In Their Own Words, Models Remember Designer Kenzo Takada

As the end of 2020 comes upon us, and we look back at this tumultuous year; one of the biggest losses to the fashion industry was legendary designer Kenzo. Kenzo Takada, 81, passed away this past October, in France from COVID 19 related complications. The iconic designer was such a celebrated personage outside of fashion that Japan’s top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, expressed “sincere condolences” following the death of Takada, who “imparted our nation’s arts and culture to the world”. France’s President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, also released a statement remembering Takada, recognizing his life and achievements in France and beyond. Kenzo gained worldwide prominence as the first Japanese fashion designer to achieve global recognition and was applauded for many reasons: his ability to make fashion fun, irreverent, wearable and exciting; his exploration and celebration of different cultures especially his own; his long-lasting presence in Paris-where he planned to visit for only six months but ended up staying for 56 years. Kenzo’s emergence on the Paris fashion scene in the ’70s as a dynamic and exciting presence invigorated the industry but it was the unbeatable combination of visionary designer and incredibly kind and fun-loving person that cemented his legacy in the industry. As 2020 comes to a close, we talked to 6 models who gave us a peek into the man behind the legend.

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Claire Atkinson

Runway images and center image courtesy of Claire Atkinson

My heart is heavy, filled with sorrow. I have lost one of my favourite people – Kenzo. He was a delight. I was blessed to be part of the Kenzo family for many years, part of the “Kenzo Girls”. I have endless memories of splendid fun and joyful times all around the world.

He was a unique individual. Always happy, always ready to live. He had a talent for bringing people together, of creating a community of magical souls. I was very lucky to have known him, to have worked with him, and to have had him as a friend. I loved him and will miss him always as we all will. I am thinking about all of the Kenzo family – I kiss you all.

Image courtesy of Claire Atkinson in light pink wig and Kenzo in the center
Kenzo and Claire, image courtesy of Claire Atkinson

Backstage image courtesy of Claire Atkinson

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Junko Tajima

My life was changed completely by Kenzo Takada. Before meeting Kenzo, I was a typical, traditional Japanese model. I was working very hard to achieve my goals, and never took any vacations. When I started (in the early ’80s), fashion shows for designers from Paris, Milan, London, and New York were booming in Japan. They were big events, not only for journalists but also for public audiences. The Tokyo collections started in 1985, and it was a very powerful era. Models needed a lot of expressions, not only when walking on the stage. Without speaking, we became many different characters. We were performers.

Kenzo runway image courtesy of Junko Tajima

I met Kenzo for the first time when I modeled in his fashion show at Bunka Fashion College in Japan, where he graduated from. In his show, we could travel the world. Kenzo designed his collection, with a mix of different cultures and traditions, and a base of traditional Japanese beauty. His clothes always told stories. In his shows, I was a Parisienne, I was a smart Japanese craftsman of the Edo era, I was a woman dancing with fire on a tropical island, I was a Chinese farmer, etc. I moved with Kenzo’s clothes as the music and lighting made me feel. It was just so fun!

Backstage image courtesy of Junko Tajima (on the left in the image)

A few years into my career working with many designers, I traveled with Kenzo for his first French and Asian tour to present his perfume. I was still based in Japan and my agency and clients didn’t understand why I wanted to take one month off to travel with Kenzo. They said “Junko, you don’t want to work anymore?” Back then, Japanese people still had traditional ideas about work.

Work is always a priority in our life. Of course, work is important, but exploring and learning about different parts of the world is important too. The trips with Kenzo and my long vacation influenced my modeling career in wonderful ways. I learned how to enjoy my life outside of my work and met diverse people. My life became richer. My imagination grew and I could see the scenery, which is perfect for the clothes. It made my work so much more interesting.

Backstage image courtesy of Junko Tajima (on the right in the image)

Kenzo did shows for his buyers every season at his office at Place de Victoire. Ruthie (Ruth Obadia, who worked in PR) led the shows alongside his assistants, the technical people, hair and makeup artists, and the girls who helped with dressing the models. Of course, we KENZO girls were there.

We were just one part of the Kenzo family. Even the buyers were part of the family. On the last day of the week, we had a big party. Everyone, who was involved in the collection, participated in the last fashion show. We put on whatever Kenzo clothes we wanted. I put on roller skates, which surprised Kenzo. Kenzo was generous and he let us do as we pleased. Our smiles and our laughter are unforgettable memories.

Around Kenzo, I met beautiful minds. Kenzo brought people together. In his hometown, Kenzo presented his collection (women’s, men’s, and children’s) in front of the Himeji castle. I can’t remember the number of models, and staff, who were involved in his shows. There were people from Japan, France, Brazil, England, America, Norway, etc. Even locals welcomed us, and we were in one Kenzo world. We models sometimes competed with each other (which was just friendly competition that pushed us to do our best work). but in this show, we were just professionals, and we all worked as one for Kenzo. We were a team.

He had a special, comforting energy. Kenzo was very pure, shy, modest, and always sincere to everybody. He gave us lots of joy. Looking back on the moments that I spent with him, it was just like a YUME 夢 (dream in Japanese). I remembered he liked this word. A beautiful dream.

We are all connected by strong bonds, as a Kenzo family. I believe that you are smiling on us with love in our YUME world. We love you forever. Thank you. Arigatou Kenzo-San.

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Kohki Kimura

Kenzo-san, I am very sad, and I would really like to thank you. I used to be a Japanese men’s model. Now, I am living in a small temple in Kyoto, as a monk.

