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Humberto Leon & Carol LIM

in conversation with Shala Monroque

Humberto LEON and Carol LIM, friends from their time at the University of California, Berkeley, founded the retail venture Opening Ceremony in 2002, dedicated to bringing clothing from around the world to American consumers.

Its immediate, spectacular success led them into designing as well as sourcing clothes. In 2011, in an unexpected twist, they were named co-creative directors for the classic brand Kenzo, part of the LVMH empire.
They discuss past influences, present excitements, and their vision of the future

Shala Monroque The headquarters of Opening Ceremony is in New York, the city that never sleeps. Kenzo is headquartered

in Paris, the city of light and dreams. What is your coping mechanism for transitioning between the two cities every few weeks?
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim It’s a dream come true –
the chicest women in the world wandering through the Paris flea markets, and the ultimate in youthful coolness in

New York. We have found local shops, markets, and restaurants – Le Petit Cambodge, Yen, Krung Thep, and Chez Georges –
that feel like home to us in Paris. The key is to have these familiar haunts. The two cities share a wonderful thing – art

and culture are entrenched in everyday life.

SM What was the most valuable piece of advice you received on working as Americans in Paris?
HL & CL To stay true to ourselves, and keep a hint of our hometown in everything we do.

SM For your show at Université Pierre et Marie Curie last year you had cupcakes from New York’s West Village flown in and Karlie Kloss danced down the escalator.
On the Fourth of July, you brought out American flags and hot dogs. Meanwhile, I get scolded for ordering
a Coca-Cola at a brasserie. Does the adage “When in Rome” not apply to you? What’s your secret?

HL & CL Paris has the reputation of being this very exclusive city, but we’ve been welcomed and accepted in a way that
far exceeded our expectations. When we started at Kenzo,
we were pegged as Americans, but that didn’t work

against us. If anything, the changes we made felt more authentic and fresh because we were bringing a new perspective to the brand. People love it when we bring barbecue and cupcakes to Paris!

SM What can Americans learn from the French work ethic?
HL & CL To take the mandatory lunch break at 1pm. When we started in Paris, the lunch break felt foreign to us. But you’d be surprised at how quickly it becomes

routine, and it’s a great time to decompress and refresh our creative brainstorming.

SM Paris/New York is a good balance. I kind of envy you.

The Kenzo tiger is a much more resonant icon for the brand

than the flower was. What do you make of the fact that people

want a tiger on their chests rather than a poppy?

HL & CL I still take photos from my phone when I’m in a cab and I see someone wearing a tiger sweater. It’s not

that we hate flowers; we love flowers. But we felt that the Kenzo brand was suffocating in flowers, so we released it. We will come back to the flowers one day, in our own way.

SM Do you think a Kenzo snake might have had the same impact? There’s something about the tiger that seems
to be resonating right now. You have a keen sense for what’s going to be next, so I’m curious about what drew you to the tiger motif.

HL & CL We found it when we did research for that collection. Kenzo Takada included tigers on the labels in his clothes, but he never fleshed it out as a motif for a collection. It was just a little surprise on the inside of the garment. We thought that tiny tiger looked fresh and relevant, and we could make it ours in a way that we hadn’t been able to do with the flower.

SM Fiorucci brought American jeans and T-shirts to London, and you brought flip-flops to America from Brazil

via Opening Ceremony. Why do you think a sandal
worn by poor kids in the favelas caused such a sensation? HL & CL At Opening Ceremony, we want to tell authentic stories and give the full picture. When we were in Brazil, finding all these amazing young designers, we went to
a 24-hour market and saw a whole aisle dedicated to these cool flip-flops. We always try to find beauty in the ordi- nary. It’s crazy that we were the first to import them! For

a year straight we were the only ones who wore Havaianas.

SM It also says something about how relaxed the West
has become. You brought the beach to the suburbs. Thirty years ago you wouldn’t have caught anyone at an inter­ national airport in flip-flops, yet now they’re as common
as jeans and T-shirts. It’s interesting to consider why a particular item becomes commonplace with time.
HL & CL It’s easy for footwear and accessories to become somewhat precious. We love a beautiful heel and a beauti- ful handbag as much as the next person, and we make sure we include them in all our collections, but there’s something

about the ease and flexibility of flip-flops that we find
very cool. The Havaianas have sleek lines, and the bright colors give them a very graphic feel for an entry price point. That’s also why we love working with brands like Vans. Similar to Havaianas, they make a really well-designed, functional shoe that is almost revolutionary in its simplicity. Sometimes going back to the basics is all you need.

