Kenzo under new leadership

Kenzo creative directors Humberto Leon and Carol Lim have repositioned the label to appeal to a young, hip urban audience, writes Jing Zhang

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 10:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 10:32am

A long media line gathers round to interview Kenzo creative directors Humberto Leon and Carol Lim backstage after their show in Paris. Even their campaign girl, top Chinese model Ming Xi, stands in line to film them for a TV station. A buzz is in the air after another triumph, and the two are taking it all in their stride.

In less than three seasons, Japanese-French label Kenzo has jumped back into the limelight and been exposed to a new generation of fashion lovers. It seems that the creative directors are at the top of their game.

“We wanted to make sure that this brand represented itself. It’s always about positivity, individuality, freedom, fun and excitement,” Leon says of their revival of the label that was founded in 1970.

“The brand is modern, the brand is bold. [Founder] Kenzo Takada himself had set such a great DNA for it, but for a long time it was hidden under these flowers. We wanted to lift that burden and re-introduce what he initially sought to do.”

The outgoing Leon and shyer Lim both grew up in California. They met at the University of California, Berkeley and now call New York their home, although they spend increasingly more time in Paris.

Shooting to fame with their cult New York hipster retail concept “Opening Ceremony”, they already counted the likes of Jessica Alba and Chloe Sevigny as friends and fans before landing the big gig at Kenzo. “Kenzo Tanaka was one of the very first Asian designers to make it outside of Asia, and I think it is a symbolic message we are trying to tell,” says Leon, who is of Peruvian-Chinese heritage.

“He was an amazing storyteller. There was no internet at the time, so he travelled and told all these beautiful stories about all the countries and places he visited,” says Lim, who is of Korean descent. “We always say that we’re telling the next chapter of the story. But obviously in a very different time. It’s really showing what the brand used to be to a new generation.”

To recapture the pioneering spirit of the label, the pair reference the archives in a “distant” way, rather than reproducing one-for-one imitations. This has resuscitated the label, which is now one of the most exciting on the circuit, and coveted by hip young things.

A sharp intuition about what’s hot and happening among young urbanites and a global approach has allowed Lim and Leon to tap into that much desired youthful ‘it’ factor.

The revival is even more spectacular considering that, until recently, many associated Kenzo more with perfumes than revolutionary fashion.

We took the symbolism of the eye that is apparent in Indian culture and twisted it in a way where it feels more modern
Humberto Leon, creative director

Since their debut spring-summer 2012 collection, where the bright geometric pops of colour and print brought a vigour and energy which had been missing from the company since the 1980s, Lim and Leon have lapped up praise from the fashion press and customers alike.

Their latest menswear collection was spot on: a mountaineering theme, featuring well-cut silhouettes and a striking cloudy sky print. For autumn-winter 2013 womenswear, the pair turned their hand to more artisanal fabrics and techniques, inspired by ancient Asian temples and religious iconography.

“One of the things we found in the archives were these piles of ribbons, and some of the most collectable Kenzo pieces are these really crazy ’70s ribbon dresses,” Leon says. “And we felt that this is a great season to see how we can take that technique and make it feel very modern for 2013 and more ‘us’.”

India was a big inspiration and a starting point. Both had visited before, and Lim went to the tropical southern state Kerala for Christmas last year. Tamil rapper MIA, who provided their catwalk soundtrack, had also talked to them about the country.

They noticed that the forms of Indian temples resembled the rows of ribbons they’d found in the archive, and it all came together from there.

“We’ve also been watching a lot of Stanley Kubrick movies. When you look at those, it’s all about ‘the eye’ and ‘the gaze’,” adds Leon. “Think about Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, or Eyes Wide Shut. We took the symbolism of the eye that is apparent in Indian culture and twisted it in a way where it feels more modern.”

The result is a subversive pop art graphic eye print that is fresh and referential. Shiny armour-like bomber jackets with big rounded shoulders were inspired by the figures who protected the gods and goddesses in Asian temples. Gold jacquard and lamé separates were bright and bold.

Leon and Lim, who have been friends for almost 20 years, travel somewhere new together every year for inspiration. They have re-imagined the soul of Kenzo, based on the romance of travel.

But the look is more at home on the streets of international fashion capitals than at beachside resorts. The dated ’70s hippy bohemian look the label was pushing before the duo joined had fallen out of favour. When LVMH approached the pair about taking on the label, they looked deep into brand’s history. They found that the things that Kenzo Tanaka championed, like travel, global thinking and positivity, were similar to what they wanted to achieve with Opening Ceremony.

“It seemed, even for us, like a match made in heaven. It just made so much sense,” says Leon. “We were inspired by opening our store after a trip to Hong Kong, and seeing all these indie designers there,” adds Lim.

The pair have always been curious of emerging creative scenes in different countries. By buying from young hip independent designers in each country they visited, and selling back in New York, they spawned a huge cult following for Opening Ceremony. It was a very global, fresh approach to style.

Leon studied sculpture at university and Lim studied finance, but both were taught by their parents to make and construct things early on. Lim’s parents designed jewellery and Leon’s mother sewed garments for US$3 a pop.

“We don’t have that rigid academic style of design, and it gives us a looser perspective of how to make a garment. You don’t always have to have this specific seam allowance for example.”

With collections, pre-collections and events for Kenzo in Paris, as well as the Opening Ceremony label and its international retail stores, the duo are always on the go. Lim only gave birth a few months ago, and she was headlining their menswear show in Florence while heavily pregnant.

“We really enjoy what we do – I don’t think it could work if we didn’t,” she says.

“The key is that we work with all our friends,” Leon adds, “and that makes work not like work.”

The pair feel that it’s important for them to keep work fun. They often work with their team over casual dinners and beers.

Theirs is a message that fashion should be fun. Perhaps among the stuffiness of old European high fashion, this is precisely their appeal.

So what does Kenzo Takada think of their interpretation of the label? They’ve met a few times, but since Takada’s English isn’t strong, communication is short and sweet. Through a translator, Takada has given them his seal of approval, they say, and is excited that they are paying attention to the archives.

“He tapped us on the shoulder recently at a restaurant. We invited him to come to the atelier, and said that we wanted to show him what we were doing. We said, ‘We’re so honoured to be at your brand.’ He just replied: ‘I like’.”