Kenzo Takada 1939 – 2020

Kenzo Takada

Kenzo Takada was born in Himeji, Japan, on Feb. 27, 1939.  After leaving university where he was studying literature he enrolled at the Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. 

In 1960, Kenzo won a prize from Soen magazine and began his fashion career designing girl’s clothing for the Sanai department store. In 1964 he received ten months of rent in compensation for being evicted from his apartment block which was to be torn down for the Tokyo Olympics. With that money he travelled to Paris where he restarted his fashion career freelancing – selling sketches to designers.

In 1970 he opened a boutique called Jungle Jap (he wanted to overshadow the pejorative meaning with a positive spin). The walls of his boutique were painted in wild floral patterns and his first collection used kimono fabrics and folk wear influences from around the world in an East meets West aesthetic. In 1976 he renamed his business Kenzo. In 1977 Jerry Hall and Grace Jones were among the models who appeared in a fashion show of his clothes at Studio 54 in New York.

A men’s wear line was introduced in 1983, a jeans line followed in 1986 and in 1988, a perfume was created. Things were going well until 1993 when his life partner died and his business partner had a stroke. Kenzo sold his company to LVMH that year for approximately 80 million U.S. but stayed on as designer. In October 1999 he decided to step away from the fashion industry due to the frenetic pace and unrealistic demands ““Everything has changed, from the way we make clothes to the way information spreads and how many seasons there are now,” he complained to The South China Morning Post. The label is currently under the creative direction of Felipe Oliveira Baptista.

Kenzo focused on his art for the next 20 years, until January 2020 when he launched a lifestyle brand called K3. He died from complications from COVID-19 on October 4 at the age of 81. 

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Kandahar Designs

Last week we received a donation of some clothing primarily from the 1970s to the 1990s. Amongst the items was a late 1970s striped grey cotton ‘A’ line sundress with the label ‘Kandahar Designs – Boston’. A few google searches resulted in an interesting back story

In 1970 or 1971, Eli Zelkha was heading down to Florida for spring break with Archie — (his last name is never revealed), a pre-med college mate from Colgate University in upstate New York. On the trip down they talked about what they would be doing that summer. Archie had $5,000 and suggested the two go to Afghanistan to buy ‘cool stuff’ to resell. During their summer they purchased a very expensive Bengal tiger skin rug, scores of antique 19th century Afghani rifles, and 800 men’s wedding shirts from dealers in Kabul.

When their purchases arrived in the United States, the tiger skin rug was confiscated, there was no interest in the rifles from collectors, and the shirts were used, stained, and mis-sized. All they could do was try to salvage what they could from the shirts, so they dyed them to cover the stains and then consigned them through boutiques. One shop offered to share his booth at an upcoming New York sale in lieu of payment for some shirts, and the shirts were a hit. Mademoiselle magazine snapped some up for a fashion shoot, and other fashion mags and leading stores followed.

The next problem was filling orders. By 1972, Eli and Archie had moved from being importers to manufacturers when they hired tailors in Afghanistan to make the items to order. As the interest in ethnic clothing grew, especially after Yves St. Laurent’s success with ethnic-inspired collections, the two expanded the business, hiring fashion designers to remake Afghani clothes and textiles into Western styles, like sundresses.

The venture was a huge success until 1979 when the Iranian revolution lead to Russia invading Afghanistan. Even though ethnic fashions were already cooling in popularity, Eli bought out Hindu Kush, a competitor clothing business that sourced similar clothes. He then attempted to shift production to different styles of clothing, but the business failed.

There is a great article that tells the story in more detail, as well as the video below, with Eli Zelhka telling his story first hand. BTW, the owner of Hindu Kush was Tom Freston who went on to found MTV in 1981, and Eli Zelhka went on to head the team that invented Ambient Intelligence in 1998.

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Max Raab

Max Louis Raab was born in Philadelphia on June 9, 1927 to Herman and Fanny Raab, who owned a family-operated apparel company that specialized in making shirtwaists – affordable blouses worn with skirts by women of all classes for a variety of tasks and trades.

When Max returned from wartime service, he began working with his brother for the family business. Max soon realized that the postwar world was upwardly mobile and tastes and pocketbooks were allowing for a higher end product, especially for the younger teenage consumer in the growing post war suburbs. 

Max defined the new suburban preppy look by taking the tailored man’s shirt and turning it into a full-skirted shirtwaist style dress for women. Their new upscale country look was perfect for the suburbs that was neither the city nor the country, and was launched in 1958 under The Villager label. Around the same time he also launched Rooster ties, which made square ended straight grain ties in great textiles.

The Villager dresses were typically made in cotton or cotton blend fabrics, the style was the ultimate WASP dress, appropriate for the office, school, home or date night. The style was also quickly picked up by Hollywood, who used shirtwaists as go-to looks for TV moms.

Produced in men’s shirting, and then prints from companies like Liberty of London, textile artist Marielle Bancou Segal was brought in in the mid 60s to create prints in the textile studios of Kenmill, in New England. The brand was typically sold through a shop-within-a-department store locations that catered to the preppy chic customer. A younger line was created in the 60s called Lady Bug fashions that featured turtleneck sweaters, kilts, tights, slacks and simple dresses. The look grew into a collegiate look popularized by actresses like Ali McGraw, who wore Villager clothes for the filming of Love Story in 1970.

