Debonair fashion icon that I am, I probably ought to say that I was previously so oblivious to Kenzo that I didn’t even know which letter had been replaced by the asterisk in the play’s title. Arriving at the Camden People’s Theatre, I find myself submerged in colourful leopard-print jackets and bowler hats worn without even the slightest suggestion of irony. A frantic google search later, I learn that Kenzo is a luxury fashion brand named after its founder, Japanese fashion designer, Kenzō Takada. Happily, this was all the knowledge necessary to enjoy this wonderfully playful and innovative dissection of the glib glamour and compulsive consumerism of the high-end fashion world.
Written and performed with great verve by Paula Varjack, The Cult of K*nzo follows an unnamed narrator in her quest to possess her chosen dresses and jackets from the 2016 collaboration between Kenzo and H&M. Interspersed with observations and subversions of the fashion industry, the play examines how mere fabric assumes a semi-divine status (not to mention price-tag) with the addition of that most ethereal of commodities: the brand. Through a similar alchemical process, this simple concept is transmuted by Varjack’s mischievous, glittering wit into a colourful and entertaining drama.
By far the most striking feature about this production is its endless sense of invention in bringing this story to life, incorporating everything from line-drawing to interpretive dance with shopping bags. At one point, Varjack employs bottles of perfume and nail-polish to enact the tense jostling for position in the queue outside H&M. This brings a vivid sense of personality to the scene whilst simultaneously foregrounding its pettiness and materialism.
At other times, we are treated to Kenzo adverts in which an overdubbed commentary punctures these glamorous images, exposing their farcicality with deadpan observations such as ‘flowers follow me around’ and ‘here are some men in suits’. For a one-woman show, the stage feels remarkably well-populated, partly through the litter of semi-personified clothes, bags, accessories. But mainly this is testament to Varjack’s tireless narrative and physical performance which often sees her single-handedly enacting a conversation between two or three characters.
Entertaining as it is, this affectionate parody also explores a number of more serious issues which are exacerbated by the superficiality of the luxury fashion world. Throughout the play, the central character narrates her actions in the third person even as she performs them, giving us a sense that she is constantly constructing an outward-facing façade. From its first scene – in which the unnamed narrator recalls feeling more confident through possessing expensive perfume she has no intention of wearing – the play demonstrates how we are seen differently by ourselves and others depending on what we own. Luxury fashion is a world that actively excludes anyone who doesn’t look a certain way which, essentially, means wealthy and white. Even armed with complicated gold earrings, just entering Gucci or Prada feels like infiltrating hostile territory to the narrator.
There are many reasons you should go and see The Cult of K*nzo. It is a colourful love-song to beautiful clothes and especially to the designs of Kenzō Takada, even whilst it delights in exposing the absurdity of the fashion world’s ostentation and materialism. It is a production that revels in its own creativity whilst simultaneously highlighting the derivative commerciality behind the glamour. It wittily satirises exclusivity and snobbery, yet also visibilises the harmful assumptions they propagate in society. But mostly, you should go and see it because then you can tell people you were there, and they’ll think you’re cool.
The Cult of K*nzo is playing Camden People’s Theatre until 9 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Camden People’s Theatre website.