The late Kansai Yamamoto: “The world needs that sort of ‘power’ only I possess”

With the sad news of his passing, we look back to our interview in 2017 with the Japanese designer, in which he discussed his designs for David Bowie, Louis Vuitton and his message for a new generation.

by Kazumi Asamura Hayashi; translated by Leandro Di Rosa
30 July 2020, 1:44pm

This article has been translated from Japanese to English and originally appeared in i-D Japan's The JOY Issue, no. 4, Fall 2017.

Tell us about how you became the first Japanese person in London to organise a fashion show in 1971.
It’s pretty simple: the Vietnam War was going on, and the music business was booming, especially in England. There weren’t any independent fashion movements, but the musicians would wear incredible outfits. I thought London would be the place to be, so I went there for the first time when I turned 24. Just before that, I was featured in Life magazine in an article about the 10 coolest men in the world, which turned out to be one of the most intense experiences of my life. I used to have curly hair since I’ve always admired the western look, but I thought that it wouldn’t be good enough if I wanted to reach the top, so two years later I got myself a buzz cut. At that time, I became strongly aware of my identity as an Asian man, a Japanese man, which I still am aware of to this day.

V&A’s exhibition David Bowie Is is currently being shown everywhere around the world. Can you tell us about the time in 1973 when you got to design David Bowie’s outfits?
The first time I met him was at Radio City Music Hall, in New York. Japanese stylist Yasuko Takahashi called me many times in the middle of the night telling me that I had to absolutely come and see him, so I flew to New York as soon as I could. While wearing the outfits I designed, David Bowie performed the ‘hikinuki’, a Kabuki theatre movement used to quickly change costumes, and the whole audience stood up in amazement. When I saw that, I realised that I had achieved something great.

Your collaboration with Nicolas Ghesquière for Louis Vuitton is critically acclaimed. How did it come about?
After it all happened, I asked Nicolas why he wanted to collaborate with me and he told me that it was because of David Bowie’s exhibition. He told me that there aren’t any designers like me, or in other words, that everyone was surprised by the “staggering power” I possess.

In that regard, I guess my most characteristic trait would be how I use colours. When I wear dark or gloomy colours, my feelings also get darker, gloomier. That is why my wardrobe is full of vivid clothes.

Your life’s work is spreading around the world through large-scale shows and exhibitions. You have also surpassed what most people think a “normal fashion designer” is, by being professionally active in so many different ways. What kind of thoughts and emotions are behind this?
In my mind, I always discern the way one expresses themselves through fashion from other forms of on-stage expression. I am the kind of person who needs both, which is something I realised by looking at my little brother (Yusuke Iseya). I don’t believe his real vocation is actually to be acting in movies. Lumping different projects together is what he is best at, which I think to be true for me in fashion. Recently I have been organising festivals in Kumamoto Castle, and I have also been planning an event based on ‘Chūshingura’ to be hosted in two years. Lately, I have come to realise through my work how everyone has different values. When interacting with different people, I find questioning myself about what proves the fact that I am alive. I feel most fulfilled when I do something that only I can do, when I can give others inspiration and energy. You should never be satisfied with achieving something that is kind of good or interesting, just by following some sort of mathematic expression. You need a reason to win. Recently, I have also been thinking about why my work with David Bowie’s exhibition or Louis Vuitton is becoming so relevant, and I have come to realise that is probably because the world needs that sort of ‘power’ only I possess.

Do you have a message for the newer generations?
I think the most important thing is to have a dream and keep working towards it. So the answer is very simple, and most people don’t really have the patience for it, but if you want to do something you have to keep practicing until you get it. When I watch a movie, I never judge it, because a lot of it is impossible to capture through a camera. Temperature, for example, is impossible to film, as well as the smell and the atmosphere of the set, which is why I always try to visit it. If you don’t try to feel it with your five senses, nothing can be done about it.


Photography Takao Iwasawa

Louis Vuitton
david bowie
Kansai Yamamoto
The joy issue
i-D Asia