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Two Days With the Designer Behind Kenzo’s New Era

By Alice Cavanagh

Kenzo’s new creative director, Felipe Oliveira Baptista, at a local brasserie in Paris two days before his debut show.
Elodie Chapuis
Kenzo’s new creative director, Felipe Oliveira Baptista, at a local brasserie in Paris two days before his debut show.

It was the first morning of Paris fashion week and the mood was uneasy: In Milan the day before, Giorgio Armani had opted to live-stream his show from an empty auditorium rather than risk the safety of his invitees after an outbreak of coronavirus in the surrounding Lombardy region. Many Italian editors and buyers had decided to forgo Paris altogether. Nonetheless, the buzz around the Portuguese designer Felipe Oliveira Baptista’s debut at Kenzo persisted — and offered a welcomed distraction. Oliveira Baptista, 45, who hit his stride during his previous post, an eight-year tenure as the creative director at Lacoste, took over as the creative director of the 50-year-old house from Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, the U.S. retailers behind Opening Ceremony, who had shared the position since 2011. If Lim and Leon reinvigorated the brand with streetwear-inflected pieces and a youthful pop sensibility, Oliveira Baptista promised something more finessed.

Despite the anxiety that suffused the surrounding city, Oliveira Baptista seemed calm two days before he would present his first collection. He arrived at his favourite corner brasserie near the Kenzo atelier on Rue Vivienne on his bike, dressed in a black overcoat and wool beanie, and ordered his morning espresso as usual. Not only had he been preparing for this debut for over a year — he began talks with LVMH, Kenzo’s parent company, six months before his official appointment last July — but he felt a clear sense of purpose, informed by the legacy of the brand’s founder, Kenzo Takada.

Elodie ChapuisOliveira Baptista presented his first collection for Kenzo in the gardens of the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds in Paris, in a specially constructed tubular plastic tent.
Oliveira Baptista presented his first collection for Kenzo in the gardens of the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds in Paris, in a specially constructed tubular plastic tent.

As a young fashion designer in the mid-1960s, Takada moved from Japan to Paris, travelling by boat with stopovers in Hong Kong, Mumbai and Saigon. It was this voyage, in part, that inspired the nomadic spirit at the heart of the eponymous ready-to-wear house he founded in 1970. A mishmash of cultural influences, from Eastern European folk dresses to kimonos with graphic prints, Takada’s clothes, which he designed until retiring in 1999, were celebrated for their eclectic and uplifting aesthetic, alive with colour and print.

Oliveira Baptista wholeheartedly embraced these itinerant roots for his debut collection, but his contemporary take on the brand’s ethos — marked by loose, enveloping silhouettes, layered headwear, utility belts and sturdy boots — is more subdued than that of its founder. “There was something very joyful and optimistic about Kenzo then, and I want to have a nod to that,” he said, “but it’s a challenge to channel the same sentiments in 2020.” What does he want to do differently? “I think that it’s time for responsibility. When you turn on the TV and see these horrible things all the time, you think, ‘O.K., I can do things in a better way,’” he said, adding that he intends to institute more sustainable practices at the brand, including the use of organic and recycled fabrics. “Of course, I am within a structure, but it’s something that I have been thinking about a lot.”

Indeed, Oliveira Baptista had plenty of time to reflect. After leaving Lacoste in January 2018, he took a sabbatical of sorts. “It was like a huge meditation moment,” he said of this break, during which he practised yoga regularly and travelled to Brazil, Algeria and Japan with his wife, Severine — who is also his longtime collaborator and now runs the Kenzo studio — and their two children. During a monthlong pilgrimage to Japan, they visited Tokyo, Kyoto and small fishing villages along the coast, and he has fond memories of the family travelling around the country by train with their backpacks — a peripatetic mood that he channelled in the collection.