I first met Kenzo in Paris, 1986, where I was working for him in his spring/summer men’s collection. After that, I participated in many of his collections, including those in Paris and in Tokyo.

He had a husky voice. He was such a genuine and gentle person. His clothes made me feel excited and cheerful.

Runway images and center image courtesy of Kohki Kimura

Kenzo-san, it was so nice to enjoy ODEN and hot SAKE together in Gion, Kyoto, wasn’t it?

You are now in Amitabha’s pure land and you have become a Buddha. Please send us your new winds, Kenzo-san.

JIKOUINN SAIGEN KENTETSUKOUJI
慈弘院彩華賢哲居士(じこういんさいげけんてつこじ)

NAMUAMIDABHTSU

南無阿弥陀仏(なむあみだぶつ)

GASSHOU 合掌🙏

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Jeffrey Brezovar

It was my very first time traveling to Paris. I was 22 years old. I was living in New York City and had recently signed with Ford Models. A month after I signed with them, they told me they were sending me to Europe. Two weeks later I was on a plane to Paris and landed early on a Monday morning. No sleep. I grabbed my luggage and took a taxi from CDG, straight to my new French agency Glamour Models. I arrived scared and nervous.

A new city, a new language, a new career, not sure what I got myself into.

My new agent Patrick greeted me and handed me a sheet of paper with a list of addresses and times (“go-sees”) and he said “Go! It’s fashion week, and these are your castings, so you must go now!”

I was petrified. A Brazilian model named Marcus Pantera, who spoke very little English, said “come,” and out the door, I went with him. First stop, a show casting for a designer I had never heard of, named KENZO.

I sat there in a line of a hundred male models, all waiting to audition for the show, and my heart was racing fast. I hadn’t slept or showered, and frankly, I looked like crap.

I was next. I walked into the room, and there was Kenzo: colorfully dressed, sitting at a table, flanked by his crew and staff of about 15 people. He said “Hello!” in that deep, muffled Kenzo voice. And I said, “Hello… I’m Jeffrey”.

He then got a chair and he said “Sit,” so I did. Sitting across the table from him, he could see I was exhausted and nervous. He started asking me questions, always with a huge smile on his face. “Where are you from? What do you like to do? When did you arrive in Paris? How many shows have you done? What’s your favorite thing you like to wear? What is your favorite food?” And the questions went on and on. All the time he was smiling, laughing, and I sat there thinking, “Who is this man? He is being SO nice to me.”

Well, he was nice to everyone! He had this radiating smile, and so much joy and light and the most magical presence. He had immediately put me at ease. We talked and laughed for about 15 or 20 mins. Then someone on his staff leaned over and said something to him in French. Kenzo looked at me and said, “Oh yes. Can you please walk for me?” So I stood up, not really knowing what to do, and he said, “just walk to the back of the room, and then back to me.” So I walked, and he said, “Thank you.” And I left.

After my 13 castings that day, I was exhausted and returned to my agency to get my luggage. I walked in the door and the first thing my agent said was, “you booked the Kenzo show. They called me right after you left the casting.” I was flabbergasted.

Kenzo runway image courtesy of Jeffrey Brezovar

Well, that day, my first day in Paris at the age of 22, was the start of a 25-year working relationship with the brilliant Kenzo family, and a life long friendship with Kenzo himself. I was lucky enough to travel to every corner of the globe with the Kenzo family, doing fashion shows, shooting ad campaigns, videos, commercials, and frankly, it was the best time of my life. I met some of the most magical people through Kenzo, who are still great friends to this day.

Kenzo campaign by Serge Gueran, image courtesy of Jeffrey Brezovar

Kenzo was a bright, shining star who only brought love, happiness, and cheer into this world. I will miss him, and cherish some of the best memories of my life.

Rest in peace, my dear friend. You are truly one of a kind. You made the world a better, more colorful place.

Image courtesy of Jeffrey Brezovar.(Jeffrey on the left, Claire Atkinson on the right, Kenzo on the far right).

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Chris Martin

Working with Kenzo, for me was never about the money, more about the experience of fun, laughter, and ‘family’.

Being part of one of Kenzo’s big shows or tours of Asia (there were two lasting 3 weeks each) you knew it would be a wonderful time.

Kenzo campaign courtesy of Chris Martin

Kenzo always treated us so well, he was always smiling, happy, and kind. All of us who worked with him regularly (the family) were from such diverse backgrounds and from all over the planet, each of us very individual and encouraged to be exactly who we were meant to be.

I worked for Mr. Kenzo for almost a decade from when I first came to Paris until he sold the company.

He threw the most wonderfully decadent parties sometimes changing his outfits 3 or 4 times during the evening. It was fabulous.

He was like sunshine. Actually don’t ever recall him not smiling now I come to think of it.

Runway images courtesy of Chris Martin

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John Armstrong

This is what it was like backstage for models at the end of the 1980s. We were one big happy family having a blast and loving the ride. This was a Kenzo 50th birthday show in 1989 that lasted five days in Kenzo’s birthplace: Himeji, a beautiful city in the south of Japan, near Osaka. Every day about 5000 people came to watch this mega show. I filmed this at the time with my video cam and then the tape stayed in boxes from home to home until my son told me it was on a shelf and that I should get it digitized. I edited it recently for Kenzo-san’s 80th birthday and gave it to him in a lacquer box that I decorated with gold leaf. So sad that he’s gone now.
(Backstage at Kenzo’s 20th anniversary special show– courtesy of John Armstrong: John is in the video at 7:53 minutes in, wearing a blue jacket)

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to the incredible Claire Atkinson for all her help gathering together the models together.

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