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Kenzo: it takes two to make a brand go right

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.”