x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Americans in Paris

We talk to the creative designers at Kenzo about their vision for the brand.

Humberto leon, left, at his Openig Ceremony shop in New York City, and Kenzo's latest collection features bright, bold colours, right.
Humberto leon, left, at his Openig Ceremony shop in New York City, and Kenzo's latest collection features bright, bold colours, right.

For an industry that is all about the new, the ever-changing and the boldly shocking, fashion can sometimes feel like it's stuck on repeat, forever jumping back to different eras for inspiration. How often in the past two decades have the 1970s been referenced on the catwalk? Too often to count, but it's happening again at Kenzo – though this time it's an evocation of the adventurous spirit of the age rather than a reprise of loon trousers and nylon blouses.

In the year following the 40th anniversary celebrations for the brand – a favourite in Dubai, which at Dubai Mall has the largest flagship store outside Paris – the Sardinian creative director Antonio Marras was replaced, after eight years at the helm, by two of American retail's hippest arbiters of cool. That may have surprised people when it was announced back in July, but it makes sense: Carol Lim and Humberto Leon are the Berkeley-educated Californians behind New York's most fashionable concept store, Opening Ceremony – a shop that could be said to have done for New York, in 2002, what Kenzo Takada's revolutionary boutique Jungle Jap did for Paris in 1970.

"We want the current Kenzo customer, who was a fan of Kenzo Takado in the 1970s, to rediscover the brand, and say, 'Wow, this is the same energy as when Kenzo first started'," says Leon, "and also to introduce their daughters and their friends and say, 'Hey, if you didn't remember Kenzo, this is who he was,' – really telling the story of Kenzo through the house."

Takada, the brand's Japanese founder, found fame in the late 1960s when he began making colourful clothes by throwing together fabrics sourced at flea markets out of financial necessity. His boutique, Jungle Jap, which opened in 1970, was the breath of fresh, international air that was desperately needed at that moment in a decadent, self-absorbed Paris fashion scene, in love with its flamboyant leading lights Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. Alicia Drake describes it in her excellent book on the era, The Beautiful Fall: "His clothes were the antithesis of French couture. They were light, young and fun, and a hybrid of ethnic influences."

Leon and Lim are revisiting that idea of "ethnic" fashion in a way that is relevant to a modern, well-travelled shopper.

"I think it was very different then, because now you have the internet and you can buy traditional African clothing and Indian clothing," says Leon. "But at the time he was doing something really revolutionary: international culture, street culture. He was very new and fresh, so for us it was about celebrating that."

The way they achieved this in their debut collection at Paris Fashion Week last month was to bring a very different subculture to Paris: that of upstate New York.

"It's a place that not many people get to go to: if you're visiting New York why would you leave Manhattan? It's a place that's peaceful and there are little beaches where you can rent little nets and catch your own seafood, and we wanted this kind of calm and relaxing environment as a basis for the collection," says Leon, who also cites the minimalist, boldly coloured paintings of Ellsworth Kelly as inspiration for the palette.

It still feels French, funnily enough: a kind of modern American evocation of Deauville or Trouville, France's chic Normandy seaside resorts, and an echo of the great boat trip that Takada took from Japan to Marseilles in 1964, which offered him so much inspiration.

"We really relish this idea that Kenzo is Japanese, he took a trip to France and he stopped on the way in the Philippines and all these different places, and he was really inspired by what he saw on his travels. Carol and I are Asian-Americans - Carol's Korean-American, I'm Chinese-American - and we want to bring our American side over," explains Leon.

For Lim, the Kenzo legacy is something the pair have grown up with. "We've really been into the brand since early on," she says. "We were avid vintage collectors since we were at Berkeley, and I have 30 vintage Kenzo pieces I've found over the years. Obviously, we read all the materials and did a lot of research about how creative he was. I think for us it was an amazing exploration into everything he had touched upon; it's really fascinating to see how instrumental he was in creating this kind of fashion for Paris."

The collection the pair presented in Paris was a clean break from the Kenzo of recent years, with strong, bright colour-blocking, neat repeat prints of bird illustrations, a linear diamond print derived from netting, details of sailing rope and sportswear fabrics (as well as a waterproof-looking taffeta) and sweet little knits and culottes. The presentation itself, too, was a break from tradition, with two hours of rolling shows every 15 minutes in the Kenzo HQ, a grand converted house in Rue Vivienne. The actor Jason Schwartzman (Bored to Death, Marie Antoinette) organised the music, drumming away himself, Spike Jonze was directing a documentary on the "happening", and Chloë Sevigny took a turn on the catwalk. A bit starry? Well, it's still in the spirit of Kenzo, says Leon.

"For us it was a natural way of working, and it was amazing that we could celebrate with them, and they all said we want to be there, we want to support you," says Lim.

The business, of course, is what this will all come down to: can Lim and Leon maintain the success of Kenzo, retain its loyal customers, while bringing in new fans and continuing their own considerable endeavours across the pond in the Opening Ceremony store? It's quite some task, Lim admits.

Perhaps the most significant change is to make Kenzo a more accessible brand with what the current fashion parlance calls a "contemporary" price point.

"It's the idea that it's valuable, and you covet and cherish that piece, so it feels luxurious, but that you can actually afford it," explains Lim. "You might save up and forgo four or five other pieces that feel disposable, and you buy that piece. You want to keep it in your closet forever and pass it down to your kids. It doesn't have to be priced at luxury price points, but it's obviously not going to be mass, because the quality and craftsmanship are there."

Tees and tops will start at around €100 (Dh510), dresses from €350 to €400 and coats at €600 to €800, says Leon, with key chains from around €50 and shoes from €200.

"It's not astronomical and it's not cheap," he states. "Luxury to us is being able to see a runway show, being able to say, I love that jacket and I can actually buy that jacket. I think there's something nice in being able to invite people, and not just an elite group of people, to be able to buy the goods."

For a fashion label that began with clothes made from repurposed flea market finds, that's an attitude that makes sense, and as the recession rumbles on, it could mark a path forward for the increasingly pricey ready-to-wear industry.

Still, as we sit talking around a cafe table on the roof at the Rue Vivienne mansion, an artificial lawn beneath us and a giant silver sculpture of a rabbit's head behind us, it feels wrong to introduce anything as dull as finance into the endearingly bonkers world of Kenzo. Can these retail dynamos really keep the creativity quotient high enough? They certainly plan to.

"It's a funny company," laughs Leon. "Kenzo was always so eccentric with what he did, and we'd like to continue that."