Dean Mayo Davies: Opening Ceremony is far more than a store. Well, a pair of stores. But could we start off with talking about the concept behind your retail spaces?

Humberto Leon: It all started from a trip to Hong Kong. Myself and Carol, who’s my business partner, went to college together and we were both working for luxury companies - I worked for Burberry and Carol worked for Bally of Switzerland. On our visit we became really inspired by the Asian market in terms of how they shop. In Asia, for a hobby, people shop instead of catching a beer or watching a football game! [Laughs]. And they shop for everything - clothing, DVDs, gadgets, food; there’s something really fun and exciting about that. When we came back to the States we really felt like there wasn’t that kind of shopping experience here, so we decided to open up Opening Ceremony because we wanted to bring that energy into a store. When we were in Hong Kong we discovered a lot - there were a lot of ‘no name’ brands, which, for us when you’re working in fashion and read a lot of magazines you tend to kind of know about. So for us to find fun brands that had no name whatsoever was really, really exciting. That made us decide we’d feature one country every year in the store, finding new, young designers from that country to showcase. 

DMD: But you also offer other things apart from clothes, don’t you? 

HL: Well, if you go to Switzerland, say, you need to find a great chocolate place too! You know what I mean?

Dean Mayo Davies: So you have this real selection of ideas in one place...

HL: Yes. It’s about travelling and about the mentality of shopping when travelling. We find young designers as well as established names for every country we feature. When we did the UK, we did it at a time when everyone was skipping London Fashion Week. We thought  ‘this isn’t right! Where are all the great, young, British designers?’ We visited and amazingly we were the first to carry Marios Schwab, Richard Nicoll and Ann-Sofie Back from their first season. 

Dean Mayo Davies: Which, as you say, you would mix with more established brands...

HL: Yes. When we did the UK, we also picked up Barbour because we thought it’s such a British brand, this old hunting brand. And we thought ‘what’s another great British staple?’ You always heard - and this is back in 2004 - everyone talking about Topshop. We thought ‘oh we have to embrace Topshop’ and went along with it. We approached them and they said ‘why would you want to carry us?’, like it didn’t even make sense at the time why a store would carry Topshop. We tried it out and lo-and-behold four years later they’re in all these major department stores.

DMD: And they’re moving into New York with their own flagship...

HL: I think that’s what’s really interesting. It brings it all back to the original message of Opening Ceremony - we always wanted the store to be a platform for new ideas, new design and a broader idea. It comes from a very specific perspective and our perspective; this ‘mix’. Both Carol and I like the idea of merchandising the store like a closet. The idea that there doesn’t need to be a certain aesthetic in the store - you can have your wild and crazy Gareth Pugh or Alexandre Herchcovitch style but it’s also nice to have that preppy American style too. And we love amazing basics, so it’s this cocktail of different elements. It’s not even about high and low, it’s about what you like. We don’t look at things and say ‘this is a great high and low moment’, we say ‘this is a fun thing and we like it!’. And the other products we have too, they could be anything  - we’ve sold crackers at the store... It’s just whatever we’re into, from fragrance to stationery to hair powder. If we come across something we think is great, we’ll run it. 

DMD: What many people probably won’t realise is that you also have your own showroom in New York too...

HL: That was kind of the next layer. We carried all these great young designers and a lot of stores - who were our friends - would come in and say ‘hey. These are great brands’. After we’d carried them for about a year they’d say ‘oh I love this Brazilian brand, where can I contact them?’ We’d give them the contact but there would be a big language barrier, something would not go right. For us it was different as we would go to those countries personally staying for about a month, doing the research, meeting with about 60-70 designers, their friends and seeing how they work. So we said ‘let’s open a showroom too since the store is already a platform, let’s help support these young designers’. At the end of the day, there’s nothing greater than to help a young designer grow!

DMD: Your concept really seems to support itself. It’s very complete...

HL: Yeah, there’s something kind of logical about it. That’s kind of the best way to describe it! We also become really good friends with the designers and though we are doing business with them at the end of the day, we’re doing business with our friends. And when you do business with your friends you also want to see them grow and see things happen. You give them critical commentary on what they do. It becomes a great relationship. 

DMD: How did the Opening Ceremony clothing collection come about?

