“No one creates fashion that blows your mind besides us.”
In the early 1970s, Kansai Yamamoto was the coolest Japanese guy walking down the street in London, dressed in a snakeskin jacket with his dyed hair in an Afro. A few years later, David Bowie featured Kansai’s fashion in his Ziggy Stardust tour, boosting Kansai’s international fame. Since then, Kansai has been a leading Japanese fashion designer, introducing cutting-edge, eccentric, and sensational looks that incorporate traditional Japanese styles into contemporary designs. In 2013, he presented a new collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. From February 6 to 13, a part of the same collection was exhibited in SoHo at the NIPPONISTA pop-up store, created by the Japanese department store Isetan Mitsukoshi. Chopsticks NY chatted with the legendary Kansai Yamamoto alongside Kenta Takaya, creative director of Kansai Yamamoto, Inc., at the store’s opening.
Could you tell us the concept of your new collection?
Kansai: Concept? I don’t think it’s that complicated. Today, for example, he [Kenta] got a lot of attention while walking on the street wearing this. Everyone looked at him, took pictures of him, and tried to talk to him, so he was the center of attention. If you get that much attention, you feel happy. That’s the motivation behind creating my fashion.
I heard you looked for vintage materials from the Edo Period (1603–1868) and used them with fabrics made with the most up-to-date digital printing technology.
Kansai: That’s all done by this guy.
Kenta: No, no. Not all. [laughs] But I can say that these vintage materials are very precious, and yes, it was so hard to find them.
They look similar to blue jeans, but there were no jeans in Japan at that time.
Kansai: To put it simply, they were so poor and did not have enough clothes to wear, and they stitched and layered fabrics to make them wearable from generation to generation. I believe that is similar to the way that denim was used in the West originally.
Kenta: There wasn’t enough cotton at that time. The materials we use here were all patched up and worn throughout for generations.
Those vintage clothes have been paired with fabric printed with the most advanced Japanese technology. Is digital printing common in today’s fashion industry?
Kenta: I think it’s gradually becoming mainstream, but not entirely yet. We used a printer called the Epson Digital Nassen, which Japanese are proud of.
Kansai: It’s the most advanced and the most powerful! The patterns not only look beautiful but also glow under the sun.
Not so many non-Japanese people can connect your fashion to a Japanese sensibility. But Japanese people, who are familiar with things like Kabuki theater, find Japanese influences in your design. Would you elaborate on this?
Kansai: The word wabi-sabi is often used to explain the Japanese aesthetic. It comes from wabishii (desolate) and sabishii (lonely), which are related to a negative mind. On the other hand, kabuku (to behave in a free and bold manner) and basara (a florid and unconstrained look) both represent an extremely bright and strong mentality that emerged in the sixteenth century. We inherit that DNA. My design naturally shows that.
In the music industry, for example, there are many Japanese who adore and copy Western styles, but I don’t have the slightest intention of doing that in my works. I don’t think Japanese culture is inferior to Western culture––instead, I like to say out loud, “Look at this!” I have great confidence in my originality, and I am happy to show it off.
So what were the reactions to your new collection?
Kansai: We can’t keep up with the high demand. Earlier this year, we opened our pop-up store in the Isetan department in Tokyo, and 70% of the collection was sold in three days. It has been really well received in Japan, so I’m pretty sure that Western countries will see a great business opportunity in a collection with such unrivaled originality!
It’s reported that Lady Gaga wore the one with a computer screen in some live performances.
Kansai: Yes. That one with a screen is made in a runway model size and is really skinny, so Lady Gaga is as thin as supermodels. [laughs] Actually, I did not know much about her. Just before I met her, I started studying hard about her online, opening my tiny eyes really wide. [laughs] About what her goals are, how she lives, what kinds of songs she sings—I understood her talents and charms before the meeting.
Did you design anything for her after the meeting?
Kansai: Not yet, but I’d like to. But in my opinion, any eccentric designer today can create her costumes. So, it needs to be a creator who goes beyond eccentric. So I would like to produce her whole stage performance to give it a fresh look, not only designing the costumes but also her movements, story structure, et cetera.
You have produced numerous “super shows”––big, live events. Is there any reason for your return to fashion?
Kansai: It’s because no one creates fashion that blows your mind besides us. But it does not mean I’ll quit producing big events. I will do it really, really hard again! This September, actually.
Kansai: Nope. At the Bosphorus.
On the strait?
Kansai: Yep. In the beginning, a friend of mine suggested that I hold a big show there because there are many Japanophiles. Then I went to see the location after the show in London last year, and I was instantly inspired by the locale. I’m planning an event on the ocean going into a fashion show on land.
Would you share some places and events in Japan you recommend for Chopsticks NY readers?
Kansai: There are so many I would like to introduce. Seeing is believing. It’s right across the ocean, so just come and see. In the same way, we leave Japan and explore many places––from high-altitude, oxygen-thin, secluded Tibetan areas to the uncivilized interior of New Guinea––to find colors.
Kenta: Yes. The colors of this collection you see now are brought from such places. We found them in things like folk costumes.
Kansai: [pointing to a part of the fabric of the jacket he is wearing] The fabric with small stitches in this part must have been a dustcloth. This patched part was an old carpet in India, I guess.
Really? I may have some treasures in my house, then. [laughs] Where can we buy your clothes and accessories in New York?
Kansai: I had two stores in New York––on Madison Avenue and in SoHo––before, but I closed them mainly due to the tariff wall. The tariff issue has now improved, I think, but I do not have any intention to open stores again. I do not do the same thing twice. That’s my philosophy. I’ll do something different. I loved women so much. I did this thing, that thing, and everything. So why should I do those again? Japan is changing. New York is changing. People are changing. I’m getting old. A new generation is rising. And everything is changing. So there is no point in doing the same thing twice.
—— Interview by Noriko Komura
Born in Yokohama, Japan in 1944. He is one of the founding fathers of Japanese contemporary fashion. Yamamoto assisted Junko Koshino and Hisashi Hosono before starting his own company in 1971. His avant-garde design incorporating Japanese traditional styles into contemporary fashion shocked the industry in the 70s and Victoria & Albert Museum immediately obtained his works. He is well known for dressing David Bowie for his Ziggy Stardust tour and Aladdin Sane tour. After establishing his fame as the leading fashion designer, he started producing “super show”, upscale live events going beyond fashion shows in the 90s. He also designed the Skyliner train connecting Narita airport to central Tokyo in 2010. In 2013, he returned to the fashion industry and unveiled the new collection. www.kansai-inc.co.jp
Fashion in Motion: Kansai Yamamoto / 2013
This style highlights a beautiful gradation of bright colors printed with the Epson Digital Nassen printer.
Manteau with Japanese traditional kite pattern was designed in 1971.