“Like Some Cat From Japan”

David & Ziggy, lifelong friends and collaborators. Photo credit: Mick Rock

Honoring the Creative Legacy of Kansai Yamamoto

(February 8, 1944-July 21, 2020)

The Fashion and Costume world has lost an Icon. Just like the death of the man with whom he is most frequently associated with, David Bowie, Kansai Yamamoto’s death has left a void in the Creative Matrix much like Bowie’s passing left a void five years ago.

It could be safely said that Kansai Yamamoto was just as responsible for creating the Persona of Ziggy Stardust as was Bowie himself or as was Angela Bowie, his first wife. Bowie evolved from a mid 60’s Mod, to a Mime performer, then a Dylanesque style folk singer, Major Tom/Clockwork Orange Droog, until finally coming into his own as Ziggy Stardust. With the creative input of Yamamoto, his persona jelled into that otherworldly androgyne with the help of his creations. “Costumes were the best medium for David to express his music” he said in an interview. “Color is the oxygen we are both breathing in the same space”, was another recounting of his collaboration with the Star Man.

The Jean Genius: David onstage wearing Kansai’s creations and Kansai with his best known creation for Bowie: The Tokyo Pop Jumpsuit. (Credits: L&R Mick Rock, Center: Alberto Garcia, Brooklyn Museum)

Kansai Yamamoto was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1944 and by all accounts was the product of a very unhappy childhood. He began his career as a Civil Engineer and then following the footsteps of many other engineers such as Giorgio Armani and Bill Blass, he transitioned into the world of Fashion and Costume Design. Mostly self taught, he apprenticed with costume designer Junko Koshino before striking out on his own. In 1971 he presented his first collection in London. He was the first Japanese designer to present a collection outside of Japan and for this he paved the way for the “Japanese Invasion” of the 70’s and 80’s. Thanks to his pioneering efforts, Kansai Yamamoto paved the way for other Japanese such as Hanae Mori, Kenzo,  Rei Kawakubo of “Comme des Garçons”, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto (no relation) and yes, even his early mentor: Junko Koshino.  All of this attention caught the eye of David Bowie, who at the time was in the Genesis of his career. His people called Kansai’s people and the rest is history.

Basara versus Wabi-Sabi

Yamamoto drew his influence from Japanese culture, in particular the traditional Kabuki performers. David Bowie loved all things Japanese so from a creative standpoint, they were a perfect fit. But Kansai was also influenced by the costumes of Oskar Schlemmer from the Bauhaus movement of 1930’s Berlin. This was obvious in his creation of the black and white “Tokyo Pop” or “Keyhole” costume and the jewel tone duplicate he wore in the “1980 Floor Show”.  It could be said that David’s orange mullet haircut was inspired by the “Lion Wigs” of the Kabuki performers.

The Makeup and The Mullet: Bowie’s hair and makeup were inspired by the “Lion Manes” of Kabuki. (Credits: Kabuki faces: Eva de Martino, David: Mick Rock)

According to my research there are two schools of Japanese aesthetics: “Basara” and Wabi-Sabi. “Basara” being the colorful and flamboyant aspect of Japanese art and Wabi-Sabi being the minimalist ascetic aspect. Kansai chose the former with a vengeance; his garments were a riot of exuberant color playing upon the traditional Japanese festivals and serving as an inspiration for the culture of Hara-juku and Kawaii trends on the streets of Tokyo today.

After his initial success with David, Kansai continued to design seasonal collections. One of his watershed presentations was at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1982. One small footnote to this event was, at that time I was enrolled in the College and was participating in the ‘“work/study” program for underprivileged students like myself. The assignment was to intern as a dresser for the show. Even though this was not my first time dressing a runway show, it was my first time dressing a runway show for Kansai Yamamoto. To say that the energy was frenetic was an understatement and would not do justice to the show. The event featured the “Who’s Who” of the modeling world, some of the Glamazons that I helped to dress were: Iman, Sayoko and Pat Cleveland. What impressed me about Iman in particular was that at the time she was married to Spencer Haywood from the New York Knicks. She and Spencer, along with their family, had recently experienced a major traffic accident in which Iman had sustained serious injuries. This was confirmed when she limped into the dressing room. “OMG, (I thought to myself), how will she ever be able to strut on the Catwalk?” 

