Designer and David Bowie collaborator Kansai Yamamoto dies aged 76

The renowned Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto, best known for his collaboration with David Bowie, has died of leukaemia aged 76.

Yamamoto was known for his singular aesthetic of bold, avant-garde designs, clashing colours and patterns that often incorporated elements from Japanese culture.

His longstanding artistic partnership with Bowie would go on to inspire many younger fashion designers, including Jean Paul Gaultier, Hedi Slimane and Raf Simons, and became a major reference for modern gender-defying fashion.

David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust, in his ‘woodland creatures’ costume designed by Yamamoto, in 1973.
David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust, in his ‘woodland creatures’ costume designed by Yamamoto, in 1973. Photograph: Debi Doss/Getty Images

Yamamoto’s daughter Mirai confirmed her father’s death on Instagram, saying he “left this world peacefully, surrounded by loved ones”. She wrote: “In my eyes, my father was not only the eclectic and energetic soul that the world knew him as, but someone who was also thoughtful, kind-hearted and affectionate.”

Yamamoto was born in 1944 in Yokohama. He studied civil engineering at high school and English at university before turning his attention to fashion. He was particularly inspired by the Japanese concept of “basara”, a flamboyant aesthetic that informed his famous 1971 “womenswear” show in London.

It was a life-changing collection, with Yamamoto becoming the first Japanese designer to show in London while also attracting celebrities such as Stevie Wonder, Elton John and, most significantly, Bowie. The performer already owned items by the designer purchased from a shop on Kings Road, but he went on to wear several outfits from Yamamoto’s collection in his 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour, and, later, his Aladdin Sane period. Bowie went on to collaborate with the designer to create one-off pieces.

Yamamoto with one of Bowie’s costumes from 1973.
Yamamoto with one of Bowie’s costumes from 1973. Photograph: Alejandro García/EPA
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Speaking to Sheryl Garratt in the Guardian before Bowie’s death in 2016, Yamamoto described the moment he saw the musician wearing his collection at a 1973 show at Radio City music hall in New York: “I’d never seen a performance like it. When the show started, he came down from the ceiling, wearing clothes I had designed. Then there was a movement that often occurs in kabuki, which is called hikinuki, where somebody is wearing one costume and it is stripped off, immediately revealing what is underneath. It was very dramatic.”

Bowie was attracted to Yamamoto’s ability to design excessive, sculptural pieces which seemed unconstrained by the confines of gender. In turn, Yamamoto was impressed by Bowie’s ability to put this aesthetic in mainstream popular culture. “It felt like the beginning of a new age,” he said. It also helped that Bowie was slim enough to wear sample size. “My clothes were normally made for professional models – this was the first time they had been used for an artist or singer,” he added.

Earlier this year, Yamamoto announced he had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, and he died last Tuesday. His office said a funeral was held with family and close relatives attending, though a “public farewell” may be held at a later date.


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