Kenzo's Felipe Oliveira Baptista Talks Carrying On A Legacy And New Visions
For his first collection as creative director of Kenzo, Felipe Oliveira Baptista reaches back to the brand’s nomadic roots while drafting new values for its future
It was an especially sunny morning in February during Paris Fashion Week. Guests chatted among themselves as they sat in a winding plastic bubble, a labyrinth set in a garden courtyard, waiting for the Kenzo show to start. Then, suddenly, music began pounding as the first model appeared, wearing a sombre, all-black elongated suit jacket and a hooded cape that obscured half of his face. He was followed by models draped in a series of tunics and utilitarian wrap coats.
A few people cocked their heads in surprise—gone were the giant logos, the midriff-baring athleisure and the cartoon tigers stitched to the chests of sweaters, signatures of Kenzo’s previous creative directors Carol Lim and Humberto Leon. This was Kenzo by its newly appointed steward, Felipe Oliveira Baptista, who means to strip the brand down to its core.
“Kenzo’s been doing elaborate shows in the last few years, but it’s been less and less about the clothes,” the 45-year-old designer tells me. Lim’s and Leon’s final show was a spectacle with 3,000 guests and a live performance by Solange Knowles. “So I decided to put everyone front row, in a garden with no decoration, to focus on the clothes. I wanted to bring back desirable things that people want to wear, like coats people can feel protected in.”
Aa look from Kenzo’s fall-winter 2020 collection (Photo: Felipe Oliveira Baptista)
PASSING THE TORCH
The Portuguese designer, who trained at Max Mara, Christophe Lemaire, Cerruti and his own label from 2003 to 2014, was most recently the creative director of Lacoste before joining Kenzo, the LVMH-controlled house founded by the free-spirited Japanese designer Kenzo Takada. Oliveira Baptista named his debut show Going Places, a tribute to the nomadic spirit of the house, but in a way it could be a reference for where he’s about to take the brand. “One of the first things I did was take out ‘Paris’ from the logo because Kenzo for me is from everywhere and for everyone,” he says.
Kenzo Takada sadly died this October at the age of 81 of the coronavirus. He first moved from Japan to Paris in the Sixties, by way of Hong Kong, Mumbai and Ho Chi Minh City. His itinerant spirit informed the aesthetic of the fashion house he started in 1970, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. Best known for his contagious optimism, Takada left an indelible mark on the fashion capital: his label referenced an eclectic medley of cultural influences with obvious nods to Japan, jumbled with floral and animal motifs. He became one of the most respected Asian designers of the 20th century and his legacy is now being carried on by Oliveira Baptista.
A bubble labyrinth was the venue for Kenzo’s fall-winter 2020 runway show in Paris
Born in the Portuguese Atlantic archipelago of the Azores—specifically Terceira, meaning “The Third Island”, parts of which form a Unesco World Heritage site—Oliveira Baptista shares a similar thirst for travel, thanks in part to his father, a pilot who imparted a sense of wonder and wanderlust. Every summer, Oliveira Baptista journeys with his wife, Severine, who now serves as Kenzo’s studio head, and their two sons to the same remote destination in Brazil tucked behind an indigenous reserve, a place he politely declines to name to stave off any potential tourists who might be reading this.
“It takes 24 hours of travel from Paris, and when you get there, you can’t buy anything, only fish, fruits and vegetables once a week,” he says. “There’s obviously also no WiFi, so when you’re there for a week you feel like you’ve been there for a month.”
The last time Oliveira Baptista wandered off the beaten path was during his latest pilgrimage to Japan, soon after his appointment at Kenzo. “I’ve been many times before, but for the first time I looked through the lens of Kenzo Takada,” he says. He and his family visited the oldest Buddhist cemetery in Koyasan, an ancient place that has been devoured by nature. “My kids were always obsessed with [animation director Hayao] Miyazaki films and they told me it was like seeing these films come life—it was really sweet,” he says. They then backpacked through the fishing villages of Kyoto, memories of which filtered into his ensuing collection, specifically in the parachute ponchos and triangular shoulder silhouettes. He bristles, however, at the idea of pinpointing literal references.