SM BASICS. That’s the word. Let’s go back to basics. What does streetwear mean in the postmodern world?

HL & CL Streetwear is the new ready-to-wear. Young, suburban kids only wore streetwear because they could wear the same clothes day and night – from school, to play, to concerts, to clubs. Streetwear now is more of a state of mind, an ability to embrace all parts of your wardrobe into an outfit. A luxury top with your gym clothes.

SM I find the red carpet to be a bit old-fashioned, a bit behind the times. I get annoyed when I step on a train at
a crowded party. I’m always on the move, and I think it’s almost anti­feminist to be held back by a dress. One can be fast and graceful at the same time. I like being ready to
go with the flow. You can decide at a moment’s notice to

purchase an airline ticket from EasyJet on your iPhone. You can go from safari in Namibia to a couture show in Paris by just switching to heels and some earrings.
It’s a lifestyle of being light, assessing all the information that’s readily available to you, and making fast decisions. If you’re continually changing luggage and wardrobe,

you miss most of the fun. I imagine streetwear reflects your lifestyles – traveling so much, working so much, and partying so much.
HL & CL What we consider first and foremost is design and functionality. No matter how beautiful something is, if it’s not designed in a thoughtful and useful way, it’s not going

to be enjoyable to wear. With an urban customer, and in particular a customer who commutes or travels for work or leisure, you have to keep practical needs in mind, whether it’s with hidden pockets, or zippers that trans- form a parka into a vest.

SM I was wearing one of your reversible dresses when I stumbled into your showroom in July to see the resort collection. I packed it because I figured I could wear
it twice and have one less thing to think about. One day orange, one day green plaid! You’ve thrown favela

and Fourth of July parties in Paris, block parties in
New York, and an Olympic viewing party at your store
in LA. Multiculturalism and inclusivity seem to be two
of the main themes in your story. How does the experience of growing up as the children of immigrants in LA inform what you do at a luxury brand like Kenzo?
HL & CL From early on, we were aware of the dichotomy between an awareness of one’s resources and the desire to express oneself. We both grew up in Asian households where our parents worked really hard to give us a better life, and that made us rethink what luxury means to us.

First and foremost, luxury is originality and quality. But we also feel that luxury

can be welcoming and accessible. Accessibility is the new luxury. It’s another term that is used too often; we see it more as an action. Both our brands are welcoming and accessible.

SM By accessibility, do you mean an intimate understanding that comes from firsthand interaction with other cultures? HL & CL Yes, but also accessible in that it is available
to a wide audience. We want the references we make in our collections to resonate with our customer, and we provide different price points.

SM Luxury and inclusivity are two words that are not usually seen together. How do you make it work?
HL & CL Look at your closet. Do you tell your gym clothes that they can never be worn with your luxury brands? That they can’t be friends? You don’t separate them in your closet, so why should we in our stores? It’s also nice to have stores where anyone can walk out with something. At Opening Ceremony, we have things that start at $2. Yes, they go up to $15,000, but there is something for everyone.

SM How do you manage to mix price points and still
keep Kenzo a luxury brand?
HL & CL Kenzo is a luxury house founded in 1969 by an awesome, courageous man who wanted to bring something new to the very exclusive Parisian fashion scene. His newness included being influenced by the streets. What he introduced back then is actually the prêt-à-porter of today.

SM Why is storytelling important to you?
HL & CL Storytelling is the only way to maintain truth and a historical perspective. In today’s world of fast-paced infor- mation, people forget to think about origins. We are obsessed with history, so storytelling is a way for us to inform and give credit where credit is due.

SM What makes fashion a strong medium for telling the types of stories that you want to tell?
HL & CL Fashion is a fascinating story because it’s a primary character in every cultural shift. Fashion makes other mediums, such as film, music, and art, more interest- ing. Lolita would not be Lolita if she were wearing baggy pants and an oversized sweater. Gwen Stefani wouldn’t be Gwen without the bindi, crop top, and track pants.

SM Fashion is one way of remembering history, of coloring it and adding texture to it. Yet, as fashion storytellers, you prefer to take a back seat. You don’t dress stars for the red carpet; you prefer to let them seek out your work.

