“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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*David Bowie Is Everywhere!*

Costumes by Antonia visits David Bowie Is at the Brooklyn Museum NY

Finally made to the Holy Grail for all Bowie fans. The closing week of the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. This all encompassing exhibit has been touring the world since its premiere at the Victoria & Albert Museum 5 years ago. The fact that it only made two pit stops in the United States speaks volumes to The Thin White Duke’s worldwide appeal. This particular blog entry is of such a deeply personal nature, that I have procrastinated forever in posting this. 

David’s measurements! From one of his designer’s fitting books.

In spite of the fact that the presentation was disorganized and overcrowded, it was the content of the exhibit that overcame any drawbacks resulting from the ineptitude of the Brooklyn Museum. After all, we are talking Bowie here, and we all know that he was a ‘Mortal with potential of a Superman’. And I don’t want to totally trash the museum either; to their credit they did resolve some of my concerns. But according to one of my sources at the museum, even they acknowledged that they had gotten in over their heads with this exhibit. 

Like some cat from Japan: Designer Kansai Yamamoto discusses his collaboration with Bowie.

David surrounded himself with the best talent: the best designers, the best directors, the best musicians. Talent that matched, but never surpassed his own. The show was a comprehensive overview of his collaborations as a performer, artist, writer, painter. Bowie the Artist. The shear breadth of his artistic accomplishments is overwhelming. Since this is a costume blog, the main focus will be his costumes. However I am including samples of his other facets because otherwise it would not do him justice.

Portraits by David of Yukio Mishima & Iggy Pop
David’s portraits of Yukio Mishima & Iggy Pop

I should start out with this caveat: there where no photos allowed in the exhibit so these pictures where taken clandestinely and at great personal risk. My apologies in advance for the poor quality of some of the images. In fact at one point when I was attempting to take a picture, a hand appeared in front of the lens belonging to an angry security guard who demanded that I stop on pain of banishment from the museum and confiscation of my pictures. So there was A LOT I could not capture: His costume from when he appeared on Broadway in “Elephant Man”, the Bauhaus costume from his “Saturday Night Live” appearance, the Kabuki cape designed by Kansai Yamamoto. And so on.

Photo Interuptus! The hand of an irate museum security guard photo bombs by pictures.
Photo Interuptus! The hand of an irate museum security guard photo bombs by pictures.

My attempt here is to present his costumes and how they would have been worn within the context of his performance. As mentioned earlier, David collaborated with the top creative talent and as a costumer and technician myself, I was in awe over the beauty and detail of his clothing. The delicacy of the tailoring conceits and the detail of the embellishments are incredible. It’s hard to believe that the enormity of the effort that went into creating a garment that was often times intended to be worn only once.

From the 1980 Floor Show. Costumes worn by David & Mick Ronson.
From the 1980 Floor Show. Costumes worn by David & Mick Ronson.

The first time I saw Bowie perform was in the “1980 Floor Show” which was broadcast in the USA on the “Midnight Special” TV series. It was a Rock’n’Roll cabaret with dancers, costumes, a guest appearance by singer Marianne Faithful and everyone’s favorite trans model Amanda Lear, who took time away from her duties as Salvador Dali’s muse in order to serve as MC for the show. Not a bad line up.

Storyboard from the 1980 Floor Show
Storyboard from the 1980 Floor Show

This production was the most blindingly theatrical presentation that my 16 year old eyes had ever seen. The originality of the costumes inspired me to grab a pencil and sketch pad. Aladdin Sane’s Thunderbolt of Enlightenment struck my brain causing a deluge of creative juices to start flowing and as I result I was sketching costumes furiously through the entire show. How’s that for inspiration?

The infamous 'Third Hand' costume with the missing hand, thanks to the TV censors!
The infamous ‘Third Hand’ costume without the third hand, thanks to the TV censors!

The costumes for this show were showcased in their own particular vitrine. They now only had David’s costume but the one worn by guitarist Mick Ronson. Mick is often overshadowed by Bowie’s supernova, but let’s not forget that he had a hand in the creation of the man, before Ziggy broke up the band. 

Some exquisitely tailored suits by designed by Ola Hudson and a later creation by Alexander McQueen for his 50th Birthday concert.
Some exquisitely tailored suits by designed by Ola Hudson for the album “Pin-Ups” and a later creation by Alexander McQueen for his 50th Birthday concert.

The first time I actually saw Bowie perform live onstage, in the flesh, was for the ’Thin White Duke Tour’ also called the ‘Isolar Tour’ on February 6, 1976 in San Francisco. To say that it was an out of body experience would be an understatement because I was completely consumed by  his presence. I am not the first person to say this. The energy and charisma he exuded onstage was something every performer can only dream of achieving. It was a true out of body experience. Un-psychotropically enhanced.

Thin White Duke: The draping on the sleeve lent grace and fluidity to his movement when he performed  on stage.
Thin White Duke: The draping on the sleeve lent grace and fluidity to his movement when he performed on stage.

The concert began with a screening of the surrealist film ‘Un Chien Andalou’. The cinematic collaboration between Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel best known for the close up of a girl’s eye being sliced open by a razor blade. When this happened the screams of horror from the audience was deafening! As the film came to its conclusion, the projection screen rose and the band began to play the intro to ‘Station to Station’, eventually a spotlight popped on our guy as the sang the lyrics about his return. Not knowing what kind of fashion statement he would make, he was dressed in black and white which went well with the stark fluorescent lighting.

