Fashion Icon at Center of 1970s Controversy Dies

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By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Shimpo

Kenzo Takada was an aspiring fashion designer from Himeji, Japan when in 1964 he decided to spend a few months in Paris. He fell in love with the city, and the French fashionistas soon embraced his audacious, Japanese-influenced colors and fabrics.

Kenzo Takada in 2017

On Oct. 4, he passed away due to complications from COVID-19. He was 81.

His life story includes a chapter during which he clashed with Japanese Americans across the United States. It occurred over 40 years ago, but the lessons still resonate today. Here’s what happened:

In 1970, Takada opened a small boutique, decorated it with a wild floral motif and gave it what he thought was a whimsical name, Jungle Jap. The French saw it as quirky and began referring to Takada simply as “Jap.”

American buyers were drawn to his bold, unstructured designs, and he was invited to mount a show in New York where his fashions were being sold in major department stores like Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Bonwit Teller, Sak’s Fifth Avenue, and even by pattern-maker Butterick.

Advertisements for the show caught the attention of the Japanese American community, who complained to the stores as well as the publications that carried the ads. Takada was greeted by protestors carrying placards, demanding that he change the name of his label.

By May 1971, his collection was being advertised as “Kenzo for Jap.”

When he introduced his winter ready-to-wear line in 1972, Takada had changed his label to “KENZO for J.A.P.” Exasperated, Yas Abiko, publisher of San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Times, enlisted the aid of Pacific Citizen and Rafu Shimpo to rally the Japanese American community around the issue.

The New York chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League filed an injunction against Takada, explaining that the racial epithet evoked hurtful anti-Japanese sentiment. The case went to the state Supreme Court, but the judge denied the injunction, saying the only injury was to people’s “feelings.”

The New York JACL and Asian Americans for Action continued to pressure stores to remove signage containing the epithet and demanded that publications avoid publishing the offensive term.

Women’s Wear Daily insisted they would print the existing name of the fashion line unless Kenzo changed it himself, but The New York Times agreed with Abiko.

“Sued over my playful store name, I learned how scary business can be,” Takada once said, looking back at the controversy. It was a harsh lesson to learn, but one that he apparently took to heart.

In 1976, he opened his flagship store in Paris and decided to name it “KENZO.” For the next 44 years, the company has continued to successfully produce fashions for women, men, and children under the KENZO moniker.

Takada retired in 1999 to pursue his art interests.

He was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 2016 and received a lifetime achievement award from the 55th Fashion Editors’ Club of Japan in 2017. Takada appeared publicly for the last time in January of this year, when he announced that he would be launching a new lifestyle brand named K3.

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