In just four seasons, Kenzo’s Carol Lim and Humberto Leon have turned a floundering fashion label into one of the most talked-about brands on the planet. We find out how they did it…
If there's one brand that encapsulates the new ‘insta-luxe’ market of accessible yet luxurious, blink-and-it’s-soldout fashion, it’s the recently reincarnated Kenzo label. Beloved by style infl uencers – from Rihanna to Cara Delevingne – and with an appeal that extends way beyond its fashion-pack devotees, Kenzo offers a blueprint of how a modern label can swiftly rise to stardom. The question is how, in the space of only four seasons, have designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon – both Californian imports – managed to restore the fortunes of the Parisian label that once clad ’70s sirens in jungle-inspired prints?
Aside from the birth of the ‘It-Sweat’– the duo’s near-ubiquitous logo-emblazoned sweaters that launched a whole new must-have category – it’s the highly personal credo that’s moulded Carol and Humberto’s careers to date. The designers met at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘Humberto came to my apartment after 11pm with my room-mate and somehow persuaded me to throw on a pair of heels with my pyjamas and hit the town. It's been a bit like that ever since,’ laughs Carol. After a brief stint in consulting, Carol followed Humberto – who was working at Burberry – into the fashion business with a role at Swiss luxury label Bally. ‘We would meet up for lunch in the Garment District and spend the whole time talking about doing something together,’ recalls Humberto.
Solange Knowles, Rihanna and Hailee Steinfeld in Kenzo
The result was Opening Ceremony, a New York store so beloved by industry insiders it occupies an almost mythical place in the annals of cult fashion. ‘We launched the store so we could travel and go shopping,’ recalls Humberto with a smirk. The concept behind OC was to visit uncharted style territories and hand-pick unknown designers to showcase in-store. By offering the shopper an opportunity to discover international labels, which prior to the advent of free worldwide shipping were tantalisingly out of reach, the boutique soon gained a reputation as a creative hotbed.
Both unapologetic neophiles, the pair have become known for their collaborations with up-and-coming designers – think Rodarte – as well as reintroducing oldschool labels like Pendleton and Keds to a whole new generation. And while the rails stock extravagant pieces, accessible prices are also embraced in their high-low curation. ‘We wanted to open a store that felt welcoming. So whether it was a great high-street buy or a luxury investment, we aim to stock pieces that represented both ends of the spectrum,’ says Humberto.
Beyonce in Kenzo and the brand's Kalifornia multi-blue bag
Another captivating strand of the designers’ DNA is their high-profile friends, stalwarts of the legendary OC parties and often involved in those highly successful collaborations. ‘Whether it’s doing something with Chloë Sevigny or working with Spike Jonze, some of our best projects have been with our friends. The mutual love we have for each other can create something superspecial,’ Humberto embellishes.
After celebrating a decade of retail success in 2012, the designers were ready for the next challenge. ‘We put it out there that we were ready to get involved with a much bigger business and have a global impact,’ says Humberto. From all the labels that came calling, it was the LVMH-backed Kenzo that piqued the pair’s interest. ‘We discovered Kenzo while shopping vintage when we were in college and we had an immediate affinity for the brand,’ explains Carol.
From the start, the match won plaudits as their debut collection of primary-coloured separates in graphic cuts mined the Kenzo archive while adding a heavy dose of the Lim ’n’ Leon youthful elixir. ‘The way we always think about clothing is that it should look like it’s worth what it costs. We’ve built something that is more democratic, more open. Something that is more attainable and available – to us that’s the new luxury. I think it’s less about exclusivity and more about inclusivity,’ muses Humberto.
Their vision of luxury also encompasses the mundane – take their now iconic embroidered sweaters. ‘We like that mixture between things that are precious and things that are everyday. Carol and I can definitely appreciate nice, expensive things, but we can appreciate our gym clothes just as much,’ Humberto continues. But as Carol is keen to stress, Kenzo is about much more than sweaters. ‘The sweatshirt is only one part of what we’ve done and we’re excited to story-tell beyond that.’
Kenzo Autumn Winter 2013 [Jason Lloyd Evans]
To the unaccustomed ear, Humberto and Carol’s rampant optimism could sound disingenuous. But their PMA has enabled them to sidestep convention and carve out a corner of Californian cool in the heart of Parisian conglomerate culture. ‘Carol and I went straight into Kenzo as if it were our own business and we’ve run it the way we thought it should be run. Our way of working is very un-Parisian and that’s something you can definitely see in the workplace. We literally physically pulled down the walls of our offi ce so we could be available at all times to the team.’
When it comes to the future, the sky really is the limit. ‘I think Kenzo has the potential to be anything it wants to be. We could launch a kids’ line, it could be furniture, food or a hotel,’ says Humberto. But however much it expands, their philosophy won’t change. ‘No matter how big things get or how the company grows, we will never forget where it all began… a pair of suburban mall kids who wanted to make a job out of doing what we loved.'