Dear readers, the big day is almost here. This Thursday, the KENZO x H&M collection will hit the shelves. I am thrilled to introduce you today a little more to this great collaboration and to the two masterminds behind it. Get to know the designers, that are truly two amazing people, and dive into the must-have pieces. I took many photos for you when I met them in NYC at the H&M showroom on Fifth Avenue.
Framed by lovely Carol Lim to the left and Humberto Leon to the right in NYC.
Here is a little bit more insight about CAROL LIM and HUMBERTO LEON, the creative directors of KENZO, who have been friends since their studies at the University of California Berkeley. In 2002, they opened their first store in New York. They took this decision after they had quit their corporate jobs at different fashion houses. Carol was a merchandise planner at Bally and Humberto was at Burberry. Even that it was a little bit of a risky time in New York, they dared this adventure. Not too surprisingly, OPENING CEREMONY went on to become a global sensation because Carol and Humberto bring such enthusiasm and fun to everything they do in fashion.
Me running to the OPENING CEREMONY store in Los Angeles in 2013
The street wear brands that the designer duo brought into their store and made partnerships with, the things that they’d seen from their youth when they were growing up in the Los Angeles area, the celebrities who walked into their shop and expressed interest in the collection. This journey lead them to a big milestone in their lives. Five years ago, they became the creative directors at KENZO and transformed the brand immediately into something every fashionista wanted. Do you remember the hype about their tiger head sweaters (click here for a previous post from 2012)…
As you can see from the success, Carol and Humberto were clearly the right choice for the revival of the brand. KENZO TAKADA himself – when he started his brand in the ’70s in Paris – opened a store that was really visionary at the time. He mixed all these different cultures and design elements, and was one of the first ones transforming couture to street wear in a super accessible and fun way.
Therefore, H&M was eager for them to join their long list of designer collaborations. As ANN-SOFIE JOHANSSON, creative adviser at H&M, pointed out: «I think the timing was really right. We had our eyes on KENZO for a while, ever since Carol and Humberto joined and kind of recharged it. It’s really nice to have a house with kind of a history but also new creators giving it new energy.»
Carol Lim, Humberto Leon and Ann-Sofie Johansson, all in Kenzo x H&M
To begin, Carol and Humberto, looking at the beginning of these collaborations, 2004, the first was with Karl Lagerfeld, a couple years after you opened up your store, what was it like as retailers to see this phenomena happening in fashion, breaking the rules of what a designer brand could be, and what’s happened since then that made it possible for these partnerships to continue to be a success even 12 years later today?
HUMBERTO LEON: I think when we first heard about the Karl Lagerfeld and H&M collection, we were not only store owners but also lovers of buying and shopping and super excited. We were two people who lined up like everyone else. We just recounted all the pieces we had bought. I still own the suit, the dress shirt, the jeans, all these amazing things. I felt like it really gave us as consumers not only a chance to buy a designer, but also something that was created specially for this collaboration. So a really unique experience that is beyond just being able to buy the designer’s goods.
CAROL LIM: Yeah, and I think that having collaborated and having had a store, we realized the importance right away. We were excited to see the two brands coming together, creating something really magical. So for us, we had it marked in our calendars that it was something we were really excited to experience.
Carol and Humberto, why did you think this was right for KENZO as the first brand under the LVMH umbrella to do a partnership with H&M, which is interesting in itself?
CAROL LIM: First, we love the idea of storytelling and also speaking to a broader audience. It is also the perfect opportunity to not only talk to people that know KENZO, but to a whole new customer that could discover the brand. For LVMH, it is the perfect brand to test such a project.
HUMBERTO LEON: The idea of being able to experience the KENZO brand in different ways is really part of our ethos. So this was a no-brainer. H&M has an amazing portfolio of designers that have done this. It feels exciting to be a part of this group of people.
That’s a really good point. The hesitancy some designers had at the beginning is completely gone now. There’s no reason to not think this is a great thing for them. Tell us about your concept. What is KENZO x H&M?