FORWARD TO THE FUTURE
“Kenzo Takada’s work would always mildly remind you of someplace but ultimately should have felt like something new,” he says. Even the brand’s iconic tiger mascot was given an abstract treatment in paintings by Portuguese artist Júlio Pomar mixed into collages that were printed on oversized tunics. He will acknowledge, however, that the hooded shapes are derived from the traditional coats worn in the Azores and passed from mother to daughter for generations. “They are usually made from heavy wool to protect against the harsh weather, but I made them from a very light fabric and pieces that can literally be transformed into sleeping bags,” he says. “It’s about how all of the references can be made into something for now and for tomorrow.”
Takada, who proudly watched the debut collection unfold from the front row, applauded Oliveira Baptista’s take on his brand when he returned backstage. “He told me that it was a nice start for the future,” says Oliveira Baptista. “It was such a gift to me to have him there. Even though technically I work for LVMH, emotionally it’s important to me that the person whose name is still on the logo likes what I’m doing.”
It was Takada’s last appearance at a show. Over one of their first lunch meetings, Oliveira Baptista discovered that he and Takada not only shared a love for peripatetic inspirations but also lamented the industry’s lack of focus on clothing. “[Takada] was saying how the job of a designer is so hard to do today, there are so many collections and the whole thing got so industrialised; everyone’s using a formula,” says Oliveira Baptista. “And it’s true: fashion’s become this show-business, something to be seen on flat screens that you just swipe, swipe, swipe—where are the clothes in all this?”
So Oliveira Baptista took the first six months to make a plan, then made his priorities clear through a rapid succession of initiatives. In September alone, Kenzo launched a collaboration with the World Wide Fund for Nature and a Kenzo Sport line. “Kenzo has always been about nature, from the prints to the art to the use of flowers, but today I wanted to make it about nature for nature, to give back to it because we have a responsibility as an industry to do so, but also because in the future, customers will want brands that connect to a cause because they’ll be as careful about clothes as they are about what they eat,” Oliveira Baptista explains.
Part of the profits from the tiger print T-shirts in the resulting capsule will go towards the WWF TX2 tiger conservation goal, which is to double the global population of wild tigers by 2022. The sport line was created because Oliveira Baptista intends to draw a distinction from the runway collection. “When I first joined, the last collections were very sportwear-driven, so I wanted a way to separate the main collections of ready-to-wear and isolate the sportswear,” he says.
Oliveira Baptista hints at a capsule collection born from a secret rendezvous with another celebrated Japanese designer he met during the trip to Japan that will only be revealed this month once the clothes hit stores. One clue: he passed away this July. The designer, like Takada, was a huge influence on fashion in the Seventies and Eighties, having arrived in London shortly after Takada landed in Paris. Both harboured passions for dynamic dressing and an ever-youthful zeal. “Like Takada, I felt like this designer’s contribution was forgotten by the younger generations, and this optimistic take on life, I feel, is what we need right now.”
Oliveira Baptista is being rushed to sign off, to throw himself back into preparing his second Kenzo collection, to be shown just a few weeks from today. He won’t say anymore for fear of courting bad luck, but we know the new collection won’t quite be able to benefit as extensively from his globetrotting. “We just have to travel within our own minds,” he says.
In Memory of Kenzo Takada
In 1964, Kenzo Takada arrived in Paris from Japan, only intending to stay for six months. Little did he know he’d make the French capital his home for the next 56 years and become one of the most celebrated Asian designers of the last half-century, influencing everyone from Yohji Yamamoto to Rei Kawakubo. “For me, to create is to give pleasure and happiness to others, and also the freedom to be myself,” he once said.
Always seen with a smile beaming beneath rounded spectacles, Takada’s optimistic take on life and on fashion permeated his work and touched many who had the privilege of knowing him, and this joie de vivre lives on as one his greatest legacies. “His amazing energy, kindness and talent were contagious,” says Kenzo creative director Felipe Oliveira Baptista in a statement. “His kindred spirit will live forever. Rest in peace, Master.”