Masters at work

Humberto Leon and Carol Lim: the ultimate multitaskers

Text by Caroline Issa

Photography by Frederik Heyman

Styling by Nina Walbecq

Carol Lim and Humberto Leon multitask like no one else in the fashion industry. They set up the label and store Opening Ceremony in 2002, and in 2011 were, to the surprise of many, appointed creative directors at Parisian house, Kenzo. Masters of collaboration, the pair draw on an ever-expanding and illustrious circle of partners, while keeping their output for both labels steadily detail oriented, fun and fresh. Caroline Issa met them in their New York Studio to figure out how they manage to do it all.

Caroline Issa: Your productions for both Kenzo and Opening Ceremony keep getting bigger and arguably better – including the ground-breaking play at the Lincoln Center you put on for OC. Do you feel pressure to keep outdoing yourselves?

Humberto Leon: That is the number-one comment that we get from everybody! Every show we do, people tell us, “You know your show is going to become this thing that you have constantly to keep up?” The way we look at it is that every collection has a story that we are telling. When we begin our design process, we have moodboards of artwork, music, things we are in love with and inspired by, people and objects that really give us the essence of the season. Then, when the clothing is made, how do we get the room to feel that thing we have lived with for six months? Every season is a bit different. Some seasons are a little bit more vivacious, and can take a really fun and exuberant show, and sometimes it needs a quieter moment. We did this insane play with Spike [Jonze] but we aren’t competing with ourselves [Opening Ceremony’s SS15 show was a play scripted by Jonze and Jonah Hill]. We are telling a story and we are very clear about our approach. So we try to be true to ourselves.

CI: I have always seen you almost more as movie directors than designers. Where does that storytelling gene come from?

Carol Lim: Growing up in the generation that we did, pre-internet, has a lot to do with it. When we were growing up in high school we would obtain information from magazines. You would wait for your monthly subscription and share it with your friend. You would buy one European magazine, and they would buy another, and you would pass it around and share. Or you would go out and read them at the newspaper stands. It was different. You would go and see what your favourite band was wearing. I think that’s what gave us the curiosity. We are both curious people in general, and we would dig for the things we really like. What are they wearing? Where is that from? Who made it? Who started it?

CI: Things have changed a lot in that regard with the Google generation…

HL: We realise and recognise that we are living in the generation of Google and fast reactions and millennials, whose attention span goes in and out so quickly… That’s kind of why we feel a need to tell these long narratives and to really give the depth behind the clothing and give a reason for things to exist. So many people don’t realise what certain companies and certain brands have meant. Kenzo is a great example. People don’t realise that Kenzo Takada was the first Asian [designer] to ever come to Paris. That was a really important story for us to tell. He paved the way for Comme [des Garçons], Yohji [Yamamoto], all the amazing people we love. It would have been really easy for a younger generation to think, “Oh Kenzo, this new brand from Paris” and we felt the need to tell the backstory. We’re so excited when Kenzo Takada shows up to our shows and he tells us how we’re doing what he feels like he would have been doing today. Oddly, he is very proud of us, which I think is super exciting.

CI: Does your process for Kenzo differ from how you work on OC?

HL: I think that with OC, Carol and I have very distinct roles. Carol runs the business and I am the creative director. The fact that we are friends and we started this company with only two employees, and we’ve kind of woven in and out of each other’s workspace, I think all this allowed us to do Kenzo as a duo. The great thing is that we came in together as creative directors at Kenzo, and we get to work on a lot. So our hands are on everything– ad campaigns, a little video on the website. The entire digital experience did not exist before we got there.

Hair Louis Ghewy using Bumble and bumble
Make-up Inge Grognard using M.A.C Cosmetics
CGI: Wout Bosschaert
Videography and digital operator: Jasper Janssens
Photography assistants: Michael Smits and Jente Maes
Styling assistants: Eran Shanny and Sara Van Pee
Hair assistant: Buket Acar
Models: Eveline Rozing and Frederik Meijnen at Ulla Models

  • Kenzo #1
  • Kenzo #2
  • Kenzo #3
  • Kenzo #4