Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim and C.A.M. Paris’ Esu Lee on the set of ‘Martell Home Live: A Taste of Home’.
Photo: Courtesy

Created by best friends Carol Lim and Humberto Leon out of a shared love for travel, fashion, people and their need to connect, Opening Ceremony has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 2002. What started out as a hole-in-the-wall retail store in downtown New York now has outposts in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

After nearly 10 years as retailers, Lim and Leon joined Kenzo in 2011 as the first Asian-American artistic directors in LVMH history, where they breathed new life into the brand with bold concepts, innovative designs and exciting collaborations. The duo officially parted ways with the house in July this year to focus solely on Opening Ceremony.

The jetsetting friends and business partners base their store theme on a different country every year, and their creations on unique travel experiences. They recently made their way to Singapore, partnering with Maison Martell for the second episode of Martell Home Live: A Taste of Home. Hosted by Judy Joo, the live talk show saw Lim and Leon discuss the intersection of culture and gastronomy and shared their personal stories alongside other cultural changemakers including presenter and Singapore’s only woman race car driver Claire Jedrek, the Bronx-based cooking collective Ghetto Gastro and C.A.M. Paris‘ chef Esu Lee.

Here, the duo shares their take on fashion meets food, their favourite collaboration thus far and their thoughts on leaving behind a fashion legacy.

Travel has always served as an inspiration and starting point in your creations. How does it feed into your ideas on fashion and art?

Carol Lim: I think that, for us, looking at how local people dress, and discovering emerging talent and creative individuals in countries really informs and inspires us—it really is the basis of how we started the company. So I think that whether it is art or fashion, music or food—all of that—I think it’s really a source of inspiration for us.

Humberto Leon: We’ve always had art lead where we feel exciting things are happening. At one point, there was a lot of interesting things happening in Berlin so we traveled there and found amazing young fashion designers that were doing lots of cool things. And then we found there was a big movement in Sweden, and that’s why we went and discovered Acne and all these other brands out there. I think they’re all inter-related⁠—fashion, art, all of it. Travelling is where you get to see all these different things; I think every city has its own uprising of individuals and young things. Mexico recently for us was a big trip—going out there and finding cool, amazing designers and artisans⁠—I think there’s a lot of art coming out of Mexico too.

How does your background and experiences influence your work? What is integral to Opening Ceremony’s ethos?

HL: Carol and I are obviously Asian-Americans, and we’ve been very true to make sure that we express that in our work at OC. We’ve talked about making sure people knew that there were people behind the company and people that stood for something. In many ways it’s how it’s been connected to a lot of our upbringing and background is true and connected to the work we put out at OC.

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What were some obstacles you faced when setting up Opening Ceremony, and how did you overcome them?

CL: We learned constantly throughout our journey. We’ve always approached things very logically, and any kind of obstacle we’ve encountered, we’ve just thought through the best way to handle it and how to figure things out. And we’ve had many—it’s never perfect, but for us the learning experience has shaped and helped us make decisions around how we conduct business and the things that we do. We opened OC a year after 9/11 in NY; the climate was pretty dark but we thought it was a good time to start our own business. I think for us it’s about going into the unknown and pushing forward.

Comparing your experiences as retailers with the founding of Opening Ceremony and as co-creative directors at Kenzo, what would you say are the biggest similarities and differences? What is the one thing you’ve learnt that you think every designer or retailer could benefit from?

HL: We’re ending a really interesting decade of just the state of fashion in general. We’re definitely at a place where everyone is wanting authenticity—something that has been a pillar of our work at OC and the time that we worked at Kenzo. I think people want the truth, authenticity and honesty. And people want story-telling. We’re ending this era of everyone feeling the same; people just want to believe in a brand.

I’d say that’s probably the biggest thing that we brought to an LVMH house at the time—honesty, authenticity and true story-telling—making sure that we told our story, which was the fact that we’re two Asians in fashion doing work that speaks to people, to be more direct and more honest about our approach. Diversity has been the biggest pillar of everything that we’ve done for the last 19 years, and in everything that we do, when we say diversity we really mean it. It’s something that we believe in, which is what executes in our work, and hopefully people see that and take in this idea of bringing diversity into fashion.

You are known to bring diversity, inclusiveness, and forward-thinking visions to fashion. What more do you aspire to add to your fashion legacy?

HL: I think it’s just about doing it more and doing it harder, and doing it even more extreme. It’s about being able to take each opportunity and make a statement within most opportunities. We just did this shoot in Mexico where we shot over 38 individuals from all different fields from entertainment to fashion to food and culture, and we represented in totality a Mexican group of people whom we respect and admire.

