Humberto Leon and Carol Lim

By
Photography Patrick Demarchelier

Published February 20, 2013

HUMBERTO LEON (LEFT) AND CAROL LIM AT THE KENZO SHOWROOM, PARIS, JANUARY 2013

We always buy with our guts and are always seeking the new. Our store celebrates individuality and discovery. We are super-curious, and the store is constantly evolving.Humberto Leon

LOCATION: The flagship at 35 Howard Street in New York, with another gift-shop location at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, and outposts in Los Angeles (a 10,000-square-foot complex) and Tokyo (a Shibuya department store). BACKGROUND: California transplants Leon and Lim, who first met two decades ago as undergrads at UC Berkeley before both moving to New York in the mid-1990s, conceived of Opening Ceremony in 2001, and opened the shop—which is conceptually built around the idea of spotlighting one country each year (hence the Olympian-sounding name)—in SoHo in 2002; since 2011, the pair have also served as creative directors for Kenzo. CURRENT OBSESSIONS: LIM: â??“One thing that I am coveting right now is a cutlery set from Laguiole and a boat for our house upstate.” LEON: â??“I want the new Blackberry 10 and a Lou Dalton jacket.” WHERE THEY LIKE TO SHOP: LIM: â??“Tokyu Hands in Japan for the stickers, and everything else they offer. Thank god I’m a VIP in Paris for an amazing selection of vintage clothing and accessories. I also love Kentshire gallery in New York for their beautiful antiques.” LEON: â??“I love Deyrolle [taxidermy shop in Paris], St. Mark’s Bookshop [in New York], and Trader Joe’s.”

INTERVIEW: Where did the idea for Opening Ceremony come from? Was there a void in the retail landscape in New York at the time?

CAROL LIM: The concept behind Opening Ceremony came from an inspirational trip that Humberto and I took to Hong Kong in early 2001. We didn’t know it yet, but the things we discovered, and that feeling of finding something incredible and the story behind the people or how we found it, would be the foundation of what the company is today. During that trip, we kept saying how our friends back in New York would love this design or a specialty item we found. When we returned, we said to each other, “Let’s try combining our love of travel, shopping, and discovery and create a place where we could introduce anything we were interested in. So that is what we did. We created a concept that features a new country every year, with a focus on emerging talent, but not just limited to fashion.

INTERVIEW: Did any other store or venue influence your concept for Opening Ceremony?

LIM: Fiorucci and Paraphernalia were stores that we always admired for the experience they provided. They weren’t just places to pick up an article of clothing—they were more about creating a community and a place where you went to visit to chat, hang out, and shop.

HUMBERTO LEON: From the very beginning, our plan was to create Opening Ceremony as a foundation for young talent to showcase their work. We wanted to be the store that changed and featured new ideas every year, basically always pushing the refresh button. We decided to start O.C. right before 9/11—after 9/11 there was this sad mood downtown, so we also wanted to create a place that felt warm, inviting, and where all of our friends could go.

INTERVIEW: How important was the physical location of the flagship store?

LIM: Our original store on Howard Street is extremely important in that we really feel like we developed the area. There were no other retailers on the street, aside from E. Vogel and Putnam [Rolling] Ladder Co. We loved the feeling of the street because it was part of a bigger, bustling area in downtown Manhattan, but very quiet on the street itself. We liked how central it was, yet it was a street many New Yorkers hadn’t heard of and came to discover. Now we look around and it has changed so much. We have amazing neighbors, restaurants, and galleries.

LEON: It is undeniable that our location was—and is—an important part of who we are. People had never heard of Howard Street. We would always have to explain where we were—a block up from Canal, one street east of Broadway. The community is the backbone of Opening Ceremony. We love having a close connection to the locality of all of our shops, but especially New York.

INTERVIEW: Who were your customers when you first opened?

LIM: Our customers at first were either friends or our neighbors who discovered us by walking past. Most were creative individuals who lived in the area and would say to us that they felt like they’d found a hidden gem and that they wanted to keep it a secret! We said, “Please tell your friends!”

LEON: The type of people that come into the store has always been similar in the sense that we have had this mix of uptown and downtown, people visiting from other countries, super-awesome New Yorkers, and some other fun people. We have students, moms, dads, Leonard Nimoy, Chloë Sevigny, Eli Sudbrack, Michael Stipe, Parsons kids, FIT kids, uptown girls, Chinatown locals, a lady who discovered one of our Brazilian designers while visiting São Paulo and who would call us from Texas to order everything on the phone, and all our friends.

