H&M is known for pulling out all the stops for the lead-up to its incredibly hyped designer collaborations. Last year, it brought Backstreet back for the Balmain Army. The year before that, stuntmen rappelled around and bounced on trampolines to introduce Alexander Wang's athleisure-clad supermodels. So, when it was announced that Jean-Paul Goude, the legendary artist who was famously tasked with putting on the show for France's Bicentennial in 1989, would be art-directing Kenzo's big runway moment, the bar was set quite high. Goude not only shot and illustrated the various campaigns for this collaboration, he was also the photographer for Carol Lim and Humberto Leon's inaugural ad spots at the French fashion house back in 2012. "We went into this as a Part Two of what we had done [at Kenzo]," Leon said of the show at a press conference Wednesday morning — a lovely sentiment that in no way prepared us for the absolutely bananas experience we went on to witness that night. And the combination of the press conference and rollicking show-plus-pop-up-shop combo told the story of this collab and its relevance in such a cohesive, celebratory way. Guests entered a dark, confusing maze of a venue — a circular runway with various entrances and exists and a covered-up black cube right in the middle. The lights dimmed, the phones went up, and a few orchestral quartets located throughout the space began playing. Leon had, in fact, let a little teaser about the performance slip at the morning's press junket: "We wanted people to represent, first and foremost, themselves and something that they stood by," the co-creative director said of the non-model casting of the various Kenzo x H&M campaigns. "Individuality was a really big expression in what we were looking for: people that were authentic and that expressed themselves." Surely enough, a remix of N.W.A.'s "Express Yourself" created by Sam Spiegel served as the soundtrack for a show that was half-catwalk, half-dance, all energy. (Oh, and Ice Cube gave a surprise performance later that evening.)
Ryan Heffington choreographed the print-clad dancers, beatboxers, whistlers, and a drumline (yes, really!) that trotted out to show off the Kenzo x H&M collection in full, riotous motion. It's certainly quite different from the gaggle of supermodels who walked a multi-story runway for Balmania last year. As opposed to being ultra high fashion, the performance focused on bringing clothing to life, reflecting a theme that's long been in the French fashion house's DNA: youthfulness. "We always said — and Kenzo Takada also mentioned — it's not about an age, it's really about a spirit," Leon explained. "This collection is for a youthful spirit, and that can really be an ageless notion."
Takada, who founded Kenzo in 1970, is way more present in this H&M collection than he is in Lim and Leon's runway interpretations of his legacy. He's consistently been supportive of the designers, and attends Kenzo's Paris Fashion Week shows and parties. But this collaboration is riddled with references to the brand's history — down to specific silhouettes and motifs pulled right from the archives.
"We wanted to treat this as if it were a true conversation between Carol and I, and Takada," Leon explained. That involved very faithfully "resurrecting pieces in their actual form," as he said, and creating mash-ups of Takada's original animal prints, and Lim and Leon's take on them. The most noteworthy of these reissued garments is the ribbon dress, first introduced in 1978 and of which only two are remaining in existence. (Given the reach of H&M, the fast-fashion interpretation of this number is about to multiply.) There's also the fuzzy, colorblocked coat: "It's one of the first things Kenzo Takada made: hoodies and jackets in faux fur," he noted. The off-the-shoulder tops? A longtime Kenzo signature. The running-tiger motif in Kenzo x H&M's custom logo? Pulled from an '80s graphic — and the list goes on. Takada was known to frequent the '70s and '80s Parisian party scene so you could see last night's festive approach to the typical catwalk as a more subtle homage to him, too. Of course, the head-to-toe Kenzo x H&M looks certainly make a statement — but there's a reason why every single piece, down to the socks, is so bold. "As consumers, you know you only have the chance the grab as much as you can grab," Leon reasoned about these collaborations with the Swedish fast-fashion retailer, which he himself has shopped in the past. Here, though, "each piece can stand on its own," said Lim. You only really need one to understand the story of the collection. "A lot of times when you design fashion, when you give a really strong proposal on the runway, it ends up being very expensive — it's the 3,000 euro piece. We said this would be such a great opportunity, to be able to buy a piece of fashion at a really incredible price." So, if you're only able to grab a single garment, you'll be sufficiently Kenzo-ed out.
It's not only about making Kenzo more affordable for aspirational shoppers — it's also about telling the story of Takada and the house to a broader audience. "A lot of Kenzo consumers know H&M, but there's a base of a lot of people that shop H&M that don't know what Kenzo is," Lim said. By pairing with a global retailer like H&M, the French brand creates a dialogue with people it wasn't reaching before. Plus, because every item is unique to the collection, it's as appealing to Kenzo die-hards as it is to newbies. "Then, if people are curious about the brand, they go on to discover what we do," she explained. If you weren't hyped up about a print-heavy fall, the Kenzo x H&M show might just make you a believer. The collection drops on November 3.