Kenzo is hip again

The 46-year-old luxury brand's original pieces get chic updates in a highly anticipated collaboration with fast-fashion giant H&M

Reviving the old is a forte of Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, largely credited for returning a street edge to Parisian fashion house, Kenzo.

The American duo, the label's creative directors, are about to kick up the once-staid brand's hipster cred another notch, this time through a highly anticipated collaboration with H&M.

Come Nov 3, overnight queues are expected to form at 250 of the fast-fashion giant's stores worldwide, including two in Singapore at Orchard Building and Ion Orchard.

The new 111-piece collection is more than just new shapes or silhouettes, says Leon at a press conference last Wednesday in New York.

Instead, drawing on their knack for turning old into new, the duo dug into the 46-year-old luxury brand's archives, resurrected pieces in their original form and put a modern spin on them.

Unveiled at the by-invitation-only runway show, held after the media conference, was a smorgasbord of clashing prints, bold silhouettes and vivid colours. The event featured its campaign models, including model Iman and actress Chloe Sevigny.

A famous dress made with more than 300m of ribbons was revived from the brand's 1978 collection and reworked; a multi-coloured furry hoodie was inspired by one of Kenzo founder Kenzo Takada's early signature faux fur designs; and flowy dresses in a mash-up of prints by both Takada and Kenzo's current designers hit the runway.

The limited-edition collection also includes T-shirts, sweatshirts and Chelsea boots as well as accessories such as pouches and caps.

Part of the collection can be previewed from now until launch day at a pop-up showcase at Ion Orchard's atrium on level 1.

"We wanted to treat this as if it were a true conversation between Carol and I and Takada," says Leon of the collection, which bridges their aesthetic with Takada's for the first time. "It was started in 1970 by one man, before all the Japanese designers that now show in Paris - he was the first."

When the self-taught designers joined Kenzo in 2011, it had been largely sidelined by the Parisian fashion circuit - the result of its long slide into obscurity since Takada's retirement in 1999.

Takada, born to innkeeper parents, developed an interest in fashion at an early age through reading his sister's magazines.

He went on to study literature at the University of Kobe, following his parents' wishes. Bored, he soon dropped out and enrolled in Tokyo's Bunka Fashion College.

In 1964, he moved to Paris and started sketching, opening his first boutique in 1970 called Jungle Jap.

His ready-to-wear designs revolutionised the Parisian fashion scene, which was then dominated by exclusive couture houses such as Dior and Chanel.

When he stepped down, French designer Gilles Rosier took the reins, followed by Italian designer Antonio Marras.

Both did not leave as much of an impact and the brand became better known internationally for its fragrances than clothes.

Then Leon and Lim entered.

Appointed by Kenzo's parent company, French luxury group LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, they were considered "unlikely candidates" for their creative director roles at the established fashion house. They threw everything on the table and challenged every part of the process - not just design but also merchandising, pricing and advertising campaigns.

The two, who met as undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley, and left their corporate jobs to open the wildly successful multi-label fashion store Opening Ceremony in 2002, were met with scepticism.

"People (were) feeling like, what are we doing? Are we doing the right thing? Really questioning our intentions with the brand."

Those fears were unfounded.

Within three years of their joining, Kenzo's annual revenues surpassed financial targets.

The brand had managed - with its new graphic sweatshirts, energetic design aesthetic and more affordable price tag - to lure a younger demographic, receiving a seal of approval from even Takada himself.

The 76-year-old is now an artist and lives in Paris.

The new Kenzo x H&M collection, with prices ranging from $17.90 for socks to $699 for a dress, will help the brand expand its fan base even further, says Lim.

"I think there are a lot of people who shop at H&M who may not know what Kenzo is... Then if people are curious about the brand, they will go and discover what we do," she says.

H&M's creative adviser Ann-Sofie Johansson, who was also at the press conference, says H&M had Kenzo on its wish list for "a couple of years", ever since Lim and Leon started there.

"The recharge that Carol and Humberto have brought to the brand - we really like that," she says, adding that H&M started such collaborations in 2004 to offer a slice of luxury to the masses.

It has so far launched 12, including tie-ups with Balmain and Alexander Wang.

When asked which of the designs she thought would be most popular. she says: "To be honest, you never really know what pieces will be flying. Hopefully, the whole collection."


