Opening Ceremony

Whitewall Magazine - 
The Fashion Issue
 (Fall 2011)

Humberto Leon and Carol Lim established Opening Ceremony (OC) in 2002. The cult fashion emporium, which has stores in New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo, expanded to China with two pop-up shops this past spring. Adapting Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s 1896 model for the modern-day Olympics, OC curates a competition of nations, mixing both emerging and well-known fashion designers. Its specific, multi-label environment has the energy of a hip gallery more than a traditional retail space. 

OC’s collaborative aspect reflects a unique, innovative business style. In recent news, they both were named creative directors of Kenzo, and are debuting their first collection for the Paris-based fashion label this fall. 

Both Los Angeles natives, the founders met while at UC Berkeley — Lim studied economics and Leon studied art. Leon started working at the Gap in high school, then became the visual director at Old Navy and later at Burberry. Lim worked as a merchandiser at Bally. During a vacation to Hong Kong in 2001, the pair found themselves enthralled by the city’s chaotic, home-style, open-air markets. That was the original inspiration for OC, to re-create a place that feels personal, experimental, and constantly in flux. Whitewall discussed OC’s progressive culture with Leon.

WHITEWALL: What’s it like to work as a creative duo? Do you feel that your collaborations with other designers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, et cetera are a direct extension of that process?

HUMBERTO LEON: Working together has never been a real challenge for us because we understand and respect each other’s point of view. If something is really exciting to one of us, the other is always on board. We take on projects that can speak to us on a very basic, emotional level — we do and work with what we love. Our partnerships with other creative brands and individuals are a completely natural extension of that and there’s nothing more fulfilling than working with your friends.

WW: In a recent interview, you expressed that both you and Carol have to personally love every item in Opening Ceremony, and in turn, everyone around you has to share that same enthusiasm. How has this ethos shaped OC, and what have you learned from this approach?

HL: Whenever we discover things we love, we can’t wait to share them immediately with our friends. We approach buying like we are buying for people close to us, and this creates a very personal shop. This has made OC a place of discovery, where our customers can learn about new designers, new ideas, and people, as well as revisit things that were temporarily forgotten. We’ve come to realize that our shoppers get to experience our sense of curiosity and storytelling, and the trust that they place in us keeps us constantly on the move to find new things to offer.

WW: Can you explain how the modern-day Olympics concept has evolved since you began? The latest theme has been France. How has this year been distinctive from past themes? Are you at liberty to discuss the fall 2011 launch yet?

HL: Our concept to feature a different country every year has always been part of Opening Ceremony’s DNA, and that hasn’t changed. Unlike many of the countries we’ve featured in the past, France has such a strong presence in the history of fashion, so part of the challenge was presenting its heritage in a way that’s unexpected but still representative of the cultural experience. For the upcoming fall 2011 we are doing an exploration of Argentina — everything from young designers to crafts of the natives.

WW: Do the red/blue bandana patterns used throughout the stores have a specific meaning?

HL: Carol and I are from Los Angeles, so the bandanas automatically have a historical reference for us. It is also a sign of historical America, and Opening Ceremony is a very American store.

WW: After recently engaging with some of your associates at the Los Angeles store, it became apparent how much they regard OC as a family. Was this intended from the beginning, or did it happen organically?

HL: Opening Ceremony operates like a family and continues to do so even as the company grows. We are each other’s best supporters and critics, we sometimes disagree and argue, and we spend a lot of time together, whether around a conference room or dinner table. At the end of the day, we know we can always rely on each other, and that’s something you can’t force — it just happens naturally. We like to include everyone in on everything and we feel that the people that we work around can tell us exactly how they feel.

WW: OC is a well-curated, experiential environment that is constantly changing. It’s also intentionally difficult to explain in just words. How has this methodology been effective in creating a durable, lasting brand?

HL: I think change is necessary, and with our concept we have a refresh button every year.

WW: You have worked with such varied collaborators — from bands (like Gang Gang Dance) to capsule collections (such as Rodarte) to original collections (like Chloë Sevigny) to establishments (such as the Ace Hotel). What’s next on the horizon?

HL: We’re launching our next major partnership collection in August with MM6, which we are really excited about. And the rest is a secret. 

WW: What’s the most fascinating place you have visited as the result of your travels for OC?

HL: This past April, we traveled to Beijing for the first time to launch a pop-up shop in Lane Crawford at Seasons Place, and we had an incredible time discovering the city, visiting the local spots, both contemporary and ancient. There’s a feeling of wonderment and anticipation among the Beijingers that we haven’t seen anywhere else.

WW: What has been the most surprising experience in creating OC thus far?

HL: Everything has been a surprise so far.

WW: Right now, what is the essential item in your personal closet that you just can’t live without?

HL: My early sample of Chloë Sevigny x Opening Ceremony Vision Street Wear long-sleeve T-shirt in black and in white!

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