In the astrological world, a Pisces and a Gemini are not considered a classic pairing. When a water sign (as is Carol Lim) comes together with an air sign (as is Humberto Leon), horoscopists predict bubbling moments of spontaneity and creativity but not necessarily long-term compatibility. This theory however has been proved highly incongruous in the ever-changing retail world as these friends who met as students at Berkeley uni in the mid-90s have not only created collaborative harmony in the form of cult concept brand but now are revitalising LVMH owned luxury brand Kenzo with their unrelenting creative force.
In predictable simpatico Leon was working as the director of visual merchandising at Burberry, and Lim as a merchandise planner for Bally when the idea came about on a shopping trip for the unexpected mecca known as Opening Ceremony, which opened in 2002. What started with some screen-printed T-shirts with Sonic Youth and collaborations with friends like Chloë Sevigny and artist Terence Koh has now grown into stores in New York, LA and Tokyo, a booming online business and their own label (which started as a basics line), which is now sold in 300 outlets worldwide.
In July last year, their unique manifesto brought about another special opportunity as they were appointed to the helm of the company Japanese designer Kenzo Takada formed in the 70s, wowing Parisian couture with his irreverent ways and the alternative universe to which he subscribed. They share with him their global spirit and a deep understanding of what friends are for. Now, we sit down with them to ask if they saw it in the stars.
Jess Blanch: Congratulations on the show, you must be so happy with all the feedback so far.
Carol Lim: Yeah, I think, we haven’t really read anything but Adriano (Kenzo PR director) always gives us good, positive updates so we were really happy with the space; just as with all the elements, so we hope that people liked it as well.
Humberto Leon: We had all our friends and family there, and our friends made the cupcakes for everybody, which was really exciting and nice. (The cupcakes were made by Magnolia Bakery in New York and flown to Paris especially for the show)
When you came on board you said you really wanted to capture the energy of the DNA of Kenzo. Just popping into the store the other day I really feel like it’s already got this injection of new life. How does that feel for you? Do you feel like you’re just beginning?
HL: We’re definitely just beginning and I feel like it’s really exciting to see this new chapter in the brand and, for us, it’s really important to really pay justice to the brand that was created. I think Carol and I have always really felt like we want to tell the story of Kenzo because I think there’s a lot of young people out there who have no idea who Kenzo is or what the brand meant to fashion. It’s interesting because at one point in time it was Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and then Kenzo Takada, and it’s such an important part of the history. Carol and I are such history nerds, that’s the thing that’s most exciting. For us we are really just trying to re-capture that spirit and hopefully people who once remembered it from the early 70s say ‘oh my God, I see what they’re trying to do, I see the story they are trying to tell’.
Being here now at Kenzo you’re privy to all the stories and archives, what fascinated you most?
CL: I think when you look at the things he was doing for each year he was designing, each decade, how free he was in not having any inhibitions, he was like ‘this is something I want to create, this is what I want to do’ and I think that that to us is something so special. To have come to Paris as an outsider and start a store here in Galerie Vivienne and have his line and really just push the envelope, I don’t think he was doing anything other than what felt exciting to him. Having that kind of history and DNA of the brand is really very powerful and I don’t think there are many other brands that do it. He is chic but also there’s a level of fun and lightness to the brand that is a really hard combination to pull off and he was really good at creating this world of Kenzo. When you say that word – immediately – all these things come to mind.
HL: And he also had such a strong kind of group of people. He was always surrounded by his friends and other people he worked with and great kinds of people like Jerry Hall who was his fit model and, you know, Grace Jones.
Wow, I didn’t know that…
HL: Incredible people that were so taken by him. The idea of really bringing different people from different communities together to share something exciting is really part of the story.
And you know you did that working with Delfina Delettrez on the jewellery, how did that come about?
