Kenzo's Cool Comeback Kids

Article excerpt

Byline: Alice Cavanagh

In jan. 10 in Florence, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim--the creative directors for the fashion brand Kenzo--presented their Fall 2013 men's collection above the Mercato Centrale di San Lorenzo. In a testament to Kenzo's rising star in the industry, the pair had been invited to Florence as special guests of Pitti Uomo, the fashion fair that kicks off men's fashion month in Europe. As the sun set over the Renaissance city, an army of male models emerged through the flashing lights and smoke. The collection, with its focus on tailoring and sharp silhouettes, was subtler than the previous menswear season, though prints and bright colors--touchstones of the brand--featured prominently. For their Spring 2013 collection, presented last July, Leon and Lim took guests on a journey through the jungle. For their new collection, they looked to the skies: the central print featured powdery blue, cartoonlike clouds. "After last season we wanted to explore the idea of the jungle in the sky and the different elements--gods and goddesses, and the mythical elements," Lim said postshow. "So that was the beginning conversation."

"We showed something for spring that was really fun and super-exciting and energetic," added Leon. "So we wanted to show this other side of Kenzo that was romantic and all about tailoring and focusing on the details."

As with everything Kenzo does, the concept was executed down to the very last detail, from the branded airplane blankets on seats to the choice of venue, with its view of the Tuscan sky. The San Lorenzo market "is a part of everyday life, and when we saw this space, it was like everything that the collection wanted to be," said Leon. "I think [the venue and collection] both informed each other, and the space, and where we were with our minds--it all informed this new Kenzo man."

The new Kenzo customer continues to evolve under the pair's careful direction. Although Kenzo had its heyday in Paris during the '70s and '80s, the brand went slightly off track after its namesake, Japanese designer Kenzo Takada, departed in the late '90s. It's taken Leon and Lim just 18 months to bring it back on point--complete with spectacular presentations and a formidable consumer following.

Marrying the everyday with the fantastical has always been part of the Kenzo DNA. The brand was founded in 1970 by Takada, who opened a boutique called Jungle Jap in the heart of Paris's second arrondissement. He had a boundless imagination and was famous for mixing cultural reference points, jumbling high fashion with street style, and working with clashing prints and bright colors.

Takada was part of a new generation of young designers, such as Yves Saint Laurent and Azzedine Alaia, shaking up Paris in the '70s. The intimate couture presentations of previous decades were no longer the heart of the industry, and Takada's East-meets-West aesthetic and energetic approach garnered him a cult following. In her recent autobiography, Grace Coddington--the creative director of American Vogue--recalls that in the '70s, when she was fashion editor at British Vogue, she almost exclusively wore Kenzo and Saint Laurent.

In 1993 Kenzo was sold to LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, but Takada remained at the house's helm until 1999. After his departure, the brand floundered, lost in a no man's land of licensing deals. By the early 2000s, it was recognizable mostly for its iconic prints and its Flower perfume. In 2003 Sardinian designer Antonio Marras was appointed womenswear designer, and in 2008 he was made creative director of the entire brand. During his tenure, Marras stayed true to Takada's eclectic aesthetic, and his ready-to-wear presentations were often spectacular: for the brand's 40th anniversary in 2010, he assembled 40 models wearing exotic fashions under a 19th-century circus big top. …