“Kenzo Is From Everywhere, And For Everyone”: Creative Director Felipe Oliveira Baptista On The Futu
As Felipe Oliveira Baptista readies Kenzo for the post-crisis world, he is quietly echoing the global vision of its founder
The first move Felipe Oliveira Baptista made when he joined Kenzo last summer was to take the brand’s octogenarian founder to lunch. “He said, ‘Fashion seems so complicated now, so difficult,’” the new creative director recalls, affectionately mimicking Kenzo Takada’s whispery voice. Takada sold his fashion house to LVMH in 1993 and retired six years later, yet his input would be significant in Felipe’s reimagining of the brand. “I’m much younger than him, but still previous to the digital generation. I come from a time that was about the craft as well as the image,” Oliveira Baptista, 45, says, noting how Takada had lamented the state of the fashion industry. “‘These merchandisers and merchandisers, collections and collections! I couldn’t do that.’ And it’s so true. He came from a time when fashion was done from the heart. I wanted to pay tribute to that.”
The digital communications made necessary by the corona crisis, which hit just after his debut show for Kenzo, in February, aren’t without irony for Oliveira Baptista, who takes his teenage sons to a remote area of Brazil once a year “to give them an experience of the world before the digital invasion”. Speaking on the phone from his apartment near Place de Clichy in Paris, he sighs, “I spend most of my days on Zoom trying to magically put together a pre-collection for July.”
These new working methods are in stark contrast to how he made his first collection for the house. A hands-on designer, he would go into the studio on Saturdays when no one was there “to actually be able to drape, cut and draw,” he says. “When you put your hand on it, it’s much easier to build the image of the brand, rather than just being an editor who says yes and no.”
In that sense, Oliveira Baptista couldn’t be more different from his predecessors at Kenzo, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon. For eight years, the duo behind the Opening Ceremony stores helmed the day-to-day operations of the Parisian house long distance from New York. From a retail background, they exemplified the era when the role of creative director shifted from designer to image-maker, when logo-mania fashion gave birth to words such as “trophy jumper”, and shows became theatre tailored to social media. Lim and Leon’s final collection was presented to a stadium of 3,000 guests, with a live score performed by Solange Knowles.
Felipe’s runway presentation of Kenzo in February was the antithesis: staged in a modular labyrinth of transparent tubes installed on a Parisian lawn, it reduced the epic scale favoured by his predecessors, bringing spectators physically closer to the garments. The digital age may have made fashion more entertaining, Felipe says, “but in substance, I think it’s made it poorer”. He spent six months shaping the brand’s new identity: “The real, desirable clothes lacking in fashion today; the real magic of Kenzo.”
His process drew parallels with the legacy of Takada, who left his native Japan in the 1960s and travelled the world before establishing his legendary Jungle Jap store in Paris in 1970. Its East-meets-West sensibility became the foundation of the Kenzo brand. Today, Oliveira Baptista, born in the mid-Atlantic archipelago of the Azores and brought up in Lisbon, has a wanderlust instilled in him by his pilot father.
After studying at Kingston University London, he worked for Christophe Lemaire in Paris, where he met his wife, Séverine, now the studio director at Kenzo. In 2003, they co-founded his eponymous brand, Felipe Oliveira Baptista, which showed on the haute couture schedule until it closed in 2014. Between 2010 and 2018, Felipe served as creative director of Lacoste. Austere, subdued and highly wearable, his first Kenzo show was characterised as the silhouettes of a global wardrobe – broadened volumes, loosened tailoring, tunics and djellabas – underpinned by what he calls “post-sportswear”: elegant parachute dresses styled with magnified sou’westers inspired by elements from the desert, from Japan and from the dress codes of the Azores.
“They’re very isolated. In winter it rains hard, so they party a lot. They’re very festive,” he says of the culture of his volcanic islands birthplace, some 850 miles from Portugal. But Oliveira Baptista, who has lived in Paris longer than anywhere else, has a more dynamic sense of belonging. “I hate so much this nationalism and over-identity. It makes me physically ill. I’m Portuguese but I’m European,” he says, echoing the global-citizen philosophy of Kenzo, a brand rooted in cross-cultural conversations. “Brexit is one of the saddest things that’s happened. The world is going backwards. How do we fight that through fashion? One of the first things I did was take ‘Paris’ out of the logo,” he says (it now reads simply “Kenzo”). “It’s the idea that Kenzo is from everywhere, and for everyone.”
In Takada’s early archives, Felipe detected a purity: “People think it was all flowers and bright colours all the time. And although that was there, there was also a quieter subtlety to his work.” While designing the collection, he was in dialogue with Kenzo’s management. “They were frustrated that the brand had been reduced to a T-shirt and a sweatshirt – just a tiger,” he notes, referring to the motif sweater that refuelled Kenzo under Lim and Leon. While Takada hadn’t expressed any expectations of Oliveira Baptista’s transformation of the brand, he seemed delighted on February’s front row, sporting a fabulous black bouffant with a dramatic grey streak.
“Felipe very successfully brought his own identity into the brand,” the founder says, when asked for his verdict. “It brings Kenzo to a new creative level.” Above all, Oliveira Baptista wanted to imbue the house with a more timeless kind of youthfulness – “not just clothes for kids”, as he puts it. As the father of boys aged 13 and 16, he finds this familiar territory. “The oldest one was very happy when I did a collaboration with Supreme at Lacoste and he got it all for free,” he quips, but adds, “I don’t feed them the let’s-go-shopping. I never see them craving trainers from certain brands. I’m quite proud of that.”
Felipe, who describes his wife as “anti social media”, has never courted the fame he could so easily acquire. “It’s a choice not to,” he says. “I’ve driven PRs mad over the years. It was important for us to keep that distance on a personal level.” Unsurprisingly, he lists designer’s designers such as Martin Margiela, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Hussein Chalayan as ideals. “I always felt like a bit of an outsider. Being straight and married in fashion makes people look at you in a weird way… less so now, but it never bothered me. We work in fashion but we don’t navigate it socially. For any creative, to be a little bit away from the centre of things, I think, is quite rich.” While some expect that the impact of the pandemic will be to drain a fashion culture that’s been overspilling for years, for Felipe it’s not that black and white.
“Definitely there’s going to be change, but you read things that are quite extreme: ‘Fashion shows need to disappear!’ The creative and emotional side of fashion comes through that, so you can’t replace it with a virtual world.” He counts himself fortunate to have spent the lockdown in his spacious Paris apartment, surrounded by big windows and a jungle of house plants, and taxidermy such as exotic birds and a pink flamingo, befitting for a Kenzo designer. He seems less than amused by the digital situation. “We’re doing it as we go along. We’re having to be creative and reinvent things. Maybe it’s about doing less and better,” Felipe says. “What I thought was a first message for my tenure at Kenzo is going to be reshaped by the reality of the world.”