HL: She is an old friend of ours and we’ve carried the collection since the very beginning. We’re obsessed with her jewellery. When we realised that we were doing this collection and we wanted this collection to be intimate about this woman’s vision of her home, the jewellery was such a big part of it. The perfect person to work with on this is Delfina. She has such a great way of doing beautiful things – still with a sense of humour but still with a sense of casualness to it and chicness to it that it felt so Kenzo. We worked with Onegadi on the prints so he’s an art director and photographer and he has an incredible sensibility so he did all the fruit prints for us, so that was really exciting. And he’s an interesting story because 30 years ago he had promised Takada that he was going to do prints for him and on his way to Paris from Argentina he had a layover in Madrid and fell in love with Madrid.
CL: He never made it!
HL: He never made it to Paris … And so, 30 years later he kind of repaid this favour that he owed!
CL: It’s interesting, it’s great to see the new generation with his generation of people, there’s something really nice about including the whole thing and that’s the whole point of the story.
And you’ve got a really strong connection to Kenzo the man it seems, to be able to share in those stories and see that play out?
HL: The more we uncovered the more we felt like we really related to him. The first thing that he did was open up a retail store, and he really had no inhibitions because he would just make things as he wanted to. We’re really trying to bring that spirit back to this house – we feel like doing something, if we feel like collaborating with somebody, we do it and not worry too much about it.
And that’s very much the nature of your partnership, I mean with Opening Ceremony and so on, it’s true to form I guess.
HL: Ha, can’t take it out of us!
When the opportunity to become creative directors came up, what was your head noise? To be here in Paris, you’ve had great success but it must have been a risk in a sense, what was your conversation between each other when you began to talk about it?
HL: Well we looked at each other – it was our 10-year anniversary this year – and we asked what the next step was. Even before we interviewed for this job we said what we’ve done so many collaborations that maybe it’s time to almost take a creative direction for a company and see the process through. I think the most fulfilling part is not only are we designing the collection, we are able to see the whole process through, down to the customer buying it and seeing them on the street, and capturing that whole entirety. With all our collaborations they always kind of came and went so quickly.
More like true creation.
HL: It was always just such a little thing within a big thing. We feel like, with this project, the great thing is it’s the whole picture. We are able to really capture the entire, and so for us it’s an exciting opportunity to tell the story and see the whole thing through.
And how does it feel to be here? I mean, you guys are like the kids from America, everybody knows your story about how you met at Berkley, what is it like to be here in Paris?
CL: It’s great. We’ve been coming to Paris for six years for Opening Ceremony, living here part-time has allowed us to discover Paris in a different way during non-fashion week time. For us it’s an amazing opportunity and we just started taking French lessons. Not many people can say that they have the opportunity to live part-time in Paris and have an atelier in the house and work in a way that, you know, there are not many companies left that work this way.
I was at your after-party the other night and looked around and it’s a very contemporary crew; how do you see the Kenzo customer now with you guys on board in terms of development – who are they?
HL: We want it to be a very welcoming brand and a very inviting brand. No one ever feels, I think, intimidated when they walk into an Opening Ceremony store and I think that’s important for Kenzo, that the brand is welcoming to everybody. And so she could be a mum, she could be a grandmother, she could be a teenager – it’s a youth in spirit not in age.
It’s quite special when you see that fuse with something which is very much a luxury product. I found a jumpsuit in the store (you know the white one with the print) and it’s really fun and spirited but there is that luxury element – often it’s very much like luxury is very serious…
HL: Yeah, we want to fuse the two and I think that’s a great thing and I think that the great thing is that there are all these different price points in the brand and we’re one of the few brands that can really do this and not be inhibited by either or.
So your inspiration is being here in the house and I know you’ve spent time here in Paris before but has your eye changed? Are you seeing things in a different light?
CL: I think what’s great is that we have the opportunity now to experience it as Parisians, going to different areas, going to the farmers’ market that we have right in front of our house and really discovering your neighbourhood and all the things that come with it. There’s so much accessible art and culture here and in so many different areas – it’s taking in the city at a different pace and seeing things that we were probably too busy running to appointments or shows to notice before.
