The year was 1977. The locale was none other than Studio 54, the legendary late-night New York spot, where stars from all walks of art and glamor collided. The madame of the avant-garde, Grace Jones, performed, while super-superstars (never simply models) Donna Jordan and Pat Cleveland strutted down the runway. At the height of fashion’s period of pure excess, it was Kenzo Takada’s indulgent takeover where looks piled upon looks and glittery lamé ruled supreme. The designer—famous for reconciling his larger-than-life dreams with sensibilities for the real-world—was one of the first men allowed into Bunka Fashion College, one of Tokyo’s top fashion schools in 1958. Years later, he became one of the first Japanese designers to invade the insular Paris fashion bubble. His visionary fashion house, established in 1970, soon became an empire; with textile innovation, visually arresting patterns, and colors—oh the colors!—completely altering the fashion landscape forever thereafter. Decades later, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, the game-changing duo behind Opening Ceremony, have reimagined Takada’s 1977 event in a new collection for Kenzo. Titled Memento, the line celebrates the house’s eponym in fabulous colors and prints that reference the late Antonio Lopez, an illustrator and fellow misfit in the designer’s circle of creative rulebreakers. Here, longtime friends Cleveland and Jordan speak to the house’s present-day creative directors about Takada’s colorful legacy and the meaning of art.
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Humberto Leon—We’re really excited to talk to you, because we decided this year to launch Memento. It allows us to devote a collection to the archive of Kenzo. We’ve become really close friends with Kenzo Takada, so we’re probably one of the few houses where the creative directors are really close with the person who started the house.
Pat Cleveland—You lucky guys.
Humberto—Our time that we’ve been here—now we’ve been here for six years—has really just been to celebrate the legacy of the house. He started it in 1970 and celebrated this idea of democracy and multiculturalism—while also just having fun. Those have been our key points for continuing the house.
Pat—Do you remember [model] Syoko?
Humberto—We did a whole collection inspired by her! I know that they were really close. She was always around the house.
Pat—Nobody ever saw anything that looked like her or Kenzo, with all of his flower kimonos. He made those suits with the nehru collars, and he would put those tights on you, Donna, and you would look like a doll.
Donna Jordan—Yes, I had a Kenzo dress that had a nehru collar, and it went all the way down to my ankles. I wore it all the time.
Pat—The nehru collar and the little envelope cap, like the soldiers used to wear. We used to travel around the world with those clothes. Donna was always in Kenzo for “Vogue.” She was the “Vogue” girl! [Oliviero] Toscani used to photograph her in Kenzo with the little sailor hat. He was very into sailors. Then he made some kimonos. He would take the classic style of the country and the culture, but would “Kenzo” it up with a lot of pop colors.
Humberto—Yeah, I think that was his specialty—how he mixed ethnic clothing with a modern pop-culture sensibility.
Donna—He was ahead of his time. He really was, he was a forerunner. He was just like Antonio [Lopez]. He had that vision.
Pat—He was just like a rainbow.
Donna—It was all about color and flowers.
Humberto—One of the things that he’s been really known for is bringing back all the places that he traveled to. Really celebrating the cultures around the world and making clothing out of them.
Donna—You can see it in his colors.
Pat—He was so zen. He’d always take us to Japan and we’d get into travel mode: We’d sit in these beautiful zen gardens, we’d go into these spas, and then to Mount Fuji, where we would be in igloos drinking Sapporo beer. Kenzo would take the whole gang—a whole bunch of important male and female models. Ellen von Unwerth took a lot of pictures backstage, which was when she first started taking pictures!
Humberto—Another of the things that Kenzo—and you can tell us if this is true or not—is known to have started is bringing ready-to-wear to fruition, because his clothes were just easy and casual and everyday.
Donna—Yes, I agree.
Humberto—He influenced a lot of the other houses that were more into doing couture.
Donna—Right. That was the beginning of the prêt-à-porter.
Pat—Hand him the big shows too, because everybody just had their show in their own design house. Like Yves [Saint Laurent] was just a baby.
Donna—That was couture. But then it went out to the public.
Pat—Yes, and they sold tickets! It wasn’t just a fashion show, it was a show.
