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Kansai Yamamoto

Japanese, born 1944

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Kansai Yamamoto is considered one of the founding fathers of Japanese contemporary fashion. Born in 1944, he graduated from the renowned Bunka Fashion College in 1967 and opened his first boutique in Tokyo the following year. With his exuberant designs-- inspired by the colorful art of Japan's Momoyama period (1568 - 1615) and traditional Kabuki theater--it wasn't long before he expanded worldwide.

Kansai's collections debuted in the United States in 1971 at Hess's in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a department store known for its forward-thinking, and sometimes controversial, fashion shows of American and European styles selected for their potential to influence ready-to-wear clothing designs. (Rudy Gernreich's topless bathing suit was first modeled at Hess's in 1964.) That same year Kansai became the first Japanese designer to show in London, where his clothing was seen by musician David Bowie; Bowie later commissioned Kansai to create the wardrobe for his Ziggy Stardust stage persona. The designer was again featured in Hess's showing of Asian trendsetting fashions for fall/winter 1973 at One World Trade Center in New York.

Kansai's Creations

During the early 1970s when Japanese college students and working women favored mid-calf to ankle-length peasant-style dresses, Kansai designed a version that was daringly bare but could be covered up with a short, full-sleeved jacket that buttoned along the left shoulder and down the side in a style associated with traditional Chinese dress. (Buttoning on the left, however, was considered by the Chinese to be "the fashion of barbarians.")

Many of his other fashions are a nod towards the past. They include a playsuit based on traditional Japanese firefighters' clothing made from indigo printed cotton traditionally used for yukata, the Japanese summer kimono, as well as a "bull's eye" cape constructed from a full circle of fabric, much like the capes worn by samurai fire wardens. The design of this cape recalls a samurai archer's target, kasumi-mato, consisting of a series of concentric circles of varying width. The bold graphics on one of Kansai's evening dresses, which was modeled in his Tokyo-London fashion show in 1971, were inspired by large tattoos called irezumi. Such tattoos became popular in Japan during the Edo period (1615 - 1868), following the publication of the Japanese adaptation and translation of the Chinese story of the 108 heroes of the Suikoden and a series of woodblock prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 - 1861) that illustrated the tales of these rebel bandits. Irezumi were outlawed in the late nineteenth century during the Meiji Restoration and legalized again after 1945.

Recent Years

Since the early 1990s, Kansai has lent his name to licensed products ranging from eyeglasses to tableware. His fashion show spectaculars have become the framework for the grand Kansai Super Shows, the first of which was held in Moscow's Red Square in 1993. Others held since in Japan, Vietnam, India, and Berlin have drawn audiences in the hundreds of thousands. His designs continue to contrast with the Zen-like simplicity and deconstructed silhouettes favored by designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, and Issey Miyake.

Kansai recently returned to fashion as a designer of traditional Japanese garments in a contemporary idiom, including kimono (2004) and Hanten festival-inspired coats (2007). He continues to produce Super Shows as part of a larger initiative to invigorate the arts in Japan and serves as a government advisor on tourism and cultural affairs.

Hello! Fashion: Kansai Yamamoto, 1971–1973, 2008

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