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Downtown for Sale

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The new 33 Howard Street expansion. The mannequin wears a Pendleton-print jacket.  

As a college student, Humberto would come back from shopping trips to New York with the “coolest clothes,” says their friend Keith Gonzales. “He had the most amazing Velcro Miu Miu shoes. We were all kind of broke, and it was so rare to see someone wearing designer anything.” Perhaps even more rare was Humberto’s working 40 hours a week at the Gap. He’d started as a clerk at his mall at 14, moved up to decorating stores at 15, and at Berkeley oversaw “visual coordination” for the East Bay Area. After graduation, he shifted to Old Navy, finally leaving to be Burberry’s head of visual merchandising at age 25.

Carol was already working in New York for Bally, following a stint as an investment banker. They hung out constantly, complained about their jobs, and decided to take a trip to Hong Kong. “Opening Ceremony ­really started from that vacation,” Humberto says. “We were so mesmerized by the shopping. Shopping in Asia is their pastime. It’s what they do. We were buying everything: young designers, random things off the street.” Says Carol: “We came back and we were like, ‘What do we love? We love traveling, we love shopping, we love eating, we love magazines, we love music. So what can we do to incorporate all these loves into, you know, a business?’ ”

They decided to open a store. They would name it Opening Ceremony after the Olympics (another of their loves), and they’d focus on a different country each year, pitting its young and established designers against young American designers. The first “country” would be Hong Kong, followed by Brazil, Germany, England, Sweden, Japan, and France, with New York versus Los Angeles thrown in along the way. The gimmick of friendly competition—tallied by sales—was meant to spur designers to create their best work. Mostly, though, it was an excuse for Humberto and Carol to use their passports.

In August 2001, they quit their jobs and began looking at spaces in Chinatown. Then we all know what happened. “After September 11, we both kind of contemplated not doing Opening Ceremony because we felt like maybe it wasn’t right,” says Humberto. But the city was pushing lower-Manhattan development, and they found a pro bono business adviser at Pace University to help with their prospectus. “It was a ­really loose concept, but we were so specific about certain things,” says Humberto. “He said, ‘You don’t have to talk about what kind of music you’re going to play in the business proposal,’ but in our minds, that was ­really important. I remember him comparing us to a floral shop he’d worked on that was doing really well. He said, ‘I think this has a really good chance of surviving, but I don’t know if you’re going to do as well as this floral shop.’ ”

Humberto and Carol had saved up $10,000 each, and they managed to get a matching loan. “We thought it was so much money,” says Humberto, laughing. They rented a former linen store at 35 Howard Street, on a quiet block mostly devoid of retail. “It was right in the middle of Soho and Chinatown, but very missable,” says Humberto. “There’s something really sweet about that.”

Conscripting friends for manual labor, they opened in August 2002. It would be a full year before they hired Olivia Kim, who is now Humberto’s right-hand in creative. When the first customer walked in, they hid. “We were always amazed that somehow the world was organized enough where every day somebody would come in and buy something,” says Humberto. For the first six years, they kept the cash registers in the back room, just so monetary transactions wouldn’t be on the customers’ minds, which is a good idea when you’re selling a Band of Outsiders blazer for $1,775.

The tipping point probably came when a friend at Vogue wrote up Opening Ceremony as a store to watch. “I remember we were in the back room smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, and all of a sudden, Humberto was like, ‘We can’t hang out here anymore.’ It was getting serious and we were in the way,” says John Valdivia, who helped open the Howard, L.A., and Tokyo stores. In their business plan, they projected earning half a million dollars by year three. “And we had this goal we didn’t think we’d ever meet of a million dollars in retail sales,” says Humberto. “We said to our staff, ‘If we can meet this, we’re going to take everyone to Jamaica.’ ” They took that trip in April 2004, and again in 2005 before they got too big for group vacations. They’re reluctant to talk current company valuation, but they say they have never taken out another loan.


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