Downtown for Sale

Carol Lim and Humberto Leon under a work by Terence Koh. Photo: Mark Heithoff

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.

The new 33 Howard Street expansion. The mannequin wears a Pendleton-print jacket.Photo: Christelle de Castro

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.

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.”

Downtown for Sale