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  • Jul 29, 2020

Obituary: Kansai Yamamoto (1944–2020)

Fashion designer KANSAI YAMAMOTO has died, aged 76.

Kansai Yamamoto, an influential figure for Japanese contemporary fashion, passed away on July 21 from acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 76. 

Yamamoto employed bold colors and dramatic silhouettes, drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese kimonos, irezumi tattoos, and ukiyo-e prints to create unisex outfits that the New York Times characterized as “1970s escapism . . . about dreaming [and] a certain unreality.” He is known for his stage costumes for singers Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, as well as David Bowie. Yamamoto’s designs have been memorialized in fashion collections, including his 2018 collaboration with Louis Vuitton, and in solo exhibitions like “Passionate Exhibit: The Energy Principle of Kansai” at the Edo-Tokyo Museum in 2008 and “Hello! Fashion: Kansai Yamamoto, 1971–1973” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2009, among others.

Born in Yokohama in 1944, he was initially an English major at Tokyo’s Nippon University before he dropped out in 1965 to pursue a career as a fashion designer. Self-taught, he won the 1967 Soen Prize for budding designers. In 1971, the 28-year-old founded Kansai Yamamoto, Inc., and became one of the first Japanese designers to show in London with his collection of kabuki-inspired theater clothing at King’s Road. Soon after, he shot to global acclaim designing cloaks and one-piece suits for Bowie, creating the singer’s signature flamboyant looks in his 1972–73 “Ziggy Stardust” and “Aladdin Sane” tours.

Following nearly two decades of fashion shows across London, Paris, and New York, Yamamoto produced the inaugural multi-arts festival Kansai Super Show "Hello! Russia" in Moscow’s Red Square in 1993. He continued to produce these shows with extravagant elements across Hanoi in 1995, New Delhi in 1997, and Gifu in 2000. Yamamoto also designed venues and social events including the 2008 G8 summit in Toyako. He was recognized with the 2010 Good Design Award and the 2011 Blue Ribbon Award by the Japan Railfan Club for his Keisei Skyliner train, which operates between Tokyo and Narita Airport. 

In an Instagram post, his daughter Mirai Yamamoto remembers Yamamoto’s “positive, forward-looking mindset” and his persistence, adding that she will continue to support “this legacy of my father through my work at KANSAI SUPER STUDIO . . . I hope to spread Kansai Yamamoto’s spirit of ‘Genki’ to the world.”

The latest iteration of his annual fashion festival Nippon Genki Project, titled “Light for Hope,” will be livestreamed on July 31. The show will feature a light beam from Kyoto’s Enryakuji Temple and showcase up to 1,000 fashion pieces by students from the United Kingdom and Japan. 

Fion Tse is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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