An Interview with Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Kenzo

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Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Kenzo
Humberto Leon and Carol Lim | Photo: Courtesy of Kenzo

To say that an aura of mystique surrounds Carol Lim and Humberto Leon – the insanely accomplished and limitlessly innovative designers behind Kenzo and Opening Ceremony – would be something of an understatement. The duo has created a “cult of cool,” first with its groundbreaking work in New York City at Opening Ceremony (a certified hotspot of sought-after fashion patronized by the world’s most discerning tastemakers) and second in Paris with the revitalization of Kenzo.

In this exclusive interview with the designers, Savoir Flair pierces the impenetrable blanket of mystery surrounding the designers and delves deep into their past and present work, their design philosophies, their dreams, their aspirations, and more. Although they were not “celebrity designers” to begin with, it’s certain that they have now achieved that heady level of status. Everywhere Lim and Leon go and everything they do is mimicked by others, and their unflappable vision has inspired legions to explore streetwear as a starting point for high-fashion collections. Kenzo is what it is now because of them, and one can only assume that their continued efforts will keep the brand secure in the upper echelons of the fashion industry. Read on for an in-depth look at what makes Lim and Leon the savvy, inspirational cult figures of fashion that they are.

Although neither of you had any formal retail training, you managed to turn Opening Ceremony into New York City’s biggest boutique success story. How did that journey come to inform your roles at Kenzo when you took over as new creative directors?
It meant that we understood what was necessary from a retail perspective, as well as creatively. We have an understanding of what is needed to sell and how to drive traffic in store.

Take us inside the moment when you were first offered the creative director position at Kenzo. What was going through your minds? Fear? Exhilaration? Surprise? Did you see it coming?
We knew we wanted a new challenge after a decade at Opening Ceremony. It was something we were excited to have the opportunity to do. We were so excited and couldn’t wait to get started.

It was announced earlier this year that Berkshire Company had purchased a minority stake in Opening Ceremony, which will effectively expand the brand’s ready-to-wear line for men and women, and add an accessories component. Inquiring minds want to know how you have managed to reinvigorate the Kenzo line and continue to grow Opening Ceremony. How do you balance your roles at both Kenzo and Opening Ceremony? Do you ever sleep?
Luckily enough, we’re two people so we manage quite well. We don’t mix working on the two elements. When we’re with our Kenzo team, we’re 100 percent Kenzo, and it’s the same when we’re at Opening Ceremony. We instinctively know what is going through each other’s minds, so, if one of us is busy on a particular task, the other can take over another responsibility seamlessly.

What were the first actions you took when handed the reigns of Kenzo?
We brought in a digital aspect, changed retail practices, brought back some of the licenses, introduced more affordable pieces, and have expanded the accessories line. We’re not anywhere near finished.

We’re not anywhere near finished.

How has the Kenzo woman changed over time, and how are you meeting the fashion demands of the contemporary woman?
The Kenzo woman lost some of her fun energy when Kenzo Takada left. We’re here to bring back that feeling that was there 40 years ago and tell it to a whole new generation.

Was it intimidating to move from the American fashion realm to the French? How does designing for a French label differ from designing for an American label?
Our approach is similar, and there was a lot to work on when we arrived, so there wasn’t much time for intimidation or trepidation. What is incredible is the atelier we have at Kenzo, which is something that most designers don’t have the luxury of working with. That has taught us so much.

What were the hardest lessons you learned at Kenzo?
The importance of creating a clear message that we could build upon. We have so many ideas and the brand has the ability to really grow in so many areas that it’s hard not to want to do everything at once.

Since arriving in Paris, you have consistently pushed the envelope and have created some very memorable shows. One in particular was the three-tiered levels inside the Université Pierre et Marie Curie for Fall/Winter 2012. What made you decide to hold your show there?
It was the right location for the collection we were presenting and created another layer to the experience we like to offer to the people who come to our shows.

For Spring/Summer 2013, you visited Thailand and drew inspiration for your Jungle Japan show, which also paid homage to Kenzo Takada’s original Jungle Jap boutique in Paris. What did you find out about the brand’s DNA while crafting that collection?
It was more to show our perspective on something that the brand was known for. We wanted to pay our respects, but also to create a collection from our personal experience.

Kenzo is now famous for its wild, beautiful prints. How did you create the gorgeous abstract pastel prints for Spring/Summer 2015?
We looked towards the torn billboard posters that are left around the city walls of Paris before a new poster is put up. We loved that collage effect.

What was it like working with David Lynch for the Fall/Winter 2014 show? Also, are you excited that ‘Twin Peaks’ is coming back to television?
It was such a great opportunity and we loved every minute of it. We are huge fans of his work, so it was a dream to work with him. We’re very excited to see what he’s got in store for the new series of ‘Twin Peaks.’

You seem to have a shared political voice that speaks through your collections. Do you think that fashion can influence positive change in culture?
We know that we have the ability to speak and create awareness around topics that are personal to us. They are intended to provide a dialogue into matters that sometimes wouldn’t get the attention they need, and it feels important for us to use our voice.

Over the years, you have worked on some impressive collaborations. Who is still on your bucket list for dream collaborations?
There are so many people! We want to keep it a surprise.

What do you think of the “Cult of Cool” that surrounds both Kenzo and Opening Ceremony? Is this something you’ve purposefully tried to craft, or is it the accidental result of living out your dreams?
We really just do what feels right to us. We are curious and aware of what is happening in all aspects of culture. As we evolve, we try to push ourselves forward and we hope that what we create reflects that.

Although your creative output is very future oriented, who would you love to dress from the past? What former celebrity or historical entity would you put in your designs?
River Phoenix, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe – so many people!

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