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How Kenzo Created a Monster

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Carol Lim and Humberto Leon are the toast of the fashion world for resurrecting jaded Parisian label, Kenzo. Stylist meets the incredible design duo...

There’s nothing the fashion world loves more than a drama and that’s exactly what it got when the fading fashion brand Kenzo announced its new creative directors two years ago.

Californian duo Carol Lim and Humberto Leon were celebrated as arbiters of cool in the retail world thanks to the cutting edge success of their Opening Ceremony stores and in-house label, but few had considered them as contenders capable of resuscitating the creative vision of an outdated name like Kenzo. Yet, the moment Chloë Sevigny (wearing a bright blue jumpsuit) hit the runway at the pair’s first collection for the Paris-based label last year, the positive reaction from the buyers was instant. The OTT florals synonymous with the old label were out and quirky prints, street influences and that tiger logo were in. Kenzo was back with a vengeance.

In a single day in New York, I have walked past seven Kenzo sweatshirts worn on the streets. I see Kenzo caps and merchandise everywhere. Lim and Leon have created such a feverish cult-like desirability for all things Kenzo that they’ve reignited the long mothballed trend for logos, created a new fashion icon in the Tiger sweatshirt and struggle to keep their hottest items on the shelves.

While the talented pair are intent on creating their own playful vernacular for the brand – overseeing everything from the design to the coffee cups given out at their fashion shows – they’re also highly respectful of the man who originally founded the label that shook up the stuffy French fashion scene in the Seventies. Kenzo Takada made waves in Paris with his vibrant, eclectic collections by mixing his Japanese heritage with Parisian chic and gained fans including Jerry Hall and Grace Jones before eventually retiring in 1999. Lim and Leon are looking to reclaim that verve, by using their street-led sensibility to make Kenzo relevant again. And they’re off to an impressive start.

I’ve long been a fan of the way Lim and Leon have, over 10 years, built upnot just a successful mini-empire of boutiques (there are branches of Opening Ceremony in New York, LA, Tokyo and since last October, London), but also their own line of clothing and numerous innovative collaborations which engage with pop culture. They always manage to keep things exciting and fresh and, for want of a better phrase, their “cool factor” magic wand knows no bounds. I stepped into Kenzo HQ in Paris shortly after their menswear show in June (held in a circus-training academy, of course) to talk about how they’ve turned Kenzo’s fortunes around, how fashion should be more welcoming and fun, and how those fabled sweatshirts came about.

Stylist: Apparently you beat 30 other candidates to become co-creative directors at Kenzo. Were you surprised?

Humberto Leon: We were really excited. No-one had any time to think. We literally showed our presentation and drawings of what we were going to design for Kenzo and then within two days we were hired. In our minds, we had already done so much of our own exploration of what Kenzo could be so by the time we were hired we were ready to go. We had a good idea that we wanted to celebrate Kenzo – the brand, the man and interpret it in our way.

Carol Lim: What was also interesting for them was that we not only presented our viewpoint on the collection, we presented on the whole universe. We presented a whole digital concept and what we thought the whole retail experience should have and what the other lifestyle elements should be. We touched upon every single thing in the project. They were like, “You guys get it.”

What were your impressions of Kenzo before taking the position?

C: We knew what the original Kenzo was about. We’ve been avid vintage collectors so that’s how we discovered it. We’ve always loved the brand and how it started in Paris. Up until we came, it was a sleepy brand. It wasn’t something that we thought, ‘This is where it’s happening,’ and that’s what was appealing to us.

H: We knew it was a brand that had been untouched for a while, so in our minds it was the perfect canvas to rebuild. We knew the monumental cultural and fashion significance that Kenzo had played in bringing something foreign to the Parisian market. All those things really interested us because in many ways, it felt like what we were really good at. At Opening Ceremony, the fact that we travelled every year and presented a slew of young designers from a new country meant that we had already adopted that [process] of incorporating foreign [ideas] and we could take that information andeasily apply it. Kenzo did something similar. Pre-internet, Kenzo would travel to Morocco or India and bring back those ideas to his collections. That was what he was famous for.

Were you daunted by the idea of changing an established brand?

H: The most surprising and exciting thing was how many bases Kenzo covered in his 30-year career. He covered a lot of interesting elements, which gave Carol and I free rein to go, “You know what, we can do it in our own way.”

C: For instance, it isn’t just about the flower [the predominant Kenzo motif at the time] and that was something they were stuck on.

H: We thought, ‘Let’s bring Kenzo to the modern era. Let’s talk about Kenzo in a way that seems fitting for 2012-13.’ We are in a digital era and we want what we’re doing to sit as a part of the Kenzo time capsule. Kenzo was so personal – when you look back, it was very much about him, the person. We only know how to give ourselves to the brand. Everything you see has us in it.

It’s fairly unusual that you’re so heavily involved in all areas ofthe business – the campaigns, the stores, the website. Why put yourselves through all that stress?

