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The passenger ship Cambodia underway
Kenzo Takada

Kenzo Takada (10) On a slow boat to Paris

As prosperity came to Japan, I embarked on a voyage that would shape my career

| Japan

It was 1964, the year that Tokyo hosted the Olympics. Young people decked out in the Ivy League look were gathering on Miyuki Street in Ginza. They wore slim cotton trousers, and for some reason they all carried around big paper or jute bags. This was the birth of the Miyuki-zoku subculture.

I gazed at them with deep interest as I made my way to and from work at Sanai's planning office. Also a fan of the Ivy League look, I would swagger down the street wearing a plaid shirt under a Van jacket. In those days, Ginza was the place where Japan's latest fashion trends got started.

That year, Junko Koshino, who had been one of my classmates in the "Ninth Class of Flowers" at Bunka Fashion College, went to Paris for the first time. By that time, Junko was already independent and had her own shop in a Ginza Komatsu department store.

Japan was preparing to host the Olympic Games, and its economy was firing on all cylinders. Going overseas, however, was still not something you could do on a whim. "I've let Junko get ahead of me again," I thought to myself. "I need to go to Paris soon, too."

It was a dream I nurtured secretly, but it came true almost at once.

A convenient eviction

The luxury apartment where I was living in Roppongi was to be renovated, and I was paid 10 months' rent -- a total of 250,000 yen -- to move out. An unexpected opportunity had presented itself.

Fashion designers naturally feel drawn to Paris. We all want to see the place at least once before we die

"I could use this money to go to Paris," I realized.

"That's a wonderful plan," came the immediate reply from Mitsuhiro Matsuda, a colleague at Sanai with whom I discussed the matter. "In fact, I have a little saved up as well, so why don't we take the plunge!"

Fashion designers naturally feel drawn to Paris. We all want to see the place at least once before we die. In my case, Paris was also home to the New Wave films of which I was so fond.

The fact that Junko had been able to visit Paris before Matsuda and me also spurred us to action.

We requested a six-month leave of absence from Sanai. Our idea was simply to experience the culture of a foreign country, breathe in the air there and then return to Japan and resume working for Sanai. Matsuda, who had just gotten married, also intended to go sightseeing in Europe and the U.S. for his honeymoon.

We decided to make the trip by boat rather than by airplane. Chie Koike, our beloved teacher from Bunka Fashion College, had said to us, "I definitely advise traveling by boat, because then you'll be able to do more sightseeing at stops along the way."

Her advice proved to be spot on. The styles for which I was later recognized in Paris were born from the precious experience of that boat trip.

Although I had once attended Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, I had absolutely no confidence in my language abilities. Right away, I began taking French lessons at a language school in Kanda-Surugadai, even though I knew full well that this last-minute cramming wouldn't be enough.

The night before our departure, I met with Isao Kaneko -- another member of the "Ninth Class of Flowers" -- to bid him farewell. The two of us had a lot of fun together after graduation, even though we worked for different companies.

"You can look forward to the stories I'm going to bring back," I told him. "Oh yeah?" he replied. "I really wish I could go with you."

"Come see me anytime," I said to cheer him up. "I'll be waiting for you in Paris."

It was Nov. 30, 1964. A light drizzle was falling on the port of Yokohama. The sound of the departure gong rang out, and countless paper streamers fluttered on the breeze. On the wharf, my mother, brothers and friends waved a reluctant farewell.

The Cambodia -- the ship on which Matsuda, his wife and I were traveling -- steamed out of the harbor toward the Pacific Ocean, its white hull rocking slowly on the waves.

Kenzo Takada is a fashion designer known for his eponymous label Kenzo, which he left in 1999.

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