When Humberto Leon first met his future close friend and business partner Carol Lim 19 years ago at the University of California, Berkeley, Lim was in her pajamas. "I met her at a friend's house and said, ‘Let's go out!' So Carol just put on heels with her pajamas and we had a really fun night," Leon recalls. "That's how it all started."
Since that chance encounter, the two California natives have built a steadfast fashion partnership based largely on a mutual taste for pop-fueled, streetwise style. They opened their downtown New York boutique, Opening Ceremony, in 2002, established OC satellites in Los Angeles and Tokyo, and in the most recent twist for this tag-team sartorial alliance, were named the creative directors of French fashion house Kenzo last year.
It may seem like a leap to go from cult retail masterminds to headliners at an LVMH-owned fashion label, but who better to reinvigorate Kenzo, a brand that was, in its '70s heyday, the toast of French fashion? After all, founder Kenzo Takada, who moved from Japan to Paris in the mid-'60s, also had a hand in retail. He established himself in 1970 with his famed Jungle Jap boutique, a progressive Paris store that was not unlike Opening Ceremony. "We have a lot of diverse interests in different creative mediums," says Lim. "And the facets of what we do exist in the Kenzo brand. So it's been a very natural progression." After Takada retired in 1999, the house slowly dropped off the fashion map, becoming more known in the U.S. for its fragrances and skin-care products than for clothes. But in his prime, Takada pioneered a fusion of Japanese street style, Parisian chic, and global ethnic influences, creating voluminous, color-blocked clothes favored by the likes of Jerry Hall and Grace Jones. This history is not lost on Leon and Lim, who have a long-standing admiration for the original Kenzo potency. In fact, Takada's knack for vivid, playful aesthetics is integral to their work, and the two thumbed through the Kenzo archive before creating their inaugural spring 2012 collection. "We're such nerdy, obsessed people about storytelling . . . and we're trying to tell the story of this brand through our collections," explains Leon. Lim adds, "Takada was really about designing from a personal perspective. He didn't follow trends, and we're trying to use the cues of that personality to make what we think is modern in 2012."
This approach is evident in Leon and Lim's debut collection for Kenzo. Inspired by their summer trips to upstate New York, as well as the work of artist Ellsworth Kelly, the designers focused on the brand's signature bold blocks of color (specifically cherry reds, emeralds, and blues), airy silhouettes, and intricate prints, which they presented in optical-illusion fishing-net and bird motifs. Textural knits, trapeze tops, peasant frocks, and printed silk shirts and trousers continued that sense of familiar playfulness revived for a 21st-century crowd. The duo was particularly impressed with the impeccable linings found in Kenzo's '70s clothes, and showcased this element via anoraks and reversible drop-waist dresses. "We want people to play with the clothing," says Leon. "We think the brand deserves to be fun." Just in case the clothes didn't communicate their message (and they did), their Paris presentation—featuring Jason Schwartzman on the drums and Chloë Sevigny in the finale's rich blue taffeta jumpsuit—was about as fun as they come.
Leon and Lim are also planning eye-popping ad campaigns, new product ranges, and a focus on Kenzo's online presence. "Carol and I are taking the things that we're obsessed with at Opening Ceremony and bringing that excitement to Kenzo," says Leon.