Carol Lim—How was Kenzo’s English? How did you communicate?
Donna—He was the quiet one. He would laugh and giggle.
Carol—We spent time with him on a number of occasions; we don’t speak French at all, so we would communicate through facial gestures. I always wondered what he said to all his muses.
Donna—There was nothing to really discuss; we were all on target.
Pat—Just a bunch of art students trying to make it in the world. Kenzo was making [it] and we were all part of his entourage. So we all made it too.
Joshua Glass—Carol and Humberto went through Antonio’s archive for their most recent collection, and I know that he was a dear friend of Kenzo as well as both Donna and Pat. Can you speak to the legacy and your relationships with him?
Donna—We already had the relationship with him in New York, and then we all gathered together in Paris. It was kind of miraculous, because we became les Américains, the new café society. We were just all over the place! All we did was have fun.
Pat—We were all 17 when we met. Antonio was already doing the “New York Times,” and Donna was doing movies with Andy Warhol and they’d all go to this club in New York down in the Sheridan Square and hang out and dance at night and then go back to school in the day. We were so impressed. Andy and Antonio were real freaks, they were the opposite of each other, but they really loved us. They gave us a lot of energy because we were available and excited and enthusiastic, and Donna was like a firecracker. She’d come into the room and wake everybody up and be lively and make the room come to life. I was just hanging onto the coattails of everybody, sliding along, and riding along to this magical, colorful music we all had in America. Then we got to Paris.
Donna—It was miraculous that we were in Paris together, you know. Because Kenzo was such a great visionary and Antonio was such a great visionary. That’s it. He just drew. He was eons ahead of his time.
Pat—We used each other.
Donna—Antonio was the gatherer, he gathered all the right people. We were a force.
We were just shocking. Everybody was so minimal and bland and classic and we were like pop. “Here you go, in your face. Here’s some Latin music.”—Pat Cleveland
Pat—Kenzo loved Antonio because he was so colorful. Also, he used to draw us all the time. We had this gang around us and when we went out dancing [in the clubs], the boys would get dressed up in tuxedos, just to go out! We were reliving the 20s practically with the way we dressed—we were so over the top. We had amazing clothes, and Kenzo was right in there. But not everybody was dancing. We were mostly just looking at each other.
Donna—We had great times; everybody goes and just hangs out—we were always occupied. There was such an energy at that time in 1970 in Paris. It was amazing.
Pat—They had never seen anything like this crazy group: Donna with white blonde hair, Kenzo with the Japanese bowl cut, and Antonio with the black, raven hair—everybody looked so different from each other. It was a like a big abstract painting looking at you. You got so inspired just by looking.
Humberto—Do each of you have a personal story that you remember with Antonio?
Donna—There are so many that I can’t even remember something specific. All we loved to do was just go and dance.
Humberto—Was there a favorite artist?
Pat—Yeah, it was Marvin Gaye, Shaft, and James Brown.
Donna—Taj Mahal, too.
Pat—He used to play music all the time. And he would have that pen in his hand, it would make swishing sounds. It felt like he was just scraping into the page. He was so passionate. It would just go on for hours. We’d be hungry and say, “Let’s go out and eat and dance.” But he had such an integrity. He wouldn’t let us go until he was finished. [Laughing.]
Humberto—You both played such a huge role to designers and you both have such incredible legacies being the first supermodels. How do you think it differs from today?
Pat—No it’s not supermodels, you said it wrong. It’s called superstars. We come from Andy Warhol. We were superstars. We’re not supermodels, that’s the 80s. The difference is that they were after the money, and we were after the love. They were after the big bucks and we were after the big hugs.
Donna—It’s a love story and we just wanted to be with those artists.
Humberto—You both have long-lasting legacies and stories that are still relevant and fun. How do you think it’s differentiated from then until now?
Pat—Because we’re art students. We are artists, we are all artists. We went to art school. The difference is a lot of models these days don’t know cocky-poo about how to sew a sleeve on or how to mix paint. They don’t know anything about canvas, about drawing. We made clothes, we made paintings. We sketched on tablecloths. These days they’re just after the books and the numbers. That’s not art. I’m not putting anybody down, we were educated in a different way. That’s the difference between superstars and supermodels. You gotta get that straight, okay?
