Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto dead at 76

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Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto dead at 76
The striped bodysuit and red kabuki boots by the fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto in the “David Bowie Is” exhibition in New York, Feb. 21, 2018. Yamamoto, who shaped the look of Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, and also worked with Elton John and Stevie Wonder, died in Japan on July 21, 2020. He was 76. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Vanessa Friedman and Elizabeth Paton

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Kansai Yamamoto, the unapologetically flamboyant fashion designer whose love of color, unfettered imagination and exploration of genderless dressing caught the eye of David Bowie and helped define the look of his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, died in Japan on July 21. He was 76.

The cause was leukemia, a statement on his office website confirmed. It did not say where in Japan he died.

Kansai, as Yamamoto was generally known, was not as well-known as some of his more high-profile Japanese fashion contemporaries, including Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. But it was Kansai who led the way for a generation of Japanese design talents to make their mark on the Western industry.

In 1971, he was among the first Japanese designers to show in London — a full decade before Kawakubo and the other Yamamoto. His signature aesthetic of sculptural shapes, clashing textures and prints, and eye-popping color combinations attracted industry attention.

Kansai’s debut collection was splashed across the cover of Harpers & Queen magazine with the tagline “Explosion from Tokyo,” and his growing profile led to collaborations with the decade’s most important musician showmen, including Elton John and Stevie Wonder in addition to Bowie, with whom he formed a long-standing creative relationship.

“Color is like the oxygen we are both breathing in the same space,” Kansai once said of his work with Bowie, who died in 2016.

In a talk at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City during its 2018 “David Bowie Is” exhibition, to which he wore an elaborate black-and-gold brocade suit that he characterized as “minimal,” Kansai recalled meeting Bowie in 1973. Bowie’s producer had called Kansai and asked him to come to Radio City Music Hall in New York, where, in a concert, Bowie descended the stage on a giant disco ball.

The two men soon discovered that they shared a love of “radical appearance” and pushing boundaries. In fact, Bowie had been wearing Kansai’s womenswear since 1971. From 1973 onward, they worked together to create one-off showpieces for Bowie’s stage personas and music tours, including the 1973 “Aladdin Sane” tour.

There were exuberant skintight jumpsuits with giant flared hems and silken brocade bomber jackets, androgynous cloaks with cutaways and vivid platform shoes. Often, the costumes incorporated elements from Japanese culture, particularly the silhouette of the kimono and the bold aesthetics of medieval samurai warlords.

“I approached Bowie’s clothes as if I was designing for a female,” Kansai said at the Brooklyn Museum talk, pointing out that there was “no zipper in front.” He also said that the number of costume changes required had inspired him to use snaps on Bowie’s costumes, so they could be removed faster.

His favorite piece for the singer was the black-and-white jumpsuit with bowed legs featured in the “David Bowie Is” exhibition, which was first mounted in 2013 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London before traveling around the world.

“I found David’s aesthetic and interest in transcending gender boundaries shockingly beautiful,” Kansai told the website The Cut in 2018.

Born on Feb. 8, 1944, in Yokohama, on Japan’s east coast, Kansai Yamamoto did not have a happy childhood. His parents divorced when he was 7, and he was sent to a children’s home. He traveled with his two younger brothers — ages 3 and 5 — from Yokohama to Tokyo and then to the far-flung southwestern province of Kochi.

“How much I envied the lights of happy families that I saw from the window of the slow train at dusk,” he once said. “It was lonely, and I still can’t forget that.”

He studied civil engineering before leaving school in 1962 to study English at Nippon University. A self-taught fashion designer (despite saying later that “fashion is not a profession I would recommend”) he founded his own business, Yamamoto Kansai Company, at 28, the year of his first London show.

After his heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, and as Japanese fashion gained global prominence for its cultivation of a pared-back minimalism, Kansai continued to explore his interest in traditional Japanese clothing and craftsmanship, but with a distinctive and fantastical flourish.

He often pointed to his long-standing affinity with the Japanese concept of basara, a love of color and flamboyance; one that stood directly in contrast with the idea of wabi-sabi, the Buddhist ideal of the beauty in imperfection, modesty and humble materials.

Starting in 1993 in Red Square in Moscow, he began producing evermore extravagant “super shows,” including one that involved a gigantic inflatable whale.

In 2017, he experienced something of a renaissance when he was asked by Louis Vuitton to create a number of looks for its 2018 resort collection show held in Kyoto, Japan. Kansai created several new graphics, including Kabuki-themed handbags and shimmery dresses emblazoned with the faces of grimacing yakko warriors.

He and Bowie remained friends until the singer’s death. In 2013, the two had discussed doing a “super show” together, for which Kansai would create the clothes and also produce the spectacle. Kansai said he owned two 35-foot air balloons (though no car).

“To have Bowie sit atop those air balloons, and have him sing his songs, was my dream,” he said in 2018.

In an Instagram post Monday, Kansai’s daughter, Mirai Yamamoto, said her father “had left this world peacefully, surrounded by loved ones.” Information on other survivors was not immediately available.

Despite his illness, Kansai continued to work for as long as he was able: He had recently been planning a trip to the North Pole to research an ice-themed show.

“People always want originality,” he said. “That’s the future.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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