Fashion's Coolest Duo Humberto Leon and Carol Lim Don't Think They're Very Cool at All, Actually

Humberto Leon and Carol Lim have spent the last 10 years becoming the fashion industry's purveyors of cool, whether through their runaway-hit retail venture Opening Ceremony or their work as creative directors of Kenzo. But if you ask Leon and Lim, their success was just one happy circumstance after another, really.
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Humberto Leon and Carol Lim have spent the last 10 years becoming the fashion industry's purveyors of cool, whether through their runaway-hit retail venture Opening Ceremony or their work as creative directors of Kenzo. But if you ask Leon and Lim, their success was just one happy circumstance after another, really.
© Michael George

© Michael George

Humberto Leon and Carol Lim have spent the last 10 years becoming the fashion industry's purveyors of cool, whether through their runaway-hit retail venture Opening Ceremony or their work as creative directors of Kenzo. But if you ask Leon and Lim, their success was just one happy circumstance after another, really.

As part of their "Fashion at FIAF" series, the French Institute Alliance Francaise asked Pamela Golbin, Chief Curator for the Fashion and Textiles collections at Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris, to moderate a talk featuring the duo that covered everything from their high school experiences (Leon was Homecoming King of his High School, Lim voted "Most Likely to Succeed") to their meeting at UC Berkley that would ultimately lead to their success as a pair today.

It all started, of course, with Opening Ceremony. While working corporate jobs in Manhattan during their mid-twenties, Leon and Lim took a two week vacation to Hong Kong where the store would be born. They had bonded over a mutual love of shopping and travel and wanted to create a job where they could do both. Though neither had studied fashion, Leon says they were lucky to be "naive" enough to believe they could just launch the venture and return to their corporate jobs if they failed.

"Lucky" is actually a pretty accurate term to describe the birth of Opening Ceremony: in post-9/11 New York City, SUNY college was offering free business courses, so the pair had a professor help put together their business plan. "I think he still uses it in class to this day," said Lim. They found their Howard Street location--at the time totally quiet and devoid of any retail--on a walk to SoHo from their weekly Chinatown dim sum lunch, where they discussed their plans for the store.

They chose the name "Opening Ceremony" because they wanted a name you couldn't make fun of (rejected ideas included "Airport" and "Terminal"). "'Ceremony' is a very pretty word," explained Leon, "and by the time you're done saying 'Opening Ceremony' the joke isn't funny anymore, anyway."

Launching the Opening Ceremony clothing line happened almost by accident as well. Lim explained that when they opened the store, they only bought special or fun clothes--"Sometimes it's too much fun," she said--and they needed what they called "basics plus" to fill in more practical needs. They "forced" their moms to become their seamstresses and make things to sell in the store. Leon and Lim didn't realize their in-house line was a hit until they had several other retailers knocking on their door to sell Opening Ceremony goods.

© Michael George

© Michael George

But if they had more or less fallen into their successes with Opening Ceremony, Leon and Lim have taken a much more intentional approach at Kenzo. When considering what move they would make next, Lim says they would only consider working with a brand they could do "our way--which is really 100% involved."

Admitting that they've benefited from not knowing "the rules" of fashion design, upon joining the Kenzo team, the pair forced the Parisian atelier to break everything down to basics--sometimes literally, in the case of tearing down the walls of the office to create a more open-plan style of working.

Luckily (there's that word again!) it worked. Lim said that though the Kenzo employees were initially annoyed by the changes, they warmed to the duo's style of design. "Seeing you guys walk around [the office] reminds us of when Kenzo was here," one employee, who'd been there since the days of the label's namesake, had told her.

And in just over a year, Leon and Lim have taken the label from relative obscurity to must-have status. But they're not calling it just yet. "We feel there's so much more work to do," Leon humbly added when asked about the quick success of Kenzo.

Still, one wonders after retail and design domination, what can be left for the friends to conquer? Though they admitted to being very busy, they shared that they still have areas that they're passionate about and could one day enter into--food and hotels being among them, and different types of retail that Lim would only coyly say are "as exciting as what we're doing now."

But they'd like to clear one thing up first: Despite the general consensus of the fashion community, Leon and Lim don't think they're very cool at all.

"We're actually the biggest nerds ever," Leon said.