Humberto—I got it.
Pat—I don’t want to be associated with that, because that’s not the core. That’s not the core of what fashion is.
Donna—I also think that at that time we were there, there was a high-energy vibration that doesn’t exist anymore.
Carol—I think that’s what we really identify with as well. I think with Kenzo’s journey, the way he related to and collaborated with all of you guys feels similar to the way we started as well. We had different disciplines and we come from different creative backgrounds and I think that’s what makes it interesting. Very similarly we often are all going on vacation together and that’s where a lot of these ideas come from. When we see what he did with his group, you can only imagine, not just the fun times that were happening, but the creative exchange as well.
Pat—And that’s what it’s all about! Because you want to have a lifestyle; fashion is very particular and so artistic and so high—so glamorous. People try and bring it down and say “Oh, it’s just business.” But it is high art, it really is something useful.
Donna—It was an amazing pop and glamorous time and it’s just never going to be recreated.
Pat—Yes because everybody was mixing. You know Andy was hanging out with these famous writers and these very important artists, and we got to stumble into them and meet them. That whole blend of the art world and fashion. Even when we traveled with Kenzo we got to be backstage and meet a world-famous Kabuki artist and sit around him as he applied his make-up like some kind of zen guru or something. Just to be with these artists and the theater and all the arts and music. They come into the fashion world and somehow they blend in and they become a part of the entourage.
Joshua—Carol and Humberto, what is the lasting impact of Donna and Pat and their whole creative circle—people like Kenzo, Antonio, and Helmut Newton. How has that affected you today?
Humberto—When I look through Antonio’s work and all of Kenzo’s old sketches, it’s interesting, because you almost don’t know who influenced who. I feel like you guys really influenced the designs so much, so it really was kind of a collaboration. There is an interesting timelessness when you look back at a lot of what we see in Kenzo’s archive. It happened at a time when no one was doing these things.
Pat—Don’t forget the colors!
Humberto—The colors, silhouettes, and prints are so inherently Kenzo.
Pat—Body type. Body type and spirit!
Donna—It was the vision really, the visionaries of these designers were extremely talented and so forward-thinking. I think that was the major impact. Certainly they would be inspired by us, but the creativity and the talent and the vision that they had was certainly all theirs.
Pat—What they would do is take the women and embellish them with their own fantasy. Like for instance, Donna had this white hair and you never saw anything like her. They would think, “Oh my god, if I put this color on Donna and this shape, it’s going to come to life.” With me, I guess I had a booty so they liked that and then they would design around that. Just our shapes.
Donna—It was also our spirits. We just had great energy.
Pat—And we loved to dance! I think that the way a woman’s body looks in every decade is the inspiration. So we were sort of asexual looking, you know, we can look androgynous. We can look like boys, we can look like girls. That was forbidden territory. You can dress us up like a boy, dress us up like a girl. But then we broke away for the super feminine. Donna with ruffles and garter belts, just the whole Marilyn look. She and I were like two girls from Little Rock. We were like old movie stars with the way we carried ourselves, the way we did our make up. We were so inspired by the old movies, we were living our fantasy. You know, we wore red lipstick—at a time when nobody was wearing red lipstick—and Donna was painting our eyes in heavy black kohl and red lipstick. We were just shocking. Everybody was so minimal and bland and classic and we were like pop. “Here you go, in your face. Here’s some Latin music.” We used to dance the Latin tango, and we’d get up and dance with Liberace and shake our skirts and our moneymaker and do all the James Brown movements. Everything was just like entertainment. Every decade has its own sound. We brought life to the living. We brought life and they changed us, they made us who we are. Because they dressed us up and they gal’d us out. You know, a girl can’t leave the house without good clothes. Our good clothes opened doors.
Humberto—I want to go dancing with both of you now.
Pat—Good art has longevity. And the longevity of the spirit of art is the truth, and the truth lives on. Don’t think that we didn’t get inspired by people who came before us. We just wanted to be them, and maybe somebody wants to be us, and be themselves at the same time.