While fashion has always had its trailblazing duos (Dolce &Gabanna, Pierre Berge and Yves Saint Laurent, the list goes on…), the award for the coolest has to go to Kenzo creative directors, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim. The best friends and co-creatives met when they were at college 20 years ago and have been inseparable ever since. Together they built New York’s hippest retail concept Opening Ceremony (which has also expanded to Los Angeles and Tokyo), along with their own label that is worn by the likes of Chloe Sevigny.
Not content with conquering the retail scene, they took on the role of creative directors at fledging brand Kenzo two years ago which has been a different challenge altogether.
Fast forward and the brand has undergone a transformation of Extreme Makeover proportions. Gone are the boho tropical dresses, and its place are collections that combine couture with streetwear – think bold and graphic prints from clouds to eyes, the latter of which was spotted on almost every editor at Paris Fashion Week. This coupled with some seriously smart marketing, playful advertising campaigns and adept use of social media, has resulted in Kenzo becoming the arbiter of all things hip and cool for the new generation. Hell, they even brought back the logo sweatshirt!
Carol and Humberto were recently in Hong Kong to unveil their new concept store for the brand (and the first in the world). I met with them to talk about their vision and those ubiquitous sweatshirts…
Since we last met you guys have gone from retailers to working as designers for a luxury brand. Was it a challenging transition…
Humberto: There wasn’t a big transition to be honest because we have brought a lot of Opening Ceremony into Kenzo. With any brand today you need to take a360 degree approach from marketing to the clothes. So yes it was a huge re-branding from ground up but we are used to dealing with all these components. Now that the collections are at a great place, we’re finally looking at the retail concept.
Kenzo had fallen off the radar but you guys made a very conscious decision to make it more edgy and appeal to a new generation. Why?
Humberto: We wanted to re-approach what luxury meant to us. It was also an amazing opportunity to approach this luxury brand in a way that is very different. We wanted to include everybody – we wanted different people to be able to go shopping in the store and experience the brand in a way that felt democratic.
What has been the biggest bump in the road for you guys along the way?
Humberto: I think that the brand never had a young customer. At one point, young to them meant 50 [years old]. So maintaining the story, while introducing it to a new generation was probably our biggest challenge.
The archives play a big role in your collections but how do you inject your own DNA?
Humberto: Kenzo was really into street wear – when he first started, he was famous for his jumpsuits. He was really all about the streets and we wanted to bring that back.
At the same time streetwear is today is so different to what we grew up with. For us, street wear was clothing you wore to the market, but today people are wearing couture on the streets. We wanted to make things that people would want to wear but that we would also wear.
Carol: For us, the archives are less about “let’s-recreate-this-piece,” and more about techniques. When we first went in we saw how beautifully Kenzo finished all his garments – they were taped so perfectly that they could almost be reversible. So we took that detail and carried it into the very first collection. Moving on, each of the collections has a reference to the archive but it’s more in the way of the techniques.
Humberto: At the same time we have played homage to certain pieces, but we’ve turned it into something new which is really exciting.
How would you describe the style of the new Kenzo?
Carol: We celebrate individuality. The most exciting part is seeing the interpretationsof what we are puttingout there. In the end of the day it’s seeing how people make their own interpretation of our designs and how they pair it together. It’s exciting to see how Russians and Middle Easterns buy it, what the Chinese are obsessed with. There is something for everyone. We haven’t drawn this picture of a set Kenzo woman or man. You can enter us at any point.
And how do you split up the work?
Carol: We work on different projects at the same time. Sometimes we’ll be together working on the same thing and often times we will be in different cities, and we’ll pick up what each other has left off. I think it’s this dialogue that we have everyday that helps us produce something cohesive. We’ve been working for 20 years together so we have the hang of it!
Digital has been really important when building the brand, from your use of social media and now the new store concept…
Carol: The Hong Kong store is a prototype and we’ve partnered with Samsung for the first time. We’ve really tried to create a space where we can showcase our videos while using interactive technology. We have shopping online but now want to bring digital into the store. We are rolling out the next version in Shanghai, which should be even better.
So lets talk about the sweatshirts – they are everywhere which is a good and bad thing…
Humberto: When you look at spring, we didn’t show any sweatshirts on the runway. We are aware that people think the sweatshirts are cool but when people actually buy they embrace everything. People don’t realise that we still have a big suiting business. Outerwear and knitwear is huge. Sure people like to see what a streetwear photographer is shooting but customers still look for things that they can grow to love. [The sweatshirts] are an easy way for people enter the brand and discover more. Even at Opening Ceremony we started with sweatshirts because everyone has one in California. It’s not new to us, but in fashion it’s a big thing.
Would you consider injecting a more luxe edge to the brand?
Carol: What’s interesting is one of the top five dresses we sold for spring/summer is something that is 2500 euros. It’s so intricately made and features embroidered fishes, multi-thread, appliques, you name it. People are surprised at all the details we have in the clothes. We spend a lot of time developing the fabric and pieces. We never forget Kenzo is Parisian and we are excited the customer is picking up on this.
How do you want to your period at Kenzo to be defined?
Humberto: We think about where it came from, how we contrasted what was there before, but we also want people to see the new Kenzo is us. We want to create things we love but also move on as people.
Carol:I want people to think that we made this brand relevant, and moved it forward. And just when you think you know what we are doing, we want to surprise you.