But it’s not just what the consumer sees, everyone at the back of house was represented—the photographer, the hair and makeup, the stylist—we gave the platform to this community to really show and represent one group of people. That to me is really important, and I think it shows our dedication to helping a group of people that might not have a platform to speak as much as they should, and doing more things like that. It feels like a very unique way of looking at things; we’ve done that in our work at Kenzo, we’ve done that when we had the first ever 85 all-asian cast model show during PFW, we had all queer LGBTQ show at OC that was 100% celebrating queer culture, so it feels like there’s a consistency in our work where we use our platform to allow the under-represented to be represented.

Having worked together for so many years, what would you say is the best thing about growing together as friends and business partners?

CL: That we’re still having fun. I think that in everything that we do, if we don’t feel passionate about it—we always say that you can’t be in this industry and not be in it. We’re very excited and lucky that we get to do what we do, and even while we’re working we’re always having fun.

HL: Yeah I think we’re lucky that we’re two friends that can have a lot of fun doing everything that we get to do, from traveling to eating to doing a fashion show.

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You’ve built an organic friendship with Esu Lee, so much so that you’ve helped curate and host his L.A. pop up. How did this relationship come about, and what drew you to Esu’s work?

CL: We spend a lot of time in Paris, and everytime we go back we’re always searching for new culinary experiences. A friend of ours said there’s this new restaurant and great new chef who’s super innovative, so we went there. We sat a back table, family style table—the food and the way that he cooks is incredible—from there we developed a friendship, and everytime we go to Paris we always go to his restaurant. He reached out when he was coming to the States, and we said, ‘Let’s definitely help you, invite like-minded people that would like the food and like to meet you.’ Yes it’s super organic, and I think we’re happy to be here with him and Martell in Singapore.

HL: Like every Asian that travels to Europe, like every other Asian we know that comes to Paris for an extended long stay, we want to have a taste of that Asian flavour. Esu brings a modern take to Asian cuisine, and it’s now become a staple for us.

What are your thoughts on the intersection between fashion and food? What is your relationship with food? Why have you chosen to collaborate with Martell?

HL: It’s always been intersected since the beginning, I’d say since we began—we love food, we love fashion and shopping—those 3 things are pretty much what makes up OC. I think it’s fashionable right now to be into food; we just love it. And I think when we travel and look for food, we like to go deep. We’re coming to Singapore—we don’t want European meals here, we want Singaporean specialities. That’s just our approach, and we’re constantly trying to go where the locals go and that’s the most exciting.

CL: When Martell reached out to us and explained what they’re focusing on for this particular episode of travel, food, East meets West—these are all the things that we’re super passionate about. Also, having grown up with cognac and Martell in the house, there’s a personal connection, and I think the topic that we’re creating and experiencing tonight all feels very personal. I think people know when you’re not into it or if it’s not part of who you are, but this was exactly all the elements that excite us. It felt like a really natural fit.

You’ve been a part of many high-profile collaborations and projects with creatives. What motivates you to collaborate with other people? Which project is your favourite/ most memorable thus far, and why?

HL: The company, person or brand that we collaborate with has to have an authentic story for it to make sense for us. We work best when we’re able to tell a really authentic story, and I think that’s always been the starting point for us. In terms of favourite collaborations I’d say one of our most notable and exciting for us is our partnership with Chloë Sevigny, mainly because it was very organic.

She came out to the press—this is way before celebrity collaborations—and somebody said ‘Chloe you’re known for fashion, would you ever design your own line?’ And she said, ‘Never, I’d never do it. I might do two or three dresses with OC, that’s it.’ We had a lot of mutual friends at the time, so I called her up and she was like, ‘I’d do a couple of dresses if that’s what you want.’ That couple of dresses turned into a 30-piece collection and it was in 2008.

We’ve just celebrated our 8th collab together this year. For us, she’s beyond the fashion icon. She’s beyond the original IT girl. She’s just somebody we can relate to who has a natural sense of style that is interesting and cool, fashion-forward and always on to the next. We can talk about clothes and fashion for like 10 hours straight—a day even—because we geek out about the same nerdy things and talk about fashion the same way. That has turned into a really deep, close friendship and I think it’s great when you can build something as deep as that with somebody, and be able to be as authentic as that.

What’s next for Opening Ceremony?

HL: So much! I think we’re always interested in how the brand can mould and change, and really be with the times—that’s something that has always been our motto, how we can feel most relevant and not get stuck on old ways of thinking.

Click through the gallery to see what went down at Martell Home Live: A Taste of Home:

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