HL & CL We love to work with our friends, like Chloë Sevigny, and dress them for red-carpet events. It’s a collabo- rative process and it happens organically. That being said, we are almost more excited when we see someone we don’t know walking down the street in our clothes. It’s incredible to feel that we’ve made an impact on how they’ve chosen
to express themselves that day.

SM If we could read the two brands, Kenzo and Opening Ceremony, as a book, what do you hope the audience takes away from your story?
HL & CL That anything is possible. We are two suburban kids with a very normal upbringing; through our love of music and film, we discovered fashion. And through fashion, we have been able to incorporate all the things we personally love – art, film, music, friends, family, food, the list goes on. But in the end, Opening Ceremony and Kenzo are us, and we are excited by how personal this story is.

SM You’re no longer limited to photo campaigns. You can now use words on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and your clients can respond to you directly. What does this mean when the audience is no longer speaking just about clothes?

HL & CL Before the days of social media, we were telling stories through the collections we made, but with the advent of social media, we can have an open dialogue, multiple conversations about the same story. Instagram is a good tool for freshening the story in the time between the collection and when it hits the stores. Our blogs serve the same purpose; we can tell the customer directly why we chose a certain print or a certain shape.

SM What sort of social, cultural, and political impact can fashion have using social media?
HL & CL It’s important for fashion brands to take a stand

on issues that are impacting the world today. Gay marriage, Trayvon Martin, overfishing, global warming – brands need to use social media to make a statement.

SM Brands can be seen as tribes, and the clothes they put out symbolize the story they tell, the history they represent, the ethics they abide by. You wear your crest, or logo, or tiger for that matter, on your sleeve, and

you tell the world, “I subscribe to this way of viewing the world.” My tiger says that I believe in freedom of choice

and environmental protection. Last year Miu Miu hosted
a three-day women’s club in London. The moderated conversations were broadcast live, with questions coming in from fans of the brand from all around the world.

Here were all these women exchanging ideas and talking about world affairs, but what brought them together
was a fashion house. I see this spirit at Opening Ceremony, and I see words and meaning becoming a bigger part

of the fashion language.

HL & CL We live in a world where everyone is more con- nected, and the threads that hold people together are more diverse than before. It’s not just about having a community in your neighborhood. Your community can be much larger and more widespread, and have common interests that span all sectors – fashion, music, and art.

SM Thinking of Fiorucci’s staging of Simon and Garfunkel
in Central Park in 1981, can you foresee an Opening Ceremony music festival, for example?
HL & CL That is right up our alley. Opening Ceremony
music festival, hotel, restaurant, roller rink – we love it!

SM Future generations will be able to produce and consume ever more information. And fashion – the articles we decide to decorate ourselves with – is usually the first information we give about ourselves. How do you foresee the fashion industry keeping up with this ever-increasing speed of change?

HL & CL I think it’s important for fast-fashion brands to have their own voices. They have the biggest potential
to create change because of their reach. They need to stop looking at one another. In the 1980s, 1990s, and even the early 2000s, mass brands were distinct. Benetton was a

supercool brand with an Italian, sporty point of view, and the Gap was all about the amazing basics.

SM Today’s fast-fashion homogeneity probably came with the influx of images online, where everyone has access
to fashion but not necessarily the means to acquire it. But the nature of fashion is change. High-street brands, with the same cuts, lines, and colors, will have to start offering more than just the same visual feast at every banquet. This goes back to the idea of tribes – where is the distinc­ tion? If you’re not going to be just about basics, then what do you want to stand for?

HL & CL In this day and age, when the Internet has granted access to so many brands and price points in the fashion world, it’s harder than ever to stay relevant.
You have to be informed about what is happening in the world; you can’t live in a bubble. We are always evolving, and taste is always evolving. It’s important to us as designers that we include something that is new and exciting to us – it could be a shape, a print, a techno- logical fabric. It’s like music – there is a limited number of notes to work with, but an endless number of combi­ nations. We always want to create something that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable. If it feels too easy, it’s probably already out there.

SM Humberto, you’ve claimed that you can shop 24/7.

Would an Opening Ceremony home-shopping TV show be too much of a stretch?
HL I love the Home Shopping Network and all infomercials. I would thrive on a shopping show.

Who doesn’t want to shop at 5am?

SM Now that’s suburban!

first published in Garage Magazine issue 5

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