HUMBERTO LEON: The most exciting part about this collaboration is that every piece we created is somewhat unique for this KENZO x H&M collection. We wanted to treat this as if it was a true conversation between the founder, Kenzo Takada and us. We went into the archives and actually resurrected pieces in their original form but we obviously modernized them. For instance, the dress behind us is one of the famous dresses from a 1978 collection where there were only two pieces made. There’s over I think 300 meters of ribbons. We own one of the two pieces and a museum owns another. So it’s super exciting that the H&M customer can actually come in and get a piece of this.
For Carol and I it was important that everyone knew that this house has a really, really unique story. It started in 1969 by one man before all the other Japanese designers came that now show in Paris. Kenzo Takada was the first. It’s exciting to tell the story of him, his struggles and the joy that he brought to the French capital.
For instance, there are a lot of little details that we found when going through the archives, he finished all the pieces so beautifully that they look like they should be reversible, so we decided to make some reversible as Carol’s skirt among other pieces. I think knitwear is another great example. We did a really amazing knitwear exploration, probably more than a lot of the other collaborations. It’s a big code of the house. So it’s exciting that people can actually buy a piece of this part of history.
The «watermelon» sweater is super soft.
Some of the 110 looks are a little bit wild. Jean-Paul Goude, who did the advertising and imagery, and worked on the show, described them as nutty. There are pieces that when you look at them out of context, people may not even know how to react to them. There’s like a pink and green tiger striped sweater that could have been inspired by a watermelon. What you were thinking when you decided to go in such a strong fashion approach?
HUMBERTO LEON: We came into it as us, as the fanatical shoppers. We wanted to approach this, and we’re obviously showing really strong looks on the runway, really strong looks on the presentation and the campaigns. But in reality I think, as consumers, you only have a chance to grab as much as you can as there are only a couple of pieces. And the idea we’ve always said is that we want people to mix with what they are already having in their own wardrobe.
We always feel a lot of times when you design fashion, when you give a really strong proposal on the runway, it ends up being really expensive. It’s the €3,000 piece. We thought this would be a fun opportunity to be able to buy a piece of fashion at a really incredible price. I think that’s why we wanted it to be super unique. Most of the stuff was never in our collection. It’s really almost kind of buying a piece of history. The idea is that you can make it your own. And, yes, there are strong pieces. I think that the brand is known for the prints and the color and the fun. We’re showing it one way, and we really feel like in the end people will kind of interpret it their own way.
CAROL LIM: I think true to the spirit of how we work and also the brand we wanted there to be a joyfulness. When you walk into the room and you see the clothing, you can’t help but smile. I also think Humberto is right, when you pull it apart, you’re going to find things. But each piece can stand on its own. Hopefully it’s going to be the kind of piece that, you know, even if you may not wear it at this point in time, you put it in the box and save it and it comes back out. We wanted to approach every single item that way.
It seems there is something for many different types of customers, different generations in this collection. Who do you think is the customer for it, in your mind? With all this fashion, what challenges did you face, given the huge scale of this project?
HUMBERTO LEON: I feel like the customer who has grown and loved KENZO for the last almost 50 years will look at this and say, Whoa, they really arced back into the spirit of KENZO. I think that customer who is probably in their 50s, 60s, will be super excited to see what this is and reminisce about what this brand is. I think for a younger generation, there’s a lot of stuff that Carol and I injected into the brand that you can easily understand and incorporate into your wardrobe. In many ways, there’s almost something for everyone. We always said, and Kenzo Takada also mentioned, it’s not about an age, it’s really about a spirit. So this collection is for a youthful spirit. That can really be an ageless notion.
CAROL LIM: Actually H&M were incredible partners. The ribbon dress was not an easy feat to accomplish but they were able to create everything. They were equally as excited about pushing it to the right quality and the finishing. So everything, even the small little buttons for which we created specific hardware, down to even the thread.
Hans Feurer, Kenzo ad campaign, 1983
Let’s go back to the specific references within the collection. It’s really quite fascinating what you found in the archives, more so than perhaps you even do in the KENZO collections. There is the net print from maybe the second collection you showed in the showroom. What other elements are actually from the archives here?
HUMBERTO LEON: All the florals are from the archives. So you see all the florals and the ribbon tapes. There’s these floral dresses. The original kind of leopard print is from the archives.