During fittings in the studio the next day, as Oliveira Baptista reviewed the looks each model would wear at the show — among them cocoon-like dresses, parkas with sleeves like wings and body-enveloping down jackets — it became clear that many styles had been designed to be worn in multiple ways, transforming for different environments with ease. There were felt hats with floppy brims to cover the wearer’s eyes, some with attached scarves that wrapped around the neck — “for protection,” the designer explained — and the sleeves on many garments, from trench coats to knitwear, were so long that they almost swallowed the models’ hands. Plant- and animal-inspired prints, including an equine motif and brightly coloured florals, had their roots in the brand’s pattern archive, but Oliveira Baptista had cleverly reworked some of them into a contemporary form of camouflage. While the collection invoked the legacy of the house, these were clothes for a new generation of Kenzo wanderers, roaming around in a very different world.

TUESDAY, FEB. 25, 9:30 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

At the Kenzo headquarters on Rue Vivienne, preparations were underway ahead of Wednesday’s show. In the central courtyard, a balloon-based sculpture by the Paris artists Untitled showcased the updated logo Oliveira Baptista developed for the brand. He has already started redecorating the showroom here and will soon reveal his first redesigned Kenzo boutique.

11:00 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

Once the models — 60 men and women in all — were confirmed, the team began to finalise the order of the runway looks in the studio. For the opening look, they chose an all-black tailored ensemble, setting the stage for the designer’s minimalist approach to colour and print. The collection’s silhouettes, meanwhile, were oversize and enveloping, designed to move fluidly with a wearer who is constantly in motion.

12:00 P.M.

Elodie Chapuis

Among the collection’s animal motifs was a rendering of a tiger, the house’s mascot, from an ’80s-era series of works by the Lisbon-based painter Júlio Pomar.

1 P.M.

Elodie Chapuis

As models walked a makeshift runway in the studio, Oliveira Baptista and the British stylist Jane How made the final decisions on the lineup. Monochromatic looks, like this one, would appear at regular intervals throughout the show, injecting bold splashes of colour.

2 P.M.

Elodie Chapuis

This piece, which Oliveira Baptista referred to as a “painting dress,” featured one of the few graphic elements in the collection. Flowing and loose, its silhouette could be adjusted via its zippers.

2:30 P.M.

Elodie Chapuis

Oliveira Baptista titled the collection Going Places in reference to the brand’s itinerant spirit and mined his own travels, memories and mementoes for inspiration. He looked back on summers spent in the Azores during his youth, photos of his parents as newlyweds in Mozambique, and his years in Paris, the home he shares with Kenzo.

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 26, 8:30 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

The show took place in the verdant gardens of the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds, a school for the deaf in Paris. Kenzo’s hair and makeup teams set up in the gymnasium.

9:00 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

To create a cocooned, slightly futuristic runway, the brand installed a labyrinth-like plastic tent in the gardens of the school. The structure, custom-made for this show, can be dismantled and reassembled in different ways for pop-ups and events — a nod, explained Oliveira Baptista, to Kenzo’s “nomadic spirit.”

9:15 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

The models walked through the set one last time before the doors opened to invited guests. Logo-adorned reusable water bottles — a reference to the collection’s theme of travel — were offered to attendees as souvenirs.

9:20 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

Oliveira Baptista looked on during the rehearsal, during which models walked to a soundtrack mixed by his longtime friend and collaborator, the sound engineer Michel Gaubert, which included tracks by Jamie XXBillie Eilish and the French producer Thomas Bangalter.

9:30 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

Oliveira Baptista paused for a moment to snap pictures of the models in the lineup backstage.

10:30 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

Headwear, including oversize hoods and hats with long, trailing scarves, was a big feature of the collection. Oliveira Baptista imagined travellers taking shelter in their clothes; one down jacket he designed could even be transformed into a sleeping bag.

10:50 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

Models walked the final lap together, marking the arrival of a new era for Kenzo, one that is more minimal, polished and slightly more sombre — for now, at least.

10:55 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

The mood after the finale was joyful as models including Arya Bendkhale — pictured here wearing a tailored, sleeveless grey wool jacket and leather cargo pants — streamed backstage to change before their next shows.

10:56 A.M.

Courtesy of Kenzo

Oliveira Baptista took his bow to rapturous applause after returning to the fashion week schedule following a two-year hiatus. “It was nice to have a break,” he had admitted a few days before.

11 A.M.

Elodie Chapuis

The designer greeted friends and family with a mix of happiness and relief backstage. “It was even better than expected,” he said, with a beaming smile.