When former college friends and fashion enthusiasts Carol Lim and Humberto Leon decided to take their shared passion and translate it into a downtown New York City boutique, they had no idea they would be changing the game permanently. Not only has Opening Ceremony helped introduce us to Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler, Kenzo, Acne Studios, SUNO, Pamela Love and Patrick Ervell and execute unexpected collaborations with Maison Martin Margiela, Pendleton, Vans, Adidas Originals, Comme des Garçons, Lane Crawford, Chloë Sevigny and even the Muppets, they shifted the way we think about in-store shopping. Now, 18 years after their flagship store opened, PRØHBTD looks back at the retailer-turned-mega-brand that helped define what we wear, and what we want to wear, in the new millennium.
1980s: Carol Lim and Humberto Leon both grow up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, but they don’t know each other yet. In their respective high schools, Lim is voted Most Likely to Succeed, while Leon takes the title of Homecoming King.
1993: The soon-to-be duo meets at the University of California, Berkeley. “I met her at a friend’s house and said, ‘Let’s go out!’ So Carol just put on heels with her pajamas and we had a really fun night,” Leon recalls. “That’s how it all started.” They continue to bond over frequent thrift-shopping trips to Oakland and a love of travel. Lim studies economics, and Leon focuses on psychology and art. No formal fashion training? No problem. Leon would later go on to say, “It’s great to have a foundation and a knowledge, but it’s also great to approach things in a new way — let’s experiment and see what works.”
Apparently, it’s a magical time to be at Berkeley, at least for those in the fashion camp: Kate and Laura Mulleavy (also known as the Rodarte sisters), Todd Selby and Vogue’s Sally Singer are all in their class.
1997: They graduate and take corporate jobs: Lim at Deloitte, a professional services network for financial advice, and Leon at Old Navy, a one-stop clothing chain for the whole family.
Early 2001: The pair takes time off from their full-time jobs in New York (by now, Lim is working at Bally and Leon at Burberry) for a two-week vacation in Hong Kong. The trip inspires the idea to open a store of their own back in the States. “It was really kind of starting from nothing,” Leon later explains. “We were 25, and we felt like we could always go back to work.” He continues, “We were in Hong Kong shopping like crazy people. We were like, ‘Shopping is so fun! Why are we not this excited in New York?’”
2002: Lim and Leon utilize the New York State Small Business Development at SUNY for help with drafting up a business plan. Each invest $10,000 of their own money and find an inexpensive but appealing retail space on Howard Street in lower Manhattan. The spot is formerly a linen store. “It was right in the middle of Soho and Chinatown, but very missable,” Leon says later. “There was something really sweet about that.” This cobblestoned strip of Soho would later become home to other hubs including Reformation, Rick Owens, Palace Skateboards and Smile To Go. By 2017, Garage would pose the pressing question: “Is This the Coolest Street in New York?”
Now they need a name. They know they “wanted to find a name you couldn’t make fun of,” according to Lim, and therefore they’d require one consisting of two words. “We wanted two words because it’s kind of hard to talk shit about two words,” Leon would reveal. “Opening Ceremony is so pretty! It’s such a pretty name and a ceremony is so beautiful. How could you ever say, ‘Ugh, you’re going to Opening Ceremony?’” It’s the suggestion of a friend who knows they both love the Olympics. The moniker also connotes the store’s loose concept: to pit different countries against each other, both playfully and competitively, in the context of fashion. Or as Leon describes it: “We came up with what we thought was the silliest, most stupid idea. We’re going to bring all these brands that we just found in Hong Kong and open up a store with them, and we have all these friends in New York who are designers. We’re going to hold a competition and find out who’s better.”
The pair fills the store with brands they’d discovered in China, naturally choosing Hong Kong as the first featured locale, along with quirky things made by their moms. Officially opening in September, this almost instantly establishes Opening Ceremony’s credibility as a go-to Mecca for unknown designers. Within one month, inventory is sold out.
On slow afternoons, Lim and Leon hang out with people they rented desk space to in the backroom (sometimes Lim would even help them do their taxes), snacking on dumplings and working on their zine, So Bored, full of personal top-10 lists.
2003: Opening Ceremony introduces Havaianas flip-flops to their American market. “When we were in Brazil, we stumbled across a supermarket that sold these plastic flip-flops called Havaianas,” Leon says. “Carol and I were obsessed.” The signature South American sandals do so well that Lim and Leon return to Brazil to pick up more a whopping 16 times that year.
They establish Opening Ceremony Showroom as a special section of the New York store devoted to bringing lesser known brands, both domestic and international, to a wider market. The idea is to help these “smaller” designers grow their businesses, via the boutique’s burgeoning audience.
