Interview with Kenzo: Designers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim talk the tiger motif and its role in the WWF 'Rare Stripes' campaign

Interview with Kenzo: Designers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim talk the tiger motif and its role in the WWF 'Rare Stripes' campaign

Cat calling

Text: Jolene Khor

The much anticipated Kenzo x WWF capsule collection, designed in collaboration with Tiger Beer, has finally reached Singapore

We first had a peek at the labour of love from Kenzo's partnership with WWF and Tiger Beer in the name of tiger conservation two months ago in Tokyo. But before that, long before the designers of the Parisian label, along with four emerging artists from Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and America designed the 8-piece special editions, tigers disappeared from Singapore. Then Malaysia. Then Cambodia. Poof.

As we learned the hard way that the conservation of life is not the responsibility of one, but all, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim chats with Buro on the collaboration that feels like nature, the power of storytelling and that which is extinct in the world of fashion.

There's a lot of history to Kenzo's tiger logo. Let's talk about that.
Humberto Leon (HL): Kenzō Takada used the tiger on little labels, like on the inside of men's tailored pants so the tiger appears in the archives mostly on the inside of garments. When Carol and I first came to Kenzo, the brand was only known for flowers which we loved, but we needed something new. The company gasped and people were passing out in our first women's runway collection, because we did a collection based on interiors and we made a sweater where the tiger was in front and at the back, like tapestry. At the time, we said we want to give new symbols to the house, new icons and the Kenzo tiger has become one of the biggest icons that is known now. 

Esther Goh who hails from Singapore designed two of the eight pieces in the Kenzo x WWF x Tiger Beer capsule.

Your tiger sweatshirts broke the fashion world in 2012 during a time when no one really cared very much about sweatshirts. Years later, you put Britney Spears in your campaign, a bold and surprising move. On that note, how do you make people sit up and care, especially about tigers? What's the formula to making people care about something they probably haven't before?
HL: I think everything we work on is about storytelling and we try to be really precise about how we tell those stories. We didn't just decorate clothing with the tiger; it's part of a bigger story that we're trying to tell in the collection. Britney has that when we launched the denim collections for Momento because she is the queen of denim in the '90s. How much more authentic can we tell a story when it involves a partnership with WWF, brought together by Tiger Beer, in a project that hopefully by the end of this year will encourage the Cambodian government to introduce five tigers back into the jungle when there's none now? It's a big initiative and it's super exciting to see if this campaign will help secure it.
Carol Lim (CL): Everyone loves tigers — it's a beloved animal from cubs to grown tigers. No matter where you are from in the world, people will be in awe of this animal and if they know there are less than four thousand tigers left in the world, they would care. We need to pay attention because much like the way black rhinoceros went extinct, if we are not careful tigers will disappear too and with it, so much of the ecological system hanging in its balance. 

As storytelling is crucial to Kenzo, what's the story behind the 'Rare Stripes' collection?
HL: We partnered with four artists for 'Rare Stripes', three of whom reside in countries where tigers no longer exist. We're telling a really personal story about how humans can actually bring tigers back. WWF has proven this in the last couple of years — the number of tigers went up from 2200 to more than 3000. By 2022, we hope WWF will be able to double that amount. And if you think about it... 3500 tigers in the world, that's nothing.
CL: The biggest message is that this actually can happen but it takes people caring about it for it to happen. The same way people care about elephants, the same way people care about pandas because of their cuteness, that type of energy and love for the animals will bring them back.

Artist Julienne Tan's sketch was inspired by wild tiger Machali from India.

Conservation is not one person's responsibility.
CL: Yeah, totally. Even when WWF was explaining how they've gotten different governments' politics aside to make this an important cooperation between Russia and China to Singapore, that's a huge sign. To actually put aside whatever our differences are and be like, this is a common goal for us, for the human race, so of course whether you're a beer company, a fashion company...

You have a role to play.
CL: Absolutely. The great thing is, tigers have a different audience and we have a different audience and WWF have a very specific audience. As more voices come in, more people talk about this, the more we can helps the chances of tigers' survival.

Humberto Leon coaches American artist Meryl Smith in Cambodia.

Speaking of more voices, how did this collaboration with the four emerging artists come about? How were they selected?
HL: We wanted to partner with artists from countries where tigers are endangered or driven our by deforestation and urbanisation. And we wanted one American artist because we're from America. The point of view of looking from abroad was crucial but also, how can we make it local to the audiences where the animals are most affection. Hence, three of the artists are from Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore where tigers emerged but are now extinct — they represent the countries where this plight originates. Singapore for instance, there is no way to bring tigers back. The city has developed way too much.

How did everyone prepare for the collaboration with WWF?
HL: We went to Cambodia together to visit the forests and to meet WWF Wildlife Specialist Phurba Lhendup. He showed us all the tiger traps laid our by poachers that they've hunted for over the years and collected. A lot of the education was information on what would the process be like if and when tigers are reintroduced to the ecosystem, and just what's been happening and why there has been so much poaching and how to dispel them.

What does the tiger represent to you?
HL: It represents strength, it represents courage.
CL: I would say the same. The tiger represents strength and beauty and power. 

What is extinct in the world of fashion?
CL: The speed of how people discover things has gotten so quick that I would say patience has probably gone extinct. People want things very quickly, more, faster, and doesn't matter from which brand. People have lost attention spans; they are going to look here, they're going to look there. Storytelling has to be that much more compelling because you have a lot of other people going into it at greater lengths to capture the attention of an audience.
HL: This idea of prominence feels like it is disappearing. Everything seems so disposable at all ends of the spectrum, like you got to chase what's next. We try to take in more moments to see how we can slow things down.

'Rare Stripes' is now available at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, #01-18. Read more about the collection here.

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