HL: I also think it’s having our atelier here and seeing which patternmaker, which sewer is really good at doing what and really working with them. It’s seeing who the experts are at what, and challenging the design process in that way has been really intriguing for us. We’ve just really taken advantage of the fact that we have this in-house atelier which is so talented and has worked for the house for so long so that’s really an exciting part.
It would have been an interesting day when you first walked in, and you were like ‘hi’.
HL: Ha, we really didn’t have much time we kind of threw our bags down and went straight to work!
You’ve been a partnership for so long, tell me about how that works for you and how it’s developing during this next stage between the two of you.
CL: OK yeah, obviously – we’ve known each other for a really long time – since we were 18 – and we’ve been friends and we’ve had Opening Ceremony for 10 years. I think we just approach things in a very similar way. We are also good at different things – we are good at being the balance for each other in certain situations whether it be in whatever we’re both focusing on. It’s nice to have, it’s a luxury to have, another person to bounce your idea off to say ‘does this make sense?’, ‘is this exciting?’, ‘what do you think about this?’ What’s great is that there’s two of us and we’re able to start a meeting off and then the other one can jump in and pick up from there. We know the way each other thinks so before we even come to each other we’ve already played it out – we can make decisions, we can make them together, we make them separate and in the end you know that it’s the same kind of vision.
And with your vision being so aligned, is that just very organic or do you actually kind of workshop that?
CL: Yeah, no, it’s pretty organic. I mean…
HL: … We’ve known each other for half our lives so we’re pretty comfortable with each other. We know how each other thinks. We’ll do something and in my mind I’ll say ‘I know Carol is going to come in and say this’ and I have to start to think about that and then she’ll come in and say it and I’ll say, ‘you know I knew she was going to say that’ so yeah we’re very prepared with each other and how we work.
As the show is the focus at the moment; Kenzo rode an elephant in one of the shows in the 70s. How did you approach the fact that you knew you were going to do a big show this time? Was it a really big show?
HL: It was really our first runway show so it was really important for us that you felt the energy of the room. I think that we wanted everyone to come in and see the excitement of our emotions and coincidently it was a very gloomy, gloomy day so I think that the bright building really kind of helped bring everything to life. Carol and I are very particular about making sure that when you got the invite you had a paint stick and you knew where you were sitting, that your cupcakes matched your area – we really just wanted to curate this whole thing. We loved the idea of being able to see the models kind of just standing on the escalators and you see them all at the same time. Everyone has a different point of view and I think that there’s something so Kenzo about that each perspective is it’s own show and not everyone had the same view, and there’s something nice about that, it’s very personal. It was like a tailor-made point of view ... There was a bit of a congestion towards the end we’ve heard about (laughs).
It felt really installation-like. You two were so funny though when you came down on the escalator…
Both: Oh my God!
CL: Did you see that we had to stop for a second?
‘Cause I just saw the two of you looking at each other like ‘whoops’?
HL: When the last girl was almost done with the last floor, Carol and I were supposed to just come down the escalators quickly and wave and then we were done. But, all of a sudden, the top floor all got up and they were leaving because they thought the show was over – which it was, but we hadn’t gone down the escalator so we held everyone back and they said, ‘GO you have to go now!’
CL: They had to walk a full purple floor so we were just standing at the orange and I was like OK. There was literally like a row that was staring at us.
HL: And we said, oh my God, hi!
CL: And we were thinking once we see them go down we have to follow them and we have to walk the purple floor so then we ended up walking way too long but it was fine! (laughs).
HL: We had to impromptu the whole thing but in the end it was fine! (Laughs) I mean Carol, and I are actually the shyest people out there so it’s kind of funny!
It was sweet, there was that moment where you looked like, ‘oh my God we’re standing on an escalator’ on front of all these people...
HL: It was a big show and it’s kind of mortifying to see … It was like 800 people, to see everybody at the same time was like AH!
It makes you have respect for the models doesn’t it?
HL: Oh yeah I have so much respect for them anyway, I would never want to do their job!