When Japanese designer Kenzo Takada first opened a store in Paris in 1970, he likely never envisioned that his brand would go down in history as a trail-blazing force in fashion. Takada retired in 1999, and Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, the American duo responsible for the Opening Ceremony shops, took the reins at Kenzo almost five years ago. Their mandate was to inject new life into the sleepy brand that had lost touch with young consumers.
California natives and best friends since meeting at university in Berkeley, Lim and Leon were unconventional choices as creative directors for Kenzo: They'd made their reputation as retailers, not designers. But, their holistic approach to brand building (this coming fall, Kenzo will be the latest label to partner with H&M), collaborations with the art world (for Fall 2014, the duo worked with filmmaker David Lynch), and reverence toward Takada have revitalized the collection.
This month, a new initiative with Holt Renfrew hits stores. Working with H Project, which focuses on wares that support culture and craftspeople, Kenzo created limited-edition accessories, proceeds from which will aid ocean conservation through the Blue Marine Foundation. I spoke with Carol Lim from Paris about the evolution of her partnership with Humberto Leon, the sensibility they're bringing to Kenzo, and about fashion values in general.
Was it daunting when you and Humberto were presented with the prospect of helming such a legendary label?
We were really excited. We knew about Kenzo Takada's historical significance and we felt excited to tell that story again, through our lens. You can't deny all the things that he created, and I think a lot of people don't know that story. So for us, it was a way to sink our teeth 100 per cent into a project where we could not only design, but think about the marketing, the shows, the store experience – everything. At our other label, Opening Ceremony, we do all of it, so it was a good fit. We try not to waste time thinking, "Oh my gosh, is this going to work?" We just think, "Hey, we're going to try it and some people might really love it and there might be people who don't, but at least we're moving the story forward!"
You two are among the few people on the planet equipped to really look at a brand in that way. Was it just a matter of telling the story a little more clearly and loudly or did you want to take the image of the brand to a whole other place?
We wanted to bring the brand back into the conversation. Think about Kenzo, who not only started the line and the store on Rue Vivienne, but was really an innovator for decades. We wanted to explain the importance of the brand and do it in our way, in a modern way. So it wasn't about, "Let's be nostalgic and go back to the archive and talk about it." We were like, "What are the new codes and icons that we'll create for the house, but done in the same spirit and essence that he did when he started the brand?" We're making a stark break from where the brand had gone, but that's because it's our perspective, our experience and our lens. The comment we got from the atelier and a lot of people who had been with the company from the days of Kenzo was, "We feel like Kenzo Takada's spirit is back!"
Did you ever get a chance to meet Kenzo?
We did. When we first joined the house, we wrote him a letter saying how honoured we were to be at the house that bares his name and that we hoped that he was excited about what we were going to do. He wrote us back this very kind letter after our first show and said, "I am excited! Thank you for your letter. I saw the first collection, and I like the energy that you're bringing back." We ended up running into him at an event and then ran into him at our favourite Japanese restaurant in Paris. We've now developed a very open and supportive relationship. Whenever he's in Paris, he comes to our shows. Maybe at some point we would do something together, but we haven't yet. But we definitely have a supportive relationship with each other.
You started Opening Ceremony in 2002, and at that time it was unlike anything anyone else was doing. How did you and Humberto start collaborating, knowing that you both had something to say that would really resonate with people?
I guess when we first met we had no idea. We were two friends who had a similar point of view, and were just really curious. We'd always go out together and go see shows. We went to San Francisco, and we'd shop non-stop. We had a similar way of approaching things. Humberto has a longer history in fashion than I do. He worked at the Gap from when he was basically 14 through to when he graduated from Berkeley. Then he ended up going to Gap corporate and working at Old Navy. And even though I always worked in retail in the malls growing up, I took a different path. But we always regrouped and had a similar love and fanaticism and nerdiness about bands that we liked, or new things that would open – and we would try to meet the people who started these new things. So when we moved to New York we said, in a naive sort of way, "I wonder if we could travel and discover brands and shop and figure out how we could do this for an actual living." And that's how we conceived of Opening Ceremony. It was through this love and mutual curiosity of approaching culture. Fashion was one piece of it, but there were so many other things that we were interested in.
Many people at the creative helm of design houses and labels are feeling under an inordinate amount of pressure because the business is moving at lightning speed and has become a very competitive arena. How do you manage to keep it all in perspective?
I guess we are very organized – and I think there's a true passion for what we do. We always use ourselves as the final test to say, "Is what we're creating out there interesting and explainable to someone who has many, many options and is able to purchase many different items?" As we evolve as people and have new interests and new things that we want to talk about, we always think about how we create that in a garment or an in-store experience. When we start to lose that interest or curiosity then it'll be time to move on. The industry is very fast and there is a constant movement and dialogue and unless you're truly passionate about it, it's difficult to maintain. We feel very lucky in terms of being able to be part of this industry because we have a lot of ideas and a lot of things to say.
Kenzo's exclusive collaboration with the H Project will launch in Holt Renfrew stores across the country on June 8 (www.holtrenfrew.com).
This interview has been condensed and edited.