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Downtown for Sale

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Building a department store in Shibuya, the busiest shopping district in Tokyo, did require help from a Japanese holding company, Onward, though Humberto and Carol have complete creative control. That store, along with the online business, was what turned them into a global phenomenon, but they insist it was really just born from a feeling of deep disappointment when they went to Japan on a buying trip. “You imagine you’ll find all these stores that are so mind-blowing, and we didn’t,” says Humberto. “We decided to open up our own version of what a Japanese store should be.” There’s a room where all the furniture is built on a slant, and another based on the movie Dogville where the clothes are displayed in apartment rooms that have been cut in half.

“I think they’re filling a niche,” says Sevigny. “Where’s the department store for young people?” As in all Opening Ceremony outposts, the range of offerings is high, low, chic, strange—things you’d never wear and things you suddenly can’t live without. For avant-garde sympathizers, they are especially deft at finding product with untapped mass appeal.

Back in 2002, they took a scouting trip to Brazil and noticed that everyone was wearing the same brand of flip-flops. Late one night at a 24-hour supermarket, they went crazy and bought hundreds of pairs. “We were like, ‘Okay, there’s mom, dad, sister, brother, cousin, nephew, friend, friend, friend,’ ” says Humberto. “That was always the idea of Opening Ceremony, that we’d stock it with things we would have brought back anyway as gifts.”

Those flip-flops were Havaianas, now available at Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters, and Opening Ceremony was the first store to carry them outside of Brazil. They went back sixteen times that year to fulfill orders that had grown to the magnitude of “multiples of thousands per month,” says Humberto. Opening Ceremony was also the first store outside of Sweden to carry Acne’s coveted skinny jeans, and the first to carry Topshop outside of the U.K. When Sir Philip Green decided he wanted to open a Topshop U.S. flagship here, he sought out Humberto and Carol for advice. “I think for a lot of big companies, we were a gateway into the American market,” says Humberto.

And for certain brands, they’ve been a gateway back into cultural relevance, such as Dr. Martens, with which they’ve made animal-print boots, or Pendleton, whose hundred-year-old Native American prints Humberto has turned into jackets and skirts. He and Carol just flew out to judge a Native American princess pageant in Pendleton, Oregon.

Two days before Fashion’s Night Out, Humberto and Carol gathered their New York staff to discuss some remaining important issues—such as the skinny young men who’d be wandering the room in sailor hats, bearing trays of fake adhesive mustaches (free) and berets ($25): “Will they look sailor-y enough?” “Are they sexy sailors?” Yes, and yes. Should they make the “kids” staffing each booth dress according to the booth’s theme? “I love it! If you’re in agnès b, you’re a mime!” Humberto said. But what would dressing Moulin Rouge entail? “They have to look like a courtesan, or a homeless person,” Carol declared. The room devolved into laughter, but on the big night, most everyone showed up dressed exactly as instructed.

One can imagine that some day, Humberto and Carol will no longer have the time to put this much effort into the details of a one-off event. But they say they’re not thinking about “anything like” going public or seeking a buyer. For now, they’re still too caught up in what sort of music should be playing as you shop. “You can see that we are personally interested in every single thing that we represent in the store,” says Humberto. “I think if you can ask the question ‘What makes this so great?’ to every single thing that you buy, then chances are you have the right answer.” And the Ace is flooding with people in search of great things. Humberto rushes over to greet them. “You have to have a mustache,” he says, handing them out. “Everyone needs a mustache.”


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