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Kenzo Takada

Kenzo Takada (8) Eye-opening lessons and the prestigious Souen Award

Camaraderie and rivalry helped shape my eventful second year at design school

| Japan
The work for which I won the Soen Award

It was in my second year at Bunka Fashion College, as I moved into the design curriculum, that a bright future finally began to dawn. What helped me emerge from my dark tunnel was the mentor and rivals I met at school.

Chie Koike, who established the design curriculum, was an up-and-coming leader who had experienced studying alongside the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld in Paris. Her courses were the most interesting.

On one occasion she started class by saying, "Everyone, go outside and pick up a pebble that strikes your fancy!" We were confused by this sudden order. Looking at the pebbles we had all collected, we saw that they varied in shape and size. We wrapped them in cloth and then unwrapped them, revealing complex wrinkles and folds that had been naturally created. That was the meaning of darts and drapes.

Of course, that makes sense, I thought. It was as though the scales fell from my eyes.

Thinking in a new dimension

At that time, the mainstream in Japanese garment making was so-called flat pattern cutting, based on two-dimensional design plans. Koike-sensei brought to this a three-dimensional approach called draping that she had learned in Paris. In this method, fabric is wrapped around a mannequin, producing clothing that fits the contours and curves of the body.

Though we never said so out loud, we all had a common goal: the Soen Award

In these classes, I was able to understand perfectly the true meaning of drawings, patterns and cuts that had been entirely incomprehensible in the initial curriculum. The teacher hammered into my head the idea that "clothes are captured sculpturally."

The design curriculum was full of gifted and unique individuals.

In addition to Mitsuhiro Matsuda and Isao Kaneko, who had been with me in the general curriculum, Junko Koshino, who had come from Osaka, also joined our class. This collection of talented men and women would later be called the "Ninth Class of Flowers" and would even become the model for a TV drama.

Our motto was "Study hard, play hard." We spent long hours in jazz clubs, helping our discussions on art and culture flourish, and we drank in bars on busy streets until the sun came up. We appreciated plays and kabuki theater, and also became absorbed in reading books like Yukio Mishima's novel "Forbidden Colors."

We also went to a lot of movies. We talked heatedly about Japanese films and the movies of the French New Wave filmmakers. I really wanted to experience being on a movie set, and I alone ended up appearing as an extra, in a suspense thriller based on novelist Seicho Matsumoto's "Black Sea of Trees."

We became increasingly absorbed in our classes, and our abilities steadily increased.

Matsuda, who had graduated from Waseda University, was the natural leader in our group. Kaneko was an expert at drawing, and was also very well versed in films, plays and kabuki. Junko, who had an exceptionally wide range of personal connections, was a member of the social group known as the Roppongi Wild Animal Committee, which was frequented by entertainers.

Unspoken ambition

Though we never said so out loud, we all had a common goal: the Soen Award.

Established in 1956, this prize was the gateway to success for designers, with the winner selected semiannually from tens of thousands of entrant. Many aspiring designers were competing heatedly for it. I began secretly applying from the latter half of my time in the general curriculum. The other members of my group did exactly the same.

The first of us to win the top prize was Junko. She won at the very beginning of our second year in the design curriculum, in the first half of 1960. It generated quite a buzz, in no small part because she was the youngest winner in the award's history. By a narrow margin, Matsuda and I got honorable mention. We congratulated our comrade's spectacular achievement, but my feelings were quite complicated and mixed with frustration.

I resumed my efforts with redoubled energy, determined not to lose again. In the latter half of that same year, my greatest desire was realized: I captured the prize with a white one-button, two-piece dress. It was a confident work, with a vivid blue blouse on the inside, and a belt. Matsuda once again got honorable mention.

At the award ceremony, I was in utter bliss as I received the first-place trophy. The environment surrounding me was rapidly changing.

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

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