Kenzo: it takes two to make a brand go right

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Carol Lim and Humberto Lean have breathed bright, beautiful new life into a classic label. Harriet Walker meets them

In the world of high fashion, it's rarely the knitwear that gets noticed. The Seventies legend Kenzo Takada may have been famous for his flamboyant and voluminous, colourful layering and “Jap wrap” style, but the latest designers at his label have caught the in crowd's attention with, of all things, their homespun jumpers.

First, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon presented a khaki sweatshirt patchworked with a paisley “K” on the front for their spring 2012 debut. Their next collection included that K reworked in intarsia on wool (and snapped up by everyone in the industry whose name began with that letter), as well as a tiger-motif sweater that became one of the must-have pieces of the season.

And at the duo's Paris show last month, it was a dropped-shoulder black shell top emblazoned with an “evil eye” motif that was dubbed the label's “It-knit”.

“We think our approach is similar to Mr. Takada's,” says Humberto Leon, now 18 months into his shared tenure. “Always wanting to push ourselves and do things that feel fresh and modern.”

The pair have a history of being progressive: in 2002, the two friends (they met at California's Berkeley university) founded the Los Angeles concept store Opening Ceremony, a multi-storey shopping destination in a squat, cuboid building on La Cienega in hip West Hollywood. The store, which now has branches in New York, Tokyo and London, prides itself on stocking the most inventive and inspirational labels in the industry, both established and emerging. The emphasis inside is on fun, and sensory experience. One room is entirely upholstered in Lego, including the ceiling.

As part of the brand's development, Lim and Leon worked on collaborative lines with hipster clothes horse Chloe Sevigny and avant-garde atelier Maison Martin Margiela that were stocked across the globe and garnered something of a cult following for the OC brand.

“On celebrating our 10th anniversary, we decided that our next adventure should be to work with a brand in the same way we work with Opening Ceremony,” explains Carol Lim. “From a complete point of view, working on all aspects.”

This totality shows through in their work at Kenzo, from the commercial success of the clothing they produce, right down to the staging of the shows, viral ad campaigns and the choice of venues – the neon-lit atrium of Paris's Université Pierre et Marie Curie and, most recently, the city's prestigious shop and landmark La Samaritaine (the first and, it is promised, last such use of the space). Such is Lim and Leon's attention to detail that models there warmed themselves backstage, wrapped in specially made foil safety blankets branded with the collection's third-eye motif.

“We were offered the opportunity to work on a number of different projects,” continues Lim, “ but the Kenzo brand was the most attractive to us. Not only due to us being long-time fans, but because we wanted to participate in the storytelling of the brand to a whole new generation.”

The label, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010, was founded by Kenzo Takada and originally known by the name of the Parisian store from which he sold his clothes: Jungle Jap. It was 10 years before the likes of Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo would establish a Japanese fashion presence in Europe, and Takada's nomadic and eclectic designs were singular among the French capital's more traditionally bon chic, bon genre offerings.

Bold stripes, swirling, chintzy florals, geometric patterns and folkloric scenes were Takada's signatures, blended together in pieces inspired by his native Japan, the American Mid-West and South American art. They earned him the “Jap wrap” moniker for their cumulative, heaped-on styling quirks and the idiosyncratic ties and drapes that characterised the label's silhouette. “We discovered Kenzo by shopping in vintage stores, as well as reading magazines,” says Humberto Leon. “The fabrics, proportions, prints and colour were always elements that stood out to us. It was as if the clothes had their own personality.”

After Takada's retirement in 1999, six years after his label was acquired by French luxury goods giant LVMH, his assistants took over the label. In 2008, designer Antonio Marras, who had worked previously on the label's accessories, was made creative director. He took the brand in a more refined and feminine direction, making use of the house's more poetic, floral signatures but breaking with its streetwear roots.

This is a strand of Kenzo's heritage that Lim and Leon have determinedly revived, in sporty separates and slick, urban styling – and of course, those jumpers.

“We felt that it had gone off-track from the energetic, fun and high-spirited Kenzo that existed when it first started,” adds Leon. “We wanted to modernise by bringing back that spirit and creating something new for today.”

“We decided to take a break from the flower,” Carol Lim says. “We feel that Kenzo stands for more than this one element. We wanted to find a new symbol for the house, something that would represent its new energy. We decided to start with the tiger, as it is part of Kenzo's early history. We're so happy to see it being embraced.”

Beyond sales, Lim and Leon's Kenzo has been warmly praised by industry critics too – so much so that it has become one of the most sought-after tickets at the Paris shows.

Last season, the front row held the likes of P Diddy and Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli; this season, the soundtrack came courtesy of the pair's friend and musician MIA.

“The reaction to our work has been positive so far,” continues Lim. “Our main inspiration is Kenzo Takada himself, and the energy he created for the brand.”

“The Kenzo customer is youthful in spirit and very confident,” agrees Humberto Leon. “They like to have fun. We hope the positive feeling continues.”

Voices
Numbers of complaints about unwanted calls have trebled in just six months
voices
News
people
Arts & Entertainment
Picture of innocence: Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington in ‘Derek’
tvReview: The insights of Ricky Gervais's sweet and kind character call to mind Karl Pilkington's faux-naïf podcast observations
Life & Style
Looking familiar: The global biometrics industry is expected to grow to $20bn by 2020
tech
VIDEO
News
Higher expectations: European economies are growing but the recovery remains weak
newsThe eurozone crisis has tipped many into despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues economist Philippe Legrain
Arts & Entertainment
Tangled up in blue: Singer-songwriter Judith Owen
musicAnd how husband Harry Shearer - of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame - helped her music flourish
Sport
Karim Benzema celebrates scoring the opening goal
sportReal Madrid 1 Bayern Munich 0: Germans will need their legendary self-belief to rescue Champions League tie in second leg
Arts & Entertainment
Paul Weller: 'I am a big supporter of independent record stores but the greedy touts making a fast buck off genuine fans is disgusting'
music
Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
arts
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes has claimed supporters understand the need to look at
sportScot thanks club staff and fans, but gives no specific mention of players
News
Strange 'quack' noises could be undersea chatter of Minke whales
science
News
weird news... and film it, obviously
Life & Style
Balancing act: City workers at the launch of Cityfathers
lifeThe organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group boasting more than 3,000 members
Arts & Entertainment
tv
News
Fresh hope: Ruth Womak and her dog Jess. A free training course in basic computing skills changed Ruth’s life
educationHow a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Senior Construction Solicitor – Surrey

    Excellent Salary Package: Austen Lloyd: This is a rare high level opportunity ...

    Construction Solicitor NQ+ Manchester

    Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: This is an excellent opportunity within...

    Corporate Finance

    £80000 - £120000 per annum + Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: US QUALI...

    Banking / Finance Associate - City

    Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: Banking / Finance Associate - We have an exce...

    Day In a Page

    Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    The Poles who brought prosperity
    Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

    Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

    The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
    Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

    Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

    Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
    The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

    Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

    South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
    Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

    Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

    The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
    Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

    Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

    Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 to $250,000 for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
    The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

    World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

    Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
    Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

    Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

    The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

    It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
    Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
    Why musicians play into their old age

    Why musicians play into their old age

    Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
    How can you tell a gentleman?

    How can you tell a gentleman?

    A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

    The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable