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Travel by Design

By Jen Murphy

Aug 7, 2012

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NAMES: Humberto Leon and Carol Lim
AGE: 37
BORN IN: Los Angeles
RESIDE IN: New York City and Paris
JOB DESCRIPTION: Founders of the retail brand Opening Ceremony, which produces a private label fashion collection and operates shops in New York City, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and London; creative directors of the iconic French fashion brand Kenzo
TIME SPENT ON THE ROAD: 8 months a year
PLACES VISITED IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS: Argentina, Boston, Chicago, China, Florida, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Korea, Los Angeles, Mexico, Spain, Thailand, United Kingdom

Q. Opening Ceremony was founded on the idea of discovering designers from abroad and introducing them to Americans in cool retail environments. Was there a single trip that inspired this concept?
A. We met at the University of California at Berkeley in 1995, and we spent all of our free time in vintage shops. We had both grown up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, shopping at malls, so those vintage stores exposed us to European fashion. While we loved shopping, we never thought it could be a career until we took a trip to Hong Kong in 2002. We met all of these young designers we’d never heard of. We loved their clothing, and we thought if we brought back their designs, our friends would go nuts. It was naïve to think, but it worked.


Since that first trip to Hong Kong, you have concentrated on a different country each year. When you travel, you try to capture and bring back the unique commercial and cultural character of each country
to Opening Ceremony. How do you choose your destinations?

We pick a lot of them because we’re into a music scene or food scene, not because they’re fashion destinations. We were curious about food in Tokyo, so we went to Japan and filled our shop with things we saw and loved, including clothing from the Japanese brands Masahiko Maruyama and Toga. We had the Japanese stationer Postalco collaborate with us on an exclusive stationery line. And Sanrio, the company behind Hello Kitty, created retail stations that included toy vending machines for our New York and Los Angeles stores.

Can you talk about how Argentina inspired your Fall/Winter 2012 collection?
Our collections are about the people who would go to a place, so in our minds we create a dream journey and think about what a person would wear on that journey. Patagonia was the original destination, but we didn’t get there. We spent two weeks in Buenos Aires, where we found a lot of stores that focused on gaucho-style and leather goods from various regions. It was a very active, outdoor culture, so for our collection we integrated fuzzy fleece material into tailored dresses. We also made a San Telmo–inspired felt hat, because we saw so many men wearing them on the streets in that neighborhood. We also used materials—heavy buffalo leathers and thick mohair—that referenced gaucho style.

Many of Kenzo’s early collections were inspired by travel. How will you extend that legacy?
When Kenzo [Takada] started the brand in 1970, much of what he did was inform people about the landscapes and culture of the different places he experienced. Now travel is much easier. Our new collections will reflect influences from a destination and speak to our inspirations, whether they are historical or artistic. For our first Kenzo collection, we thought about fishing villages in Southeast Asia. You can see fishermen’s nets and seashells in the motifs. Even the colors—seafoam green and lots of blues—echo the sea.

The Opening Ceremony stores are more than fashion boutiques: For your shop in New York’s Ace Hotel, you’ve rethought the idea of the hotel souvenir stand by stocking it with items from your travels. Besides fashion discoveries, what do you bring back home?
Our store is the perfect place to share everything we discover when we travel. For us, the best souvenirs are the little things that are really useful and also specific to a country. We found the most amazing Swiss toothpaste in Germany—Elmex—and now we stock it at the store.

What can fashion tell you about a place and its culture?
Globalization makes it hard to understand a country’s fashion tastes these days. On scouting trips we find ideas by looking at the youth culture of a city. Young people fearlessly mix and match vintage with brands. In Brazil in 2003 we noticed everyone was wearing Havaianas, which spoke to the beach culture there. We were the first to bring Havaianas to the States. Now you see them everywhere. In Sweden, skinny-legged jeans seemed to be the uniform of the indie rock scene in 2007. Everyone was wearing them—from bands like the Sounds to the kids in the crowds at shows. We brought them to our store and people loved them.


Opening Ceremony has become synonymous with collaborations. You’ve worked with everyone from the actress Chloë Sevigny to older, established U.S. brands like Pendleton. What is the appeal of collaborating on projects?
I think partnerships are part of our DNA. Every partnership starts in an organic place with two brands coming together to tell a story, and that story brings our history to a new audience. We have so many interests beyond fashion: food, music, entertaining. When we were thinking about doing a flannel collection we thought, gosh, we wonder what Pendleton is doing. Pendleton is this iconic American heritage brand known for its Native American-inspired heavy-duty wool fabrics. It was never really cool in the fashion world. The clothes were sold in outdoor stores and were associated with camping, ranching, and the outdoors. We looked at their prints and aesthetic through an Opening Ceremony lens, and it made sense for our audience.

Who is on your dream list to partner with?
We love food and are huge fans of April Bloomfield [chef of the Breslin and the Spotted Pig in New York] and David Chang [chef of the Momofuku restaurant empire]. A

Check out Opening Ceremony’s favorite places in Argentina and around the world. Photo by Amanda Marsalis.

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