This sophomore collection by Nigo for Kenzo marked a double graduation. The first was that Nigo is increasingly finding the levels and detail of denim (now all sourced from Japan) and workwear production here much more aligned with his expectations as a connoisseur, thanks to evolution within Kenzo. Secondly, a graduation is what this show was staged to remind us of. Nigo said he’d used the concept of a passing out ceremony – inspired by a 1980s show by Kenzo Takada based on a sports day – in order to present an otherwise diverse group of dressed characters under the same banner: this was Kenzo’s class of ’23. Nigo is still understandably steeping himself in the archive of the house’s founder. Waistcoats came patched with an array of long-defunct labels that were reproductions of original Takada-era graphic designs. Similarly the patched naif animalia pieces were based on an archive design. And the womenswear especially – with the notable exception of a wabash and hickory striped denim liner dress in look 19, and look 16’s fabulous unwashed swing skirt – seemed deeply rooted in Takada’s oeuvre. Although this was a continuation of last season’s collection, a new interjection was the armada of naval inspired pieces. As well as literal-ish sailor wear, the maritime scarf was ingeniously integrated into the house’s revived tailoring as jacket lapels. The maritime aesthetic is deeply embedded in contemporary Japanese dress – just look at the school uniforms – but it also served as an interesting point of connection in a collection that was produced by a French house, conceived by a Japanese designer, and which took fundamental points of inspiration from Americana: conceptually, these were much-traveled clothes. This was a collection with pan-generational appeal that spanned continents and cultures: word is that the sales are already reflecting the new wind Nigo has brought to Kenzo.
Collage by Edward Kanarecki.
Kenzo might be finally be back on the right track with a new creative director. For his sharp debut, Nigo (the legend behind A Bathing Ape) invited the fashion crowd and some big names – Pharrell Williams, Shygirl, Tyler, The Cretor, and of course the couple of the moment, Kanye West and Julia Fox – to Galerie Vivienne in Paris. It was here in 1970 that a small gallery unit with cheap rent was snapped up by 31-year-old Kenzo Takada, who had arrived circuitously from Tokyo five years previously with the dream to emulate Yves Saint Laurent and become a fashion designer. The brand’s founder’s collection was cut and sewn fabrics brought from a Montmartre market. As Kenzo later recalled: “I was looking for some kind of identity as an outsider, so I wanted to bring something very Japanese into it, and that meant textiles with a lot of color and pattern.” By 1993, when he sold his company for $80 million to what would become LVMH, Kenzo had developed that formula to become one of the most beloved and distinct designers operating in Paris. He sadly passed away in late 2020 after being laid low by Covid, but had continued to work on new projects until shortly before. But the brand without its creator has struggled to stay relevant for years. Yes, there was that period, starting a full decade ago, when the Kenzo-coded tiger sweatshirts produced under the Carol Lim and Humberto Leon went from cool to hot to way overcooked. After they left in 2019, Felipe Oliveira Baptiste delivered some interesting and criminally underrated collections, but sadly they just didn’t resonate with the customers. Nigo’s creativity and clout – and of course his personal passion for and parallels with Kenzo – make him a serendipitously synchronized recruit for LVMH. His autumn-winter 2022 line-up celebrates Takada, redefines what Kenzo’s true aesthetic is, and has some really, really good clothes to offer. The key poppy print was redrawn and applied in silhouette on washed denim workwear, by velcro patch to hats, plus on waistcoats, midi-skirts, camp collar shirts and more. The cutely kawaii stuffed animal scarves, knit and fleece, were another revival. The conversation between cultural clichés was highly enjoyable: for every souvenir jacket with a map of France on the back there was a beret (always best in burgundy) stitched with the year of Kenzo’s founding. Not at all ironic, however, were the beautiful high kimono jackets in navy, gray and olive. The bibbed gingham aprons worn over suiting were apparently adaptations of a specific Japanese garment worn during the tea ceremony. This intriguing cross-section of cultures is exactly what Takada used to in his collections, always with grace and consideration.
Nigo is of the generation raised during Japan’s obsessive absorption and reinterpretation – often more beautiful than the inspiration – of the Ivy League original into American Casual and Yankee variants. During the preview he’d commented fascinatingly on the difference between building a collection with European factories (which he said created garments more “clean” than he’d wish for) compared to Japanese (who can make it “dirty”). For this reason he’d insisted all the denim in this collection hail from his homeland, even if the top-stitching on his undyed indigo was a little too “clean” to be exactly perfect. Tightly observed post-Ivy, post-Yankee, come-to-Paris pieces here included the varsity jackets and unwashed dungarees. Shortly before the show, Williams said: “The coming together of Nigo and Kenz – it’s symbolism, right? None of us would miss it. Nigo is the father of so many things that we’ve all looked up to, and that have meant so much to all of us.” Of the collection he added: “So it’s like 1950s and ’60s clothing remade in the ’80s, you know, but through the lens of the 2020s.” Which was a pretty perfect summation of this first page of a fresh chapter in the story of the house of Kenzo.
Collage by Edward Kanarecki.
With Felipe Oliveira Baptista, Kenzo is finally back on track. Forget ‘Tiger’ sweatshirts and endless logos – Oliveira Baptista wants to position the brand among the serious ready-to-wear brands, like in the Kenzo Takada days. “Intuition is a banned word at fashion houses these days. It’s as if there’s no space for it. But there was a lot of that in him,” Oliveira Baptista told Vogue, reflecting on the legacy of Takada, who died in October last year aged 81. Sticking to those values, the autumn-winter 2021 collection is dedicated to Takada, yet at the same time, Felipe didn’t reissue a single garment or print from the master’s greatest hits of the 1970s and ’80s. Instead, the designer paid tribute by evoking the founder’s presence through intuitive ideas. Silhouettes riffed on Takada’s most memorable moments through the spherical and orbital, the folkloric, and the cross-cultural. Balancing, as he does, the artisanal with the durable and sporty, Oliveira Baptista simplified and contemporized materials, turning Takada’s geometric lines into a kind of streetwear for a 21st-century Kenzo. Throughout, he painted the garments in the things the founder loved most: pansies, tulips, hydrangeas, and stripes. Honestly, it could have been one of Takada’s shows, shot in the Cirque d’Hiver, where he often presented his collections, with an original soundtrack by Planningtorock (listening it on repeat!) and models dancing in a harmony of shapes, colors, and patterns. Close-up, it was bursting with new life in a performance-y, vivid way. Refreshingly, Oliveira Baptista’s work for Kenzo doesn’t show many signs of pandering to a social media-driven shopping culture as his predecessors. Before he started working on the collection, Oliveira Baptista was given access to footage of all the old Kenzo shows, which had been undergoing restoration at the time of his arrival. “In the first two seasons, I had only seen the photos and the clothes themselves, so I was struck by the magic of the shows: the intuition, the freedom, how the clothes were always moving. It made me want to portray the movement, the comfort, and the freedom these clothes give you. That’s very much what Kenzo stood for,” he explained. All those things felt like good timing for a post-lockdown proposal. Felipe is looking forward to digging into ‘true’ Kenzo even deeper in the next months. “He was quite revolutionary. When he first arrived in Paris, the way he was cutting clothes and playing with color was so different from the European way of constructing garments. That immediately gave women and men a new freedom of movement,” the designer said, reflecting on Takada’s fashion. “It’s not that he doesn’t have the place he deserves, but sometimes what he’s done is overlooked. The idea of extreme comfort in a very strong look feels very now. He did that first. It’s a very rich legacy.”
“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.