Portrait by Kazumi Asamura Hayashi
In January 1972, David Bowie and his band set out on the Ziggy Stardust Tour, an 18-month, three-continent sojourn to support the albums The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane. As epoch-defining as the songs on those records were, it could be argued that Bowie’s persona, Ziggy Stardust, had a greater impact on sex, fashion, and the gender-bending pageantry of 70s glam rock that would eventually follow. Many of Ziggy’s most eye-popping outfits—avant-garde kimonos and billowing structural pantsuits—were made by Kansai Yamamoto, a Tokyo-based designer who had no idea that his creations would become such important visual markers in the history of rock ’n’ roll.
Japanese photographer and editor Kazumi Asamura Hayashi caught up with Kansai—who in the decades since Ziggy has continued to push fashion in new directions—to talk about the first time he crossed paths with Bowie and how his interest in Central Asian fabrics led to a coat that can cause car accidents.
Photo by Masayoshi Sukita
VICE: I heard a rumor that David Bowie wanted you to design these costumes so badly that he flew out in his jet to ask you in person. What was it like meeting him for the first time?
Kansai Yamamoto: I actually had no idea who David Bowie was until I saw him wearing my clothes onstage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Yasuko Hayashi, my stylist, was doing work for David Bowie and gave him some of my clothes. This was the first time I had ever met an artist who was wearing my designs. Before then, I didn’t know how immensely talented he was. (A similar thing happened to me with Lady Gaga. I only found out how talented she was when I looked her up on the internet ten minutes before I met her.) At the time, David Bowie was all about transcending gender. I didn’t know anything about concepts like that, so I remember thinking whoa when I saw him wearing clothes I had designed for women. The clothes were influenced by hikinuki, the method of changing costumes quickly in kabuki. The audience in New York saw the costumes transform a few times during the show. I realized I had done something really cool when everyone in the audience got on their feet and clapped.
I met a lot of famous people in the Western music world through David, and the one thing I can say for sure is that the best people in the world have distinctive personalities that are completely out of the ordinary.
You’ve said your work has a “Japanese beauty.” What do you mean by that?
Why was Andy Warhol obsessed with canned food? It’s the same with me, but I’m going after Japanese themes. Every artist has his own thing going on. I often use Japanese motifs and sometimes wonder if I’m choosing them because I’m Japanese. Having been all over the world and to countries with various religious backgrounds as much as I have, I sometimes wonder where I’m really from. I’m Japanese, so of course I think of myself as Japanese, and I eat Japanese food most of the time. I hardly ever eat Western food. That said, my daughter Mirai’s homemade spaghetti is really tasty! But of course I eat it with chopsticks. It would be rude to try and act cool and eat it with a fork.
Are you planning any new projects?
I can’t mention any details just yet, but I’m thinking of doing a “super show” in Istanbul. There are so many “-stan” places in the world, from Afghanistan to Istanbul, but I have never taken any ideas from them. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the materials of India, China, and Tibet, sure, but I haven’t really looked into Central Asia much. The pants I’m wearing right now are made of fabric from one of the “-stan” countries, and I think it’s a pretty intense material to use for clothing. It’s a weave, so the fabric on the outside and the fabric on the inside are different. I made a coat using a “-stan” fabric as well, and it turned out great. Like, so great that if I wear it around town people will wreck their cars from staring too hard.
You’re thought of as being very strong-willed. Do you think that’s true?
I’ve done everything I ever said I would. Everything. And that’s not going to change until I die. I just want people to remember me as someone who lived up to all of his big words. Sometimes that means I demand too much of others, though. I’m picky about everything, all the way down to the smallest details. But I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist. If I were to aim for perfection, then even a tiny failure would make me droop my shoulders and everything would come apart at the seams. Just imagining that happening fills my head with sorrow!
Sometimes I ask myself, What were the times that were the worst for me? The answer is always when I didn’t have enough money to be stylish. My biggest wish is to keep on being the flashiest guy out there regardless of how old I am.
Photos by Tajima Kazunali