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The Japanese delegation marches in at the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics.
Kenzo Takada

Kenzo Takada (29) Pursuing a new dream, I lose an old one

The thrill of designing Japan's Olympic uniforms was followed by failure in business

| Japan

"Would you design the uniforms for Japan's delegation to the 2004 Athens Olympics?"

The person calling to ask me this was Chikara Sasaki, a friend of mine and the common-law husband of actress Hisako Manda. Sasaki would later become president of American women's clothing company Theory as well as an executive at Fast Retailing, which is known for its Uniqlo stores. Our conversation took place in early 2003.

Fast Retailing was to handle the production. In mid-June, I went to Tokyo to make arrangements. That was my first meeting with Tadashi Yanai, head of the Fast Retailing group. I had drawn a handful of sketches to use as a starting point from which we could flesh out the design. They featured Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms and the Rising Sun.

Yanai looked at my sketches and promptly said, "These look like souvenirs for foreigners. Let's get away from things like Mount Fuji and geisha."

He was exactly right. He was indeed a world-class executive and instantly sensed that, having been away from the job for a while, I had lost some of my edge. To do a good job, a frank exchange of opinions is vital. I was grateful and deeply impressed.

Owing to my lack of management skills, as well as a variety of difficulties that cropped up, the business just never got on track

We held intensive discussions over the next three months and finally decided on the colors, materials and designs. As a result of this process, we came up with the idea of letting the athletes choose their own preferred combination of colors, patterns and materials from a variety of options. The theme was "the compatibility of individuality and uniformity."

The design was such that although the individual athletes were all different, there was a clear sense of unity to the group as a whole. We destroyed the stereotype of stiff and formal uniforms.

At last it was show time. I watched the opening ceremonies in Athens. The Japanese athletes entered the field in their relaxed-fitting uniforms, with the floral patterns on a cool white background and the Japanese fans in their hands fluttering. I felt invigorated.

I watched Ryoko Tani take gold in the women's judo competition. Japan racked up medals in several other events as well, finishing with 16 gold -- tying the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for its most ever -- plus nine silver and 12 bronze medals. Nothing was as delightful as thinking that I may have contributed in some small way.

A disastrous return

Looking to make a full-fledged return to business, I launched the "Gokan Kobo" (workshop of the five senses) brand and company in 2004. However, owing to my lack of management skills, as well as various difficulties that cropped up, the business just never got on track.

There was trouble from the outset. Originally, I wanted to operate the brand and company under the name "Takada." However, right before the launch, I learned that somebody else had registered a trademark on that name, so I couldn't use it for my business. 

On top of this, the cost of getting the business off the ground, including building a store in a prime location, setting up offices and paying personnel, required a huge amount of money. Nor did the design and production of apparel and jewelry move forward as I thought they would. I went to court and managed to get use of the name "Takada," but in short order my finances went south. Finally, in 2007 I filed for personal bankruptcy.

The approach I had used with "Jungle Jap" -- starting the business entirely on my own without relying on a professional manager -- did not work this time. As a result, I was forced to part with the home I had created with Xavier, as well as my art collection and other items.

In pursuing my new "dream," I lost the castle I had created with Xavier. It was mortifying. I was forlorn. But at the same time, I was able to get my finances somewhat in order, so there was also a feeling of relief.

You reap what you sow. There was an incident in 2008 when I was picked up by the police for driving drunk the wrong way on a road in central Paris. This was due entirely to my own carelessness. I'm ashamed to think about the trouble I caused.

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

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