INTERVIEW: How do you go about curating what’s in Opening Ceremony and what happens in the store?

LIM: Our style of curating is based on occasions. We always say that you need different kinds of clothing depending on what it is that you are doing, and we always look to find value in everything we buy. That is how we balance our business. We ask each other, “Would we buy this for this price.” Young designers also play a very significant part in our brand mix. It has always been about supporting new talent and introducing them to our loyal clientele. In new talent, we look for a distinct point of view, quality, and value. We also look to see if they have thought about the business aspect of their brand, such as delivery and pricing, to see if it’s a line that we can help nurture. I’m really excited about all the Korean designers we are featuring this year. It’s such a creative time right now in Korea, and it’s amazing to see all the emerging talent.

LEON: All of the Korean designers that we’re featuring this year are incredible. You designers are the most important part of Opening Ceremony. We always buy with our guts and are always seeking the new. Our store celebrates individuality and discovery. We super-curious, and the store is constantly evolving. People get to see new things in our store, and discover old and new brands all the time, whether it’s a brand like Pendleton or Havaianas, or Prouenza Schouler, Christopher Shannon, J.W. Anderson, or Alexander Wang.

INTERVIEW: Why do you think people are so responsive to the kinds of personal edits of fashion and culture that stores like Opening Ceremony provide? And how do you continue to develop that idea online?

LIM: Humberto and I always look at everything we buy as if we were the end consumer. We are our biggest critics, and we always ask each other if something is exciting and worth it. With that frame of mind, we are not inhibited by past season sell-throughs, and instead always push to find something new. It is this sense of discovery that we both personally love—and our customers do, too. When we first opened, there was hardly any e-commerce, and digital cameras were just coming out. I’d say that has changed pretty drastically. So with e-commerce, it was really important for us to build our voice and content before we dove into the commerce part. This gave our visitors a sense of community as they shopped online.

LEON: Our website has a strong voice that is made up of all the people who are involved in Opening Ceremony. Everyone who works at Opening Ceremony contributes to the overall voice. We want the e-commerce experience to feel like walking into our store.

LIM: Although the online world will continue to grow, I think the importance of the physical store will also be more relevant than ever. If someone is coming to shop, they need to walk away with a memorable experience. Otherwise, they can just shop from their computer.

INTERVIEW: How do your partnerships and collaborations with people like Chloë Sevigny and heritage brands like Pendleton—as well as your house line—fit into it all?

LIM: All of our partnerships begin with a personal story or a conversation. If we cannot tell an authentic story, then it isn’t something that we do. Our partnership with Chloë actually came about from reading an article where she said she wouldn’t want to be a designer but would consider designing a few pieces for Opening Ceremony. We had known each other through mutual friends, so we called her and that was the beginning of our line with her. And then there are other partnerships, like the one with Pendleton, where we reached out to them because we wanted to partner with an expert in making flannel shirts. Humberto and I have collected hundreds of Pendleton shirts from our vintage shopping excursions, and understood the importance of this 100-plus-year-old brand. So it made sense to us to reach out to them so we could tell the story of their significance.

LEON: Chloë’s line is a good example of telling a very special story. Her collections are all so unique, and reveal such an important part of her, her youth, and the conversation we’ve had. Opening Ceremony has had a house line since the beginning. We started with the diamond sweatshirts and then came jackets, pants, etcetera. My mom made the patterns and knitted our first knitwear collection. Carol’s mom made all of the jewelry for the store when we first opened. So that’s how it began. Then, other stores wanted to buy it, and we just figured out how to do it. The brand is now in 400 stores worldwide and we have kept it special. We have done a lot of partnerships—we don’t like the word collaboration—so there are times when we actually have three or four lines in stores at once.

INTERVIEW: How did the decision to open up other locations come about? What sorts of considerations were involved in deciding what the L.A. or Tokyo stores, for example, should be?

LIM: We have always wanted to expand, and the location is an extremely important part of that. Each store has its own distinct feeling based on the building itself as well as its surroundings.

LEON: We expanded so that we could go back to those cities more. All the cities we’ve opened in are cities that we feel have their own community, too. We’re both from L.A., so that was a no-brainer, and Tokyo opened because we visited and fell in love. We always ask if the location is interesting and “How do we support the locals?” The location says it all.

INTERVIEW: So when do you like to shop?

LIM: I like to shop all day—especially when I travel to new cities—and late at night online!

LEON: All the time, 24/7. I can shop all the time.

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