Hot items from the collection

1) Ribbon dress, $699

This folkloric floor-length ribbon dress is based on a 1978 design. Only two of it were produced - Kenzo has one and a museum owns the other.

There is also a short version ($399), which Kenzo designer Carol Lim counts among her favourites.

Ms Ann-Sofie Johansson, creative adviser at H&M, believes that this piece will be highly sought after because of how intricate it is. Three hundred metres of ribbons were used to recreate the dress.


2) Off-shoulder top, $119

In creating the collection, the designers spoke to fashion editors to get their views on iconic Kenzo pieces. "Every editor we talked to would say that in the 1970s, you had to own an off-the-shoulder Kenzo dress," says Kenzo designer Humberto Leon. Crop tops such as this one were recreated based on those off-the-shoulder dresses.


3) Men's sweater, $159

The medallions on this washable wool sweater were inspired by a men's piece from the 1980s.


4) Men's reversible bomber jacket, $349

This is Leon's favourite piece because it is "fun and exciting" and it is among several pieces that can also be worn inside out. Made of polyamide, this piece can be turned inside out for a classic black bomber jacket.


5) Men's sweatshirt, $119

Sweatshirts became a Kenzo signature when Leon and Lim joined as creative directors in 2011. The logo on this cotton sweatshirt, with the words Jungle Kenzo Paris and a running tiger, harks back to label founder Kenzo Takada's first store, named Jungle Jap.


6) Men's parka, $449

For men who may not be too excited about this print-heavy collection, there are some toned-down items such as this polyamide and cotton parka.


7) Accessories, from $17.90 to $399

Compared with other H&M collaborations, this one has more accessories, such as socks, scarves, earrings and shoes - all statement pieces. The line includes a baseball cap, $79.90; and a pouch (both above), $99.90.

•The collection will be available at H&M Orchard Building and H&M Ion Orchard on Nov 3. Each shopper can buy only one of each design of the 111-piece collection and is allowed only 10 minutes to shop, excluding the time taken to try on the items.


Memorable collaborations

With the democratisation of fashion, collaborations between high-end designers and fast-fashion brands are here to stay. Here are five memorable ones.

1) Karl Lagerfeld and H&M

Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld (above, with a model in an outfit he worked on with H&M) changed the course of fashion when he became the first designer to collaborate with H&M. Considered one of the earliest high-low collaborations, the 2004 collection included jackets, tops and jeans, with popular items such as a T-shirt featuring a silhouette of Lagerfeld's face. These were sold out within hours.

The collection was not sold here as H&M opened its first store in Singapore only in 2011.

Despite its success, Lagerfeld expressed displeasure that larger sizes of his designs were created and that not enough was produced.

In an interview with German magazine Stern, he said: "What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people."


2) Peter Pilotto and Target

Loved for its signature digital prints, British-based brand Peter Pilotto by design duo Peter Pilotto and Christopher de Vos partnered American big-box retailer Target in 2014.

This was the first time that a collection was available to Singaporeans, as a partnership with luxury e-commerce site Net-A-Porter allowed shoppers here to buy some pieces of the 70-item collection.

The response was "phenomenal", going by Net-A-Porter's account, with one order made every second within the first hour it went on sale.


3) Lemaire and Uniqlo

Fresh from his departure as artistic director of French luxury brand Hermes, Christophe Lemaire announced a collaboration with Japanese retailer Uniqlo last year.

Lemaire, together with his business partner Sarah-Linh Tran, launched two elegant and minimalistic collections for men and women.

Following the success of those collections, he was roped in to head the casualwear brand's Uniqlo U line that was launched earlier this month.


4) Marimekko and Banana Republic

In 2014, Finnish lifestyle brand Marimekko created a 25-piece capsule summer collection of dresses, tunics and clutches for American casualwear brand Banana Republic. The collection was a brilliant showcase of what Marimekko does best - bright, bold prints in classic silhouettes.

Several of the 65-year-old brand's signature prints from its archives made its way into the collection and were sold out on launch day.


5) Sacai and Nike

At the height of the athleisure craze, sportswear giant Nike and Japanese label Sacai paired up to launch athletics-inspired dresses with windbreaker-cape hybrids, pleated fleece sweatshirts and sweatshirt dresses with elegant trains.

This was one of the most highly anticipated launches of last year and the whole collection sold out in a flash.

The collection was not available in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2016, with the headline 'Kenzo is hip again'. Print Edition | Subscribe