Felipe Oliveira Baptista steadies Kenzo with a strong debut by going places, and with some desirable outerwear
For a long time, Kenzo the label has lost its way. Under the stewardship of Opening Ceremony founders Umberto Leon and Carol Lim, the brand began to waver after a promising start, adrift in the sea of aimlessness. At some point, Kenzo became what is thought to be “entry-level fashionista”. It, too, was street in a way founder Kenzo Takada probably never intended, and lost its initial cool veneer just as Open Ceremony was beginning to shed its down-town edge. Under their watch, Kenzo became widely associated with T-shirts and hoodies bearing the frontal face of the house tiger, with the Kenzo logo across an already busy delineation, what some euphemistically called “playful branding”. The tiger and the logo were, at one point, gaudily embroidered, and so poorly that the standing joke among some local fashion professionals was that even the same-same on the road side stalls of Guangzhou, shoppers are not picking them up. Kenzo became the de facto brand for shampoo girls trading up to designer labels.
Then in came Felipe Oliveira Baptista, who was head of design at Lacoste until 2018 (his position filled by Louise Trotter, formerly from Joseph). Prior to his tenure with the Alligator, the Paris-based Portuguese had his own eponymous haute couture label before ending it in 2009, reportedly to concentrate on his remunerated duties. The media was mostly thrilled with Mr Baptista’s surprising appointment, noting that his eight years at Lacoste allowed the French label to earn in access of €2bn annually, mouthwatering enough to lure LVMH, owner of Kenzo, into making him an irresistible employment offer. A couturier with a flare for sportswear must have added to Mr Baptista’s professional appeal.
What’s heartening is that Mr Baptista did not merely expand on what the Opening Ceremony duo did before, except to reprise the tiger, but differently (it was said that the two found running tigers inside waistbands and jackets in the Kenzo archive, and introduced the first of the embroidered cat on a sweater in the autumn/winter season of 2012). This time, the tiger takes the form of those imagined in the ’80s by Lisbon-based painter, the late Júlio Pomar.
Or, make it Lacoste 2.0. Rather, Mr Baptista salutes Kenzo’s nod-to-nature heritage through the eyes of an adventurer/traveller who absorbs the dress of a people as readily as the heritage of their land. Acknowledging to Financial Times that “there’s a nomadic spirit to Kenzo,” Mr Baptista delineates a world traveller with exploration, rather than expedition in mind. You have probably seen these individuals seized by wanderlust, backpacking to lands less travelled or coming from there, and then busking to earn their way back. Their clothes are oftentimes variations of the tunic, placing blanket-like comfort above trend-led restrictiveness.
Mr Baptisda’s Kenzo is, however, not Jungle Jap—Mr Takada’ first Paris store in Galerie Vivienne, opened in 1970, as well as a visual style that saw him wildly pastiche what he brought from Japan and what he saw in Paris. But, aesthetically, Kenzo the label was never identifiably Japanese, nor was it thoroughly French. Mr Takada drew from varied sources, from continents, from tribes, embracing globalism before it became the thing to enfold. In his final Paris show in 1999, that diversity came together in a delightfully heterogeneous collection that predates today’s call for inclusiveness amid the risk of cultural appropriation.
Mr Baptista takes the obvious, but paces them through less trodden routes. He adopts, for example, Mr Takada’s love of flowers, working them into avant-garde, cocoon-like forms (or as lining of coats), rather than the latter’s playful shapes, and the babushka by attaching large veil-like pieces to hang from the rear of caps and hats, sometimes covering shoulders like a blanket. Itinerant, too, does not have to mean embracing the gaudily exotic. Mr Baptista casts his sight beyond the usual ‘resort’ styles, beach wear, or details that tell of cultural character for what seems like those that hint at places further afield: the highlands, the grassland, possibly deserts, too. Appealing are the tunics (including those for men), the ponchos, the sweater dresses, all with the spirit of non-city travels.
It could be the clear break away from what Mr Leon and Ms Lim had established for Kenzo or the redefinition of a brand that, at least for now, appears to be merging borders. Regardless, this is a good start for Felipe Oliveira Baptista. And an exhilarating refresh for Kenzo. Question is, will the new abstract, painterly tiger face appeal as much as the former cartoonish, logo-like version? Much, much more, we hope.
Photos: Isidore Montag/gorunway.com