While Leon and Lim are studiously low-key in some respects, they’ve managed to cultivate an overtly stylish circle of friends and collaborators. The “Opening Ceremony” book contains chatty interviews with some of them, such as André Saraiva, Ryan McGinley, Jen Brill and Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez. On Tuesday, a pack of Opening Ceremony’s extended clan, including Sevigny, Solange Knowles, Patrik Ervell, Theo Wenner and photographer Poppy de Villeneuve toasted the launch of the Opening Ceremony Annual magazine at a dinner in Chinatown, where Leon showed off his hula-hoop skills.
“They have been able to keep their fingers on the pulse of the ever-evolving New York scene and have helped transform the landscape of retailing here,” said Hernandez and McCollough. “How they find the time to do it all is the question most asked of them by everyone we know. They are superhuman.”
In the book, director Spike Jonze interviews Leon’s mother, Wendy, who once worked as a maid in Hong Kong and as a garment worker in Los Angeles, before opening her own restaurant, called Dynasty Garden, in Crenshaw, where Leon worked as a kid. The tome reveals Leon was crowned homecoming king in high school and Lim was voted Most Likely to Succeed.
Leon worked at a Baskin-Robbins during high school and was once held up at gunpoint while scooping cones. He survived and went on to a gig at the Gap and helped design stores for Old Navy and Burberry before founding Opening Ceremony. Lim worked in finance and as a merchandise planner at Bally early in her career.
The conceit behind Opening Ceremony is that each year a new batch of brands from a single country is selected to “compete” against U.S. brands. Over the years, the store has introduced Havaianas from Brazil, Cheap Monday from Sweden and Topshop from the U.K. to American audiences. This fall, Opening Ceremony will launch a yearlong program of Korean brands, such as Beyond Closet, Human Potenial, Low Classic and Reborn Process. Also included in the mix are the graduating collections from two students of Korean heritage at Parsons The New School for Design, Chris Lee and Jin Kay.
“Most people have never heard of these brands and it’s exciting to expose new talents to our customers,” said Leon. “For people who love shopping, to be able to discover something totally new at a store is a treat.”
Opening Ceremony’s knack for mixing fledgling designers with well-established and heritage brands is central to its retail formula. They use a similar approach in their steady stream of collaboration projects, which over the years have included mass brands like Nike, Levi’s, Keds and Uniqlo; designer brands such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Maison Martin Margiela; niche labels like agnès b., Repetto and Gitman Bros.; heritage names like Pendleton and Hickey Freeman; movie tie-ins such as “Tron: Legacy,” “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Muppets,” and even Parisian taxidermist Deyrolle.
“When we started doing collaborations, it didn’t feel like the way you see collaborations today,” observed Leon, inferring the marketing-driven partnerships between big-box retailers and trendy labels that abound today. “It was more us having a nerdy love for a brand. We wanted to show a younger generation what these brands had done for the history of clothing — where flannel shirts came from or where Aztec prints came from.”
A similar love of printed magazines motivated Leon and Lim to launch Opening Ceremony Annual, which they plan to publish once a year. The 288-page debut issue is more akin to a book in that it carries no advertising and has a hefty cover price of $25. The 30,000 print run is distributed to a mix of newsstands, bookstores and retail stores, such as Colette in Paris.
“We’re not losing money on it, but we’re not making money on it,” said Leon of the economics of publishing an advertising-free title. “Magazine culture is something that we really believe in. Magazines are time capsules in many ways. There is something beautiful about capturing a moment in that format.”
The first issue, with a cover by Bruce Weber, primarily consists of fashion shoots, shot in the subdued, vérité style favored by Opening Ceremony. There are a handful of written features, such as personal essays on women’s rugby, pick-up basketball games and double-dutch jump roping. De Villeneuve and writer Nathaniel Kilcer teamed for a series of portraits of school-age athletes. Erstwhile models Pat Cleveland and Carol Alt feature in an Upper East Side-themed shoot.
Lim and Leon still own 100 percent of Opening Ceremony and have grown the company organically, rather than through any outside investments. Officially, Lim is the chief executive officer and Leon is the creative director, but in reality their duties overlap widely. Looking ahead, the duo contemplate going into restaurants, hotels or even a grocery store.
“The beauty and joy of going to work is that we don’t have a set formula of what we need to do, but rather doing what feels exciting at that moment. We’ll meet someone and do something that speaks to us. We get to move in a lot of different directions,” said Lim.