Kenzo’s Felipe Oliveira Baptista conjures a nomadic vision of tomorrow

For Document's Fall/Winter 2020 issue, the creative director tells us why nature is the most beautifully designed thing in the world

“Like Kenzo Takada, I was born on an island,” Felipe Oliveira Baptista tells me over a WhatsApp call. “Kenzo [the brand] is really a dialogue between my personal history and that of Mr. Takada.” Baptista, who was appointed as Kenzo’s creative director in July 2019, succeeded former co-creative directors Carol Lim and Humberto Leon just in time for the brand’s 50th anniversary.

On October 4, less than one week after Kenzo’s Spring/ Summer 2021 show, the brand announced Mr. Takada’s passing from COVID-19 complications. “No one operated [with] joy, freedom, and celebration of different cultures, places, and nature like Kenzo Takada,” Baptista would later say.

Born in the Azores, raised in Lisbon, and trained in London, Baptista is well suited to honor the nomadic spirit that has characterized Kenzo since its inception. Before moving to France to work for Christophe Lemaire and later Cerruti, he lived in Italy, designing at Max Mara. He’s widely credited for revitalizing Lacoste during his eight-year tenure there as creative director, infusing the brand’s heritage with a more relevant and modern sensibility. His experience—which runs the gamut from couture to sportswear—coupled with his multinational background, makes him a perfect candidate to follow in the footsteps of Takada, whose month-long sea voyage from Japan to France is passed down as Kenzo’s founding legend.

When he joined Kenzo 15 months ago, one of Baptista’s first endeavors was removing “Paris” from its logo, returning the brand to its original global ethos. He then collaborated with the World Wildlife Fund on a line of organic cotton t-shirts, as part of WWF’s plan to double the population of tigers—Kenzo’s iconic mascot—in the wild by 2022. “Kenzo’s always been so much about nature. And I think nature is the most beautifully designed thing in the world,” Baptista says. For Kenzo’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection, Baptista referenced Honeyland, a 2019 documentary about a Macedonian beekeeper, after discovering a photo of beekeepers during quarantine. “Bees are the regulators of the planet,” he wrote in his show notes. “Now, more than ever, we are overwhelmed by a sense of urgency to take care of and protect our world.”

Throughout the chaotic goings-on of today, Baptista has remained steadfast in his optimism. “You have to keep trying to look at the world from a positive lens. The state of the world is really bad today, but there are also things that are great about the days that we’re living,” he says. Baptista could not be more tireless and passionate, especially when imagining the future of a brand that has always been ahead of its time.

Elaine YJ Lee: It’s been a bit over a year since you started working with Kenzo. How has it been for you?

Felipe Oliveira Baptista: It’s very intense and very exciting. I was given space to work with branding: the logo, the identity, and all the clothing lines. Everything is becoming more real. The clothes are starting to hit stores now, and the first campaign will be out in a month. It’s nice to see things out there because for the first six months, we just worked like mad.

The biggest challenge was to advance everything with the same intensity, coherence, and passion to hold everything together. Yesterday, I was editing photos of the last collection, finishing fittings for the coming [Spring/Summer 2021] show, and working on pre-collections for next season. In one day, you go through three different seasons. I try to give enough attention to all of these while not losing sight of my instincts and what I believe in.

“One of the things that I think is really beautiful and still very relevant about the brand today is that Kenzo Takada’s work—dating back 50 years—was always a celebration of diversity, of mixing cultures. For me, Kenzo has always been something from everywhere, for everyone.”

Elaine: With such a rigorous schedule, how do you maintain that sense of clarity? What is your daily routine?

Felipe: I go swimming three times a week or do yoga in the morning, and I arrive in the office early. My kids leave at eight o’clock, so I’ll arrive here half past nine or ten. I like to arrive before everyone else to have an hour or so to prepare everything I have to do in my head. You see so many people that it’s important to find those moments of solitude. My days are slotted between ten different subjects. I have someone outside waiting in line until next Wednesday. There’s not one day that’s exactly like the second one, which is nice, but it’s pretty intense.

Elaine: That’s impressive. I think it’s pretty rare for the boss to always be the first in the office.

Felipe: Well, I’m also the first one out in the afternoon. [Laughs] I’m energetic in the mornings. I try to be home every night to have dinner with my kids.

Elaine: In the process of redesigning Kenzo’s logo with M/M (Paris), you removed ‘Paris’ from it. What was behind that decision?

Felipe: One of the things that I think is really beautiful and still very relevant about the brand today is that Kenzo Takada’s work—dating back 50 years—was always a celebration of diversity, of mixing cultures. For me, Kenzo has always been something from everywhere, for everyone. It just felt logical to take the ‘Paris’ away, because it carries a connotation of a brand that has a very Parisian and French heritage. Of course, there’s a lot of French in the brand, but it’s much broader than that. It was one of the first things that I asked to do, and they were totally on board.

Elaine: A key phrase that always comes up when describing the legacy and founding story of Kenzo is its ‘nomadic spirit.’ With the coronavirus pandemic and the inability to travel so much nowadays, has that nomadic spirit taken on any new meaning?

Felipe: I think the pandemic confined us and restricted where we can travel, but that doesn’t mean that your mind cannot carry on going places and seeing things. When you spend two months locked at home, suddenly you open your old books, you look at photos of stuff you did 20 years ago to find inspiration. It was a blast from the past. We had so much more time on our hands and fewer distractions. You go more in depth with things. That was a good thing about the pandemic. Of course, it’s a horrible and tragic thing, but I try looking for the positive in every situation.