1970 was also the year, Raab recognized that fashion was heading a different direction and he sold all his companies to Jonathan Logan and turned his interest towards film production. Max returned to the fashion industry in 1974, setting up the company J.G. Hook, which specialised in women’s sportswear, often with a nautical flair. In 1989 he opened Tango, a necktie manufacturing company.  Max Raab was dubbed ‘The Dean of the Prep Look’ by Women’s Wear Daily. In 1998, Max sold off his share in the company and retired. He died in 2008. 

Kansai Yamamoto 1944 – 2020

Kansai Yamamoto with stage costume he designed for David Bowie

Born in Yokohama, Japan, Yamamoto learned civil engineering and English before self-training as a fashion designer. He debuted his work internationally in London in 1971 where young fashions were still originating. Two years later he began collaborating with David Bowie who often wore his genderless creations on stage. Yamamoto debuted in Paris in 1975 and rode the wave of Japanese design that dominated fashion until the end of the 1980s. After the early 1990s, his fashion shows became more extraordinary and his clothes less commercial. He died last week from leukemia at the age of 76.

For more about his life see Vogue and the New York Times

Cotton jersey dress by Kansai Yamamoto, late 1980s, FHM collection

Fashion Hall of Obscurity – Conover Mayer 1995-2006

Just before COVID-19 shut down the world, I was invited to guest lecture at Syracuse University for the fashion arts program. Two of the teachers in that program, Jeffrey Mayer and Todd Conover, were former design partners working under the label Conover Mayer. Their high-end women’s fashion line produced two collections per year between 1995 and 2006 that were sold through stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

I won’t repeat all the tea served in conversation, but it was fascinating to hear how the fashion industry shifted and changed during that decade. The two were already teaching fashion design at Syracuse University while they designed their collections, and continue to teach there today, but both have since moved on from designing fashion on the side. Todd Conover now designs jewellery, and Jeffrey Mayer curates fashion exhibitions.

Sergio Rossi, 1935 – 2020

Sergio Rossi was born in 1935 and apprenticed with his father to learn the art of shoemaking. He began making sandals for summer tourists in Rimini in the 1950s. By 1966 he had set up his own shop in Bologna and two years later launched his own eponymously-named brand. 

His name became synonymous with luxury Italian footwear and by the 1990s he was creating shoe collections for fashion houses including Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Azzedine Alaia. In 1999 his company was acquired by the Gucci Group, now known as Kering, before being resold to a private equity firm in 2015. 

Sergio Rossi contracted Covid-19 and died in Cesena, Italy at the age of 84.

Emanuel Ungaro 1933-2019

Emanuel Ungaro, c. 1973

Born to Italian immigrants in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, Emanuel Ungaro learned tailoring from his father before moving to Paris in 1955. Emanuel first worked for the men’s tailor Christiani before moving over to Balenciaga in 1958, and then Courreges in 1961.

In 1965 he founded his own company and concentrated on ready-to-wear rather than couture. In 1973 he launched his first menswear collection and was also one of five designers representing France at the famous Versailles fashion show that year.

In 1996 Ungaro partnered with the Ferragamo group and continued to design under his own label until he retired in 2004. The company was sold in 2005 to Asum Abdullah, and the label soon became notorious for its revolving door of creative directors that bizarrely included Lindsay Lohan.

Ungaro, fall 1966

Joseph Thimister 1962-2019

Josephus Melchior Thimister was born in Maastricht, Holland on September 16, 1962. He attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and worked as an assistant for Karl Lagerfeld and later Patou before becoming the creative director of Balenciaga in 1992. Thimister left Balenciaga in 1997 to start his own label but, despite critical success, struggled to find investors. He took a side stint as creative director of Genny but in 2004 Thimister ceased designing under his own name. Between 2005 and 2007 he worked as the artistic director of Charles Jourdan, the shoe company.

He then worked different jobs: an interior designer, consultant at Pucci, and taught at la Cambre art school in Brussels and the Institut Francais de la Mode in Paris. He returned to fashion with a comeback couture show in 2010 which lead to an opportunity to design ready-to-wear in 2011, but his work never found an audience. 

He possessed an artist’s temperament: dramatic, stubborn, sensitive, flamboyant, and moody, and eventually his depression got the best of him. Thimister commited suicide at the age of 57 on November 13.

Thimister dress, Image by Irving Penn for Vogue, April 1999

Sophia Kokosalaki 1972 – 2019

Greek born designer Sophia Kokosalaki trained at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London before launching her label at London fashion week in 1999. Known for her draping, Kokosalaki came to fame designing costumes and uniforms for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. She collaborated with Top Shop in 2001, Diesel from 2009 to 2012, and served as creative director for the relaunch of Vionnet in 2006/2007. Between 2012 and 2017 she designed a line of wedding dresses for the modern bride, and in 2015 she updated the uniforms for Aegean Airlines. She died this week at the age of 47.