The Trifecta of 80’s Glamazons. L-R: Pat Cleveland, Iman and Sayoko. Notice Kansai lurking in the back! (Images courtesy of the Fashion Institute of Technology)

But Iman did not disappoint: Once she stepped on the Runway, her limp miraculously disappeared and she dazzled the audience with her Power Walk. Another little stray thought entered my mind at the time and that was of Bowie himself. I knew that Kansai and Bowie shared a creative relationship and at the time Bowie was a NYC resident. So I was a bit surprised that he did not pop in to wish his friend well. Especially since a few years later David and Iman would become lifelong Soulmates. But alas, David was busy preparing for his “Serious Moonlight Tour” so any chance I had of playing Cupid was dashed. Oh well.

Aside from the over the top presentation was the fact that Kansai was dressed all in black and was an integral part of the show: As the models walked on the runway, he would be right there with them, calling stage directions and adjusting their clothing. A classmate who also happened to be Japanese, was interning alongside me, explained that he was acting as a “Kurogo”. An important component of classical Kabuki Theater.  “They are supposed to be invisible” she said, “that’s why they are dressed in black”.  This blending of  Kabuki sensibilities with High Fashion was something that had been never seen before and I am sure served as a precursor to his  future “Super Shows”.

“Kurogo”: Another image from Kansai’s show at FIT. Notice Kansai disguised as a Kabuki “Kurogo” standing behind Sayoko. It was to be a foreshadowing of his future “Super Show” (image courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology)

In 1992 Kansai designed his last collection under his own label. However, that did not mean that he stopped designing altogether. He instead took the more lucrative route and entered the field of licensing his name for anything from sunglasses to home products. This allowed him to focus on a new concept of his called the “Super Show” in which he combined multi disciplinary elements of music, dance and Japanese aesthetic to showcase his avant guard concepts. In these extravaganzas he would be a willing participant, commenting on his pieces, interacting with his models or again as a classical “Kurogo”, dressed in all black and serving as an assistant to the performers.

The “Super Shows” were to become major cultural and entertainment events. His first show was in 1993 in Moscow’s Red Square. Each subsequent show was to achieve an increasing sense of cultural and historical importance. For example, in 2012, at the invitation of the Chinese government, he presented a “Super Show” that commemorated the 40th anniversary of the normalizations of Japan-China relations and in 2013 he was honored by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London as part of their “Fashion in Motion” series.

Some examples of Kansai’s designs over the years. Note his innovative use of color and textures. (Credit Kansai Yamamoto Foundation)

Kansai Yamamoto continued a life long friendship with David Bowie until his death in 2016. Ironically they had always talked collaborating together again. Kansai was in the process of producing a “Super Show” with Bowie which unfortunately, was cruelly cancelled with the untimely passing of our beloved Star Man. Kansai’s concept for this show was to have Bowie descend from the skies in a hot air balloon as he sang his greatest hits. Much like the first time he saw Bowie descend onto the stage from a disco ball during a performance at Radio City Music Hall way back in 1972.

Unapologetically over the top: His designs were inspired by the colorful and vibrant “Basara” aesthetic (credit: Kansai Yamamoto Foundation)

In spite of his age and failing health Kansai continued to produce his Super Shows and even briefly contracted with Louis Vuitton to create a series of hand bags based on the “Basara” traditions of Japan. His last “Super Show” was presented in Tokyo on July 31, 2020 just a few days after his death. His daughter, Mirai Yamamoto tearfully thanking his assistants and fans for their lifelong support.

I would like to think, that if there is such a thing as an after life, that Kansai and David are reunited in Heaven. Where they can now unlimitedly collaborate and create for our collective consciousness. Unencumbered by the macrocosmic constraints of the mundane. Breathing that colorful oxygen that we all share.

Above: Highlights from the Fashion In Motion Super Show at The Victoria & Albert Museum in London

Click Here to read more about Kansai’s costumes at the David Bowie Is exhibit.

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