Kenzo is cool again

When Frenchman Eric Marechalle bought his first suit from Kenzo - a grey and beige number - more than two decades ago, little did he know that he would become its chief executive some day and be put in charge of its revival.

Founded in 1970 by Japanese designer Kenzo Takada in Paris, the brand revolutionised the Parisian fashion scene, which was then dominated by exclusive couture houses, such as Dior and Chanel, by promoting ready-to-wear fashion.

In its heyday, Kenzo was known for its bright colours, clashing prints and oversized silhouettes - a distinctly "street meets high fashion" aesthetic.

However, when Takada retired in 1999, the brand lost some of its lustre up until four years ago.

In 2011, the brand's parent company, LVMH, hired Mr Marechalle, as well as United States-born designers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, founders of cult American boutique Opening Ceremony, and tasked them with recharging the brand.

Prior to this, Kenzo was helmed by French designer Gilles Rosier until 2003, when Italian designer Antonio Marras took over.

"Kenzo was known for being chic, cool and fun, but somewhere along the line, we lost a little bit of the cool and fun elements," says Mr Marechalle.

He was in town last week for the opening of the brand's flagship store at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, which currently carries the women's and men's fall/winter 2014 collection. Kenzo is also available at Takashimaya Department Store.

Before heading Kenzo, the 46-year-old spent much of his career in childrenswear. He was formerly the chief executive of French childrenswear brands Jean Bourget and Catimini.

Speaking in French, the Parisian says: "It's not about reviving the past, but taking the brand's DNA and making it relevant in today's world."

MORE AFFORDABLE

In a span of three years, the brand has managed to reclaim its cool by expanding on its product offerings and adopting a more affordable positioning.

Half of its customers are under the age of 30, up from less than 10 per cent before 2011.

According to a 2012 Bloomberg report, the brand previously contributed less than 2 per cent to LVMH's fashion and leather division.

Mr Marechalle declined to reveal sales figures, but says it sees double-digit growth after every season.

Part of it is contributed by sweatshirts bearing Kenzo logos, which were never offered by the brand until Leon and Lim came on board.

"It's the perfect product to seduce a new generation of customers. Not only is it easy to wear, it also has a price tag that is more affordable," says Mr Marechalle.

The sweatshirts have spawned long waiting lists and there are now several designs, with one of the most popular bearing a tiger's head ($580). Sweatshirts start from $330.

It also launched collaboration collections with hip brands, such as caps with New Era and shoes with Vans, while staying true to Takada's bold style.

The fall/winter collection features oversized outerwear and sharp tailoring with zigzag prints, embroidery and patchwork.

Prices range from $220 to $6,410 for apparel and $60 to $2,910 for accessories.

On the brand's pricing strategy, Mr Marechalle says: "Our customers want to enjoy our creativity not only at exceptional moments, but also on a daily basis. However, it is important that they are first attracted to our products and then are pleasantly surprised by the prices."

MOVING FORWARD

While the brand has successfully reinvented itself, there is more to be done, he says.

A new team has been appointed to look at how the accessories line can be expanded, although details are not yet available.

Aside from product development, the brand will be concentrating on expanding its reach in the United States. Its key markets are currently Europe and Asia.

Amid these changes, one wonders what founder Takada thinks of the new Kenzo. It is a question which prompts Mr Marechalle to respond in English.

"He's a fantastic guy," he says enthusiastically, before reverting to French.

Takada has worked on a number of small projects after leaving his brand, including Gokan Kobo, a brand of tableware and home objects.

Now fully retired, he told Urban in an interview last year that he spends his time drawing.

"He has told us several times that he's very happy and proud of what's happening with the brand. Because he's happy, we're happy."

staceyc@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Oct 29, 2014.
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