I have always felt a huge affinity and admiration for what Humberto Leon and Carol Lim do at Opening Ceremony. They have built their extraordinary stores, collaborations and brand using true editorial thinking much in the same way that great editors run a magazine. Their passion for art, culture and community is woven through everything they touch and honest storytelling is the backbone of what they do. To me, Opening Ceremony is much, much more than a store.
It's hard to believe it's been 10 years since these two longtime friends and business partners scraped together the money to open their first shop off the beaten track on Howard Street. Turns out the idea was actually less to open a store than it was to create a spot for their like-minded peers to hang out, inspire and become inspired. Little did they know their baby would take off like a rocket ship and become the most influential fashion retailer of the 21st century thus far.
Their new book (out this month via Rizzoli), celebrating their birthday, tracks this trajectory and is filled to the brim with stories and images from their cultural journey. It documents their annual fashion celebrations of nations around the world (from France to Sweden to Argentina to Japan) as well as their amazing collaborations with talented friends like Spike Jonze, Chloë Sevigny, Terence Koh, Jim Drain, Mike Mills, Rob Pruitt and Confetti System, just to name a few. In addition to featuring an entire young generation of designers they were the first to support, the book also details their limited-edition updates of old brands like Pendleton, Hickey Freeman or Doc Martens, and collaborations with old-school designers like Betsey Johnson and Norma Kamali.
In their spare time, Lim and Leon are in London opening their fifth OC store while here at home launching their "Year of Korea," showcasing 25 Korean designers. Oh, and they will be continuing their super fresh rebranding of French fashion line Kenzo, showing their third women's wear collection in Paris this month, which will be accompanied by an amazing campaign they created for the brand with the genius Jean-Paul Goude.
After all the Olympics madness this summer, I thought it would be fun to catch up and chat with these two mavericks (who should win a gold medal for their energy, by the way) on their way back from the London games.
This past summer, Opening Ceremony's Carol Lim and Humberto Leon attended the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics. Photographs courtesy of Lim and Leon.
Kim Hastreiter: Hi, you two! So how were the Olympics?
Humberto Leon: The Olympics were amazing. We went to the opening ceremony!
KH: Shut up! Opening Ceremony went to the opening ceremony? How did you get tickets?
HL: We just did an [Olympics-themed] Adidas collaboration so we were invited to go with their team. It was really epic. We got there five hours in advance and took so many photographs! We had great seats.
KH: What country was the best?
HL: The U.S. was amazing. A lot of the African countries had incredible clothing. Each country was so amazing and different from the others.
KH: How did you originally come up with the name 'Opening Ceremony' anyway?
Carol Lim: About 11 years ago, we took this trip to Hong Kong together. We were really inspired by our visit and afterwards said to each other, "What can we do where we could travel to new countries every year, feature designers and have fun like this." I mean it was a really naïve way of us saying, "Let's quit our jobs, let's try to do something." We'd always been huge Olympics and sports fans and thought, "What a beautiful thing to loosely base the idea of a store around the Olympics and what more beautiful name than Opening Ceremony?"
HL: We wanted to have our own opening ceremony every year that would highlight a different country, feature young designers and brands from that country. It would be a celebration of that country and also a way to push our "refresh" button every year.
CL: Humberto and I -- even at UC Berkeley where we met -- always talked about doing something together someday. But it wasn't until we took this trip that we actually thought, "Wow, we could really do it." At the same time in New York, a lot of our talented friends were starting out and it was difficult for them to get breaks so we thought, "Let's create a store where we could feature all the things that our friends are doing in New York as well as [from] different countries."
HL: I was working at Burberry, Carol was working at Bally of Switzerland. One day we met on our lunch break, on 57th street, and I said, "Hey,I have $10,000 in my bank account." Carol said, "I have about that too." And we said, "Let's quit our jobs and open up a store and travel the world." It was very naïve!
From Left to Right, Top to Bottom: France and America sweaters by OC for Fashion's Night Out, 2010; boots by Dr. Martens x OC; sweaters by Jim Drain for OC; Opening Ceremony store, Los Angeles, photographed by Isabel Asha Penzlien
KH: We did that same naïve thing when we started PAPER almost 30 years ago, so I can relate completely to this whole thing. Dumb, but brilliant at the same time. And now you've created a super-modern indie business and a unique brand that is so right for this moment in time. You might have started out as a little store 10 years ago, but you've evolved into so much more. I think this is the new business paradigm you need to succeed in the 21st century. You have to be more. And you are definitely more than a store. You're what I like to call a "cultural department store." And I see you also as a community. Do you see yourself this way?
