Kenzo A la Maison

Opening Ceremony's Leon and Lim breathe new life into one of Paris' great fashion houses

Text by Naomi Bikis

Photography by Atlanta Rascher

Styling by Nobuko Tannawa

The recently appointed creative directors of Kenzo, New Yorkers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, have ensured the label is once again one to watch. During the recent fashion week shows in Paris, a captivated audience marvelled as models rode escalators around the vast Université Pierre et Marie Curie. If there were any lingering concerns over how the two retail founders of Opening Ceremony would manage to direct a long-established French fashion house, they soon evaporated into the damp evening air. 

In a mere two seasons, Leon and Lim have successfully reinvigorated the brand drawing the attention of fashion editors. For their debut show, Chloë Sevigny modelled, Spike Jonze filmed, JasonSchwartzman played drums and Solange Knowles lent a hand backstage. And they ramped it up further for the autumn/winter season - both in terms of the show spectacle and, more importantly, the clothes. In the 50 looks that appeared, every wardrobe essential was neatly catered for. Basing the collection on interiors, there were hand-drawn marble prints designed to look like the polished floors of an apartment, while a grape print resembled a fruit bowl sitting on a counter top. There were also billowing high-waisted trousers, smartly tailored coats, loose knits, the archive tiger motif on jumpers and full, bright skirts. 
The Magnolia cupcakes, baked by chefs flown over from New York, were, quite literally, the icing on the cake. 

"It was quite an experience," they chime. "The bakers making hundreds of cupcakes, blending the colours of the frosting to match the colours of the show." 

With the crowd scoffing baked goods and the excitement palpable, the aura that a classic '70s Kenzo show used to conjure was back in place. "We love that everyone has such a positive story when they talk about Kenzo and we've brought our own histories, references and the things that inspire us to the house. What you see on the runway is a blend of our creative energies and a link to the spirit of the house. It's youthful, colourful, chic and fun," say the pair. 

It was a surprise last summer when LVMH, owners of Kenzo, announced Leon and Lim as the new creative directors. Although they have worked on collaborations with Rodarte and Pendleton, the duo are more familiar with designing capsule collections for their own stores. However, heading an established brand with a heritage doesn't daunt the pair. 

"We don't think of it as a challenge," they explain. "We constantly ask ourselves, 'How do you make it feel authentic and real?' It's the spirit of [original designer] Kenzo Takada that we reference. Rather than referencing those pieces in a literal way, we want to take what those pieces evoked and make it right for now." 

In fact, Leon and Lim are ideal for the role. The pair have created shopping meccas in New York, Tokyo and LA - and one is planned for London this summer. Their retail beginnings are similar to Takada's. The Japanese designer, who retired in 1999, had moved to Paris in the late '60s, much to the dismay of his parents who disapproved of his career ambitions. By 1970, he had opened his first boutique, Jungle Jap, and his progressive silhouettes earned him a youthful following that quickly made him the fashion darling of Paris. And the more that Leon and Lim learn about Kenzo, the deeper the bond. "We've discovered so many things about Kenzo which relate back to ourselves. It can even be a bit spooky sometimes, how similar we were." 

Leon met Lim 19 years ago when they were both at Berkeley College, San Francisco. The latter, who was wearing pyjamas at the time, was persuaded to go dancing by Leon, whereupon a deep friendship was formed. After graduating, the Californian natives headed for New York, where Leon worked at Old Navy and then Burberry and Lim was employed by Bally. In 2001, they went to Hong Kong for a holiday and, inspired, they pooled their savings and gathered stock from unknown Chinese designers to open their first store 12 months later. 

A decade on, and their understanding of the intricacies of retail, is crucial to Kenzo. "We always bring our love of shopping to any project. I think you can see that. We just want to push ourselves and Kenzo into the future. Part of Kenzo's history, and its future, is to inspire people, to make them feel bold, to laugh, to go do something interesting," they explain. 

"There is a whole universe to explore with the house and we've only just started a really exciting voyage." 


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