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Men'sWeek issue 03/28/2013

Since launching as a single store on an obscure street on the edges of Manhattan’s SoHo in 2002, Opening Ceremony has grown into a hydra-headed emporium of cool. The company now encompasses six stores in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and London; a wholesale Opening Ceremony line of men’s and women’s wear that is sold in about 400 doors globally, including Barneys New York, Nordstrom, Harvey Nichols, Lane Crawford and Printemps, and a multibrand showroom that represents 10 independent labels.

This story first appeared in the March 28, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“At Opening Ceremony, something that has always set us apart is the 360-degree nature of our business. We are designers, but we are also buyers for our stores; we are a showroom for other brands and we are a store where people from all over the world and all walks of life can shop,” said Humberto Leon, cofounder of Opening Ceremony with Carol Lim.

The duo’s remarkable track record of building a devoted following of style-savvy consumers led to their appointment in July 2011 as co-creative directors of Kenzo, the Paris-based designer brand founded in 1970 and now owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

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“Opening Ceremony is a company built on friendships. Friendships that allow for fun, creativity and crazy ideas hatched at 2 a.m. to thrive. And those relationships form a community, a strong and friendly community that is the core of Opening Ceremony,” said Lim of her and Leon’s essential philosophy and work ethos.

That tight-knit community has been integral in creating the unique Opening Ceremony brand over the past decade, including its many exclusive collaborations with other brands and creative tastemakers. “The Opening Ceremony community is really a platform for the expanded field of fashion, which includes music, art, movies, magazines, books and everything else that a person could want to discover on a shopping expedition. It’s felt very organic for us to include people who are a part of this expanded field in our creative process,” pointed out Leon. “People like Chloë Sevigny, Spike Jonze, Yoko Ono, Ryan McGinley, Harmony Korine — they’ve helped to make up a vision of fashion today through Opening Ceremony that makes you see things a little bit differently.”

The Yoko Ono collection, for example, was inspired by a 1969 series of drawings the musician made for her husband, John Lennon. The line included hot pink blazers with the sides cut out and pants that exposed part of the wearer’s behind. “Within the context of Opening Ceremony, it makes sense to us and our customers because it starts an interesting conversation and it comes from a true meeting of minds,” said Lim. “We are not afraid to push the envelope, as long as it works in the overall context of Opening Ceremony, which is to have fun and pose new ideas.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Opening Ceremony has just as often offered less fantastical concepts, such as its collaborations with suit maker Hickey Freeman and heritage textiles mill Pendleton. “When you walk into our store, half of it you are going to absolutely love and half of it you probably won’t get — and that’s OK, that’s great,” said Leon.

The men’s business has grown in importance at Opening Ceremony over the years. When the first store opened a little more than a decade ago, men’s comprised 30 percent of total sales, a figure that has grown to 45 percent of the total business. “We have higher sell-throughs with our men’s lines at full price than our women’s. This means that men buy what they like when they see it, as opposed to waiting for it to go on sale. Guys shop with their gut. We love that,” said Lim.

While Opening Ceremony has grown into a multidimensional business, the original retail component serves as a crucial foundation and training ground for the company, as it provides firsthand contact with customers. Many employees of Opening Ceremony start at the stores, and Leon and Lim encourage their design and headquarters staff to do regular stints in the shops. “We have really good communication with the stores, and Carol and I are constantly in the stores engaging customers. I think it would be really normal to see us at a Kenzo store helping you and pinning you. For us, we feel that connection to the customer is the core information. That is the most valuable thing we know,” said Leon.

At Kenzo, the designers are applying their experience and expertise from Opening Ceremony in their mission to modernize the brand. “We feel like Kenzo is the opportunity to show how we can look at things on a full scale. We use that 360-degree model that we built at Opening Ceremony to really examine every part of this rebranding exercise,” said Lim.

As with any new designer taking the reins of a storied house, Leon and Lim are threading the needle in balancing the heritage of Kenzo against their own vision for the label. “When we came to the house, we really researched and went to the archives. But we said to ourselves, ‘It needs to feel modern.’ It’s a different landscape now,” said Lim. “We are always striving to excite the current customer that discovered the Kenzo brand with [founder] Kenzo Takada — as well as excite a whole new generation that doesn’t even know what Kenzo is.”

An illustrative example of the duo pushing Kenzo toward a more contemporary stance was Leon and Lim’s insistence on creating sweatshirts, a category not previously offered by the brand — but one which has since become a potent hit at retail and an immediately identifiable marker of the new era at Kenzo.

“There was a lot of resistance [internally] because they said, ‘We don’t make sweatshirts, we don’t have that category in our system.’ And we said, ‘We’re going to make it, and you better make a category in the system because it’s going to happen,’” related Lim. “So we met with IT, and it was a two-hour meeting — I’m not joking — and they said, ‘Fine, we’ll open this category,’ and of course it’s something that’s been successful.”

Even in the more traditional category of suits, which is a significant part of the Kenzo business, the designers have put their own stamp on it. “The first thing Carol and I did was take apart all the suits. We said, ‘If you’re going to be famous for the suits, let’s have them make sense. Let’s make them great and beautiful from the inside and out,’” said Leon.

The designers’ iconoclastic approach has been applauded by LVMH brass, according to Leon. “The one thing we’ve heard from them is, ‘You’re doing things your own way, and we are really excited by that. There are other fashion houses that we have, and it’s exciting that you aren’t approaching this like any of the other houses. Keep going with that.’ And right now it’s definitely working,” he said.

As the duo become more entrenched in the Kenzo business, they’ve ratcheted up their ambitions for it. “It’s how do we take it tenfold to the next level. Now, I think the horizons are open. There is so much we can do,” said Leon. “I think what we’ve done so far is just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t think by any means do we have a formula down. We are pushing it every season and we’ve never really looked back.”

A similar runway for growth is unfurling at Opening Ceremony. “We feel like we’ve just built a foundation. We’ve built a really great platform, and each of these categories can now expand in incremental amounts,” said Leon of the company’s multiplatform business. “There is so much opportunity for every single one of those things to have its own legs.”