“Leopolitan ladies are better dressed than Parisian girls!” Interview: Japanese fashion icon Kenzo Takada enjoys his first taste of Leopolitan style

  • “Leopolitan ladies are better dressed than Parisian girls!”  Interview: Japanese fashion icon Kenzo Takada enjoys his first taste of Leopolitan style
Issue 29, November 2010.

The guest of honour at the sixth season of Lviv Fashion Week (LFW) shows was celebrated Japanese designer Kenzo  Takada. The seventy one year old founder of the Kenzo fashion house was paying his first ever visit to Ukraine and was clearly impressed by his first experience of the Lviv high society scene – enthusing over everything from the quality of the collections on display to the elegance of the city’s ladies and the beauty of its architecture. Kenzo is the biggest name yet to guest star at LFW and his appearance illustrates the growing prestige of this relatively new regional fashion initiative. Within the space of the past three years, LFW has become a fixture on the local high society calendar and has succeeded in establishing itself as a credible regional alternative to the traditional Ukrainian Fashion Week shows in Kyiv. 

Japan’s iconic fashion ambassador
Japanese fashion figure Kenzo Takada is by far the most famous Asian designer to emerge in the past fifty years. He has inspired generations of young Asian designers to enter the world of high fashion and challenge the more established fashion houses of Western Europe and North America – changing the face of world fashion in the process. Born in 1939, Kenzo grew up studying the latest fashions in his sisters’ magazines and was one of the first boys ever to be admitted into Tokyo’s Bunka Fashion Academy, where he enrolled in 1958. After graduating, the young Kenzo moved to Paris and begin trying to make a name for himself at a time when the fashion industry was almost totally dominated by European designers. Without any Japanese fashion designer role models to look to for inspiration and with little financial clout behind him, the twenty-something Kenzo was forced to adapt his styles to his straitened circumstances, mixing and matching materials bought in discount stores and flea markets to create an original and eclectic style which quickly became a trademark in its own right. By 1970 he had secured his first major successes, opening his first Paris boutique and seeing his designs featured on the cover of Elle magazine. Since those heady days as a young designer in the Paris of the late 1960s and early 1970s he has not looked back. Over the past forty years Kenzo has built on this initial success to become a household name, creating Japan’s biggest fashion brand name and branching out into perfumes, interior design and skincare products. Although now officially retired from the day-today detail of running his fashion empire, Kenzo remains a highly active fashion follower and parttime  designer who continues to be infectiously enthusiastic about everything he does. He has a new footwear range due out soon and is involved in the design of hotels, stores and luxury homes. His recent visit to Lviv was a case in point – despite being in his early seventies, the Japanese design legend was eager to sample as much of Leopolitan life as he could and charmed everyone he encountered.

Better dressed than Paris
Kenzo’s natural enthusiasm for aesthetical beauty was on display during his residency in Lviv as he gushed about the architectural wealth of the city and the elegance of the Leopolitan crowd. “I did not have much time for sightseeing due to the extensive schedule of fashion shows which occupied much of my time here but what I have seen has impressed me greatly,” he told Lviv Today. “In terms of architecture Lviv reminds me of Vienna or Prague – it is simply beautiful to see. It is very lucky that the city was not reduced to ruins by the fighting during WWII, as was sadly the case with  Warsaw.” As well as the city’s famously stunning architecture, Kenzo also joined the long list of foreign males to be swept away by the effortless class and sense of style displayed by Lviv’s ladies. “During my visit to Lviv the thing that surprised me most was the fact that the local women are better dressed than their contemporaries in Paris! This was a pleasant surprise as admittedly I did not know what to expect from my trip and only knew that Ukraine was a neighbouring country of Russia,” the designed admitted. “Whenever I visit a new country I love to discover the inner beauty of the people,” he commented. “I am still very curious about different cultures and love new experiences.”
Kenzo was also generous in his assessment of Ukrainian models. Unsurprisingly given the sheer number of Ukrainian girls working on the international catwalk circuit today, the Japanese designer’s interaction with Ukraine had until his recent trip been limited to collaborations with Ukrainian models and he confirmed that they were among the best in the industry. “They are exceptionally beautiful, naturally elegant and very professional. There is something magical about working with Slavic models and this is one of the keys to their success within the fashion industry,” he shared.

Folklore masterpieces provide inspiration
Ever the polite and considerate guest, the Japanese designer also had kind words to say about the quality of design he saw on display during this October’s four days of Lviv Fashion Week catwalk shows. “It was a great pleasure for me to attend all the LFW shows in person and to lead the jury during the ‘Sabotage’ contest. I witnessed a lot of high quality creative work and was particularly impressed by the winter collection for skiers by Olena Boychuk,” Kenzo shared of his experience in Lviv. He was also struck by the popularity of traditional folklore and ethnic elements on display in this autumn’s Lviv collections. The use of traditional motifs has been a major feature of Ukrainian fashions  for the past decade as ethno-funk has enjoyed an ongoing regional revival and this trend met with the approval of the Japanese design guru. “I found many of the collections particularly interesting due to the use of ethnic and folk elements. The ways in which traditional Ukrainian embroidery was incorporated into modern outfits by various  designers was simply beyond praise – the results were masterpieces! I have enormous respect for designers who include folklore elements and traditional references in their collections – we should all remember our roots. It is a part of who we are and reflects our uniqueness as people and as cultures,” he enthused. Such praise for the use of  folklore motifs will have been music to the ears of Ukrainian designers – many of whom base their brand appeal on the marriage of modern styles with traditional Ukrainian themes. This backlash against globalised fashion monoculture has been particularly strong in the patriotic heartlands of Western Ukraine, where fashion statements in support of Ukrainian uniqueness also tend to come with strong political undertones.

Following in Kenzo’s footsteps
Ukrainian fashion remains in many ways a parochial affair without the international clout which could allow Ukrainian designers to develop into global brand names. Local designers often complain that they struggle to compete with the  appeal of bigger international brands and cannot count on the support of local elites, many of whom continue to regard Ukrainian designers as insufficiently prestigious or expensive for their tastes. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was one of a few high profile local public figures to champion the cause of Ukraine’s fashion industry,  famously sporting outfits created by leading local designers, but in general it remains the rule that if Ukrainian fashion designers wish to succeed they must look to make a name for themselves elsewhere. However, there is clearly  no shortage of talent in today’s Ukrainian fashion industry - Kenzo’s time in Lviv left him convinced that there was more than enough design quality and originality in the region to justify a higher international profile. “Why shouldn’t a Ukrainian designer become a world famous brand name?” he argued, pointing out that when he first set out  into the fashion world he was also overlooked as an unknown from a far away land with no tradition in the fashion industry. “Ukrainian designers looking to make it big in the fashion world need to demonstrate tenacity and determination as I did when I first set out in the 1960s. When I first arrived in Paris I was told time and again that a
Japanese designer had no chance of succeeding in the French market. It’s all about determination,” the Japanese legend concluded.