KENZO’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection is a colourful and divinely energetic assemblage, a futurist and optimistic vision. Co-creative directors HUMBERTO LEON and CAROL LIM wanted to take this a step further for the campaign and depict a true utopia. They tapped a hero of theirs, iconic photographer, filmmaker, and artist DAVID LACHAPELLE, to shoot the images.
Infinitely and uniquely qualified for the job, LaChapelle has made a career out of not so much depicting his subjects but rebirthing them and placing them into a fantasia of his own making. His images are instantly recognizable and inimitable. He has also spent much of the past 11 years in tropical heaven-on-earth: Maui, Hawaii.
Shot at his Los Angeles studio, LaChapelle conjured a surreal paradise, a ‘KENZOTOPIA’, for the KENZO Spring-Summer 2019 campaign, where streetscapes, urban apartments, and breathtaking outdoor scenes blurred into each other in a Technicolor euphoric reverie. Models are joined by fashion moonlighters such as dancers, musicians, students, and even a star-making cameo by Humberto’s mother, WENDY LEON.
The campaign is the perfect harmony and coalescence of the passions and ideals of Carol and Humberto and David, as all have devoted their careers to not only following their bliss but spreading it. The three gathered to discuss their project.
Carol and Humberto, you guys have been big fans of David for a long time?
Carol Lim: Huge.
Humberto Leon: Since forever and ever. When I was 18 I actually lined up to buy a book and get it signed by him at Tower Records. David LaChapelle: That’s the sweetest thing ever. Were you happy with the signing?
HL: I was so excited. It’s so funny because, now this “line culture” is actually a big thing for shopping. But back then, you would really line up for concert tickets and book signings and things. I was very excited to stay for hours and line up with my friends. Your images really moved me as a young, suburban teen, just getting comfortable in his gay skin. Seeing your imagery really opened up a different world for me and brought to life a lot of stuff. Just the fact that it reached me, this
little suburban kid is pretty exciting. In many ways, your images brought me into being comfortable being gay and also bringing me into pop culture and seeing fashion through a different lens.
CL: Also, the transition from photography to lm was inspiring. Growing up in LA, seeing RIZE was super powerful.
DLC: I definitely enjoy keeping things interesting and doing a variety of work. That’s really added a lot to my life and to the work that I do. I look at the photos I do and lm, I don’t really make huge distinctions. It’s all one for me. It all has the potential to be art.
So, David, did the theme of “Utopia” speak to you and make you want to be part of this KENZO project?
DLC: Totally. I’ve been working on that for the last 11 years in Maui, which is this very much paradisaical background. Many of the photos [of Maui] were used as the backdrops for these KENZO interiors. The surreal aspect of the shoot was that these exterior photos were used as interiors for rooms, and the ones of paradise were shot in Maui where I live. Part of this series that I’ve been working on called “A New World”, that culminated in the exhibitions [and the books] “Lost and Found” and “Good News”, are very much present there. So, these are the photos you see in the KENZO shoot with the waterfalls and the tropical settings and sort of jungle. The utopic and heavenly- looking, natural spots were all shot in Maui.
It felt great to just step into KENZO’s world and take another look at utopia with Humberto and the team at KENZO, just creating this whole new glimpse of it, and referencing my own pictures in this sort of surreal way which serves it really well. I didn’t want to shoot against other people’s photos, and I just came up with this idea to put the exterior on the interior of these rooms.
It’s amazing how your personal work coalesces with this KENZO project.
Is this usage of exterior images of paradise in enclosed interiors a metaphor for finding the joy within, this urban versus utopia?
DLC: It was the contrast of suburbia, industry versus the natural world, the urban world versus nature, and the common denominator being those humans that occupy those spaces and journeying into the natural world from the manmade. That was a very simple idea.
How was it to collaborate with Carol and Humberto and the KENZO team?
DLC: It was very dynamic. Humberto brought a lot of creative ideas to the shoot, and the clothing was so much fun to photograph. KENZO’s clothes are super happy and optimistic, and that was a word that I first thought of when we initially started talking about this campaign. It’s very aspirational and beautiful. The word “positive” sounds so, banal...
HL : Joyous.
DLC : Joyous, yeah! That’s radical now to see in fashion photographs. We’ve seen so many people slumped over and looking so sad in their really expensive clothing. It doesn’t make any sense for luxury brands. It’s just become the new normal to see sad-looking young models in very expensive clothing and I don’t understand that at all. So, when I see all these happy people in KENZO, it really makes me happy. Why would you not be happy if you’re in this utopic setting? But the key is the shoot itself had that tone. Everybody was really happy and it was really spontaneous. Humberto’s mom is in a photo. I really grabbed her. It wasn’t like, “Oh, let me put the designer’s mom in it trying to make everyone happy.” It really was just, “Oh my gosh, can I use you in a photograph? You look so good.”
So it was a spur-of-the-moment casting thing?
DLC: Absolutely. It was not pushed on me, it was not suggested. Nobody nudged me. It was absolutely about me and her, it wasn’t really about Humberto at all. It wasn’t about her being his mom, it was just like, “Oh God, you look so beautiful, can I stick you in the shot? Humberto, is that okay?”
HL: She was visiting on set.
DLC: She radiates. She’s such a presence and so beautiful. She really radiated something and honestly, I’m telling you this straightforward, I really just wanted her to be in the photograph and didn’t even have time to think about all the other reasons there might have been to use her in that picture, I just wanted her in the photograph because she looked incredible as a model. She’s kind of a star.