One of the things we decided to do was do a mash-up between the archives prints and our prints. So you see the original tiger print that was on these amazing photos that Hans Feurer shot of the three women in these body suits, three-colored body suits. So this is from the archives. We recreated those jumpsuits in the collection. They’re two pieces, so it’s not one full body suit. But they’re these amazing, washable wool. So it’s an amazing fabric. H&M really took the time to redevelop these fabrics for today’s times, so they’re super cool, washable wool jerseys.
Aside from that, the fuzzy coat is one of the first things that Kenzo Takada made. He made these hoodies, jackets and everything, even faux fur, the latter was kind of a great little fabric that really kind of brings us back to when he began, almost this kind of great naïve way of working that was just raw.
The cropped floral top.
But I think the off-the-shoulder thing is something that if you are a KENZO fan through the years, like, different journalists have told us, I bought my first off-the-shoulder piece back in the day. We recreated those pieces both in a little crop top and this floral pleated ensemble. These are all really kind of signature details of the house.
The must-have sweatshirt
Then obviously Carol and I brought in the sweatshirts, made those a big thing for the house. We wanted to celebrate that and give the icon, which says KENZO Paris, with the running tiger in the back, is actually from the archives. That is from a piece from the ’80s. So we really, really brought in a lot of archival elements into the mix, which we felt like was such a great way to celebrate the brand.
CAROL LIM: Then we also have a lot of silhouettes we created in our first and second collection. There’s a sleeveless reversible silk dress with the medallion in the larger and smaller scale. There’s kind of a long tiger striped dress. Each piece is kind of speaking back to the archives or the period of time we kind of put our collections out.
HUMBERTO LEON: Yes, the medallions come from a little tie and a silk square that is from the archives, as well.
Kimonos over the must-have ribbon dresses.
You are mixing global cultures, there are the sandals, there’s a kimono in the collection. How do you approach that as designers when you’re kind of sampling from different cultures in a sense? What kind of message does that promote for the brand?
HUMBERTO LEON: Carol and I have always used our travels as a prime example of where we gain inspiration. We try to really embrace the authenticity of cultures. Similar to Kenzo Takada, who also had these famous travels that he brought back into his brand. But you have to give it your own take and twist it. I would say that our kimonos, it’s not a rub-off of a traditional Japanese kimono. It’s really a fashion take on that silhouette. We made them reversible. We made them cropped. I think the idea is to be inspired by culture, but at the same time I think hint and reference to it, but also give it your own take, your own personality.
For the lookbook, click here.
There’s a lot of personality in the lookbook. I’m sure the reaction you’ve seen to this already tells you quite a lot about how welcome the representation of diversity is in fashion today. How did you select the group represented? How did you approach them? How do they reflect the values of KENZO x H&M?
HUMBERTO LEON: When we sat down and talked about this project, Carol and I wanted people to represent, first and foremost, themselves, something that they stood by. Individuality was a really big expression in what we were looking for. People that were authentic and that expressed themselves. So we didn’t look at the models how they looked but what they stood for as human beings. It was a really kind of genuine approach Then as a bonus, they all looked amazing in the clothing. There was a big diversity. There’s a makeup artist, a performer, a singer, a journalist. I think that we could really relate to these people as you could imagine sitting down at a dinner table with them and having great conversations. They felt like great ambassadors for us.
And what about the campaign?
HUMBERTO LEON: For the campaign, we have everyone from Chance The Rapper, Iman, Rosario Dawson, Martinez, Suboi. These amazing people from all around the world that in many ways are our idols that we think stand for something so great and so exciting. The look look together with the campaign presents a great group of people, really authentic and real to us.
Kenzo F/W 2012 campaign shot by Jean-Paul Goude
Tell us about Jean-Paul’s involvement. How did you approach him? Isn’t there’s a slight connection to Kenzo Takada himself. Why was he the person for the ad campaign?
