Since they took over as creative directors of Kenzo in 2011, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim have infused the brand with a signature sense of cool that has everyone taking notice. The duo, who founded Opening Ceremony in 2002, has always been ahead of the fashion pack when it comes to creating new ideas. The decision to collaborate with the art trio behind Toilet Paper magazine is just the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that creates indelible, incredible images. BY PAIGE REDDINGER
When did you first start collaborating with Maurizio Cattelan, Pierpaolo Ferrari, and Micol Talso, the trio behind Toilet Paper?
Carol Lim: Fall/Winter 2014 is our third campaign together, so it’s nearly two years already! Brian Phillips of Black Frame introduced us to them at the beginning. Humberto and I always loved Maurizio’s work as an artist, so it was sort of love at first meeting. We started our collaboration with the Spring/Summer 2013 campaign, which featured Rinko Kikuchi and Sean O’Pry.
Humberto Leon: At the time Toilet Paper hadn’t really done anything in the fashion space, so this was something that felt really new. We love culture, and we love things outside of fashion. I think that’s just how we work.
What’s it like working with them?
Carol: It’s the epitome of the word ‘collaboration.’ We all toss out ideas, and it becomes clear when we talk what is really feeling right. Toilet Paper isn’t afraid to present ideas that may not seem obvious. They respond to our collections with a couple of directions, which are based on our inspirations.
Humberto: They do a test shoot to really exemplify the idea of what they want to do, so they have a moment with the product to be able to play around. We really respect their work, and we both want it to be the best for both of us. In knowing their art and understanding what it represents, we wanted to make sure that what they did for us really stood for them. So we went to places where most fashion brands don’t go.
How do you present your ideas to them?
Humberto: We talk about the intentions, what we spoke to David [Lynch] about, and all the inspirations that go into the collection. They digest the story that we’re telling. What you see in the collection is really one part of the story. I always look at the advertising as being the next layer.
Carol: They see our shows and they can also read our minds.
How much time do you have to actually spend thinking about the direction and creation of the campaign?
Carol: We are all super fast decision makers. We tend not to second-guess ourselves.
Humberto: I think we know the pace that we’re working in and we really trust our first instincts. It’s something that I always make sure to remember, is trusting that first instinct.
How soon do you think about the campaign after the collection is created?
Carol: After we’ve done the collection and shown it on the runway, and had a minute to reflect on it, it begins. But it’s also happened in different ways. Sometimes we consider the campaign before we present the collection. Every time is new.
How much post-production work is done?
Humberto: Everything is pretty much shot on set, including the fish from the Spring campaign. The fish was made, and Devon Aoki was really sitting on the fish. They’re shot in real life. On the first campaign we had real live horses jumping. We had these monster pushpins made once that were the size of a person.
The Fall collection was inspired by David Lynch films. Do the campaigns take inspiration from any film in particular?
Carol: It’s more the world of David Lynch and what we have interpreted looking through his lens.
Humberto: We were designing it as if we were in his mind.
What was he like to work with when he created your runway set?
Carol: David is an icon to us. When he shared his drawings for the set for our show, we saw how seriously and personally he took our invitation.
Humberto: He was amazing. Growing up knowing and loving everything that he’s done, it was really exciting to be able to sit down and tell him about this crazy idea we had. I asked him to do the music for the show and he came back with all these ideas. I wanted him to do the runway setting, and he had a sculpture in mind and how he envisioned the layout of the show. He really embraced the entire thing and it was a real honor to work with him.
What is your favorite David Lynch film?
Carol: There are too many to name a favorite: The Elephant Man, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and many, many more.
Humberto: Everything from Eraserhead to Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, there’s so many.
Are the “higher-ups” ever worried that the campaigns are too high concept?
Carol: Not for even a second.
Humberto: We have a great rapport with Pierre-Yves [Roussel], who is the person we really interact with day-to-day at Kenzo. He always tells us, “Do the things that you do that are so unlike any of the things that any of our brands do or anything that’s out there.”
How do you know when a campaign is effective?
Humberto: If it feels memorable to me, then that’s a sign that it’s effective. If we can create something and look at each other and say, “Whoa, that’s something that is not out there, and it’s amazing and beautiful,” then we personally think that it’s a success. And of course, it’s exciting when people talk about it and say, “Wow, that thing you did is really cool and different.” We try to not conform. That’s our signature.
Carol: Campaigns change every season, so you can constantly try new things. When the images you create stick around for longer than a season and start to infiltrate visual culture in a broader way by influencing other people, that is really meaningful.
Who picks the models? Which one of you cares more about that process?
Humberto: We both do. We also know what we’re both good at. We always try to make sure that we give the strongest voice to the things we are both better at. It’s an ongoing conversation.
Carol: We are very much about the character and the mood of the campaign and consider that extensively.
How do you pick which clothes you are going to feature? Do you bring the full collection on set?