HL: Well, when were buying amazing designers we didn’t want to spend our money buying the basics from them. For some reason it didn’t seem as fun. [Laughs]. If somebody’s making an amazing dress or an amazing suit you don’t want to put your money into a plain t-shirt...

DMD: Or a V-neck sweater...

HL: Yes! Even though you like it and it makes sense you think ‘wouldn’t it be better to sell this amazing stuff’. That’s not to negate the fact we buy every designer thinking of it as a collection, but if you’re buying somebody for what they do best, you want to invest in those statement pieces. So then we decided to make our own line of ‘basics’. We called it Basics Plus and slowly - about five seasons ago, I think - stores started coming to us and saying ‘we want to buy your own line’. We’d say ‘oh it’s not really a line, it’s just some fun little things we made in or for the store. It’s not really a collection so it’s hard to sell’. So then we decided to make a full collection for men and women. I think it’s great, it really completes all aspects of the whole story. It helps tell a greater story, like ‘this is everything we love’. I think it goes beyond what we sell in the store - it’s the way the store is, the mood of the store, the people who shop in the store. Both Carol and myself love shopping. LOVE shopping. I mean you go into some stores and there are things you hate about them because things are too perfect. You don’t want to touch anything! This 90’s ‘gallery’ idea has hit every aspect - even the hangers are spaced perfectly and you don’t wanna touch it! The salesperson is looking at you like ‘if you’re not serious don’t touch it’...

DMD: Oh yeah, the salesperson glare...

HL: [Laughs]. So we said these are all the things we don’t want for our store. When we first opened up we talked about how much we loved shopping at thrift stores - Salvation Armys and Goodwills and all these kind of great junk shops. You’d pick something up and be so excited because you were the only one that had it - you’d yell across to your friend ‘look what I found!’ And your friend would be super-jealous once you showed it to them! Then you’d start piling clothes on your arm - five or six pieces. That was the inspiration, that fun idea of shopping. That excitement. Those stores aren’t perfect and that’s a great thing because you don’t feel you have to act perfect. You can take your jacket off, throw it in the corner and start really going at it through the rails! It’s a big aspect of Opening Ceremony that’s missing in a lot retail. We really look at things from a shoppers point of view, not a store owners’ point of view.

DMD: Which is the crux of why Opening Ceremony has got to the position it’s in now. Can we talk about the roles of both yourself and Carol within Opening Ceremony? Do you have certain individual responsibilities?

HL: We do. The way it works is quite symbiotic and I think that for anyone going in to business, I say you need both. Carol’s role is to oversee the finance and business development, the kind of ‘on paper’ roles, and then my role is to oversee all the creative decisions - buying, design, all that stuff. But I think that because we’re friends not only business partners, we also trust each other’s decisions. We make almost all decisions together in a great way. We work together on everything but it’s great for each person to have a specific role. It’s always been said that if I want to buy something that she doesn’t believe in or like, she has control of the budget! But then I can prove her wrong - or right - by starting out small and if it does well she’ll give me more money. It’s great. It may be a funny or strange way of putting it, but at the end of the day it makes a lot of sense. The truth of the matter is we agree 99% of the time on everything. We know each other really well - we’ve shopped together since we were eighteen. It’s like when you try on something and ask your friend if it looks good or not, they’ll tell you if it looks good or not. And when we’re buying collections it’s kind  of the same idea. Because you wouldn’t want something that looks bad on any of your friends! [Laughs].

DMD: Do you think you’ve changed things in New York since you opened? And also in LA too, since you opened there last April...

HL: I mean I think it’s hard to look at it in that way, for us as people who are so into our business. The reason we opened is because we felt that there wasn’t a store like ours. That’s not to say that other stores aren’t great - there are some great stores -but I don’t think people tell the story like the way we tell the story... It comes from a very, very specific point of view and idea. I think even we didn’t know if it would work - as a retailer it doesn’t fit into a retail methodology. For us, we have a new customer that’s into the new and into challenging what they’re used to. They know  we’ll always introduce them to something new.

