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AYS Insider: KENZO CMO Sophie Metzker

As part of our ongoing AYS Insider series and following the launch of our research study Youth State, we met up with KENZO's CMO Sophie Metzker, to find out how they became the fastest growing fashion brand in the youth market, what their 3 million daily social media engagements mean to them and how as a fashion brand, they reach a generation who are more interested in being judged on their personality than what they wear.

Four years ago 80% of KENZO customers were over 55. Today 60% are below 30. Was it an active decision to shift the demographic? If so, how did you go about it?

The “active decision” was first and foremost to revamp a beautiful French heritage brand, which used to be highly popular and desirable from the 70’s to the 90’s and make it relevant in today’s world. With the arrival of Carol Lim and Humberto Leon as Creative Directors, the whole company went through a deep transformation to achieve that goal and build a customer-focused organisation able to embrace the new brand positioning and communicate our values to the fashion customer, independently from any age group. From product design to retail experience, the questions were:

• Who are we? • What do we stand for? • What do we bring to the party? • Why would people engage with KENZO? • Why would people wear KENZO? • What would they expect from a fashion brand?

The KENZO design project is about Parisian easy chic meeting Californian laid back spirit. It’s about a lifestyle and a way to seize the world, rather than a question of age, sex or geographic origin.

There is something spontaneous, fun, inclusive and universal in our approach, which is certainly the reason why the younger ones responded so quickly and positively to the project.

Our Youth State data that shows 16-24 year olds see through the superficiality of social media: 64% say that they are sick of people creating the perfect image of their lives online - it's a lie. However KENZO has 3 million engagements daily, the highest in the fashion industry. What do KENZO do differently to achieve this engagement within a landscape that young people are clearly sceptical about?

In everything we do, we try to be consistent and true to ourselves as a brand. KENZO's approach to fashion is quite specific. We love to be very directional in terms of style and at the same time realistically functional and wearable. That’s what we call “design to wear”. Ambiguously challenging!

KENZO is seen on New York and Paris runways and simultaneously worn by real people in the streets. We are a cool fashion brand that people can actually buy from ready-to-wear to accessories, for men and woman, for morning to evening occasions, offering a world of possibilities and without taking ourselves too seriously! Our price positioning is also a demonstration of how respectfully we approach our customer.

Every strategic decision we make goes through the filter of our brand values. We believe in spontaneity, playfulness, sharing, authenticity, disruption and mixing borderless cultures. KENZO is not only about fashion. Every brand-building initiative is a genuine demonstration of this statement. So embracing social media and digital from the very beginning was totally meaningful. These channels fit who we are: a committed community brand with daily interactions and conversations with the all people who love us, bringing an energetic mix of cultural elements into our fashion world from music to sculpture, street art, photography, cinema... Our most recent collaborations with M.I.A., Nicolas Godin, Spiritualized, Jean Paul Goude, Toilet Paper, Greg Araki, David Lynch and so many more eclectic talented friends from all over the world speak for themselves.

This vision has obviously lots of implications in terms of brand content, communication strategy and organisation, which we have integrated from the very beginning. Customer engagement starts with brand engagement. This is probably one of the reasons why KENZO was quickly adopted and now massively supported by young people.

Which social media channel do you get the most engagement on? And why do you think that is?

Every social media channel has its own “code”. KENZO is active on nine of them and we get most engagement on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Mostly because we are a very “talkative” and “visual” brand and those platforms are perfectly suited for our communication purposes. Obviously, we address those media singularly and in a very specific way: innovative tools, dedicated imagery, dedicated content and consequently dedicated resources. Engagement also comes from the fact we interact daily bringing lots of variety and cultural points of view, in a very unconventional way. I think followers love our products because they are more than “just” products. They convey a whole universe with its own story telling, which varies and builds up season after season. In the world of fashion, this continuous narrative is kind of specific to KENZO and a source of interest for our fanbase.

Youth State also found that 16 - 24 year olds rate the accuracy of their portrayal as just 4.4 out of 10. They clearly feel woefully misrepresented in the media. What are KENZO doing to try and better understand the youth market?

