TWO IS COMPANY. Humberto Leon and Carol Lim share their thoughts on inspiration and continuing the legacy of Kenzo Takada
For those of you who know Kenzo only from its tiger sweaters, cool caps and graphic T-shirts, well, you have a lot to catch up on. The brand was founded by restlessly creative Japanese designer Kenzo Takada in 1970 in Paris. He came into the limelight for his expertise in bringing Asian, specifically Japanese, influences to the European fashion landscape. Vibrant colors and striking patterns were an essential part of his design lexicon, especially the way it was applied to European construction. Years later, this approach would intrigue his successors—Humberto Leon and Carol Lim—when they delved into the house’s archives. Looking back, the brand’s quest to find these two extraordinary talents to take the helm of the brand was answered lengthy one; after two previous creative directors left the house, Leon and Lim arrived at Kenzo in 2011, a full 11 years after Takada’s announced his retirement.
Out-of-this-world shoes on the runway
Entering their fifth year of leading Kenzo, Leon and Lim have rethought and reinvigorated the DNA of the brand without leaving its roots. As a matter of fact, their aesthetics are pretty much in line with Takada’s, only now they have elevated the identity of the brand to be more relevant than ever. Cue the use of Kenzo’s logo on various ready-to-wear pieces and accessories, making them bestselling items season after season. As Americans, they have also incorporated their cultural identity to the Japanese-French aesthetics of the brand, most notably seen in their spring/summer ’15 menswear collection that highlighted their experience as Americans in Paris. The two creative directors have also collaborated with a number of creative minds outside the fashion industry such as ToiletPaper magazine and American director Gregg Araki. Together they toy around with different elements of the brand and formulated them in a refreshingly artistic way.
“We have never thought about what’s cool or what’s trendy. We just go with what we like and feel”
Leon and Lim, who became friends while attending university, initially formed a creative partnership that yielded Opening Ceremony, a multi-brand boutique that sells and curates both iconic and emerging brands. Their quirky and energetic edge soon found a place in the industry, as they successfully amassed followers and opened new branches of their boutique in various countries. Now helming both Kenzo and Opening Ceremony, these two creative souls have set the bar for other fashion houses. This fall/winter they brought an extraterrestrial life-inspired concept to the runway as they displayed details unique to Kenzo, including mixed-material panels, splatter motifs and neon typography.
DA MAN: You started your tenure in Kenzo without any formal training in design. Did you consider it an advantage or a challenge?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We had been working as designers at Opening Ceremony for a while, so we knew what to expect. When we first arrived at Kenzo, our biggest luxury was having an in-house atelier. We’re fortunate to work with such a talented team whose knowledge of garment construction is amazing.
DA MAN: How did you initially adjust your aesthetics with the brand’s storied DNA?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We were already huge fans of the brand and had a good idea of what we wanted to do, so we did a bit of both.
DA MAN: Did you dig into the archives or did you rather invent a new “design language” for the brand?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We looked at the archives and imagined how to tell the Kenzo Takada story and make it relevant for today.
Kenzo’s new patterns this season
DA MAN: How would you describe your design signature for Kenzo?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: High energy, design to wear.
DA MAN: Now that Kenzo has been one of the “cool” establishments in fashion, what aspects do you still want to develop for the brand?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We want to do so much. We want to grow our retail network, bring in all licenses, as well as expand into different territories and product categories. You’ll have to wait and see, but we have lots of ideas!
DA MAN: We are definitely looking forward to what you will develop for Kenzo! But are you always on the look for what could be cool next?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We have never thought about what’s cool or what’s trendy. We just go with what we like and feel. Someone’s cool is another person’s nightmare. You just have to trust your instincts.
Backstage during the f/w ’15/’16 runway
DA MAN: Speaking of your creative partnership, how close are you with each other? Do you ever get bogged down by “creative conflicts” when working on designs?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We get asked this question a lot and, to be honest, we are actually best friends. We don’t fight about things. We’re not saying we don’t have creative differences, but it never evolves into conflict. We’re pretty good at talking through what we want to push through. Then, we weigh up the pros and cons.
“We’re always looking to use technical fabrics or mix different materials”
DA MAN: So, how does your overall creative process look like, then?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: It’s hard to explain as we’re inspired every day through our interactions with our families, friends, people we see on the street.
DA MAN: How do you go about starting a collection?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We decide on a theme together and then we brief our design team and we all discuss how we can develop all the different ideas.
DA MAN: Given just how many collections you have to create each year, where do you usually draw inspiration from?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We look toward music, movies … generally culture in all its guises.
Silver jacket was combined with prints
DA MAN: In your fall/winter ’15/’16 menswear collection, you bravely experimented with such elements like bright colors, bolder silhouettes and a wide array of different textures. Would you say that experimentation is a constant part in your designing process?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We’re always looking to do something different, whether that’s through using technical fabrics or mixing different materials. We loved working on this collection as the colors are so vibrant and textures so varied.
DA MAN: For that collection, you intriguingly explored the idea of “openness to believing in what else might be out there.” Is this a specific reference to extraterrestrial life?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We loved that idea of people being curious about anything, whether it is travel or new encounters. Who knows, UFOs may be out there!
Sweater bearing abstract shapes
DA MAN: Talking specifically about Kenzo’s menswear line, do you approach it differently from women’s?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: You have to. There’s less room for experimentation with men’s clothing and we like to make clothes that men will wear. It can sometimes be more challenging, but we love working on both menswear and womenswear.
DA MAN: Do you think that men are more daring today when it comes to trying different shapes and colors? And how do you respond to that change?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: Yes and no. Men should be more outgoing with their style but for some the constraints of 9-to-5 jobs limit what they can wear. We like to include a great array of suiting and tailored pieces so that these businessmen can show their own individual style in a more discreet setting.
A utility long coat opened the runway
DA MAN: Being digital-savvy designers, do you involve a lot of digitization in your design?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We’re obsessed with technology in all its aspects. There are new materials being invented constantly—new knitting techniques and methods for bonding, for example. We love seeing what we can introduce into our collections and how it can be optimized to its best potential.
Is orange the new black?
DA MAN: For now, what’s in the pipeline for both of you, and for Kenzo?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim: We have been at Kenzo for four years now and we’ve really seen the change happening in front of our eyes. So far 2016’s lining up to be a very exciting year for Kenzo, we have more tricks up our sleeves, so you’re going to have to watch this space!