Remembering Kansai Yamamoto: The Designer Behind David Bowie's Most Iconic Looks | CoolJapan

The world may have lost him in July of this year at age 76, but Kansai Yamamoto’s legacy in fashion will without a doubt continue to live on. His vivid imagery and presentation trickled down not just to his fashion pieces but also his entire runway shows, delivering a visually addicting vibe drunk in colour, which earned him the title 'The Kaleidoscope King'.

Kansai Yamamoto with David Bowie 

As the designer responsible for some of David Bowie’s most iconic looks — including the extravagance and maximalism of the music icon’s alter egos Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane — it’s no wonder why other avant-garde designers like Anna Sui and Jeremy Scott view him as an inspiration.

Kansai Yamamoto with Anna Sui

While his name might not resonate as much as the likes of Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto or Nigo in today’s scene, his influence undoubtedly paved the way for the recognition of J-fashion in the Western arena (despite his humble perception of this feat). After all, he is the first Japanese fashion designer to showcase work in London Fashion Week in 1971.

But aside from his known collaborations and his inarguable contribution to the industry, what is it about Kansai’s vision on fashion that sets him apart from other figures in the field?

The anti-thesis of Japanese minimalism

If we talk about Japanese fashion and lifestyle today, minimalism comes at the forefront. However, to its core, Japan’s style scene has always been known for its grandeur, whether we’re talking about traditional fashion (a.k.a. the intricate work that goes into a kimono) or their more renowned street-style aesthetic from the 70s to the 90s (usually realised through visual kei, lolita or Harajuku fashion). Kansai’s works live and breathe this kind of aura — the boldness and eccentricities of design using traditional structures and patterns that are ingenuously Japanese, mixed with a genderless or androgynous appeal.

“In Japan, the word basara means to dress freely, with a stylish extravagance,” said Kansai Yamamoto in his Victoria & Albert Fashion In Motion showcase in London in 2013. “Basara is the opposite of the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic, which is underplayed and modest; it is colourful and flamboyant and it lies at the heart of my design.”

It's no wonder why his other clients — musical legends Elton John and Stevie Wonder, as well as current pop music personalities like Rita Ora and Lady Gaga — are also known for their very loud and colourful personas. From exaggerated silhouettes to asymmetric patterns and even down to beauty looks that never fail to inspire awe, Kansai's artistry and collaborations were void of simple black-and-white. 

After a long hiatus from fashion to pursue stage and events production and direction, Kansai described his return to the industry in 2013 to WWD as a culmination of his 20 years as a fashion designer and 20 years “focused on entertainment”. The showcase, aptly called Fashion In Motion, was held in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. It was dubbed a “super-show” that combined fashion with “music, dance, and large scale entertainment.”

Kansai shared more of his musings about his craft on a Dazed Digital 2013 interview, saying: “After my shows, people feel happy and that is my dream. I try to create something that conveys more than just clothes. If I fell in love with someone, over time I wouldn't remember what they were wearing — you also need to focus on the importance of the mind.”

Kansai Yamamoto’s legacy: cultural sharing and appreciation

In today’s age, the style that Kansai allowed his collaborators to exude may be considered cultural appropriation. Take for instance Kansai’s influence on Bowie’s kabuki and Noh-inspired numbers in the 70s. The music icon’s showstopping hikinuki-style costume reveal in his Radio City Music Hall appearance in New York in 1973 — which is derived from a traditional Japanese stage art — can also be viewed as a case of Orientalism, especially with a white man at the forefront. Even so, Kansai himself enabled and encouraged this idea and made it possible.

On this cross-cultural approach, Kansai said: ”I don't know why [Bowie] was so attracted to things Japanese, but perhaps it wasn't so much Japan or Japanese-ness itself. He knew when he looked good in something. When you wear something and you look really good, you feel confident and good about yourself. I think my designs and costumes had that effect on him."

David Bowie in his iconic Kansai Yamamoto Ziggy Stardust black velvet jumpsuit

In an essay written by fashion historian Helene Thian, this partnership between Bowie and Kansai “signified a newly formed bond between the east and west” especially in the 70s when the World War was still fresh in memory. She elaborated that, with such a move, the two helped close the gap of the “otherness” of Japan in places like Europe and North America. Overall, it was an homage rather than an exploitation.

But it didn’t end there. This cultural sharing and appreciation Kansai championed translated even in the 21st century. His modern pieces worn by Lady Gaga — whether acquired by the artist or as gifted by Kansai himself — exuded references from traditional clothing like kimonos and hakamas that give off a very Harajuku-like colour story.

As of writing, no one has dared to question nor dispute this kind of relationship between Kansai and the artists who celebrate his work given that the designer himself saw no fault in this kind of cultural affinity. 

Kansai's openness to sharing the reinvention of traditional Japanese culture in fashion, as well as his vision for mind-boggling yet elegant affairs with fabric and thread, served as a benchmark for a lot of other designers and artists in the industry. Jean Paul Gaultier and Raf Simmons have often credited Kansai in their design notes as an inspiration, especially when it comes to more avant-garde collections.

Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui also regard the designer as a figure that inspired them to pursue their current track in the industry. Even Louis Vuitton's Nicolas Ghesquière tapped the Kansai aesthetic in 2017 for the brand's resort collection, which featured a lot of kimono-like silhouettes and kabuki and Noh prints and designs. 

While the discussion as to whether or not his vision and perception on the manner could apply in today’s contentious society hangs in the air, Kansai Yamamoto’s fashion legacy and his work's capacity to close the gap between cultures have made an indelible mark. And even if he has already passed, his wish to be remembered through the vividness of his work will, without a doubt, always be realised.

(Cover photo from: David Preston via Unsplash; The Hague, The Netherlands/CC BY 2.0)