DMD: Is that also what keeps you motivated personally? The fact you might discover something incredible tomorrow?
HL: I think maybe it’s our openness. We might be into a great fitted suit, but we’ll also be into a great oversized, baggy suit too. We’re also really nerdy and we’re into referencing - ‘oh my god, this totally looks like a character from Twin Peaks’! or ‘we love this because it’s also really Clueless, like Alicia Silverstone as Cher in that workout scene’. [Laughs]. Really nerdy references seem to inspire us as well as being shoppers! As a buyer you get to see all the different lines and all the things together, you’re also kind of styling in your head when you’re looking at things. It’s exciting. Part of our philosophy is that we can’t ever get bored, we always get to discover...
DMD: How do you deduce what countries to feature? Is it something that happens in your head from reading articles, talking to friends and hearing about a movement going on in a certain place?

HL: You know it’s actually as simple as where we wanna travel. When we did Germany, there was a huge German art movement - we wanted to go visit these galleries! I think the great thing is that wherever there’s interest of some kind, fashion accompanies it. It’s part of the culture. If you know there’s a great art movement in Germany, you’ll know there’s going to be some great young designers making some crazy stuff...

DMD: Your store has had a positive effect on fashion for everyone. Rihanna bought her Peter Pilotto skirt that she wore to the 2008 MTV VMAs from your LA store, didn’t she? And not many people know that Peter and Christopher don’t dress celebrities at all, they would assume she got gifted. It’s brilliant to think that you can choose something and then someone like Rihanna can come in and buy an incredible young designer out of her own money - it’s good for everyone: for you as a store, for her to discover something more leftfield and for the designer, who is actually selling things. 

HL: It is great. And that’s part of the philosophy too actually, that we don’t gift. We’re a young company that works hard on finding and supporting these great young designers so it would be in no-one’s interest to try and help facilitate something like that. So, for us, we’re kind of like ‘hey, here’s the store’. Whether you’re Rihanna or an amazing, 70 year old architect or a student that’s saved up their money, we’re here for you. If you love it, we’ll make it work out!

DMD: But that’s so constructive, don’t you see? I’m really not into this whole culture of millionaire celebrities taking - for free - from young, creative designers just because they can. And I think that’s a concept that’s really got to saturation point. It’s too much. What you’re doing is facilitating a point where worlds can meet and there are only positive connotations for all.

HL: I think the store has developed its own thing. People, celebrity or otherwise, come to the store knowing that’ll they’ll find something that other people might not have.

DMD: What would you say are the hot items instore at the moment? Is there anything people are being blown away by?

HL: We’re featuring Japan right now and have all these incredible young Japanese designers. None of them have sold in the US before. Their tailoring and fits are amazing, there’s a real excitement about those. But what’s great is that these are also mixed in with the designers we’ve carried since the beginning. So if you’re a die hard Alexander Wang fan, you know you can get it. If you’re a die hard Peter Pilotto fan, you know you can come back and get it... And then there’s new stuff like our collaboration with Sanrio [Hello Kitty]. We have all these Japanese-type vending machines installed. It’s fun and not so serious - it’s really important to have fun...

DMD: Do you have a ‘uniform’ you rely on day to day? How  would you describe your personal style, the way you dress?

HL: I would say that if I were to describe my look it’d be... I guess... [Laughs]. Probably ‘suburban teacher’. I’ve always owned a lot of classic items, I love all the classics and I grew up in the suburbs. But as I got into fashion I learned to love mixing. I love to mix that look with the new discoveries. I love a suit - though if you saw me, you probably wouldn’t imagine me in a suit - and I like mixing that when penny loafers and flannels. I grew up as a suburban kid listening to Morrissey and Nirvana, alternative music. So there’s always this past idea where I think about things I’ve always wanted when I was growing up that I could never afford. Those are things I’ve come to love and I think a lot of them don’t exist anymore - for me, as a kid, Benetton was the most expensive thing you could buy! I really love that look of Benetton back then and there’s parts of me that still remember this. When I see a bright red crew neck or turtle neck, I personally get very excited. And I envision myself back in high school being able to buy and wear these things. Also, I really love Twin Peaks. The look of Twin Peaks is an amazing look and I like that a lot for myself...

DMD: You recently went bi-coastal with your Los Angeles store. Was that part of the masterplan all along? And do you think you’ll open more stores?

HL: Yes. The truth of the matter is we opened up the LA store because both my business partner and myself are from LA and both our parents didn’t really understand what we were doing here [in New York]. Like ‘what are you doing? Move back to LA!’ [Laughs]. We tried to tell them it was going well, young designers... Still it was kind of like ‘don’t you want to be a doctor?’ [Laughs]. So we opened up the LA store to resolve that idea - we’re really close to our families and it has given us the opportunity to say ‘OK, we’re gonna come back and visit once a month’. Stop telling us not to do the store anymore!’ [Laughs]. But now they see it and they get it and they realise that we actually have customers. [Laughs]. That’s the more honest version, instead of saying ‘oh we had a strategy’.

