It was as David Bowie walked the streets of London in 1971, with Ziggy Stardust in his fledgling days, that he stumbled upon Kansai Yamamoto’s shop on King’s Road. The young designer had just debuted a womenswear collection at London Fashion Week, and it was a spellbinding show. A side of Japan that hadn’t been seen or truly appreciated before took centre stage in the style of basara: an exaggerated aesthetic that rebelled against traditional clothing norms in a burst of colour and eclecticism. 

Born in 1944 in Yokohama, Yamamoto embarked upon a degree in English and Civil Engineering at Nippon University before deciding, aged 20, that he wanted to delve into the world of fashion design. After taking on many internships and honing his craft, the collection he debuted in London rejected standard silhouettes and demure colour palettes in favour of bold, psychedelic patterning and dramatically oversized proportions. At the heart of the collection lied, of course, his native Japan, and he routinely integrated prints inspired by artists like Katsushika Hokusai, used kimono-style shapes and played on the imagery that inspired many Yakuza tattoos (like Japanese mythology, or images of dragons and koi fish). 

The collection caught the eye of many famed faces, notably the likes of Elton John, Stevie Wonder and the famously eccentric David Bowie. As Ziggy Stardust was soon to meet the world, Bowie drew on aspects of Yamamoto’s work as he fine-tuned his persona’s aesthetic. Stardust’s mullet was red, which was adapted from a kabuki wig he had seen one of Yamamoto’s models, Marie Helvin, wear in Harpers & Queen magazine. Bowie being the Japanophile he was, his stylist Yacco Takahashi advised him to buy some Yamamoto pieces for his 1972 tour wardrobe, which commenced a bold, daring and innovative partnership between the two creative forces.

Yamamoto was informed by a friend at 4am while in Tokyo that he had to urgently get to New York, as a singer was going to perform in his clothing. Yamamoto immediately took a plane to JFK airport, and sat in the front row at Radio City Music Hall in 1973 to see Bowie in his element wearing unmistakably Kansai Yamamoto clothing. “Some sort of chemical reaction took place”, remarked Yamamoto, “my clothes became part of David, his songs and his music.” The two formally met that night, and Yamamoto went on to collaborate on the wardrobe for Bowie’s Aladdin Sane tour, featuring the famous Tokyo Pop jumpsuit, black and white striped with very flared legs. 

Yamamoto inspired many designers with his theatricality and avant-garde designing, from Jean Paul Gaultier to Marc Jacobs. Jacobs met with Yamamoto in 1980 when he was a student, commenting that “To this day I am filled with gratitude to Kansai for seeing in me a special spark, and giving me the wings I needed to fly”. Yamamoto even offered the young Jacobs a chance to work with him, which Jacobs further detailed in an Instagram post: “Kansai was so impressed by my youthful energy and creative spirit, that he offered me a dream opportunity – to envision and arrange a 'Happening/after-party' in celebration of The Kansai Restaurant, an imaginary place that was to be the theme of his next collection”. 

Yamamoto’s legacy continues  on, after continuing to work with musicians like Lady Gaga on vibrant and complex costuming and also working with Nicholas Ghesquière on a 2017 Louis Vuitton collection. Most recently, he founded the Nippon Genki Project, which held a festival following the 2011 tsunami in Japan, designed to bring hope and life back to the citizens affected, and also offering mentoring to young fashion designers that had had their livelihoods destroyed. He also mentored UAL students in 2019, through the British Museum’s Manga exhibition programme. 

Yamamoto was a light in the fashion world: even after his diagnosis of leukaemia, he designed himself a set of colourful pyjamas to wear in hospital. "'Human energy is limitless' was his motto he would never let go, and he bravely kept challenging no matter hard the situation,"  commented his studio Kansai Yamamoto Inc, which is the most summative way of describing Yamamoto. A visionary, a creative, a gift: Kansai Yamamoto shaped the fashion world and will always be remembered in every exaggerated silhouette and every colour clash.