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How Late Designer Kansai Yamamoto Changed Fashion Forever

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There are few designers that have left as much of a bold impact on fashion as Kansai Yamamoto did. Born in 1944 in Yokohama, Kanagawa in Japan, Yamamoto passed away in July, 2020. But during the course of his lifetime he reinvigorated the classic kimono, defined the wardrobe of David Bowie onstage and went on to inspire some of the most legendary fashion houses today, from Louis Vuitton to Rick Owens. The designer’s influence was felt around the world: in his later years, he hosted shows that were open to the public. Dubbed “super-shows”, they combined fashion, music, dance, and entertainment on a massive scale and had audiences upwards of 100,000 in locations such as Moscow’s Red Square, and Japan’s Tokyo Dome.

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Though his name may not be as immediately recognizable as other Japanese fashion powerhouses (Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto for instance) he served as the forerunner for the Japanese fashion scene, emerging years before Japanese fashion would make an impact on a global level. He was the first Japanese designer to have a major fashion show in London, in 1971, for example.

Along with that, he left the world with an incredibly recognizable aesthetic. Think: bold, bright color, graphic, geometric shapes and an approach that took cues from Japanese culture, such as Kabuki theater. Kansai, as he preferred to be referred to, has always been a fashion designer admired by the deep fashion set, adored by designers, stylists and performers with carefully curated images, like David Bowie himself.

Taking from tradition

Kansai was a designer who brought Japanese culture and symbolism to the forefront of fashion. For Bowie’s outfits, Kansai often transformed the silhouette of the classic kimono into something thoroughly modern and new. Later on in his career, in 1999, he also collaborated with the Japanese designer Junko Koshino to create a modern version of the kimono.

The designer often took motifs, rich in culture, such as the a yakko—a caricature of a Japanese warrior, often seen in Japanese Kabuki theater and applied them to clothing. Kansai also played with color and shapes and replicated the 2D effects of traditional Asian art in many of his pieces, juxtaposing those shapes with a rainbow of primary colors. Elsewhere, he took inspiration from traditional crafts, such as the Kumihimo techniques of decorative plaiting. (Kumi himo is Japanese for “gathered threads”). He often experimented with folds, twists, and braids to bring his unusual silhouettes to life.

A new era of costumes for David Bowie

After his debut show in London, Kansai’s exaggerated jumpsuits and capes were featured on the cover of the British magazine Harpers & Queen. This is what reportedly led Bowie to reach out to the designer about making costumes for his tours.

Bowie first began wearing Kansai’s abstract womenswear pieces on his 1972 “Ziggy Stardust” tour and later had the designer make some of the most iconic, custom pieces for his “Aladdin Sane” tour. One of his most famous outfits was the “Space Samurai” jumpsuit, which had huge, curved pant legs and stripes of color. It was inspired by the hakama, the traditional Japanese men’s pants worn with the kimono. Another recognizable piece was the “Tokyo Pop” black and white jumpsuit, with circular legs that widely flared out to the side. Bowie also wore short, colorful jumpsuits designed by Kansai. One of the most defining things about their longstanding collaboration was the gender blurring approach, which so defined Bowie’s look in pop culture.

“David was a true vanguard—he was making waves in the musical landscape of the time,” Yamamoto told The Cut in 2018. “His energy resonated with my own desire to venture out into the world. I think David felt that the energy in my designs contributed to his own energy. He knew that when he wore my clothing onstage, he could elicit a strong reaction from the audience.” Though it’s not as much of a well-known fact, Kansai also designed some of Elton John’s most spectacular costumes.

The fashion world’s tribute

A number of contemporary designers have taken inspiration from Kansai’s work throughout the ages, but perhaps none so much as Nicolas Ghesquiere for Louis Vuitton. For the label’s 2018 cruise show in Kyoto, Ghesquiere collaborated with the designer to add the same exaggerated yakko faces to bags, embellished sweaters, dresses, and sequined tops. Earlier this year, Rick Owens showed his fall 2020 menswear collection which he credited as being inspired by Kansai Yamamoto in the show notes. The one-legged striped jumpsuit with angular shoulders was a clear reflection of Kansai’s “Tokyo Pop” jumpsuit. Gucci’s Alessandro Michele has also paid tribute to the designer, with an approach to bold patterns and prints that often mirror the signature faces seen throughout Kansai’s work.

Yamamoto lived by Basara, the Japanese term for colorful, eclectic freedom, and that same sentiment can be seen in any of the designers who are influenced by him today. “In Japan the word basara means to dress freely, with a stylish extravagance,” Yamamoto told the V&A. “Basara is the opposite of the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic, which is underplayed and modest; it is colorful and flamboyant and it lies at the heart of my designs.”


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