CAROL LIM: Humberto and I have been fans of Jean-Paul from growing up. I think we’re familiar with his work as an art director, as a photographer, and as really an image maker. When we first joined KENZO, Humberto and I, we were brainstorming about who would shoot the first campaign? Humberto came up with Jean-Paul. As we were dreaming up who we wanted to collaborate with when we joined the house, he was the first person that we approached. Through luck and perseverance and through developing a relationship with him, he came and he actually said to us, I know Kenzo Takada. Through scheduling conflicts, they never worked together. I can sense the energy of what you’re bringing. He’s very much about a personal connection. So he shot our first campaign for us at KENZO and we formed a very deep bond with him.
So when this partnership came about, we even deepened his involvement with the event. If you’ve seen any of his happenings, for example this incredible bicentennial for France. What he’s able to do on an event level, even on windows, a lot of different things, we thought if he would be open to it, would he be interested in working with us on this project.
Grace Jones by Jean-Paul Goude
HUMBERTO LEON: I mean, even prior to everything Carol just said, I don’t know if everyone knows how amazing Jean-Paul Goude is, but he obviously did all those amazing Grace Jones covers, all this amazing, amazing work with different brands, incredible people. But Carol and I, even before we joined KENZO, when we were doing our interview for the job, the first question they asked, they said, Who are you going to get to shoot the campaign? We said, Jean-Paul Goude. They said, Oh, wow. Do you know him? We said, No. They said, How are you going to get him to shoot the campaign? We said, We don’t know, we’re going to figure it out. Okay, you get the job, let’s see if you can figure this out. In our first and second campaign, Jean-Paul shot it. We became friends. That was really the main thing that happened. We went into this as a part two of what we had done. I think that the show and the runway experience, it’s a deepened relationship because he really hasn’t done too many performances, art directed, creative directed too many performances. The bicentennial is probably the most famous.
Since selling KENZO to LVMH in 1993, Kenzo Takada has travelled the world and set up his own interior company.
What would Mr. Takada say about your collaboration with H&M? Would he approve?
HUMBERTO LEON: I think he would love it. I mean, number one, I guess it’s not good to say he’s a fan. But he’s a fan of what we do. He comes to our shows. We’ve had conversations with him where he really feels like we brought the energy and spirit of what he did in the ’70s and ’80s back, and that our values feel very similar to his values. In many ways, I feel like one of his biggest objectives and things that brought him the most joy was just seeing people wearing his clothing. I think this is an amazing opportunity to see more people wearing this brand that he created. I think that Carol and I have never shied away from our efforts really kind of being an homage to what he does. So I think he’d be thrilled, excited to see, I don’t know, after November 3rd, just people on the streets wearing these prints and these propositions that he once created, obviously newly thought about and newly done, but in a way seeing these things walk on people.
CAROL LIM: He’s known for being, and still, one of the most generous people in terms of his spirit and kindness. He’s had amazing, legendary parties, not only at his home but his shows. He staged them in elaborate ways and always included people he admired, his friends,different artists. I mean, before there was this term ‘collaboration’, he was doing it naturally. I think he would be really excited about this.
The reversible kimonos are amazing.
I would like to know more about your creative process. Do you sit down together or do you start separately from each other? Do you present then your ideas each other? Have you ever had an argument about a design one of you wanted to do and the other didn’t approve?
HUMBERTO LEON: Never about that. I think Carol and I talk a lot. The reason we were able to do as much as we do is because we’re together. I think we also know what we’re both good at. I think in 15 years we’ve been able to learn the other side of what we’re not good at. I feel like we’ve been able to really communicate well. We definitely never argue over, you know, whether or not something is good or bad or right in terms of design. I feel like we’re pretty in sync. At the end of the day we have the same end goal. Both of us are trying to work towards that end goal.
What are you strongest at and what is she strongest at?
HUMBERTO LEON: Inherently, I was the creative director doing more of the creative, and then Carol came in more as the business person. I think as everyone has learned today, the two really go hand-in-hand. I think that’s where we feel like our strength is, is really questioning every aspect of it and making sure what the end consumer gets is exciting and of value.
Thank you, Carol and Humberto, for giving us an amazing insight in the collection!
The Kenzo x H&M collection will be available in over 250 H&M stores worldwide, as well as online, from this Thursday, November 3, 2016.
Photos: Courtesy of H&M, Kenzo, © Jean-Paul Goude and © Sandra Bauknecht