Culture Nerds And Creative Collaborators: Behind Kenzo’s Epic September

Creative director Humberto Leon on how the brand’s head-turning month with Spike Jonze, Carrie Brownstein, and more reflects its vision.

Culture Nerds And Creative Collaborators: Behind Kenzo’s Epic September

When creative directors Humberto Leon and Carol Lim sit down to think about the kind of projects and ideas to create for Kenzo, they don’t just ponder what will get people to buy the fashion brand’s latest clothes. That’s not enough. See, for many people, advertising is a dirty word, at best an annoying distraction, at worst a form of visual pollution prone to give us mind rabies. But while 90% of marketing communications may fall under that categorization, there is a small window through which only the very best advertising becomes part of culture, that genuinely entertains us, makes us laugh, moves us.


That is what Leon and Lim are aiming for. And over the last month, together with an impressive collection of creative collaborators, the two have pulled it off not once, but in three different ways. First came a short film directed by Spike Jonze to launch the brand’s first fragrance, that may go down in the annals of advertising as the best perfume ad of all time. Then, a week or so later, came Carrie Brownstein’s directorial debut, a short film satirizing the hyperbolic world of social media and the pitfalls of modern idolatry, which also happens to be the brand’s look book for its fall/winter collection. A week after that comes the launch video for a collection partnership with H&M with no other than Chance the Rapper–perhaps the most buzzworthy artist in music right now–waxing creative on what inspires him.

“We always try to think of things in terms of–and this is how I work in general across Kenzo and Opening Ceremony–I try to think about things that have affected me over the years,” says Leon. “What are these things and why did they affect me in the way that they did? So when we have to work on these projects, I think about how people might look back on them and say, oh my god, remember that Carrie Brownstein video ‘The Realest Real’?”

For his part, Leon looks back like that on Jean-Paul Goude’s 1985 Citroen ad with Grace Jones driving into her own mouth, and the 1995 Spike Jonze Nike commercial where Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras play street tennis in San Francisco. “Those are mind-blowing, amazing, and memorable,” he says. “Even the old Air Jordan ads. These are all ads that stand the test of time, and at the time they felt really new and different. That’s the bar I set for myself.”

Most brands would be overcome with flop sweats at the prospect of such an output, but if you look back at Kenzo since Leon and Lim joined the brand–while still running their own business at Opening Ceremony–it’s clear this recent run is no fluke or anomaly.

“Ever since Carol and I have been working on ad campaigns and looking at how we can relate to some of these videos, prints ads, or whatever, it’s been exciting, and seeing them all at the same time like this gives you a really quick glimpse into our overall approach,” says Leon. “We try to do it in a way that feels super interesting to us, and at the end of the day we’re trying to talk to ourselves as consumers, and trying to make sure that people who see, watch a lot, and are huge fans of commercials, that we can measure our work and approach against that.”

The Culture Nerd Demographic

Just as Leon is trying to hit his own high standards for relevant creative advertising, it’s the idea of embedding the brand into culture to surprise and delight those, like himself and Lim, who get inspired and excited by brands just making really, really cool shit. It’s why they take this brand that’s part of the LVMH luxury fashion roster and pair it up with others a bit closer to the street like H&M, New Era, Vans, and artist Maurizio Cattelan’s Toilet Paper mag.


It’s also why they’ve focused so much of their marketing output on creating films with directors like Hala Matar and Sean Baker. Matar’s “Automobile Waltz” for the 2014 spring collection featured actors Anton Yelchin and Lydia Hearst, while Baker’s “Snowbird” last year was a 2016 finalist for Tribeca’s X prize for branded content.

“We’re cultural nerds and buffs, and it’s exctiting for us to tap into culture in any way we can,” says Leon. “Two years ago we said, ‘How can we do advertising that feels different?’ I came up with the idea to do short films and then do print ads that were done up like movie posters for the short films. Super simple idea. And it worked out really well for us. I’d just say, it’s not something other fashion brands have done, in terms of caring about narrative, and there are other details that differentiate us, and that’s exciting so we’re continuing down that path.”

Honest Evaluation

When embarking on a new project, Leon says one of the key exercises they go through is to figure out what they don’t want it to be. For the launch of the new fragrance, that involved watching a ton of perfume commercials and fashion videos to see where they could find space to carve out their own voice. “For the perfume commercial, you can tell one of the common links people try to talk about is creating a powerful woman, but when you actually watch the film, I don’t see it or buy that,” says Leon. “So we looked at that and have honest conversations with each other, and with Spike. The exciting thing is, I think you really see his hand in the piece, and because we’re so close to our collaborators–they’re all friends, they’re all people we trust–these are true authentic conversations about what we don’t want to be, and asking how we make something that actually does make a women feel powerful, cool, and all the different sensations we want to see, but in a way we can relate to it.”

For Brownstein’s “The Realest Real,” the director told Co.Create at the time that Leon and Lim told her to put the fashion second and zero in on the story she wanted to tell. Leon says that if you’re going to work with someone like Brownstein, of course you have to put her talent and vision up front, which in this case meant the clothing got second billing to the narrative.

“We try to approach it to have little nuggets that have a lot of information, and that hopefully leaves you wanting more,” says Leon. “As creative directors, we have different places for different purposes, so by the time our commercial comes out you’d have been able to see the collection online, at the runway show, and these commercials have a life of their own. We give our collaborators the foundation story of the collection, but we’ll also tell them, ‘You don’t have to put the clothing together the same way it is on the runway.’ In fact, maybe we use some stuff that didn’t make it into that show–let’s take a deeper look and do what’s right for the characters. So we let our guard down, and ask ourselves honest questions because we want the project to feel authentic and real.”

A Simple Approach

As branded content and commercials go, sometimes you’d never know a particular director even had a hand in it. It exists outside the reality of that artist’s official body of work, a corporate detour between films for a quick paycheck, and perhaps a chance to test out some new equipment, cameras and techniques on a brand’s dime ahead of the next studio gig. But Leon says part of the reason for those honest conversations with collaborators is to make sure these projects, though branded, measure up to an artist’s entire body of work.


“When we talk about collaborating–which is almost an overused word–but it really is about having a partnership,” says Leon. “Spike and I always talk about what we can dream up. We’ll riff off each other–what if she did this, but what if that led to this–and we feed off each other. These are true conversations, starting from a really blank slate, and it’s really about people coming together and dreaming up stuff. There’s no storyboarding; there’s no looking at other videos for reference. It’s about trying to come into it with a pure eye, trying to figure out what we can do that would be really awesome, that we would get excited about and be jealous of. It’s a simple approach, and we really try to come at it like kids playing around. It also marks where we are as people, for us, for Spike, for Carrie. Where we are today and how do we do something that’s new for us that’s exciting?”


About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.