David, how was the process to develop the concept for the shoot?
DLC: Taking to Humberto really helped, and seeing the clothes certainly helped and I started thinking. The idea of a mural came in and then just working side-by-side came into the discussion, and so I just started making drawings, and from the drawings I started seeing this journey that was going from one place to another, and that place was the maybe the artificial into the natural or the constructed into the wild.
Humberto and Carol, were you guys always on the same page during this development ?
HL: The minute he started to talk to us about this, it felt just exciting and it felt really like he understood the brand. Carol and I, from the beginning, we’ve always really wanted to push any imagery or anything else that is different than all the other brands. I feel like David really got that and gave us something that was his own and felt really aligned with us. I think the optimism, the juxtaposition between the industrial and the suburban, all that feels very much like mine and Carol’s everyday conversation about things that we love and want to see come to life.
Humberto and Carol, this utopia concept seems like a vision we seriously need these days, a respite from reality. Do you think that to theme your collection and campaign about that is reactionary to what’s going on in current events?
HL: Carol and I have definitely not been shy to talk about politics in our fashion collections, but this was really a season where we just wanted to celebrate and to enter a fantasy. That’s what David’s photography allows you to do is really let you travel to a different world. I feel like a big inspiration for the collection was to create this fantastical place that could be real, but isn’t. The photos and the additional set design really conjure a new world.
DLC: It was really fun working with the sets. Humberto and Carol were open to repurposing the poles that would normally be used in a strip club for pole dancing and making them into trees, that kids were climbing and swinging on vines. They’re literally poles that we repurposed, and I thought that was super cool. It was theatrical, and it was these tableaus that we built and sets that we created, but you get this idea of this yearning for a return to paradise and utopia. I needed to give different elevation to the models, so it wasn’t just people on the ground or jumping, but also up in the air suspended and posing, so I could fill the frame with people. I love dance and taking that out of the club and having it just be purely thought of as sort of this sexual thing, it was turned into something that you don’t even think about that when you look at the photographs. You think of the look on their faces and the clothing that they’re wearing, everything is very innocent – and that to me is climbing trees.
Let’s talk about the casting process.
From the beginning, you guys wanted to do a mixture of real people and models? How did the casting for this evolve?
DLC: Well, I love photographing dancers. I wanted to try to put as many dancers in as possible. It was a real mixture of Humberto’s casting and my team’s casting. Then we came together, and then people just showed up to the set, dressed head to toe in KENZO, and I thought okay, you’re getting into the mix. So, it was super spontaneous and really fun to work with everybody.
The broadcasting really delivers such a varied and authentic message.
DLC: I like having different expressions
on people, it really adds interest to the photographs. That was organic. There was not just one direction given to the whole group when there were group shots, and the little stories come on, as some people would have one expression on their face and were doing another where someone else is holding a dove and it’s almost a spiritual moment. And then you see the other kids come and gather around this ower. And it was just really beautiful to have this interaction with all the different types of people.
HL: David, do you want to talk about the panoramic story of one shot to the next?
DLC: Yeah. We spoke about murals, and how murals throughout art history tell stories and a narrative. Diego Rivera would start and he would show the indigenous armors, he would show farmland on the left and then leading to the right would be these utopian cities. What I did was start in the suburbs. A lot of us grew up in the suburbs and we have mixed feelings about that, but there were defnitely happy times in our childhood. We are alive on this planet and we have to make the best of whatever situations we nd ourselves in
Tell us about some other scenes.
DLC: There’s one scene that’s very shiny and silver and sort of metallic against blue, the idea was the desert in California, and then in a different background there’s just a forest that’s sort of the in-between. That photograph is really inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera, which is a celebration of Spring. Then it goes from the suburbs, the city to industry and then after industry kind of growing into the natural world, the forests, the vertical trees, the poles, and the Primavera, and then you lead into the paradise setting, which is this place
I saw in Hawaii. Deep in the rainforest part of the island. To waterfalls and sort of this epic natural beauty. John Byrne helped stage and block and choreograph these moments. That Primavera moment was really John creating the blocking for that, which helped me a lot. I’ve been working with him for a lot of years and he came on this shoot to do the lm, but he wound up helping me with the staging as we had a lot to get done. Boy, that ended up being just a beautiful photo. It’s all very collaborative.
Humberto and Carol, what was it like being on set? It’s clear that David was like a hero to you, what was it like witnessing this magic being made?
HL: David’s backgrounds were amazing to see blown up huge in real life. While we were shooting, David was really insistent that we live in this world of retouching and he wanted these photos to be really as they were on set. So, all the flowers that are floating in the air were real silk owers that were handmade there. There was very little retouching and David, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s kind of the beauty of the whole thing, that everything was really there in real life, and that’s why these photos feel as spectacular as they do.
A lot of people would wrongly assume that all the backgrounds and propping are just CGI and post-production.
CL: Just seeing the set and the manifestation of it come together and seeing these nal images captures exactly what David was talking about the brand and these images are joyful, but also inclusive and relatable. There
is a fantasy you want to be absorbed into. It’s rare to see something like that, both mesmerizing and also something that you want to look at and jump into yourself.
Photographer: David LaChapelle
Set Design: Jack Flanagan
Styling: Anna Trevelyan
Hair Styling: Laurent Philippon
Make Up: Sarah Tanno & Dana Delaney
Nail Artist: Naomi Yasuda
Casting Directors: The Secret Gallery, Samantha Blake Goodman, Bok Creative Video: John Byrne