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Me, in the center, with staff
Kenzo Takada

Kenzo Takada (17) Causing an unintentional uproar in the US

Sued over my 'playful' store name, I learned how scary business can be

| Japan

"Jungle Jap is a bad name. You'd better change it."

This concerned advice came from Madame Dewi, the widow of former Indonesian President Sukarno. In political exile following the overthrow of the government, she was a belle of Parisian society and gave me advice on a variety of topics.

Kuniko Tsutsumi, Seibu Department Store's top executive in Paris (and the younger sister of Seiji Tsutsumi), and Hiroko Matsumoto, a pioneering Japanese model who was active in Paris, were of the exact same opinion.

I certainly understood everyone's concern. But I didn't think it would be a problem, since it was a Japanese person using the word about himself.

I treated the whole thing lightly. I had opened my store with a breezy attitude, I reasoned, so it was best to be a bit mischievous. And in fact, the name was well-received by Parisians, who found it "amusing."

I had opened my store with a playful attitude, so I thought it would be best to maintain a bit of mischievousness

But Madame Dewi's concern proved well-founded. 

In was in the summer of 1972 that the incident occurred. I was to hold a show in New York following an introduction by a magazine editor. This was wonderful news, as it meant that my fame had spread beyond Paris and reached even the shores of the U.S.

"What kind of welcome will I received in New York?" I wondered. With my heart pounding, I headed toward the department store. But what was waiting for me was a Japanese-American group carrying placards. Far from a warm reception, they scowled at me as they took up positions at the venue and started to yell: "The word 'Jap' is offensive to the Japanese. It's inexcusable. We demand that you remove it!"

I was shocked at this unexpected protest. It turns out Madame Dewi had been right. Their anger unappeased, the protesters attempted to block the opening of the show. There was utter chaos at the venue, which could have led to injuries.

Fearing an uproar, the department store hastily canceled the event. There was no choice. Without intending to, I had offended those of Japanese descent. I had not considered the great hardships and suffering they had endured during and after the war. It was thoughtless of me.

The issue of the derogatory term went so far that a lawsuit was filed seeking a trademark injunction.

We negotiated a settlement by agreeing to drop "Jap" from the name of products intended for the U.S. market, but I had learned how scary business can be.

Trial and error

Having debuted in April 1970, we were a group of complete amateurs when it came to management. Even Gilles Raysse, the French former photographer I took on as a partner in June, was a playboy with a sunny personality. While he was well-connected with cultural figures and people in the media, company management was not his strong point.

As the number of shows increased, we began dealing seriously with buyers. But we didn't have the know-how to mass produce our products. If we couldn't meet our delivery deadlines, orders would be cancelled. U.S. buyers were particularly strict.

It was a series of trials and errors. Having said that, the popularity of our shows in Paris only grew. Perhaps they suited the times. Our amateur sensibilities were a strength rather than a weakness. We tried novel experiments, using pubs, movie theaters and a commodities exchange as venues and piping in trendy music like disco.

I didn't put on stiff, formal shows. My style was for a show to be as much fun to put on as it was to attend. I made good use of my experience partying at discos and nightclubs night after night.

Interest grew exponentially as word spread, and at a show in 1972, 3,000 people thronged a venue intended for 600. Sensing the danger this posed, I was forced to tearfully cancel the show. I was mobbed by attendees shouting, "We want to see the clothes!" and "Go on with the show!"

The media devoted considerable attention to me, calling me the "new trend in the fashion world."

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

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