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Opening ceremony: Humberto Leon & Carol Lim

Carol Lim and Humberto Leon outside their Howard Street boutique, in the once sleepy nook east of SoHo that they've transformed into a go-to fashion mecca.

Opening Ceremony’s impact on high-end retail has been palpable since the moment the boutique appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on the unfashionable fringes of Manhattan’s Chinatown in 2002. A 21st-century take on Barneys or Bendel’s—think cutting-edge style with a casual soul—the space brims with eccentric treasures: carefully selected international labels, emerg­ing domestic brands, hand-picked jewelry, hard-to-find art books and fashion magazines, CDs, and bric-a-brac, much of it displayed nonchalantly on raw wooden boxes. Sprinkled throughout are must-haves from Opening Ceremony’s in-house collection, as well as pieces from exclusive collaborations with the likes of actress and downtown icon Chloë Sevigny.

This reinterpretation of the modern-day department store is a far cry from the intimidating austerity we’ve come to expect from terminally hip retailers. Shopping at Opening Ceremony is like rifling through the ample closet of an artistically inclined but hopelessly disheveled friend. “We wanted to specifically create an environment that is anti-’90s,” says creative director Humberto Leon, who looks unaccountably chic (and, it must be said, a bit Berkeley) in Tevas and socks, as we settle on a couch in the basement dressing room of the New York flagship. “Not to knock it down, because it had its moment—that clean gallery setting. We just wanted to be exactly the opposite of that. Throw down your bag, roll up your sleeves, some clothes might fall off the hanger, who cares?” Adds Carol Lim, the company’s CEO, “It’s just a fun way to shop.”

Fun has been a common denominator since Leon, 33, and Lim, 33, met through a mutual friend back in 1993. “I was getting ready to go to bed,” recalls Lim, fresh in an airy Liberty-print shift, despite the New York heat. “My roommate was getting ready to go out with Humberto in San Francisco. He convinced me to come, too, and that’s been the nature of our relationship ever since.”

Both were born and raised in the Los Angeles area and chose UC Berkeley as a happy compromise. “It was close enough to L.A., but just far enough from home,” Leon says. Lim majored in development economics, landing a plum job with the San Francisco–based investment banking firm Robertson Stephens when she graduated in 1997. Leon, meanwhile, dabbled in psychology before deciding to major in art; fashion was how he paid the bills. During high school, he worked at Gap doing visuals for a store in West Covina, and he was recruited for a similar gig in San Francisco. After college, he moved up the corporate ladder as a visual director for Gap’s fledgling Old Navy brand—a phenomenal educa­-tion in mass merchandizing whose lessons still resonate. “You get to see what it means to buy deep into things, predict style that you believe in, and make those mil­­li­ons of pieces of clothing work in a store environment,” he says.

From the way Leon and Lim discuss fashion and their current inspirations (“Right now, we really love maxi-length clothes,” they confess in unison), it’s clear that they were meant to collaborate someday. In 2001, the friends (by now both living in New York, where he was visual director at Burberry and she was a merchandise planner for Bally) took a vacation together to Hong Kong and were mesmerized by the city’s open-air markets, with their dizzying hodgepodge of goods. “We were shopping for anything in sight: clothing, shoes, hats, bags, DVDs, food, disposable underwear, corn, jewelry, watches, socks, kids’ clothes, Peking Circus warm-up jackets,” Leon says. “You name it, we bought it.”

The designers' fall 2008 collection is full of nerdy-chic looks.

The trip proved to be the catalyst for the partnership they’d dreamed of: a chic store that captured the energy of those Hong Kong markets. On the very day they quit their corporate jobs, they took a stroll down Howard Street near Chinatown—“our favorite street of all time, because of its quietness,” Leon says—and found a retail space. Opening Ceremony was an immediate hit. “We sold out our entire inventory in three weeks, so we did an emergency buy where we doubled it,” Leon says. “That sold out in a month.”

Before they knew it, Leon and Lim were adding more space and launching their in-house brand—a codesigned collection they describe as “basics plus”—to complement their more avant-garde offerings. Six years later, Opening Ceremony has transformed its formerly fashion-deprived neighborhood into a magnet for such high-style labels as Jil Sander (owned by the Prada Group) and Topshop (imagine H&M with a British art-school spin). Teen Vogue’s senior fashion editor, Aya T. Kanai, declares that Leon and Lim’s store nails “the current moment of youth in New York City.” “It’s genius,” adds Simon Ungless, who’s known Leon since his days at Gap. “They really understand what cool is. There is an eclecticness to the collection and the things they buy that seems relevant to the way we live and dress today, and it comes from their experience in the Bay Area.”

Lim just thinks the store reflects a modern sensibility: “Everyone I know shops the gamut. Even if you’re a luxury shopper, you’ll go to Target, and I guarantee there’ll be something there you can find.” Adds Leon, “Our stores are built around this idea that we can embrace anything, and because of that, it opens so many more doors, ventures, and price points. In terms of coming up with ideas, it just takes a cab ride and a conversation between Carol and me. We are gamblers who only do things that we like, and that’s what keeps it interesting for us.”

The duo shows no signs of slowing. In addition to opening a second store, in Charlie Chaplin’s former dance studio in Los Angeles, and launching online shopping at openingceremony.us, Leon and Lim recently wrapped a temporary 24-hour shop especially for the Beijing Olympics. For fall, they’re stocking up on new finds by designers from fashion-obsessed Japan.

Far from trying to cultivate the kind of brand exclusivity that gives many high-end retailers their cachet, Opening Ceremony has opted to become fashion’s open port by bringing in new labels—including Stockholm-based Acne Jeans, and fostering underexposed talent, such as Brazilian-born designer Alexandre Herchcovitch—and actively making them available to other retailers.

“We want our store to be a launchpad, the place where other retailers discover these designers,” Leon says. “It’s built into the DNA of the concept to refresh itself. We never worry that another store is copying this or that, because we’ve already moved on.”