H: In our own business we think and look at everything. We only know how to work that way, even at a big company like Kenzo. We design the collection but we also merchandise the collection. We are involved in the commercial strategies and think about how the customer will see the collections. We want to think about the retail experience and that’s our next big challenge.

Your stores are known as being upbeat and fun. Where does that come from?

H: When Carol and I first started we had a major pow-wow over dim sum: “What is the shop that we want to build? What do we find annoying at other stores?” We listed all the things that we don’t want and all the things we do. In the end, what we wanted was a store that felt inviting for people to come in and browse and maybe not buy – but that was up to the customer. It had to be fun and it had to feel like you’d want to go there. In fashion stores there’s always a distance. They’re meant to feel uninviting.

Fashion can be elitist but Opening Ceremony and Kenzo go out of their way to be welcoming. Is that a deliberate approach?

H: That comes from me and Carol hating that scene in Pretty Woman when the shop assistants don’t want to serve Julia Roberts. We use that as an analogy all the time. We don’t want to be that shop. There’s such diversity in our price points. People pigeonhole Kenzo as affordable and in many ways it is, because you see what you get. There’s something for €50, there’s something for €2,000, but that €2,000 item looks like it’s worth it. We’re not trying to fool you.

Have you met Kenzo himself? Do you know what he thinks of the way you’re shaping his brand?

C: We do! The last time we ran into him was at one of our favourite Japanese restaurants in Paris. He came up to us, he said, “I like! I like!” He doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak French that well.

H: When we first got here, we wrote him a letter saying that we were part of this house that he built. He wrote back to us, saying, “I really love the energy that you’re bringing to the brand.” In many ways, we want him to look from afar and say, “They’re really getting what I originally did and turning it into something that is their own.”

One of the keys to your success has been identifying what people really want to wear – how do you manage that?

H: The design process is so long – we get started 10 months before you see it on the runway and then six months more before you see it in the stores. We always say that the secret to getting things to a good place is that it needs to feel awkward in the beginning. You need to not feel 100% comfortable with it. If you feel super comfortable with it, by the time it comes out, it’s going to feel past it.

Everyone is always like, “Is that what you’re really doing?” That’s how the collection gets built. After about six months, people start to feel it and get into it. It’s got to feel really fresh when the collection is out in the stores. In our generation, we see things so quickly, you can be over it very quickly.

You guys have a great eye for collaborations and with Kenzo you’ve created New Era caps and Vans shoes. Was that a shock for the Kenzo traditionalists?

H: The biggest challenge was convincing our counterparts in the business world. We are people of pop culture and we know the value of a New Era fitted cap and we know that it could get collectors excited. I personally collect them. With Vans, I know the excitement of finding a rare pair from the Seventies and Eighties. It’s great to be able to create things that we know will be exciting down the line. We have that inherently in our minds.

The Kenzo customer seems to be younger and hipper than before. Was that your aim?

C: It’s not that we changed the customer base, we expanded it. We’re not after a younger customer specifically. We want a bigger dialogue and we want different age demographics to exist together.

H: That’s the goal; we didn’t want to exclude the existing customer. The average age has come down by 30 years from 70 to 30 and the reason for that is that the 40s, 30s, 20s and teens have joined. Now it’s balanced out.

Your designs have helped bring back logo worship. For a while, it was considered arrogant to display logos, but now they’ve taken on a positive feeling haven’t they?

C: It goes back to community. There’s a feeling that if you wear it, you like this brand, you’re into this music or into that kind of dancing. It’s a symbol and you want to go up to that person and befriend them.

H: You know, the way we discovered brands as a kid, you’d always want something logo-ed. It’s like having a hashtag without the hashtag.

And the Kenzo Tiger is at the centre of that.

C: The knitted and embroidered jumper we created was quite expensive and we didn’t sell that many. But then there was a waiting list in store for the sweater as it got shot for the ad campaign. So when the sweatshirt came in, it just blew up. We couldn’t keep it in stores.

H: They literally live in the stores now for just two to three hours

C: It was a runaway thing. We knew people would like it but we didn’t anticipate the demand. It wasn’t planned that way.

H: When we came to Kenzo and said we weren’t going to do flowers anymore, people were aghast. But we said, “We’re going to give you new codes and new DNA that are actually part of a brand that you guys might not have touched.” This was our delivery. As we’re building the brand, we have new codes that the house will incorporate. The tiger is part of the foundation.

Do you find it odd seeing it everywhere?

H: We don’t recut the same colours, so we know how many are made each season. They’re all sort of limited editions. We know when we do a special one as soon as we see it.

C: We’re excited. I was on my way to JFK, in the deep part of Brooklyn, when all of a sudden I see someone wearing the New Era cap. I had to get out of the car and take a picture.

H: That’s the most exciting thing – when you see the brand existing outside of the fashion world. Somehow, the message is out there.

Have you seen the rip-offs?

C: [Laughs] No comment!

Words: Susie Lau

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