This year has seen Kenzo’s Carol Lim and Humberto Leon embark on the challenge – the fruits of which are almost ready to be unveiled to the public - and it seems that they were both clear on what the focus of their collection should be from the start.
“It’s very, very diverse,” Lim revealed to us, at an intimate launch dinner on the candlelit rooftop of Kenzo’s Parisian headquarters - as Lim described, she and Leon wanted to “create a once in a life time experience” for their guests. That they did - Massimo Bottura, the renowned 3-Michelin star chef behind Rome’s Osteria Francescana (2016’s number one restaurant in the world), was flown in to cater a sumptuous 10-course feast.
“We could have gone down the safe route in terms of models and fashion photographers, but we really wanted something different, as a way of talking about something that’s important to us and the house,” she continued. “When you think you’ve pushed the boundaries, you have to push it five steps further, because the truth is that people get scared - and that’s a good thing, that’s when people take risks.”
Aprecedent set by Olivier Rousteing enlisting his Balmain Army of the It models of the moment - Jourdan, Kendall, Gigi – to show off his designs last year, the excitement surrounding who will front the campaign has been just as great as the revelation of the clothes themselves. Fortunate then, that Lim and Leon had something special in mind when it came to who to recruit.
Models Iman Abdulmajid and Chloe Sevigny; musician and composer Riyuchi Sakamoto; actress Rosario Dawson; activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, rapper Suboi; and hip-hop artist Chance The Rapper form the line-up of the campaign’s very familiar – and strikingly different – ambassadors, who were shot by French graphic designer and photographer Jean Paul Goude.
“The list of people in the campaign, it’s incredible - people who stand for more than just what meets the eye. So having these seven people who represent a span of things in their own lives to us feels really deep and meaningful,” Lim told us. “That’s what the campaign is about. When you see the collection on a range of our subjects, they look killer. Just wait until you see Iman,” she enthused. “I mean she’s in her sixties and she makes us all look like we should just go home. She is inspiring. The way she carries herself is amazing.”
For two of the most recognisable faces of the collaboration, the decision to take part was not only an easy one to make, but was also fuelled by nostalgia, given the histories they share with the brand.
“You know I haven’t modelled since 1989? I sometimes do things I like, but I really don’t model,” Iman disclosed (looking - just as Lim pre-empted - "killer" in a navy two-piece from the collection). “But when I was asked to do this, it was natural for me. And also to see what they’ve done with Kenzo, because they’ve really kept the legacy and heritage of the brand.”
Of her lasting relationship with the fashion house, the Somalian supermodel confessed that the infamy reached by the Kenzo campaigns she shot with Hans Feurer in the early Eighties – few would fail to recognise the images of her shrouded in cloth against the dramatic landscape of the North African plains - was unexpected.
“In a million years, I never thought that those campaigns would become such classic campaigns that would last,” she said. “You know, people are still sharing those pictures on social media. Those and Yves Saint Laurent’s are the ones that really became iconic.”
For Sevigny, who modelled Lim and Leon’s debut collection for Kenzo in 2011 (though her friendship with the duo far preceded this), her agreement was driven by similarly sentimental factors.
“With this decision it came pretty naturally,” she said, dressed in an eye-catching number from the range. “I’ve worked with H&M before and when they approached me again, obviously my relationship with Carol and Humberto encouraged my response and then I heard what they wanted to do and the people coming together – the talents, the ages, the different ethnicities - it’s such a nice throwback. But it also felt very new and a fun thing to be a part of.”
Contrary to the old adage that all good things must come to an end, in the case of H&M’s designer collaborations, each year seems to go from strength to strength - from the very first one with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004 to the Balmainia that ensued following Rousteing’s collection last year. Does the brand predict a point that the interest will start to wane?
“To be honest I thought it was a one off,” H&M’s creative director, Ann-Sofie Johansson, admitted of the first designer collaboration they did with Lagerfeld over 10 years ago. “We wanted to do something special for Christmas. So that’s why it came about, but then it became such a huge success that we thought well maybe we should do it one more time and it just kept going. There have always been designers that we want to collaborate with and there are a still a few out there.”
“It’s not anything new any longer,” she continued. “A lot of brands are doing collaborations now but, at the same time, we think as long as our customers like them, then we’ll continue to do them.”
Keeping it fresh and relevant is the winning formula, she believes, to the continued success, as is identifying “what is special about each brand, because all of them have strong visions and we have to listen and take those in”. Not letting the secret out, on the other hand, has proved less straightforward, but is vital to building the buzz ahead of each announcement.
“We have to release it earlier and earlier each year in case it leaks,” Johansson sighed, adamant that she doesn’t tell anybody (family included) before the news is made public. “People are very loyal though. Everybody likes that it’s a secret, it’s like a game!”
So did this year’s design duo feel any pressure in following the Balmainia of last?
“We love Olivier - we’re friends with him and he’s amazing, but this is completely different,” said Lim. “That’s what’s great about H&M, they’re so strategic about who they pick. They never do anything similar, which gives their customers a really wide experience. It’s exciting.”
It's true. The process of choosing, and keeping secret, the brands each year is clearly meticulous, though Johansson’s seemingly infinitely sunny disposition gives none of this away.
“We have a wish list of names that are going around and we always say that it has to be a brand or designer that we really admire, of course, and that the timing has to be right,” she revealed about how the decision is made. “I think after Balmain, which was really glamorous and sexy, we wanted to have something a little bit different. There’s a lot of energy in the Kenzo collection, but it’s also easy-going, a bit of mix and match. We wanted to have that feeling. This is a bit younger at heart too, street-wearish, which makes it fun and playful.”
The verdicts from the ambassadors, following a thorough dissection in between courses, were similarly positive.
“The prints are prints I knew years ago, but they’ve modernised it and I am very impressed,” Iman declared, particularly enthralled by the “reversibility” of some items. “I mean, it’ll be fantastic for the women that want to be part of this heritage. The attention to detail, the fabrication and the colours, everything. It’s truly Kenzo.”
Returning to the heart of what this year’s collaboration is all about – and proving why this partnership was a natural fit - diversity was a theme also championed by Johansson as being of vital importance to her brand, placing it in context of the fashion industry as a whole.
“Kenzo is about global diversity and embracing different cultures. I love that. H&M is about diversity too, so it fits really well. We like to be including, not to intimidate people. That is what H&M should be about. And fashion in general. It should be for everyone who wants a piece of it,” she concluded.