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NEW YORK — The Opening Ceremony mini empire of hipster emporiums and perpetual stream of catchy collaborations, turns 10 years old next month.
To mark the occasion, the mushrooming conglomerate of cool has launched a new line of handbags for fall ($450 to $800 retail) as well as its own magazine, called Opening Ceremony Annual. There’s also a hardcover retrospective book with Rizzoli New York, simply titled “Opening Ceremony,” available next month, mapping the company’s trajectory over the past decade.
This story first appeared in the August 16, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“We wanted to capture the entrepreneurial effort and chronologically show how the store began, the choices that we made and the different partnerships we’ve created through the years,” said Humberto Leon, who founded Opening Ceremony with partner Carol Lim in 2002 with a single store on out-of-the-way Howard Street, near Chinatown, here.
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Opening Ceremony now encompasses eight stores, if you count two pop-up shops in London and New York. Additionally, the Opening Ceremony collections of men’s and women’s wear are wholesaled to about 400 doors, with key accounts including Barneys New York, Nordstrom, Bergdorf Goodman, Browns, Harvey Nichols, Lane Crawford, Mitsukoshi and Printemps. The collection is sold out of a multibrand showroom on Centre Street here that also represents about 15 outside labels, including Patrik Ervell, Pamela Love, N. Hoolywood, Lucio Castro and Rivieras.
“Looking back on 10 years, it seems so crazy because it seems like no time has passed. The book is an amazing chronological history for us and a celebration of all our partnerships,” said Lim.
The book has a playful quality — there are collage layouts, heart-tugging interviews with the founders’ mothers and a page of colorful Opening Ceremony stickers — but it’s also an in-depth, lavishly illustrated survey of how Leon and Lim grew a venture cobbled together with $20,000 in savings and some credit cards into a company with 200 employees. Last year, the duo were also tapped as creative directors at Kenzo, which is owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
“I remember when I used to go to their tiny office with my own food. Now I go up there and it’s this huge machine. They have water and almonds and blueberries and you can see how the company has changed and has grown enormously,” said actress Chloë Sevigny, who has designed the Chloë Sevigny for Opening Ceremony fashion line since 2008. “I think of them as the downtown Charivari, or what Charivari used to be.”
The California-bred Leon and Lim, who met as students at the University of California, Berkeley, maintain remarkably laid-back, placid personas given the demands of running the multidimensional Opening Ceremony business, based in New York, while also overseeing Kenzo, based in Paris. “We have great support teams in both places. As long as we are organized, it’s very easy to manage,” explained Leon. “The thing is, Carol and I opened Opening Ceremony on our own. We’ve done every bit of it on our own, so we understand the business very well. We know what we need to pinpoint and attack, and what areas we need to fix and improve.”
The original 35 Howard Street store opened in September 2002. A 10,000-square-foot Los Angeles unit at 451 North La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood was added in April 2007 and an eight-floor Japan flagship in August 2009, which includes a Japanese-Italian restaurant — “think Basta Pasta,” noted Leon.
An Opening Ceremony shop in the Ace Hotel in Manhattan opened in February 2010 and in September of that year, a space at 33 Howard Street, dedicated to men’s wear, opened next to the original New York store. Earlier this spring, a second Tokyo unit opened in the Shinjuku train station, which was later expanded to a second floor. The Japan stores are operated in partnership with fashion conglomerate Onward Holdings Co.
The 3,000-square-foot London pop-up shop in Covent Garden and a complementary New York unit at 10 Greene Street were opened last month to coincide with the Olympics — which are a big deal for Opening Ceremony, given its name. In October, the London store will move a few doors down to a larger, permanent location at 35 King Street. Both pop-ups carried Olympics-themed merchandise, such as Proenza Schouler’s PS 1 bag in gleaming gold and Barton Perreira sunglasses in gold, silver or bronze.
“We take them as they come. The right store has to come our way,” said Leon of the company’s retail expansion strategy, noting the New York store remains the company’s biggest revenue generator. They declined to reveal the company’s overall revenues. “It can happen at any time but we’re not in any rush to open more stores.”
