Humberto Leon is a man on the move. After founding New York retailer Opening Ceremony in 2002 with fellow University of California Berkeley grad Carol Lim, the duo added another joint title to their business cards in 2011 – co-creative directors of Kenzo. On the opening of the brand’s latest boutique, he and #legend's fashion director Kim Bui Kollar catch up in Shanghai.
It’s grey and overcast on November 2, 2017 in Shanghai, but there’s a hum in the air with a congregation of people from many walks of life; they’re all here for the Kenzo opening at the Taikoo Hui shopping complex. Aside from the big launch, one of the major talking points is the Aaron Kwok performance at the after-party. Before all of the festivities begin, I sit down for a quick chat over tea with Humberto Leon, Kenzo’s co-creative director. I should preface that I’ve known Humberto through mutual friends since I was in my 20s in California – so we don’t waste any time and dive right into it.
Yes! It just really made sense to me. With Kenzo, we really like working with people who I think are icons. Whether it’s Spike Jonze, Lauryn Hill, Jean-Paul Goude, even Chloë Sevigny – they’re all icons to me. So when I found out that we were going to do an event in China, Aaron Kwok immediately came to mind.
Thanks! I’d say that we are very involved. These events have to speak to us. This is definitely not a situation where the events are planned and the creative directors just show up. I ask all of the questions: What are we doing? And how are we doing it? I would say that we definitely like to do things that are out-of-the-box.
“Definitely casual.” But I also love to dress for occasions. This question makes me think of what my mum always used to say: “You have to clash colours!” I think this has always informed me to pair things unusually – like high and low.
Hmm... sexy ’70s furniture and a little bit of ’80s furniture mixed in. I’m really into Mario Bellini right now. Furniture that’s glossy, red and black – you know, sexy ’70s furniture!
Don’t get me wrong, I think Scandi is a good base to start with – the clean wood and smooth lines. I have been collecting art since forever. Also, I collect magazines. I have years’ worth of The Face, i-D, Fruits and Self Service.
They’re organised by titles...
Shortly thereafter, we have to wrap things up as Humberto is whisked away to his next appointment – a sudden snap back to reality.
When I get to the store that evening, there’s a massive crowd outside. Let me rephrase that: there’s a mob outside the store. The draws include some choice male celebrities: Canadian-Chinese identical triplets the Luu brothers, as well as another young chap, Jackson Wang, who have the girls in a Beatlemania-like frenzy.
Relishing in the refuge of the store, I have quite a bit of time to observe. The design and layout really make me sit up and take notice. The flow of the product category placement (men’s, women’s, accessories), the brand animations and the lighting are all extremely considered. It engages all of the senses, but the methodical flow allows for the consumer to make sense of everything – like being inside a video game or navigating social media. The store is heavily branded – much more so than what you’d see at Gucci or Louis Vuitton – but this seems to be deliberate and adds to the energy of the space. Kenzo is conveyed in a multitude of fonts and styles. I remember that Humberto had great experience with visual merchandising from his university days – at Old Navy and Burberry.
I have enough time to go through each rack and mentally calculate that about 70 percent of the garments on the hanging racks are logo sweatshirts. Later, I run into front-row friends Bryanboy and Leaf Greener at the in-store cocktail party; they’re both wearing sweatshirts, certainly a departure from the runway ensembles I usually see them in.
Wendy, Humberto’s mom, is part of the entourage – and though she isn’t clashing colours, she’s clad in a highly saturated red faux-fur coat. Fabulous, to say the least!
There’s a lot to say about a person that can constantly stroll through life with a proper entourage. I’ll spell it out as I understand it: 1) This person is fun. 2) This person is thoughtful. 3) This person is cool. After all, being a social pied piper certainly requires some merit to have Chloë Sevigny, Olivia Kim, Jen Brill, Spike Jonze and the like as a part of the gang.
The store cocktail proves to be perfect mental preparation for the after-party – which is absolutely heaving. It’s hard to tell if Aaron Kwok or the brand in general is the bigger pull. A vibrant “Kenzo” in rainbow lettering adorns the wire fence backdrop. There are little cart stands serving miniature hotdogs and pizzas, as well as colourful balloon artists that can twist and create just about anything. At some point, all of the alcohol runs out.
Ahh, the wonderful, tireless energy of youth. I close my eyes and take in a deep breath in the hopes that this youthful coolness is contagious. If I wear a Kenzo sweatshirt, will I gain entry to this tribe? What’s interesting is that for the price point of a sweatshirt (HK$1,600 and up), I can own a visible piece of a French luxury brand – one that can be machine-washed and worn everyday, and is actually less seasonless than a pair of shoes from another label.
Compared to other creative directors I’ve spoken with – those who want to approach clothes and fashion at a really high level – Humberto and Carol Lim think more about the end user. They’ve been able to create a following for a French brand started by a Japanese designer, with elements that they think are fun and cool, and with a healthy dose of cultural awareness and curiosity.
When I was relating everything that I had seen to my editor, he coined it perfectly: “Kenzo-trope” – a permanent cultural rotation that plays with the impression of continuous motion, like a zoetrope.