The "unexpurgated" artwork for the "Diamond Dogs" album cover by Guy Peellaert
The “unexpurgated” artwork for the “Diamond Dogs” album cover by Guy Peellaert

The ‘Thin White Duke Tour’ was the most amazing piece of theatre I had ever seen up until then. Having out done the ‘The 1980 Floor Show’. 

"Ashes to Ashes" Pierrot/Major Tom costume designed by long time collaborator Natasha Korniloff. The pictures do not do this costume justice. Behind is the lesser known 'Screaming Lord Byron' from "Blue Jean" video.
“Ashes to Ashes” Pierrot/Major Tom costume designed by long time collaborator Natasha Korniloff. The pictures do not do this costume justice. Behind is the lesser known ‘Screaming Lord Byron’ from the “Blue Jean” video.

Feeling fully recovered from my out of Bowie-body experience, I decided that this concert was something that must be repeated’.  So I hoped into my Ford Pinto (don’t laugh, it WAS 1976) and drove down to L.A. to catch the show again at the venerable L.A. Forum. This time I was able to relax and enjoy the show. Gloating with delight hearing the audience’s shrieks when the girl’s eye was slashed in the opening film. No more out of body experiences this time. I was just an observer. As expected Bowie delivered another out of this world performance.

From the "Elephant Man" Playbill
From the “Elephant Man” Playbill.

So fast forward to the 80’s and by now I was a college student living in New York. ’Scary Monsters’ was constantly spinning on my turn table (kids, if you don’t know what that is, Google it). The third and last time I saw Bowie perform live was on Broadway in ‘Elephant Man’ and needless to say, it was the most amazing piece of theatre I had seen up until then. Only Bowie can out do Bowie., so all his previous opera.  What a performance! He opted out on the prosthetic makeup and chose to use his body language and voice to convey the pathos of the lead character. 

Periodic Table of Bowie. Click on the link to learn more about this alchemical egregore.
Periodic Table of Bowie. Click on the link to learn more about this alchemical egregore. His widow, Iman, is listed as one of the “Noble Metals”.

My college and my apartment were both located in the Chelsea district of Manhattan and in a stroke of Kafkaesque synchronicity, so was Bowie’s. According to a friend who had it on good authority that our Hero had a loft somewhere south of West 23rd St, so we took it upon ourselves to case every single single building in the vicinity until we came upon one building around West 20th @ 9th avenue that yielded results. We were reading the names on the mailboxes and one of the tenants went by the name: “Bewley Brothers Music”. Ya Think?! Eureka! 

Pencil drawing by a young David. Foreshadowing early incarnations of characters that would manifest as characters later on in his career.
Pencil drawing by a young David. Foreshadowing early incarnations of characters that would manifest as characters later on in his career.

We stood in front of the mailbox pondering our next move: Should we ring the door bell? What if he answers? What if he invites us up? What do we say to him? This reverie of ‘what ifs’ was rudely interrupted by the booming voice of a very irate doorman: “Had it ever occurred to you kids that he may be going in and out the back door?!” Well, these two junior stalkers in training made a dash out the door to the back alleyway of the building but to no avail; we were unequivocally asked to leave the premises by the same irate doorman. 

David being assisted into his 'Dark Angel' costume by Angela and (perhaps) Coco Schwab.
David being assisted into his ‘Dark Angel’ costume by Angela and (perhaps) Coco Schwab.

I lived in the Chelsea district for several more years and as time passed I became one of those blasé jaded New Yorkers who is not impressed by celebrity. Yes, I did spot him once or twice in passing and my heart would jump ever so slightly. But I was determined to stay in ‘Blasé New Yorker Mode’.  To the point where one day I was grocery shopping at the local A&P supermarket and as I was browsing the produce department, I could see out of the corner of my eye that someone was trying to take my shopping cart. Without turning my head I grabbed the cart away from the interloper and shouted in my most nasally Manhattanese “That’s MY cart”. I heard a crisp British accented male voice mutter “Oh sorry” as he slipped away. Yes, The Thin White Duke was a grocery cart thief! 

All roads lead to Bowie: Nikola Tesla corner on 40th & 6th Ave. Bowie played Tesla in his last film appearance "The Prestige".
All roads lead to Bowie: Nikola Tesla corner on 40th & 6th Ave. Bowie played Tesla in his last film role in “The Prestige”.

As time progressed, I moved on to other musical styles and to other cities. I hadn’t purchased a Bowie album or even listened to his music in years. I was vaguely amused by my younger relatives fascination with him and was pleasantly surprised to find one of my nieces apartment covered with Bowie poster when I visited her one Thanksgiving. But when I heard the news of his transition on January 10, 2016, it all came flashing back to me. The Stars did look very different after that. Tears would not stop flowing. Every time his name was mentioned, my eyes would water up. In fact I’m in a bit of a ‘Weepy Devotchka’ mode right now as I type this.  The impact that he had on my life, my choices and values was something that cannot be quantified. In many ways he saved my life, lifting me out of the mundane and the cruel to a realm that was both sacred and sublime. 

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