overnight success with shy embarrassment and shrank from the slightest suggestion that his designs might sweep the globe.

“It’s not possible to dress the world,” he said. “Or at least, it’s not natural. If I saw all the women dressed in Jungle Jap, I’d

think it was weird. It’s not my dream at all.” His only law was that there were no laws. “Now each woman makes her own fashion. We only propose one style.”

Certainly, fashion has never been the same since. Now, the semi-annual readyto-wear spectaculars set the styles that will sweep the streets next season, while haute couture retreats to ever more obsolescent altitudes turning out $10,000 fantasies for 3,000 of the world’s rich and famous who are themselves becoming an increasingly endangered species.

In the sprawling storm centre which is the hub of the Jungle Jap corporate empire, and not incidentally the office of Kenzo’s business manager and partner, Gilles Raysse, a statue of Chairman Mao looms over the desk, paying homage to the coming revolution. But these days the Chairman has been knee-deep in the encroaching claptrap of capitalism, swamped by computer printouts of booming sale orders and elaborate cash-flow charts. Jungle Jap has burgeoned into a full-fledged multinational monster, with more than 100 manufacturing licenses around the world and outlets everywhere from Paris’ Au Printemps department store giant to Eaton’s, from Tokyo to New York’s trendy Bloomingdale’s.

While Saint Laurent is owned by the cosmetic conglomerate of Lanvin-Charles of the Ritz and the House of Dior merely one of textile magnate Marcel Boussac’s properties, Jungle Jap. which was briefly financed by jet-set Saudi Arabian wheelerdealer Adnan Kashoggi on whom Harold Robbins modeled The Pirate, has since been bought back by Kenzo, Raysse and two assistants.

Where once only the freaked-out advance fringe dared to venture out in Kenzo’s vestments, now Catherine Deneuve, Olympia de Rothschild and Prin-

cess Caroline of Monaco boast of being among his faithful. Where once a St. Tropez mob was so aghast at the ugliness in his shop windows that they stood outside shaking their fists and screaming threats of violence, this spring the Kenzo look was exalted to the level of art by a museum.

But success brings ironic wrinkles. Today the king of fashion heresy finds himself in the curious—and perilous—position of suddenly becoming the new fashion establishment.

It is a shaky tightrope to walk the uneasy territory between being a bohemian and having $10,000 a month in spending money, the most delicate balance of all to pull off between staying in touch with tomorrow’s lunatic-fringe leadership and staying on top of the mass market. While Hubert de Givenchy reclines in his personal chateau and Yves Saint Laurent in his partner’s Rolls-Royce, Kenzo tools around in an orange Volkswagen convertible collecting parking tickets and has only recently moved from a spartan hotel room to a peaceful but unpretentious bachelor’s two-storey apartment on the Left Bank, filled with plants, pillows, a few sticks of bamboo and souvenir sea shells.

He still clings stubbornly to his old St. Germain lifestyle, avoiding invitations from the Beautiful People in favor of indulging his passions for travel and the roulette wheel at Deauville. In trying to guard against turning into one of the very creatures he once derided, he has refused to build a perfume empire—a colossal selfperpetuating ready-to-wear machine turning out everything from sheets to sunglasses under his signature.

Once Kenzo was delighted to be widely

copied, despite the fact that it didn’t increase his sales figures, but now the sincerest form of flattery has begun to extract its toll. “I was the first to do the kimono but now Issey Miyake’s doing it and they call it his look,” he worries. “I did the big skirt, but now Saint Laurent does it and they call it his skirt. That makes me mad. Now I don’t know what my look is anymore.”

binding himself caught up in the very vicious cycle he once mocked, he escapes after each collection to the sun and sea, sometimes carting back ideas in his baggage. After an African vacation, his models shuffled out to the beat of tom-toms and a year of the African influence. Hawaii brought on this summer’s mini muu-muus and one year an enforced afternoon’s stopover in Hong Kong on his way home to Japan exposed him to a Chinese schoolbook—and inspired his tunic rage. The Balloon, he now admits, was born out of sheer contrariety. When everybody else was following his lead with voluminous skirts and tent dresses, “T wanted to do the opposite,” he says, Kenzo has, in fact, always wanted to do the opposite. “I try to shock,” he says. “It’s good. It’s necessary. If not, you bore.”

As if mindful of that, when a reporter walked into Gilles Raysse’s office recently asking for facts and statistics, Gilles Raysse didn’t want to talk about statistics. He wanted to talk about his life mining gold in Africa and sailing boats with David Rockefeller, and when the reporter still inquired about sales figures, he suddenly said, “You know, by the way, that Kenzo didn’t come to Prance to become rich and famous. He came looking for freedom, because, as you know, Kenzo likes boys and at that time in Japan it was unheard of. I mean, there’s nothing shocking about that—you’d have to be half-blind and dumb not to know that most of the designers in this business are gay.” When the reporter said magazines never printed that sort of thing because they feared law suits, Raysse jumped up jubilant.

“Well, we don’t care whether you print it or not,” he exulted. “At Jungle Jap we don’t care what anybody says about us.”

If, as some wag had it, we are what we eat, we are even more certainly what we wear, and it may not be entirely coincidental that the designer of this decade has been Kenzo. Epochs from now, some clever crew of archaeologists and anthropologists poking around in the ruins, may find the clues to our age in some tattered corduroy pup-tent dress or woolly Balloon, and formulate whole theories about a society where the centre was no longer holding from a fashion coming apart at the seams. In an age where we reel in chaos and a lack of connections, it may not be at all insignificant that we look to the king of chaos to lead us in style. But while that happens, Kenzo is left struggling with his own conundrums and the irony inherent in a fashion anarchist who must constantly compete with his own genius or lose his kingdom.^