Floral and hardy
Walking into Leonard's newly revamped Prince's Building boutique is like entering a secret garden. A cornucopia of peonies, wild orchids and colourful chrysanthemums adorn garments on every rack. Since the early '60s, the French brand has been cross-pollinating Asian floral motifs with Parisian elegance.
'Chinese art was the most important influence in my life,' says Daniel Tribouillard, the founder and president of Leonard. He's visiting Hong Kong for the reopening of the boutique, and the autumn-winter show at Sevva. Nearby are his two daughters - Leonard CEO Nathalie Tribouillard Chassaing and director general of collections Virginie Tribouillard Bienvenu. The sisters are his right-hand women and, like true ambassadors, are clad from head to toe in Leonard.
While fashion is fickle, Leonard has stuck with its floral motifs over the decades, reinventing them according to the times. The autumn-winter 2011 collection is an edgier incarnation. 'Black flowers against coloured backgrounds are our new designs for this season,' says Tribouillard. 'It's the opposite of what I have done in the past. All my life I've had bright flowers on dark backgrounds.'
As a result, Leonard offers a sexier and moodier line. Sultry dark animal prints are juxtaposed with floral patterns. Dresses such as the low-cut blue, flowing long dress contrasting a black panther print with peonies really stand out.
Another highlight is a reversible deep red cobra-print jacket with matching pants. 'This is a new style of print. It's interesting because we use a very large snake print, whereas on the general market you will see a lot of small snake prints,' says Tribouillard, who always begins his collections by choosing the patterns.
An equally striking long-sleeved dress features whimsical pink orchids against a black background, paired with a multi-neutral toned snake print. A large leopard-print dress with black feather sleeves indicates the brand's youthful direction.
Having laid its roots in Hong Kong more than 20 years ago, the family-run company has a store in Shanghai and another in Macau. It plans to invest heavily in China, increasing that number to 15 relatively soon. Ultimately, over the next 40 years, Leonard hopes to have more than 100 stores in China.
Tribouillard says it would be pretentious to say his clothes are designed in Paris when much of the inspiration comes from Asia. He credits the cheongsam's floral patterns as being an early inspiration.
Another major influence has been Japan. Tribouillard first visited the country in the late '60s and many of his designs pay homage to the country's traditional style of dress. In 1983, he went back to Kyoto to learn the art of traditional kimono-making on invitation from Japan - a rare insight for any Westerner. As part of the exchange he created an exclusive kimono with the Leonard print. 'My job was to renew interest in the kimono,' he says.
With his new skills, Tribouillard went on to design his own kimono-inspired collection made from silk jersey. 'I called the line of kimonos 'The Year 2000' - it was 1984. I sold a lot all over the world and in Japan,' he adds. 'Using the correct symbolism in the design is very important for the Japanese.
'There are certain flowers that I don't have the right to use, such as the tulip because its head droops. You will not see any flowers with religious connotations, either.'
With 100 stores opened in Japan over the past 40 years, he has strong ties there. This year he was awarded the 'Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon' an extremely prestigious honour for a foreigner.
Over the years, his interest in the East has never waned, as seen in his work. The French designer has been gently pruning floral motifs since the brand's inception in 1958.
'I have designed thousands and thousands of flowers and now I'm a specialist. The first flower that I created was a rose for Christian Dior,' he says. The print appeared on one of Tribouillard's patented 'fully-fashioned pullovers' from 1960. A series of single red roses with long green stems are printed repeatedly across the stylish white knitted sweater. 'It was very simple but very successful. Mr Dior was very happy,' he says. In fact this collaboration, and subsequent others with Lanvin and Hermes that same year, helped sow the seeds of success.
Not belonging to a big fashion group, Tribouillard is aware that Leonard has to push the creative envelope in order to retain and increase its slice of the market.
'I would be very happy if my grandchildren could continue this work,' he says. 'For example, Hermes, who are very good friends, took roughly 200 years to create something and develop it all over the world - nothing is possible in a few years.' Having just showed the label's spring-summer 2012 collection in Paris, and having imparted his wisdom to his two daughters, the veteran designer envisages a long and bright future.