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. 

A Retort to the New York Times Article: The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection

When I read the September 29 New York Times article ‘The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection” by Vanessa Friedman, I felt I had to correct some of her misconceptions and generalizations about why it may seem black designers are not included in museum collections/exhibitions. Firstly, Friedman doesn’t seem to understand that, regardless of colour, fashion has always been primarily about wealth and privilege. Even when stained and frayed jeans are chic, the wealthiest among us buy designer versions for stupid amounts of money.

There are different types of museums with fashion collections, and different mandates amongst those institutions. Some collect couture and designer fashions that legitimize fashion as an art form; some have a broader spectrum and also collect everyday manufactured and brand-name clothes; some fashion collections are focussed on a specific regional history, culture, or one type of fashion or textile (shoes, hats, lace…) 

True fact – Western fashion was invented by white people. It was born from the Italian Renaissance, developed significantly under Louis XIV’s reign, and was democratized by the French and Industrial revolutions. Since 1870, fashion has come from Parisian haute couture, mass-manufactured brands, 7thavenue and other designer ready-to-wear, and independent tailors and dressmakers. There are no museums, not even those that count scores of thousands of artifacts, that have a complete representative collection of any one of these categories.

Ethnographic fashions are usually housed in different departments of museums. This is because of the curatorial expertise required to research, identify, and care for the vast amount of information needed to understand the history of dress from hundreds of global cultures. Most curators working with Western fashion probably don’t know all the meanings of the motifs that appear in Chinese embroidery, or the various dyeing techniques used by Japanese weavers, or what garments are worn by Zuni girls in the Squash blossom ceremony, or by married Dutch women in Markermeer… nor should they. Fashion is a massively huge topic and every culture has a different story.

With the exception of clothes labelled by the maker and those that came with provenances from donors, museums don’t know who made or designed most of the garments and accessories in their collection. For example, Elizabeth Keckley, who made Mary Todd Lincoln’s clothes are not labelled – it is only because of her association with the president’s wife that her story is known. Even Anne Lowe is known largely because she made Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. These two black women worked as dressmakers and had it not been for their famous clients their identities would likely be forgotten to history, along with the millions of other independent dressmakers, tailors, shoemakers, milliners etc.

The American fashion industry didn’t even promote American designers, black or white, until World War II. It was only when American fashion was cut off from Paris that fashion journalists, in search of something to write about, began reporting on domestic fashion. Most designers until then, (and many still today) worked anonymously or behind a brand name. More information is being unearthed about these previously-unknown designers and makers, but this requires a massive undertaking of research that the internet has only made possible in the last twenty years and omissions aren’t going to be corrected overnight.

Although a few black designers are well known, like the usual triad referred to by Friedman in her article (Lowe, Burrows and Kelly) there are clothes in collections likely not identified as being by black designers because the designer’s name doesn’t appear on the label, such as Anthony Mark Hankins who was J.C. Penney’s in-store brand fashion designer for years. As well, unlike an Asian name, black names don’t always trigger racial identity. Let’s face it, unless you knew otherwise, Patrick Kelly sounds like a red-haired Irishman. There are also black designers whose work is exceedingly rare to find extant examples, such as Khadejha, whose Kanga cloth minis and maxis were displayed in the windows of Gimbels department store in 1967, and Jules Parker whose feathered swimwear and metal breastplates were featured in a Jet magazine article in 1974.

Since Stephen Burrows wowed Paris alongside four other American designers at the ‘Battle of Versailles’ fashion show in 1973, black fashion designers have become more visible and numerous in the fashion industry. There are hundreds of black designers working today and their clothes will filter into museum collections in the coming years as they are offered up for donation by their current owners. Very few museums buy contemporary clothes, as limited budgets for collection purchases are saved for the rarest pieces that scarcely include anything made within the last fifty years. 

Finally, museums that have representative collections of black designers may not have those pieces on display all the time. Aside from an exhibition about black designers, is it even relevant or appropriate to tell the audience the racial background of every designer? What about their gender identity, sexual orientation, political activity or religious affiliation? Sometimes a fashion exhibition is just about clothing – its construction, ornamentation, inspiration, and beauty, not who made it. As well, Most museum exhibitions are developed with the idea that they will attract a large audience. This is why Dior has been the topic of so many exhibitions in museums around the world over the past few years. A museum about ships may have many stories, but the Titanic will always bring in the biggest crowd.

In short, museums collect primarily what they are offered and most collections simply don’t have a lot to pull from when it comes to fashions by black designers for a variety of reasons – even the Met’s Andrew Bolton combed eBay and Etsy for a particular Stephen Burrows dress for his upcoming exhibition. Friedman probably doesn’t go out of her way to buy fashions by black designers and offer them to museums for posterity but does that make her a racist?

RBG and the lace collar

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last week I didn’t memorialize her on this blog because i didn’t consider her a fashion influencer or icon. However, in the week since her death, her collars have become a symbol of feminism, justice, democracy, and revolt. Numerous articles like this one and this one have been written about her that talk about how her lace collars became a symbol of her legacy. So, with that in mind, I have to recognize Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an influencer that the fashion world lost in 2020.

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. 

Faceinators

Started a new Facebook page for the Fashion History Museum yesterday that is tracking the rise of face masks in 2020 as a fashion born out of necessity. This is going to be with us for a while and there is a lot to document and remember about the rise of masks and the reactions, from anti-masking protests and politically charged masking to fun and even campy-masking looks.

The Year That Just Keeps Taking…

COVID-19 has decimated retail. Since the beginning of May American retailers Neiman MarcusJ. CrewJ.C. PenneyBrooks Brothers, Ann Taylor and now Lord and Taylor have all filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to shed debt and break expensive leases for their stores. Lord & Taylor’s roots date back to 1826 – the oldest department store in the U.S. and has been famous for its holiday windows since 1938.

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