DMD: It’s refreshing to hear such an honest attitude.

HL: It’s great to be on both coasts as we had a lot of LA customers in New York. It allowed us to grow and go after our idea even bigger - it showed our designers how committed we were. And it kind of had a similar feeling to when we first opened up in New York.  We felt like a lot of our friends were moving to LA because there was a great new art movement happening and I think there’s always been this west coast/east coast thing, with New Yorkers not liking California...

DMD: And rappers dissing each other!

HL: [Laughs]. I wouldn’t compare our store to the rapper scenario! We kind of felt like it was maybe time for us to move to LA. It was also travelling - not like LA is like travelling to another country or anything because obviously we always go there, but because we grew up there we never looked at LA in that way. We’d go to LA and then go back to the suburbs, watch movies, roller-skate and bowl. So we’ve re-looked at Los Angeles from the same point of view as when we visited Germany or Japan - there was something really exciting that actually inspired us to go ahead. It’s a really different culture from New York, you have to drive everywhere, people don’t like walking and then how do you recontextualise? There are thousands of stores in LA so how do you make your store different? We just did what we did best - we knew our store as a New York store in the sense we bought all the winter coats for the winter, all the summer coats for the summer and we said ‘you know  what? When we open up LA it has to be the same’. Even in LA we’ll buy all the cashmere sweaters, all the overcoats, all the down parkas - everything. Anything that we buy for our New York store we have to buy for LA. I think that differentiates us - we’re not a New York store that’s opening up in LA and adapting to the environment. We’re a New York store and we’re opening up a New York store in LA. And what we decided to do - because our LA space is six times larger than our New York one - was bring all our favourite other stores in New York with us. The LA store is composed of our New  York store and then what we call a ‘mini mall’ of guests - we opened up a music store with Other Music, there’s a book store with DAP Books, a Nom de Guerre store, a full Acne Jeans store. That was exciting for us. We tried to bring New York, not just Opening Ceremony.

DMD: How did your line with Chloë Sevigny come about? Was it something you suggested to her and do you think you’d like to do something like that again?

HL: You know we’ve been acquainted ever since I moved to New York, which was about nine years ago. Living and growing up in New York everyone kinda goes to the same things, so you always see each other - we’ve always talked about this and that but never about doing a line or anything like that. Then, one day a journalist asked her ‘would you ever do a line?’ She was like ‘never! That sounds like way too much to handle, I couldn’t even begin to think about it’. But she did mention the one thing she would do would be to make one or two pieces for Opening Ceremony. I read that article and said ‘oh really... She never said anything!’ So then I called her and asked if she was serious - she had time off for the Summer and agreed to make one or two things. Her one or two things became six drawings and then the six drawings turned into more. So we made all the ideas under the rule that if we didn’t like anything, we wouldn’t go ahead with it. If Chloë wouldn’t wear it or if she didn’t like it, then she shouldn’t make it. And I think that’s what made it a great success, it was really her. She sat in the office three days a week and worked on everything - drawing, picking out buttons with the design assistant. We made patterns and then she’d come to the fitting and analyse it - I like this, I don’t like that, I’d wear it with this in this way. It grew so naturally and I think because we were friends it came from a real point of view. As much as she was looking at it from our perspective, we were also looking at it from her perspective. It was about two friends working on a fun project. We’re actually working on a second one for Fall...

DMD: Fall 2009? 

HL: It’s a full mens line. She’s always loved wearing menswear so the idea is she’s making all the menswear she’s always wanted. Things that she’s had ideas about and I think it’s gonna be kind of cool.

DMD: That’s such a great idea. Do you ever put the zeitgeist back in its bottle and go lay on a beach? Your job sounds really constant...

HL: I do love the beach but it’s rare for me because I also love being here. I’m actually in the store a lot, it’s one of the things I love most about my job. Not only do you get to do the buying and the designing - which is all fun - but there’s nothing better than seeing customers react to things; seeing what people pick, how they put it together and that’s really inspiring. Seeing that end result is the most fun and the most important. 

DMD
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