By now, the store has asserted itself as a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps a 2017 feature in The New Yorker describes it best: “Pre-Instagram, before being a social-media influencer was a job, they were outsiders who landed in New York and became its resident curators of hip, presenting an alternative to the previously definitive directives of glossy fashion magazines. Downtown artists, musicians, actors, skaters, and club kids gravitated to their store and partied with them after closing time; Michael Stipe was their first customer. They capitalized on that in-crowd: more than anything else, Leon and Lim are savvy collaborators, two people with specific tastes who lean on a network of talented friends whose devotion to them, and vice versa, borders on the familial.”
2004: Ratatat stages an in-store concert. Naturally, everybody wants to go. Naturally, only those who “get it” can go.
April 2004: The boutique hits its goal of one million dollars in retail sales, a significant portion of which come from Opening Ceremony’s own private label. The founders celebrate this big win by taking their whole staff to Jamaica for a holiday.
2005: With the United Kingdom selected as this year’s featured country, they start carrying Topshop, which is at the time nothing more than a British high-street brand with a cult following in the United States. Even more customers flock to the store to score equally coveted and affordable It-Brit finds.
2006: Enter the Swedes: 2006 marks the introduction of Acne Studios (as well as denim brand Cheap Monday). Opening Ceremony even opens the first-ever stateside Acne store on nearby Bond Street.
April 2007: Lim and Leon unveil their Los Angeles location on sprawling La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood. The space was once Charlie Chaplin’s dance studio, and their design concept is to evoke feelings of their Southern California adolescence. The second floor is made to feel like a “mini-mall” full of tucked-away rooms, hidden treasures and dressing rooms disguised as mini log cabins, while another clapboard house hosts the Little House of Accessories, packed with unique accent pieces. “The challenge was, how do we make it feel like L.A.?” Lim says. “We wanted separate little areas. This spot is a destination. We want you to come and spend a long time.”
In honor of their return to the West Side, Lim and Leon select the good old U.S.A. as 2007’s spotlight country and designers, now including New York-based newbie Alexander Wang, going head-to-head in a classic East Coast-West Coast battle.
Spring 2008: Chloë Sevigny launches her first collaboration with the brand, the beginning of a beautiful, long-term relationship (five more collections would follow). It’s no surprise: She, Lim and Leon run in the same circle, partying at dirty rock dive Lit and nightclub Sway, where Chloë’s brother Paul would DJ on the famed weekly Smiths night. “I first remember being, like, ‘Why is this fucking two-toned sweatshirt everywhere you look?’” she says. “I was quoted in a magazine saying if I ever did a clothing line I’d want to do it with someone like Opening Ceremony. Then Humberto called.”
August 2008: The 2008 Summer Olympics take place in Beijing, so Opening Ceremony celebrates by making Japan their featured country… and taking it a step further with a 72-hour retail marathon in honor of the Games’ actual opening ceremony.
2009: 2009 is nicknamed the “Year of Collaboration,” the most talked-about being a whimsical line of merchandise tied into pal Spike Jonze’s new film Where the Wild Things Are. Each piece is based on one of the beasts, mostly what Leon describes as “luxurious-looking fur coats that were done so well, they looked like something that could’ve been on Carine Roitfeld—for $350 to $400.” One item is particularly surprising: an adult onesie complete with ears and a tail, based on main character Max’s outfit. According to Leon, “Spike said, ‘Okay, but is anyone going to buy any of these things?’ I said, ‘You know what? Maybe, maybe not. But let’s just go with it.’” The Max suit sells out within the first hour.
They open their original Tokyo location in Shibuya, but it’s only there for four years. More on that to come.
Finally, they launch their e-commerce store, making Opening Ceremony potentially available to everyone.
April 2009: Topshop opens its flagship store in Manhattan, just a couple of blocks away from Opening Ceremony. “At that time a lot of people had embraced Topshop,” Lim says. “They were going to come and open a huge collection, and we said, ‘That’s great. But it’s not novelty anymore.’”
2010: Lim and Leon win the President’s Award for Excellence in Retail Innovation from the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
Alexander Wang is quoted by Elle magazine, saying of his friends, “They believe that the same person who is buying a $1,500 dress will also buy a $50 T-shirt and a $3 bumper sticker, even if that person never shopped like that before. They have made it possible to get it all in one place. OC has changed the way stores are now buying and doing business all over the world. They created an environment based on customer and experience rather than the traditional route, by price point.”
February 2010: Marking their second New York location, they set up shop in the brand-new Ace Hotel’s lobby, in the up-and-coming NoMad neighborhood. A twist on the classic hotel gift shop, the spot focuses on edited travel essentials from the pair’s overseas exploits, as well as Haribo candies, Comme des Garçons fragrances, the entire Criterion Film Collection and yet another collaboration: this time hot-pink and glowing orange suitcases from Tumi.
June 2010: The co-founders upgrade their office space from a spot above the Howard Street flagship to bigger, brighter headquarters on Centre Street.
September 2010: Expansion continues as the Howard Street space takes over the second and third floors of the building next door: 33 Howard. The destination now has two entrances and serves as a seemingly infinite feast for the senses. Wallets be warned.
