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Downtown for Sale

Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim are the new arbiters—and ambassadors— of fashion.

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Carol Lim and Humberto Leon under a work by Terence Koh.   

On a stretch of 29th Street still mostly known for its wig importers and sari tailors, the young and stylish are clogging the sidewalk and overtaking the adjacent block of Broadway, too. It’s Fashion’s Night Out, and nearly every store in the city is hosting a party to encourage wanton consumerism in the guise of municipal boosterism. These people could be with the masses, trolling Soho for free booze or camping out at Bergdorf Goodman to genuflect before Victoria Beckham. But instead they have come here, to this hour-long line in this fashion wasteland, because they want something special. They want a piece of Opening Ceremony.

These days, there are more and more of those pieces to be had. It is no longer accurate to call Opening Ceremony a mere store or a collection of stores. Like Fiorucci in the early eighties, Opening Ceremony has become less about a place—the original boutique at 35 Howard Street, or the 10,000-square-foot “mini-mall” in Los Angeles, or the eight-story department store in Tokyo, or the gift shop here at the Ace Hotel on 29th Street—than about the current embodiment of downtown taste, and the excitement of tapping into undiscovered fashion talent long before the mainstream. “It’s like your favorite indie record store, but a clothing store,” says Chloë Sevigny, who has collaborated with Opening Ceremony’s 35-year-old founders, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, on three collections. What started in 2002 as one store, with Humberto and Carol as the sole employees, has in eight years grown into a global lifestyle corporation with 150 employees in the U.S. alone. There’s an Opening Ceremony–branded line (sold at stores like Barneys), an Internet business, a wholesale showroom for young designers, and, of course, a blog to follow the entire Zeitgeisty thing. Just this month, they expanded into the second and third floors of 33 Howard, next to the original store. “The amazing thing is they get bigger in a way that’s very controlled,” says Spike Jonze, a friend. “They kind of remind me of Pixar. They’re really successful, but it’s not driven from a bottom line. It’s driven from having a small group of people with a real strong idea of what they’re interested in making.”

And what they’ve made for Fashion’s Night Out is a Parisian flea market in the lobby of the Ace. Their favorite designers have set up booths, each with a different theme: Chinese bakery for Alexander Wang, eighties prom for Rodarte, the Moulin Rouge for Joseph Altuzarra, Parisian street performance for agnès b. Almost all of them have created limited-edition items just for tonight. Wang, whom the store championed early on, is the first to show up. A frenzied crowd gathers as he shoots a T-shirt gun, then grabs a megaphone and raffles off one of his $775 backpacks. He’s followed by Kate Mulleavy of Rodarte and the Proenza Schouler boys—also Opening Ceremony staples dating back to when the designers were unknowns. Sevigny shows up, as does Jonze, who collaborated with the store last year to make a clothing line based on his movie Where the Wild Things Are. It included a $610 adult onesie with wolf ears that sold out in an hour. (Opening Ceremony’s next movie collaboration is based on Tron, which Humberto and Carol watched as kids.)

Each honored guest gets hugs from the pair, who encourage everyone to dance around for their new web-video venture OCTV or go talk to the woman in the Marie Antoinette costume hawking $300 toile Keds. But come midnight, they’re all pushed downstairs to the after-party, which will last until 4 a.m. Carol won’t be attending yet. “I’ve got to break all this shit down,” she says in the lobby. Coolness on this level takes a lot of work.

Humberto and Carol have a friendship that conjures images of white hair and side-by-side rocking chairs. A mutual friend introduced them during their sophomore year at Berkeley, and that, basically, was that. They had both grown up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, the youngest of tight-knit Asian families—Carol is Korean; Humberto is half-Peruvian and half-Chinese. Both loved Björk and the Salvation Army. But as Humberto puts it, “We bonded over her studying, me going out, me forcing her to go out, and me not studying.”

In the simplest breakdown of their roles, Humberto drives the creative while Carol handles the business end. In meetings I witnessed, his job seemed to be to throw out the craziest ideas he could think of, hers to pare them down just enough to make them happen.

Four months ago, they moved their corporate operations from a cramped space above the Howard Street store to a sunny building on Centre Street, but they still share an office, their desks facing each other. They even live in the same apartment building, though, as one might guess, they’re not a couple. “He’s basically my best friend, brother, everything … except for lover,” Carol says, laughing. When she got appendicitis, it was Humberto’s face she saw whenever she drifted in and out of consciousness. “I’d wake up and he’d be there reading Women’s Wear Daily and eating his bowl of congee soup.” They have a neat trick where, if they look each other in the eye, they can speak in unison. They claim never to have had a fight.


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