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The Unfaltering Carol Lim and Humberto Leon

By Kames Narayanan

Outfitted in pieces from the brand, Kenzo creative directors Carol Lim and Humberto Leon meet with the team in their New York studio.
Outfitted in pieces from the brand, Kenzo creative directors Carol Lim and Humberto Leon meet with the team in their New York studio.

The visual vocabulary at Kenzo is a dynamic mix. A riotous melange of bold colours, playful patterns and youthful silhouettes has underpinned the repertoire of runway collections at the French maison. Its clothes pack an unmistakable energy — a kind of vibrancy that jolts the senses awake. This bountiful vigour, however, draws from an unexpected, paradoxical cool of its designer duo, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon.

Both outfitted in pieces from Kenzo, Lim barely has a touch of makeup on, while Leon keeps his hair neatly swept to the side. To word it simply, the pair can most accurately be described as “real”. This seemingly inherent calm, in reconciliation with its eponymous founder’s audacious house codes, is an ethos upon which the brand builds its successes. Embodying the ease of a wardrobe staple, alongside the youthful appeal of vibrant colours and hard-to-miss motifs, Kenzo’s line of signature sweaters call to mind as a case in point.

“I think that we look at everything we work on as real human beings, real customers. Carol and I look at things and we question a lot,” says Leon.

Lim and Leon are evidently thinkers.

“We were really excited to begin a new chapter of the Kenzo brand under our creative direction. Every collection we worked on was about moving the brand forward and creating new codes and new icons for the house,” recalls Lim.

TakayKenzo turtleneck dress (worn underneath), dress, bag and boots.
Kenzo turtleneck dress (worn underneath), dress, bag and boots.

When the fashion retailers-turned-designers first arrived at the Parisian capital in 2011 to assume their new roles, their appointment was shrouded by an air of uncertainty. Albeit with an impressive résumé — the pair were the genius behind popular brick and mortar store Opening Ceremony, creators of a burgeoning in-house fashion brand, harbingers of renowned fashion collaborations and acknowledged as the sounding board for downtown cool amongst the creative set — the creative directors were outsiders looking in.

It was unchartered territory. Both Lim and Leon lacked formal training in design and had never had their hand at working at an atelier. In place of technical prowess, they harnessed a strong business acumen and crystalline vision board for the brand.

“The idea of runway and reality to us is synonymous. For us, it’s a natural occurrence, we want to make things that people are excited to wear, and so we try to think of it that way as we’re designing the collection,” says Leon.

Boasting a career in fashion built largely upon a keen sense of understanding what people want, Lim and Leon began their work at Kenzo, led by an unfaltering foresight. On the pair’s agenda was a reintroduction of the brand appropriated for the now. Their starting point: a logo revamp. The once-block-lettered text, in their hands, was reconstructed with the modern sensibility of thinner lines. Officiating a new era, the insignia was then etched onto ready-to-wear, produced as animal keychains and adopted as a key pattern at the maison.

Within a season and a half, the pair had found their idiosyncratic voice at Kenzo. Without taking away from the house’s long-standing identity initiated by its eponymous designer, Lim and Leon were, instead, invested in building upon what was established in the preceding years. The frivolity of youth that has remained at the heart of inspirations at Kenzo, these days, is presented with an affable American cool.

TakayKenzo shirt, vest, belt, and skirt.
Kenzo shirt, vest, belt, and skirt.

Much like Kenzo Takada’s confluence of his Japanese roots and the Parisian affluence, Lim and Leon have synthesised their American sensibilities with that of the French house. Undaunted by the primness and propriety of the ateliers, the New York duo debuted a line of sweaters in their first Kenzo collection. The proposal hardly sat well with the higher-ups, who deemed the introduction as a “promotional product”. It might as well have been deemed a blasphemy — a revered name in fashion producing run-of-the-mill sweaters at its atelier. The decision, however, reaffirmed the pair’s status as a barometer of cool. To date, the sweaters remain a best-seller, flying off the shelves as soon as they are stocked.

Amongst the Parisian designer troupe, who more often than not have their noses stuck in the air, Lim and Leon walk amongst the crowd with searching eyes and a wide open mind.

“I think that in our efforts of questioning, we ask ourselves... How much does a T-shirt cost? Does it make sense for us to have many product categories? These are just the kind of conversations that we have. In turn it has helped make the brand more accessible,” says Leon.

It is this sense of pragmatism that has established Kenzo as a household name across the globe. Alongside the launch of its sweaters, a range of T-shirts, caps and sneakers followed suit. Priced markedly lower than its ready-to-wear pieces from the runway, the entry level offerings widened Kenzo’s consumer demographic — a lucrative move on the business end.

TakayKenzo turtleneck, coat and belt.
Kenzo turtleneck, coat and belt.

At Kenzo, the pair continue to flex their proven flair for conceiving highly sought-after collaborations. Last year, the French maison worked alongside Swedish clothing retail behemoth H&M to conceive an extensive collection of 113 items that embodied the former’s signature medley of bold, clashing prints. In Singapore, fans queued for two days prior to the collection’s launch. In extending their consumer reach, the pair have also lent their unrestrained aesthetics to Vans sneakers. These tie-ups have served to diversify the brand’s reach, inducing a far-reaching desirability.

Five years into their tenure, the pair has identified another sector to dip their hands into: the nostalgia of Takada’s archives. Last spring, the house announced the debut of La Collection Memento No1, a capsule collection taking its notes from the archives.

“We launched Memento this last spring, the idea of it was that we wanted to have a moment to celebrate the archives and conceive a collection that is based on the rich history of almost 50 years that the house has been in existence. Majority of it is [from] the Kenzo Takada archives, mixed in with a little of our archives. But the idea was to celebrate the archives. Hence, we called it Memento,” says Leon.

“It’d be great to start celebrate some of that. It felt like a good time to start to incorporate that as we continue to push each of the collections forward,” continues Lim.

The new concept will take the place of Kenzo’s fall women’s showings on the Paris fashion week calendar. In its first outfitting, the La Collection Memento No1 takes its modus operandi from the house’s iconic 1983 campaign, shot by acclaimed fashion photographer Hans Feurer. Echoing similar floral iterations that were featured in the campaign visuals, the imagery calls to mind Takada’s icons. Reminiscent in its ideas but taking a fresh, new approach in terms of design, patterns and colours from the past were given a contemporary update.

TakayKenzo top, skirt, bag and boots.
Kenzo top, skirt, bag and boots.

A permanent addition to Kenzo’s fashion week
showings, the future series of La Collection Memento alongside the main line will continue to simultaneously write and rewrite the history at the French maison.

“We cannot reveal our secrets right now, I think what’s amazing is that each of the collections will give us the opportunity to focus on something that we’re excited to launch in a cohesive way. We are going to show the next one in October. We’ll talk about a specific idea, just as we did in the first,” teases Leon, refusing to divulge much when asked about what upcoming capsule collections entail.

Lim and Leon may have never collaborated with Takada at Kenzo, but their collections for the house are very much an interesting and wonderful melding of the old and the new.