Felipe Oliveira Baptista is an optimist. He may have shown only two collections at Kenzo, but plans are already in place to transform the French heritage brand. Filling the shoes of his predecessors, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Baptista’s vision takes the label into a new chapter—one that opportunely coincides with a new chapter for the fashion industry, too.
“This new chapter brings along really big challenges,” Baptista tells Vogue Singapore. “There is a little bit too much of everything in fashion. I think it would be great [for the fashion industry] to do a little bit less and a little bit better.” He is, of course, tacitly referring to the ripples of change that have reverberated industry-wide as a result of the global pandemic.
Presciently, his spring/summer 2021 collection seemed to foresee our need for safety. Drawing inspiration from beekeeper uniforms, Baptista presented a cerebral take on the protective garb through ensembles that were pragmatic and optically captivating. The collection was populated with strategic cutouts, dangling drawstrings and a notable number of utility pockets for good measure.
Actual beekeeping uniforms often use muted pastel shades so as to prevent aggravating these integral insects. But with face-to-ankle veils and pollination-friendly prints, Baptista chose to flip that convention on its head—almost as an invitation to danger. “I started with this idea of bees as regulators of the universe,” he says, citing our relationship with bees as “one of the most ancient collaborations between man and nature”.
But Baptista’s optimism is resolute in a way that feels nuanced, not reductive. “I have been haunted by all the things that everyone has been through—the fear, the anxiety and the fragility of the state of the world,” he admits. “I want to find ways to turn our new reality into a positive take on life and in fashion.”
This complexity shows in his approach to Kenzo’s rich visual past. The legacy of founder Kenzō Takada is palpable in the brand’s sensitivity to cultural influences. This season sees a reference to Irving Penn’s iconic 1995 photograph of a bee resting on a pair of bright orange lips—what we have to thank for the term ‘bee-stung lips’.
Baptista is no stranger to interpreting house codes. Prior to joining Kenzo, he cut his teeth at the likes of Christophe Lemaire, Max Mara and Lacoste. When I ask what his experience was trawling through the archives of Kenzo, he describes it as magical. “I found a lot of little treasures and a lot of things that I had only seen in pictures at Kenzo,” Baptista shares. “There is always something rich and emotional when you see it for real. When you hold the clothes in your own hands you understand them—it helps me wonder how I can pay homage to these pieces while I, at the same time, write the next chapter for the brand.”
As the label progresses into a new creative era, Kenzo loyalists can rest assured Baptista has already found a cadence in his craft. If the bees are a metaphor—and in fashion, they always are—then we’ve been taught to fear the very thing that enlivens our gardens. And for Baptista, optimism in uncertain times remains the brightest shade. “What you are starting to see is what I would like the brand to become.”