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Kenzo's Humberto Leon on Music's Influence and Working With Chance the Rapper: Exclusive

Dennis Van Tine/Sipa USA
Chance the Rapper attends Kenzo x H&M collection launch at Pier 36 in New York City on Oct. 19, 2016.

In the fashion sphere, few wield as much influence as Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, the duo behind the graphic fashion label and cutting-edge fashion boutique chain Opening Ceremony, as well as 46-year-old French luxury house Kenzo. They haven’t just changed the look of fashion, they’ve also helped numerous young labels, from Gypsy Sport to Moses Gauntlett Cheng, get off the ground, championing young talents with a bold design point of view. And they’ve prompted the fashion industry to rethink the tired runway show format, introducing one-act plays and politically-charged pageants to the New York Fashion Week calendar.

Music is integral to Leon and Lim’s design process. In a recent interview with Billboard, Leon said that a number of the musicians he grew up listening to — A Tribe Called Quest, Bjork, Janet Jackson, Lauryn Hill — inspire him season after season, “whether from being an originator in how they made music, or who really formed a visual identity that I grew up admiring.” More specifically, a Blur concert Leon and Lim attended together in Tokyo in 1995 was the starting point for the fall Kenzo men’s collection currently in stores. He cites Solange Knowles and Chance the Rapper, the latter of whom he recently cast in the campaign for Kenzo’s upcoming capsule collection for H&M as more recent influences, as well as friends.

We caught up with Leon on the heels of Paris Fashion Week, where he and Lim sent Kenzo’s most recent, '70s-inspired collection down the runway, set to a live performance by none other than Grace Jones. And that H&M collaboration? Watch out — it’s dropping Nov. 4.

You and Carol were among the first to champion Chance the Rapper, outfitting him for his tour and casting him in your recent campaign for H&M x Kenzo. What drew you to him?

First and foremost, his music, and second, he has an amazing outlook. I think the way he works with his community in Chicago, the youth there, that spirit is something that I really admire and look for in people. And it’s all super authentic. We asked him to be apart of our ad campaign, which was all about people that we admire, and yes they have a great fashion sense, but on the other hand they also have something about their perspective and the way they contribute to society that we love.

To what extent are you involved in the music for your presentations?

The music for every single one of our shows has been original. We’ve worked with amazing people — M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, a choir. The way we design a collection and present at a show, we look at it almost the way a movie is made, how a movie is scored, and I feel like they all are super integral to the whole project. We always put out a Soundcloud after the show, and [fans] go crazy. 

At Opening Ceremony, you have been experimenting a lot with the runway show formats — getting out the vote this season, and the one-act play two years ago. Why is that a priority for you?

I feel that life is short, and you’re given opportunities and platforms to showcase certain things. I just never want to be lazy at any point in life, and I want to push myself, and look back at all the things we’ve done and want each thing to be memorable in its own way. I think our approach and philosophy is: here’s a platform, how do we do something that’s going to last longer than fashion week? It could be doing a runway show, could be doing a perfume commercial with Spike Jonze, it could be doing a fun performance with FKA Twigs, each thing should be a memorable experience. I always try to work in a way that, asking myself in 10 years, am I going to remember what I did? It’s a really good way to check if what we are doing is exciting enough, or important enough. 

 

Squad goals at the #KENZOxHM show --

A photo posted by KENZO (@kenzo) on

 

Is there a big commercial benefit, either in terms of press or buyer reception, to doing plays or pageants instead of shows?

We were one of the first to really take the runway and go out of the box on it. At first we got a lot of criticism for it, because people felt like what we were doing was taking away from the clothes, but I look at it from the opposite end. You can always sit at your computer and look at clothes, I am going to give something where people say, man, I wish I was there. I don’t know if it’s about social media or uptick, it’s more about the moment and the people there.

Can you give any hints about what you’re working on?

We are working on our spring show in January, that’s going to be a super, super different format, there’s going to be a public side to it. With that [and Opening Ceremony and H&M] we’ll have seven shows this year.

I also want to ask you about the incredible fragrance campaign you did for Kenzo with Spike Jonze. The response was so large and enthusiastic. Were you expecting that?

We were genuinely, genuinely thrilled about it. It took us a year to release it, so by time it came out to public, I had a second round of it. We’ve been friends [with Spike Jonze] for over 10 years, and it was exciting to formally work on something together. In many ways, we took the message of what a perfume commercial wants to do — making people feel powerful, sensual, all these words that women want to feel — and we’re like, let’s make every girl want to be this girl, Margaret, we’re portraying. It’s not easy to do that. But in many ways, as a guy I created this woman I wanted to be, I was jealous of everything she was doing. That’s a good sign.

That video came out the day before the perfume hit the stores, and that’s not normal. Normally you put a collection out three months before, and you get people excited, but the excitement happened the day after. I think I was genuinely surprised [how] viral it went so quickly, and that you can never know. Relatives that don’t even know how to use the Internet were texting or emailing me.