• Divya Bala

A new kind of magic at Kenzo

Ahead of Felipe Oliveira Baptista’s first show for the storied brand, there’s a new mood — and a new logo

The fashion logo redesign has proved to be a most divisive move in recent years. After Hedi Slimane’s “Yves”-ectomy at Saint Laurent caused a fashion scandal, there was his infamous removal of the accent above Celine’s first “e”, resulting in an upsurge of diacritic-based vandalism in fashion capitals the world-over. Then, Riccardo Tisci’s tessellating Burberry monogram raised eyebrows, even the scrunch of the logo of high fashion retailer Zara was deemed “controversial”. For an incoming creative director, it’s a bold decision. One that, if misjudged, could alienate a brand from its most staunch supporters.

However, for Felipe Oliveira Baptista, who will be showing his first collection for Kenzo this week in Paris, it’s a detail that is designed with diplomacy in mind. “There’s a nomadic spirit to Kenzo,” explains Baptista, from the house’s headquarters in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement, a week ahead of his debut. “I think Kenzo looks [for inspiration] everywhere. It’s very open-minded, optimistic and free. It’s one of the reasons we took the ‘Paris’ out of [the logo] and just kept ‘Kenzo’.”

Far from refashioning Kenzo in his own image, Baptista’s minor adjustment simply underlines the brand’s new outlook, something he proved adept at doing during his eight-year tenure at Lacoste. The designer’s chameleon-like ability to deep dive into a house’s codes while leaving a stage whisper of his timeless, high-performance aesthetic is something of an art form. And perhaps, why he got the gig.

“It’s a difficult thing for me to answer,” he begins, when I ask him why he thinks he won the appointment. “They [LVMH Fashion chairman and chief executive Sidney Toledano and Kenzo CEO Sylvie Colin] definitely said that they liked the idea that I was a “designer” and that I was not going to use Kenzo to come and do my own thing. [I had] a vision for Kenzo and I think that’s probably one of the strongest things about it.”

He adds, with a shy smile, “I think [my] track record at Lacoste is quite good.”

Humberto Leon, Solange Knowles and Carol Lim on the catwalk for Kenzo © Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

It couldn’t have hurt. Under his creative direction, Lacoste surpassed €2bn in annual revenues, doubling what he started with in 2009. A capsule collection of polo shirts whose trademark crocodiles were swapped for 10 endangered species, designed to raise money for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, sold out in 24 hours. His Supreme collaboration with the house sold out in 16 minutes.

Is there a formula for this kind of fashion alchemy? “I think within the creative process, when I get to a stage where I surprise myself and get excited, and the people around me get excited, you know you’re on to something good.”

Born in the Portuguese archipelago the Azores, Baptista grew up in Lisbon, leaving to study fashion design at London’s Kingston University followed by stints with MaxMara in Italy, Christophe Lemaire (whom he succeeded at Lacoste) and Cerruti in Paris. During this time, Baptista created his eponymous haute couture label, winning the Hyères Grand Prix and the Andam Fashion Award — twice — before shuttering it in 2009 to concentrate on his creative direction duties.

It’s little wonder Baptista’s talents have been recognised by LVMH, who have owned Kenzo since its founder, Kenzo Takada, stepped down in 1993. They are no doubt hoping that he can bring his Midas touch to the brand which, under the previous direction of Opening Ceremony founders Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, remained a subscale performer in the LVMH portfolio, generating less than €400m annually, according to market sources.

“Felipe has a 360-degree creative vision,” writes Kenzo CEO Sylvie Colin, via email. “His creative talent is innovative, but his clothes are deeply rooted in real life. He knows how to combine past, present and future, and how to reinterpret brand codes of the house, in a completely current way.”

As an avid photographer, collagist and sketcher, Baptista’s approach to design is akin to a sculptor. “I draw, I play on the [mannequin] stand with vintage, I cut up clothing, I do collage with paper,” he says. “Just a stand is not enough, just drawing is not enough. 3D is one of the things that really interests me. It’s what links back to architecture.” Baptista points to his larger-than-life mood board puzzle for the collection, singling out archive imagery from the Kenzo Takada era alongside his own abstract photos taken on the streets of Japan, Algeria and the US; a photo of his parents parachuting in Africa; traditional costumes from Azores. “There was always a great sense of freedom and fun that [Takada] had. So, I said, ‘I need to give myself time to find those accidents’ — which is not easy. That’s why I end up coming here a lot on Saturdays!”

Stephanie Gundelach, creative director at B56, wears a Kenzo sweater in 2012 © Kirstin Sinclair/FilmMagic

Baptista’s collections are explorations of silhouette, shape and streamlining which reflect the design house. He favours technical fabrics, demi-tailoring and athletic separates — cagoules, utilitarian basics and couture proportions — to reinterpret into his sleek, refined design hand.

“I wonder if Kenzo could be LVMH’s answer to streetwear,” muses Luca Solca, a senior analyst of luxury goods at Bernstein, on what we might expect to see come Monday. “After all, they were among the first to invent fleece tops with tigers. I wonder if more informal fashion may be on the menu.”

For Baptista, who is not yet ready to give too much away, his vision for Kenzo pivots around four pillars he discovered while studying the brand archives against those of his own brand. The designers’ themes dovetailed across ideas of nature, nomadic freedom, optimism and a youthful energy. “I started with the nomadic spirit, because this was something that I think is one of the strongest things about the brand. This idea of going places, clothing that can adapt to your life and be interchangeable. It’s fashion, but it’s still clothes you live and move in,” he explains.

“And then, of course, in the end, the love of nature. [Kenzo] has always been about nature. How do you translate that to be for nature as well?” he says, outlining his personal beliefs. “One of the really interesting points of fashion today is, how are we going to make this shift? Yes, work in a more sustainable way. Yes, use more sustainable fabrics, but maybe, be more sustainable in terms of style. For me, the best compliment is when I see someone wearing something that is ten years old. Clothes have become such a disposable thing these days, and it shouldn’t be.”

As we say our goodbyes, I ask Baptista if he’s felt that frisson, the excitement of striking gold that he mentioned earlier. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” he says, lighting up. “I don’t want to say too many things in advance, but there’s a little bit of magical dust in the air.”

This story has been amended since original publication to clarify Sidney Toledano’s position within LVMH

https://www.ft.com/content/b301205a-54d6-11ea-8841-482eed0038b1

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