Kenzo unveils early collections and archives for LVMH’s ‘Private Days’
The exhibition’s venue is a historic dressed-stone building at 18 rue Vivienne, in one of Paris's central districts, close to the eponymous arcade home to Kenzo’s first boutique, right opposite the National Library of France. Since 2007, the building, with its courtyard and garden, has housed the headquarters and ateliers of ready-to-wear label Kenzo.
In an accident of history, the building once belonged to the nephew of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a promoter of French arts and manufacturing under Louis XIV, and then hosted a trading house for silk and wool. “For the second time since 2013, Kenzo is taking part in the LVMH group’s ‘Private Days’ initiative,” said Camille Martinez, head of heritage and events at Kenzo. “With the theme ‘Savoir Faire Rêver’ (knowing how to make dreams), our goal is to showcase our expertise through the label’s heritage,” she added. On the ground floor, silhouettes from Kenzo’s first collections - from the label's well-preserved archives - are juxtaposed with looks by Nigo, Kenzo’s current creative director, cleverly encapsulating the label's history.
Immersed in a hip-hop atmosphere, visitors step into the world of Kenzo, amidst a plethora of printed patterns and a kaleidoscope of bright colours. The exhibition retraces the label’s history since it was founded in 1970 by the Japanese designer, who initially called it Jungle Jap - a nod to the Parisian urban jungle and the paintings of Henri ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau. “Kenzo Takada wanted to remove his persona from the label,” said Salomé Dudemaine, exhibition curator and fashion historian. But the name [Jungle Jap] was hard to market in the USA, because it was perceived as devaluing and racist,” she added.
Ten years later, the label was renamed Kenzo, but the brand’s tiger symbol did survive the change. A fetish animal for the Japanese designer, the tiger is once again roaring on the trench coats of the Spring/Summer 2023 collection designed by Kenzo’s successor. The same goes for Kenzo’s favourite material, cotton, of which most of the garments on display are made. “In the early days, Takada used cotton through economic necessity, but then it became an aesthetic choice for him, because it's a fabric that lets the body breathe,” said Dudemaine. Many of the mannequins, whether displaying 1970s or contemporary looks, feature “the famous T-cut with butterfly sleeves, with which the designer wanted to set free the silhouette.”
Countless references to the label’s founder characterise the wardrobe now designed by Nigo. The label will celebrate its 53rd anniversary next April, and its creations are inspired by the past, present and future.
Travel as earthly and spiritual nourishment
Takada, born in February 1939 in the Japanese city of Himeji, dreamed of far-off lands and the West. With a diploma from the Bunka Fashion College in his pocket, he crossed the oceans to Paris, his favourite city. “A lengthy sea journey took him from Tokyo to Hong Kong, Cairo, Djibouti and Marseilles,” said Dudemaine. They were stages in what was an initiatory journey, during which Takada assimilated many of the local techniques he discovered.
As shown by the cherry red apron dress, cinched at the waist like a kimono and enhanced by topstitching and plant embroidery, a look from the 1975 winter collection, referencing the style of the Chinese Manchu dynasty. On a neighbouring mannequin, an imposing blue coat with floral print, a tribute to the Cossacks’ traditional garb. “The velvet lining inspired by Slavic carpets is visible, and lends a dramatic effect to the garment,” said Dudemaine.
Throughout his career, Takada was dismissive of the conventions of haute couture, but one of his masterpieces, a patchwork ruffled wedding dress in pink and gold tones, was undoubtedly closely related to it.
“He fashioned this dress by sewing strips of fabric by hand directly on to the mannequin; almost by accident, he used garment-making techniques borrowed from haute couture,” said Martinez grinning. “At once very fragile and very heavy,” the exhibition’s showpiece is nevertheless in excellent condition because “it was preserved flat, with an anatomical shape inside it, so that it would not deform,” she added.
Although Kenzo is a relatively young label, with 122 monobrand stores worldwide, it takes the archiving of past collections very seriously, rigorously controlling humidity and light levels in the storage rooms. Martinez and her three-person team regularly “hunt for old items on second-hand sites and in vintage shops, to rebuild the label’s heritage,” she said. “Since Kenzo is present in many sectors, with perfumes, bed linen and ready-to-wear clothes, there truly exists a living imagery of the brand,” she added.
Indeed, the exuberance and colourful imagination of the label’s founder Kenzo Takada can be palpably felt throughout this temporary exhibition.
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