HL: We do. I think when we began, we actually started off more as a community and a place for people to really just hang out and express things, as opposed to a store. Everyone, including obviously you guys, who were there from the very beginning, remembers that we were always just this weird place where people would come and things would happen. We would have art shows, we would have a band play -- Ratatat played their first show there. We would host so many random things and people that were coming through. They were just things that we loved.
KH: So you saw the store as this home base that brought your community together.
CL: Exactly. It was great because, you know, we have such diverse interests and we've never felt limited because we are independent and it's always been just Humberto and I. We never had to deal with people saying, "Oh you shouldn't do this, you shouldn't do that." We tried stuff even if it was music or food or art or film. That's the beauty of being more than a store.
KH: Did you guys go to art school?
HL: I went to UC Berkeley and studied art. Carol graduated with an economics degree so we were a match made in heaven.
KH: Do you each contribute different things? How do you work together?
HL: Carol and I started this as two friends, coming from different places, but in the end we both do everything. I'm as involved in the business side as Carol is in making creative decisions. We can really kind of switch hats. The great part is that we know each other so well it's fluid.
KH: The way we started and grew. PAPER was very similar. That is probably why I'm so crazy about what you do. I went to art school too, but I left the art world because I felt it was so limited and conservative in a way. I was more interested in all things cultural including movies, music and fashion whereas my peers in the art world were much more rigid and academic. To me it was also always about the creative community that participated in all this.
HL: It's true. I feel like we can relate very much to what you guys have started. I think both of our companies do really just what we love... it could be anything and it's limitless. I feel like we are indescribable organizations that are just full of fun and joy and anything you want to do.
Left to Right: skirt from OC's Where the Wild Things Are collection; T-shirt collabs with Rob Pruitt and the Muppets
KH: I also love that you keep morphing and continuing to expand the definition of what you do. I see you growing lately into this sort of creative agency. And then you did the rebrand of Kenzo. Do you feel like part of what you do these days is like an agency?
HL: In many ways, yeah. We are asked a lot for our advice or suggestions on things. Carol and I have an interest in so many different things that aren't just fashion. We can also dissect things in almost a nerdy way because we love storytelling. I think that in the end, we are interested in telling a new story. When you can apply these virtues to companies or brands or people, it's limitless. We love to go in deep almost like a reporter.
KH: You love finding the story and turning people on to talents you love or helping someone that you see as brilliant. You champion people, you connect people. I live to do this also.
CL: I think another great thing is that we don't subscribe to the idea of exclusivity.
KH: Opening Ceremony has always been so diverse. You have your loyal family that you grew up with, like the Rodartes and the Proenzas, but then you also love approaching dusty old brands to do something fresh with them. You work with artists, filmmakers, and you also respect and work with historically important old-school people. Then you'll find the groovy person that no one has ever heard of yet. How do you choose your projects and who you work with? I'm sure you have a trillion brands up your ass begging you to do something with them. I also suspect that you are pretty picky.
HL: We are. I think that Carol and I always feel like anything we represent has to be honest and real and it has to be something that we really relate to. We've never done things for money. People wonder why we don't have mega-brands in our stores, but I think unless there's a way that we can tell the story in the right way, we don't want to just put a brand in our store for selfish reasons.We really look at it more to introduce something that is interesting and new to people from a different angle. We also like to show the origins of things. Sometimes when we are in the market buying, all of a sudden we notice that people are doing certain silhouettes, and we think, wow, they're doing this thing and it's so "Betsey Johnson." And then Carol says, "Oh my God, I wore Betsey going to prom" and so on. So then we decide we have to tell this part of the story because that's such an important part of history.
Fashion designers or Parsons kids often don't know how important Norma [Kamali] or Betsey were. They have been knocked off left and right but they were really important. Carol and I just like to go back in and really pay tribute; celebrating people and brands that meant something to us growing up. That's how we told the story of Pendleton. We wanted to make flannel stuff. And who better to do it with than the original flannel makers that we used to buy at the Salvation Army in Berkeley.
Left to Right, Top to Bottom: Confetti System's OC window display for Rodarte; Hickey Freeman x OC embroidery; Shoes by OC x Terence Koh x Forfex
KH: How do you weave artists into all of this? I know you collaborate with Spike Jonze a lot and I know that you're friends with Mike Mills, Miranda July and Geoff McFetridge.
HL: In many ways, it was always really organic. Carol and I would be working in the store when somebody walks in -- whether it was Miranda or Spike or somebody -- and they'd say, "Hey, I love your store." And we'd say, "We love what you do. We should do something together someday." That's how it happened with everyone from Chloë [Sevigny] to Sofia [Coppola] to Spike. We're fans of them, and they're fans of us.
KH: You are not just for sale and that's why everybody is so loyal to you.
HL: It's really pretty simple. We always want to tell the story honestly.