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The 3 Scare Tactics That Drive Kenzo’s Success

The 3 Scare Tactics That Drive Kenzo’s Success
“We’ve always said that the only way that something good could be happening is if people get nervous,” says Humberto Leon, left, with Carol Lim. “I think people have to be scared.” [Photo: Herring & Herring; Set designer: Wunderkind; Grooming: Kim White, Zuleika Viera]

Nearly 10 years after debuting their influential fashion retail store, Opening Ceremony, Carol Lim and Humberto Leon were named creative directors of the French brand Kenzo in 2011—despite not having any real design experience. Here’s how they learned to operate effectively inside a storied fashion house.

Leverage Your Perspective

“Coming in [to Kenzo] and not being formally trained was to our advantage,” says Leon. “We would go in and say, ‘We want to try something like this,’ and they would say, ‘Oh, that’s not possible.’ [We would] walk them through what we were thinking. They were like, ‘Oh, that’s not the way we’ve always done it, but we can do this.'”

Get Weird

To launch its new fragrance, Kenzo World, in 2016, the company wanted a bold commercial but could not possibly have envisioned the trippy Spike Jonze–directed four-minute dance sequence Lim and Leon delivered, featuring actress Margaret Qualley shooting lasers from her fingertips. “[Other Kenzo executives] kept saying, ‘We need something disruptive,'” Lim says. Adds Leon: “We told them, ‘Don’t say disruptive if you don’t really want disruptive.'”

Remember The Big Picture

Lim and Leon’s first Opening Ceremony outpost, in New York City’s SoHo, wasn’t an instant success in 2002. “In the first few years, there’d be like two people who came,” Lim recalls, with some exaggeration. “We’d be like, ‘It’s okay, we’re going to close in a few weeks, but at least we tried.’ If you think too hard, you could cripple yourself. You’re going to make mistakes. We always say, ‘It’s okay if we fail. We’ll just move on, we’ll learn, and keep going.'”

This story was adapted from the Fast Company Innovation Festival.

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