July 2011: Storied Parisian house Kenzo names Lim and Leon joint creative directors, hired by then-LVMH head Pierre-Yves Roussel to inject some much-needed energy into the brand. “Kenzo has always been deeply involved in culture,” Leon tells British Vogue in 2019. “We love using fashion as a medium, because we know that it can seep into different art forms. We blur the lines between fashion, music and art through storytelling.” The duo’s approach resonates with industry insiders but ultimately fails to bring in desired sales.
November 2011: Rihanna releases her sixth studio album, Talk That Talk, and wears Opening Ceremony on the cover. It’s a camouflage-print silk dress from their Fall 2011 collection, retailing for $460.
March 2013: At the French Institute Alliance Francaise’s Fashion Talk series in New York, Lim and Leon take questions, among them the ineludible, How do you define cool? Leon’s fervent response: “We’re so not cool!”
April 2013: Opening Ceremony takes it to Tokyo for the second time with a new flagship store on Cat Alley in the Omotesando area, where street style reigns supreme. Hello Kitty helps co-host the launch, which features four themed floors and 13,000 feet of exclusive products (from Rodarte, Band of Outsiders and others). It replaces the first Shibuya location, and that year, Complex names it the fourth-best store in the world.
September 2013: Opening Ceremony makes its New York Fashion Week debut with its Belgium-inspired Spring/Summer ’14 collection. The buzzworthy show doesn’t just offer clothes, it features a fleet of race cars.
February 2014: Lim and Leon give an interview with the Business of Fashion in which they discuss their strategy, which originally began with using themselves and their friends as the market. “Everything came from a very personal point of view. It’s important to be authentic,” Leon says. “We never create collections or do shows that don’t sell. We still approach design with aspiration and fantasy, but it’s important that the fantasy is reachable. It’s not something so far away that you can’t touch. The most exciting and rewarding thing is to be in a cab and say, ‘Oh my god, those people are wearing Kenzo or Opening Ceremony,’ and we’re taking out our smartphones and taking pictures.”
Spring 2015: Jonah Hill writes a one-act play entitled Lost Cotton for Opening Ceremony’s Spring 2015 collection.
2016: Leon and Lim win the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Fashion Design. This is a big deal.
February 2017: With the help of photographer Ryan McGinley, Leon revives one of his favorite regular parties from the now-nostalgic 2009 era, Main Man at Mission Chinese, in time for New York Fashion Week. “I’ve been saying we should bring it back,” Leon says. “Everyone came by including Lady Gaga, Chloë Sevigny. It was one of those great New York gay parties.” As a sign of the changed times, guests are overheard saying things like, “I don’t think we know each other, but I follow you on Instagram.”
March 2017: The New Yorker profiles the dynamic duo with a feature called “The Cool Kids Behind Opening Ceremony.” Writer Emma Allen highlights the evolution: “The Howard Street space has since evolved from a scrappy, exposed-plywood clubhouse—with Hello Kitty displays and shelves of art books—to a sleek boutique, spread over two adjacent buildings. A shopper will find everything from a tie-dyed T-shirt by Baja East ($295) to a calf-leather Mansur Gavriel handbag ($825) that would have looked at home on Audrey Hepburn’s arm. Opening Ceremony’s own collections have expanded to include all manner of street-wear-influenced, often androgynous play clothes.”
In her interview, Lim remarks, “I worry that now a lot of people’s first impressions of the store are ‘I’m not cool enough,’ that it’s too ‘fashion.’ But when people spend time and strike up a conversation, they seem to get it, like, ‘There is stuff for me.’”
June 2019: Lim and Leon announce their departure from Kenzo to focus on their own brand full time. They’ll present their final collection for the French fashion house at the men’s Spring/Summer 2020 shows in Paris.
2020: Carol Lim and Humberto Leon’s complementary union stays stronger than ever. “I kind of say, ‘Here’s the limits of what we can do right now,’” Lim notes. “Humberto’s a master at saying, ‘If you give me x, I’m going to create z,’ and that’s the way we work. We’ve always been the checks and balances to each other.” And so is Opening Ceremony’s presence.
With Mexico as 2020’s inspiration of choice, the brand taps photographer Stefan Ruiz to shoot the Spring/Summer 2020 collection on a variety of artists, designers, chefs, musicians, photographers and entrepreneurs in the Mexican creative community. They also commit to donate 20 percent of the collection’s first-week sales to Fondo Semillas, an organization focused on improving women’s lives in Mexico. In a press release, Leon emphasizes, “In our current political climate, and at a most crucial time to celebrate diversity on both our home front and abroad, we decided to bring together friends new and old who pioneer conversations in the global cultural dialogue.”
January 2020: The end of an era? Lim and Leon announced on Instagram that they sold the company to New Guards Group, the conglomerate behind streetwear brands like Off-White and Heron Preston. On the heels of this news, the co-founders also announced the closure of its New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles stores later this year. Opening Ceremony will become an online-only retailer with production moving to Milan and a showroom opening in Paris.
Photo credit: Opening Ceremony/Facebook.