Carol: We know the key looks from our shows we want to shoot that tell the story of the season.
Humberto: We look at what will make the image really interesting and exciting and what works.
Some of the shots we’ve seen feature very little clothing. Why?
Humberto: It really depends. There might be a case where we really want to focus on a shoe, so you might not see a full outfit or there might be a case where it is just a mood. So if we decide to do a four-page layout in a magazine, I think it’s okay that one of the images really just gives you the essence of what we’re talking about. But we also know that we are a ready-to-wear brand, so it’s never just for the sake of a mood.
Carol: The campaign is a story in its entirety, so when you see an image you are seeing one part of a bigger story.
Do you use the same makeup artists and hairstylists for each campaign?
Carol: We like ongoing collaborations. Anthony Turner and Aaron de Mey have been working with us on the campaigns recently.
How do you decide which images will run in which magazine?
Carol: That’s a fun process. We match up images based on the titles and what is the right fit.
Humberto: What we end up doing is that we look at the demographic of the magazine and we think about which of our images would really resonate with that demographic or what would challenge that demographic. What is the norm in those magazines and how do we offer something that’s different?
How often, if ever, do you two disagree about artistic direction?
Carol: We are always in sync.
Humberto: Never. We also really trust each other. There are no egos between us, and that’s the most important part.
You design two labels and run a slew of OC stores. Do you ever sleep?
Carol: We are really good at balancing work and home. We have amazing teams at OC and Kenzo, we couldn’t do it without them, and our families are the most supportive, nurturing families in the world. We are really lucky.
You didn’t create campaigns for OC. So was there a learning curve when doing them for Kenzo?
Carol: We are about to launch our first campaign for Opening Ceremony with Collier Schorr. We are so excited. But because doing campaigns is new for us, it is exciting to explore the possibilities and not be limited to what has already been done.
Humberto: We learned that we can push things and really reach an audience. There are a lot of ads out there. I feel excited that we’ve been able to do something that stands out to us and effectively communicates the way we wanted it to.
What other ad campaigns (past or present) do you admire from other brands?
Humberto: I love the old Esprit campaigns. I love the Benetton ads from the late ’80s, early ’90s. I think about campaigns that were memorable, like the Calvin Klein images from the late ’90s, the Avedon images for Versace are stunning, and the early Bruce Weber Abercrombie & Fitch images. I like something that you really do remember, like the old Gap ads that were kind of controversial at the time. I think that we’re in a tendency now to flip, flip, flip, flip, flip and go through information at a rapid-speed pace the way the Internet works. I think Carol and I are from a generation when you actually admired things and stopped to look at a billboard and say, “Wow, that’s really beautiful.” It’s important to make ads that make people stop.
Carol: Guy Bourdin’s for Charles Jourdan. The iconic ’80s Guess, Esprit, and Benetton campaigns. Old Gap ads. Irving Penn Clinique ads. Avedon for Versace. Fiorucci. Ads that make a lasting impression.
Where is the craziest place you’ve ever seen one of the ads run?
Carol: On tourist buses in Paris—they are enormous!
Humberto: We’ve seen them on subways, like wrapping an entire subway train, which is super interesting and weird.
Where would you love to see an ad run (someplace unconventional)?
Humberto: I think it would be cool to see one of our ads on an airplane.
Carol: On the Doges’ Palace in Venice.
Why do you think the Kenzo ads are so memorable?
Humberto: I think they tap into your imagination and present life in a way that you don’t expect. There’s something beautifully unusual about them.
PLUS! Meet Toilet Paper mag’s winning trifecta…
Maurizio Cattelan, Pierpaolo Ferrari, and Micol Talso, the avant-garde art trio behind Toilet Paper magazine, filled us in, collectively, on how they realized the vision for Kenzo’s Fall 2014 ad campaign alongside Humberto Leon and Carol Lim.
How did Toilet Paper first come about?
We were questioning the meaning of life, and we thought the most likely answer was “toilet paper.”
What do you love about working with Humberto and Carol?
It is not so common to find people who like [the TP sensibility] to the point they use it so widely. Now they know how to play the TP game better than us!
How would you describe the artistic eye of Toilet Paper?
TP images are made of simple images. It’s something you can easily describe during a dinner with friends, but without being able to completely explain that uncanny feeling that it provokes at the level of your stomach. The same applies to the campaign.
Why do you think your style works well with the Kenzo message?
We both are colorful and do not take ourselves too seriously.
How did you come up with your ideas for the campaign?
The hardest side of working with us is that you’ll never know what to expect until you’re shooting. That’s the moment where great ideas spring like frogs in a pond, unpredictable, and not always beautiful. Unless you kiss them.
How did you translate David Lynch into the images?
It would be mission impossible to translate Mr. Lynch. We proceeded in a parallel way, getting inspired by the collection itself. We must admit we don’t reflect a lot during shoots. In the end, the brainstorming continues indepen-dently from where it started, as a Chinese whisper.