Kenzo Takada talks smoking, building a fashion empire and making people happy

Kenzo Takada

Kenzo Takada doesn't look like an ex-smoker. The 76-year-old Japanese designer and founder of the luxury fashion and perfume house KENZO is glowing with vitality, but he admits he was addicted for decades.

The struggle to give it up has led to him branching out in a somewhat unlikely professional direction, creating a collection of e-cigarette vapors for the brand Liquideo. Calling on his old perfume prowess, Takada has designed four flavors based on berries, mint, peanut butter and toast (his favorite), set to launch globally in August. "I think it could help people -- someone like me," he explains. "Taking on this project was a personal decision."

It is certainly a change from the bold, vibrant catwalk collections he became famous for in the 1970s, but then Takada has never been afraid of change. Since selling KENZO to LVMH in 1993, he has traveled the world and set up his own interiors company -- e-cigarettes are just the latest evolution. But doesn't he miss the immediacy of fashion?

"I love fashion, but you have to work really hard every season, every day," he explains. These days he is more focused on design as a whole. "I always try to create a gay, joyful spirit," he explains of his work, whether it be creating clothes, interiors or graphics. "I try to make people happy."

His inspiration comes from the streets, from films, exhibitions, and good old-fashioned people watching. But when it comes to icons, who does he admire the most? "I have always adored Saint Laurent," he says simply. "But there are so many excellent new young designers these days..."

He acknowledges that is isn't the same industry as the one he broke into. "It's changed enormously," he admits. "It's positive, but at the same time I get nostalgic because often when I see the window displays in the street with their new collections, it can be hard to identify the designers. Before, I traveled to New York, London, Italy and Japan and the fashions were a bit different. Now you can go anywhere and see the same fashion. I think it's great, but it lacks a bit of variety and identity."

The explosion of the clothing industry is something he witnessed firsthand. "I was lucky, because I started at the right time, in 1970, when there weren't yet a lot of houses, or pret-a-porter," he says modestly. "These days it's something else."

Surely he doesn't believe he got this far on luck alone? His global success would suggest otherwise. Still, he sounds like he doesn't envy the young talent of today. He laughs. "It's great," he insists. "Fashion is becoming a true industry, but in the seventies there wasn't much, so it was easier to stand out. I was very lucky."