Felipe wears all clothing (worn throughout) his own. Photographed in Paris.

Elaine: Over the years, you’ve worked with many different brands, including your own. How have you evolved or changed as a designer?

Felipe: It’s true that I did very different things within fashion, and I really like that. It’s interesting to have worked with a niche point of view at the beginning, then moved onto something big and mainstream. It’s different when it’s your own brand to when you are on a bigger brand—say, Lacoste— or a brand like Kenzo, which has a designer heritage. I, as the designer, have a dialogue with Kenzo Takada’s heritage. I’ve evolved like everyone will evolve naturally with time, but I still have a lot of the same references, passions, and instincts.

Elaine: How would you say Kenzo has evolved in the past 50 years? How do you want it to move forward?

Felipe: The brand went through quite distinctive phases. It was very fresh when Takada first arrived because he was the first Japanese designer in Europe. His whole approach to clothing was completely revolutionary, because suddenly he had these flat-pattern cuts where you have space between the body and the clothes and you could move in them. His color stories were unexpected and optimistic. It was a really vibrant and energetic first couple of decades. Then the brand went through Antonio Marras, which was something almost couture in a way, and Carol [Lim] and Humberto [Leon] took this energy into something youthful and street-sportswear oriented. What was really nice about Kenzo’s clothes was that there was a statement. They were bold, but at the same time easy to wear and easy to read. I’m trying to find that balance of clothes that are exciting and also desirable.

We talk a lot about sustainability as well. Kenzo’s always been so much about nature—the florals, the animal prints, the colors. Now, we have to be all for nature. It’s thinking about the brand and its values. There was such instinct in everything that Kenzo Takada did. I’m trying to surprise myself in order to surprise others.

“Part of remaining fresh and relevant is not to be overconfident that you know anything and everything. You have to be on the lookout to learn.”

Elaine: As you become more tenured, how do you make sure that you stay youthful and fresh to maintain that element of surprise?

Felipe: You have to remain curious in everything you see—in music, art, and cinema—and communicate with these amazingly talented young people in the industry. Part of remaining fresh and relevant is not to be overconfident that you know anything and everything. You have to be on the lookout to learn. Not get older and more bourgeois. I have two teenage boys, and they bring in the information as well.

Elaine: How did your sons react when you were appointed as Kenzo’s creative director? Did they say anything?

Felipe: I was on the project for four months before the announcement. I had stuff all over the floor in the living room, so they knew. They were very supportive. They’d be like, ‘You got this!’ [Laughs] I would ask their opinions about things I was working on. I took one of them to the shop last week and took him on a shopping spree. They’re supportive, but they’re biased.

Elaine: Are they also creative? Do they want to be a designer like you?

Felipe: They’re quite creative, but one more than the other is into music and art. He dances, and he’s cultured. That’s what’s great about the new generation: They’re much more open and not afraid to try a bit of everything. It’s so much more natural for them. Even growing up with the internet, it’s amazing because they instruct and educate themselves on topics on their own, which is a whole different ball game. It’s interesting for me to see how they adapt and look and search for the things that mean something to them.

Elaine: To go back to the topic of sustainability and nature, what’s your personal relationship with nature?

Felipe: For the last seven years, I have traveled to one of the most remote parts of Brazil. It takes hours to get there. You can’t buy anything apart from fish. There’s no wifi; you don’t feel like you’re in 2020. I was born in the Azores, on this island right in the middle of the Atlantic, where you really feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. It’s very graphic and bold, with black volcanic rocks. I used to spend three months there when I was a kid, so that really informed my relationship with nature. I try to look for that intensity in other places. I traveled to North Africa several times and the Sahara, trying to find the same feeling or mood in the middle of the ocean, in the desert. It’s the best thing to go back to Planet Earth and understand the scale of what you really are, which is pretty small.

Elaine: Do you mind if I ask the name of the village you go to in Brazil?

Felipe: I never say because I don’t want to advertise it. [Laughs]

Elaine: I kind of expected that. Is there a specific environmental issue that you’re interested in?

Felipe: At Kenzo, the tiger is the emblem of the house. We just launched a capsule collection in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. They have this program to double the number of tigers in the wild, because ten years ago, there were only 3,020 wild tigers left in the world. I thought when we redesigned the new tiger, we should do something that gives back to them. It’s a two-year contract, so we’re going to do four capsules with them. With each piece sold, $10 will go toward their cause. The clothes are all made with certified organic cotton using natural dyes, 80 percent less water, and 60 percent less energy. All of the packaging that we’ve been launching with Kenzo is plastic-free and recyclable. In the pre-collections, we had a lot of recycled cashmere, recycled nylons, etcetera. I ask every designer and everyone in development, ‘What is the sustainable answer to that?’ We managed to make a lot of important steps toward sustainability, but it all starts in our homes. You can’t wait for politicians to resolve this on their own.

Elaine: The Lacoste x Supreme collection happened under your tenure. You recently designed the Kenzo x Vans collaboration. What is your next dream partnership?

Felipe: There’s already one that’s very special, because it was one of the first projects I worked on when I got to Kenzo. It’s a collaboration with Kansai Yamamoto, who unfortunately passed away this summer, too. The project is coming out for Christmas, around the end of November. I hope he will be proud of what we did together from wherever he is. It’s an homage to him and [the] parallels between him, myself, and Mr. Takada. We just shot the campaign for it, and it was a lot of fun. That’s the next thing.