When Felipe Oliveira Baptista joined Kenzo in the summer of 2019, its founder confided in him: “Fashion seems so complicated now. I couldn’t do it.” To Kenzō Takada, who sold his house to LVMH in 1993, fashion had to come from the heart rather than the market department. “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 said on a video call from Paris this week, reflecting on the legacy of Takada, who died in October last year aged 81. The sentiment would lay the foundation for the Portuguese designer’s new era at Kenzo: “It was the best piece of advice.”
Sticking to those values, the collection Oliveira Baptista dedicated to Takada this season didn’t reissue a single garment or print from the master’s greatest hits of the 1970s and ’80s. Instead, the new custodian 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. Seen from Takada’s cloud, it could have been one of his old shows, shot in the Cirque d’Hiver, where he often presented his collections, with an original soundtrack by Planningtorock (“Kenzō, always!”) 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 that often felt almost digital, but in technique rather than aspiration. Refreshingly, Oliveira Baptista’s work for Kenzo doesn’t show many signs of pandering to a cynical social media-driven shopping culture. Takada can rest assured.
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.
Describing garments decorated in exuberant patterns but constructed like protective bodysuits, Oliveira Baptista spoke of “the duality between getting ready to face the world again, but being covered with loud, beautiful things.” He said it was in Takada’s spirit: “His work was very visually strong, but the pieces were easy to wear. They were real garments.” Now on his third collection, the designer’s tenure at Kenzo has been almost entirely shaped by the pandemic, from the quarantine-like tubes that framed his first show—presented days after the virus hit Europe—to Takada’s death from COVID-19.
In that sense, there’s a certain authenticity to the clothes Oliveira Baptista is making at Kenzo. They feel like an ongoing organic response to the challenges that face us. And maybe Kenzo’s genetics suit that climate. “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 legacy. “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.”