The Japanese Designer Who Helped Turn David Bowie Into Ziggy Stardust Speaks
"Some sort of chemical reaction took place: My clothes became part of David, his songs and his music. They became part of the message he delivered to the world," recalls Kansai Yamamoto, who crafted some of Bowie's most iconic looks.
Just how did Bromley teenager David Jones metamorphose into iconic '70s futuristic creatures Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, inventing glam rock in the process? By being a cultural sponge. During this period, Bowie once found a fly in his glass of milk and observed: "I'm just like that fly. Soaking up everything." As early as age 19, he absorbed kabuki, Buddhism, jazz and mime (which informed his later dance moves) from British mime Lindsay Kemp.
Then in 1972 in London, Bowie met Japanese stylist Yacco Takahashi, who had worked with T. Rex and Iggy Pop. Takahashi put Bowie in women's clothes made by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto throughout the '70s. "Kansai was a young designer, very popular in Japan," Takahashi tells THR. "Of course, David made him more so. Especially among musicians. I remember Keith Emerson [who died tragically March 10] called me, saying he wanted to wear Kansai clothes. His clothes were unisex. David loved Kansai's jumpsuit with the wide balloon legs and colorful knit bodysuits. We took him to Harajuku in Tokyo, and David fell in love with the kitsch atmosphere and colorful shops. I enjoyed helping David so much. I really like dramatic clothes!"
Yamamoto, 72, recalls to THR: "After my first fashion show in London, my clothes were stocked in a shop called Boston 151 on Kings Road in London. David had bought my Woodland Creatures jumpsuit with rabbits on it from there. I wasn't really based there, but I felt that London was the place I felt most comfortable, and where my clothes were most appreciated. I didn't really know about David's work then. I was more visual than audio. And when David wore my women's clothes, people were very surprised. My clothes were designed to be worn by women. When I think of it, it was a bizarre thing for him to do. Luckily David had a very slim body and they fit him very well — no fittings." Yes, Bowie was already a real fan when he met Yamamoto through Takahashi.
Bowie debuted many of these Yamamoto confections, as curated by stylist Takahashi, at his first Ziggy Stardust show at New York's Radio City Music Hall in 1973. Says Yamamoto: "Some sort of chemical reaction took place: My clothes became part of David, his songs and his music. They became part of the message he delivered to the world. He even wanted to go a bit crazier," muses the designer. "Now, if Yacco hadn't linked David and myself, my jumpsuits would still be sleeping at the corner of my little room in Tokyo I had at the time." Instead, his jumpsuits — and jumpsuits in general — became iconic. As did David Bowie.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.