There is no study or magical recipe! We have lots of young people in our teams, we also observe and listen to them in stores and on social platforms and we try to remain connected to their reality: what they do, like, eat, watch, and get excited about. At the end of the day, I don’t think they are very different from how we were when we were their age: full of dreams, hopes, curiosity, energy, fighting for beliefs, supporting generous causes in a spirit of togetherness and open-mindedness. We just have to remember the way we were; we don’t preach the do’s and the don’ts, we do not judge, we just try to offer new ways to explore fashion and arts. And we try our best to cultivate this proximity in everything we do.

Have you discovered anything that you thought was really surprising about the youth market?

Digital tools have drastically changed the way this generation communicates and consequently the way they interact with products and brands. They are increasingly aware, smart, and quick in assessing performance and sharing opinions. This is very interesting for brands as we get instant live buzz and appreciation from customers in almost everything we do. It helps us consolidate a strategy or make a change if needs be.

The challenge is how to remain permanently relevant to our customers when everything is moving so fast; the proportion of e-shoppers is also an element of surprise and learning and is an exciting additional channel of business for fashion brands. This is all just the beginning. We have a lot of room to grow and improve to better serve our clients.

It was clear from our research that 16-24 year olds want to be judged on their personality, rather than the way they dress: when asked what they most want their first impression to be based on, 71% selected personality. Yet they feel that in reality they are almost as likely to be judged by their appearance or the way they dress - especially girls. One respondent commented: "How can you be friends with an outfit?" How will KENZO tackle a generation who are actively saying they want to be understood by what's on the inside as opposed to what they wear?

I see no opposition between loving fashion products and wanting to be judged on your personality. The way you dress is also a way to express your inner self and connect with others. The better you feel, the better you engage with others. This is why storytelling is so important. By bringing content and purpose to every product or action, you genuinely raise people’s interest and get invited to be part of their world or their conversations. KENZO is bringing so much more than fashion (fun, culture, ideas, interactive experiences…) in a very approachable and cool way, I guess our customers do feel considered and understood. They can talk about us, not only wear us.

We discovered that today's youth hold their close friends and family in much higher regard than they do any celebrity, with Mum coming out on top as their number one idol. If we are no longer in the age of celebrity, who will KENZO look towards to become brand ambassadors?

Anyone who loves KENZO, from celebrities, fashion models, sports athletes, bloggers, journalists, students, artists, family, friends, to you and me! KENZO is an inclusive brand. Our ambition is to keep growing our community worldwide and everyone is invited to the conversation.

We believe that having a purpose bestows human values into business and should be used to drive everything a brand says and does. What does having a purpose mean to KENZO?

Every action should be driven by a purpose. What is the point otherwise? There is a reason behind every fashion show, every product, every advertising campaign, every photograph, every piece of music. Whether it is a trip, an encounter, a collaboration, a dream… every piece of creativity is an inspired gift. The key is to be able to explain it and translate it into an intelligible and relevant story for our customers and fans. It helps everyone to connect more interestingly, discover new things, bring excitement and last but not least, develop a sense of belonging and pride to be “part of it”.

Tell us about your hugely successful partnership with the Blue Marine Foundation.

Humberto Leon and Carol Lim wanted to use the attention brands like ours generate to start a relevant conversation about issues that concern them. Born and raised in California, they grew up by the ocean and are very sensitive to that environment.

We felt very proud when that fantastic partnership came to life during Paris Fashion Week, staging the Spring Summer '14 collection. The show was a real piece of theatre dedicated to BMF. The beauty and power of the ocean translated into prints and siren silhouettes on our catwalk along with more sporty clothing carrying the “NO FISH NO NOTHING” message. It was a genuine tribute to our engagement towards BMF and its mission to fight overfishing and the destruction of marine life.

We used KENZO as much as we could as a loudspeaker among the fashion community to raise awareness and persuade people to take action. Right after the show, we co-hosted with BMF various screenings of “The End of the Line” documentary which speaks for itself. A few months after, the collection was released in our stores and successfully dramatized in a digital interactive pop-up store in Le Marais in Paris. We received millions of supporting messages from all over the planet and that year KENZO doubled its media coverage. Not only was it quoted for its fashion, but also for its social engagement.

In today’s world, where the future of our planet is such a point of concern, it is socially responsible to share passions and concerns that are not strictly related to us as a brand but to something much bigger.