While Leon and Lim are studiously low-key in some respects, they’ve managed to cultivate an overtly stylish circle of friends and collaborators. The “Opening Ceremony” book contains chatty interviews with some of them, such as André Saraiva, Ryan McGinley, Jen Brill and Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez. On Tuesday, a pack of Opening Ceremony’s extended clan, including Sevigny, Solange Knowles, Patrik Ervell, Theo Wenner and photographer Poppy de Villeneuve toasted the launch of the Opening Ceremony Annual magazine at a dinner in Chinatown, where Leon showed off his hula-hoop skills.
“They have been able to keep their fingers on the pulse of the ever-evolving New York scene and have helped transform the landscape of retailing here,” said Hernandez and McCollough. “How they find the time to do it all is the question most asked of them by everyone we know. They are superhuman.”
In the book, director Spike Jonze interviews Leon’s mother, Wendy, who once worked as a maid in Hong Kong and as a garment worker in Los Angeles, before opening her own restaurant, called Dynasty Garden, in Crenshaw, where Leon worked as a kid. The tome reveals Leon was crowned homecoming king in high school and Lim was voted Most Likely to Succeed.
Leon worked at a Baskin-Robbins during high school and was once held up at gunpoint while scooping cones. He survived and went on to a gig at the Gap and helped design stores for Old Navy and Burberry before founding Opening Ceremony. Lim worked in finance and as a merchandise planner at Bally early in her career.
The conceit behind Opening Ceremony is that each year a new batch of brands from a single country is selected to “compete” against U.S. brands. Over the years, the store has introduced Havaianas from Brazil, Cheap Monday from Sweden and Topshop from the U.K. to American audiences. This fall, Opening Ceremony will launch a yearlong program of Korean brands, such as Beyond Closet, Human Potenial, Low Classic and Reborn Process. Also included in the mix are the graduating collections from two students of Korean heritage at Parsons The New School for Design, Chris Lee and Jin Kay.
“Most people have never heard of these brands and it’s exciting to expose new talents to our customers,” said Leon. “For people who love shopping, to be able to discover something totally new at a store is a treat.”
Opening Ceremony’s knack for mixing fledgling designers with well-established and heritage brands is central to its retail formula. They use a similar approach in their steady stream of collaboration projects, which over the years have included mass brands like Nike, Levi’s, Keds and Uniqlo; designer brands such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Maison Martin Margiela; niche labels like agnès b., Repetto and Gitman Bros.; heritage names like Pendleton and Hickey Freeman; movie tie-ins such as “Tron: Legacy,” “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Muppets,” and even Parisian taxidermist Deyrolle.
“When we started doing collaborations, it didn’t feel like the way you see collaborations today,” observed Leon, inferring the marketing-driven partnerships between big-box retailers and trendy labels that abound today. “It was more us having a nerdy love for a brand. We wanted to show a younger generation what these brands had done for the history of clothing — where flannel shirts came from or where Aztec prints came from.”
A similar love of printed magazines motivated Leon and Lim to launch Opening Ceremony Annual, which they plan to publish once a year. The 288-page debut issue is more akin to a book in that it carries no advertising and has a hefty cover price of $25. The 30,000 print run is distributed to a mix of newsstands, bookstores and retail stores, such as Colette in Paris.
“We’re not losing money on it, but we’re not making money on it,” said Leon of the economics of publishing an advertising-free title. “Magazine culture is something that we really believe in. Magazines are time capsules in many ways. There is something beautiful about capturing a moment in that format.”
The first issue, with a cover by Bruce Weber, primarily consists of fashion shoots, shot in the subdued, vérité style favored by Opening Ceremony. There are a handful of written features, such as personal essays on women’s rugby, pick-up basketball games and double-dutch jump roping. De Villeneuve and writer Nathaniel Kilcer teamed for a series of portraits of school-age athletes. Erstwhile models Pat Cleveland and Carol Alt feature in an Upper East Side-themed shoot.
Lim and Leon still own 100 percent of Opening Ceremony and have grown the company organically, rather than through any outside investments. Officially, Lim is the chief executive officer and Leon is the creative director, but in reality their duties overlap widely. Looking ahead, the duo contemplate going into restaurants, hotels or even a grocery store.
“The beauty and joy of going to work is that we don’t have a set formula of what we need to do, but rather doing what feels exciting at that moment. We’ll meet someone and do something that speaks to us. We get to move in a lot of different directions,” said Lim.