After their Hong Kong trip, they got serious, did some research and decided to co-opt Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s idea for the modern-day Olympics by featuring virtually unheard of designers from different lands—first Hong Kong, followed by Brazil, Germany, the UK, Sweden and so on—interspersed with bigger names such as Rodarte, Proenza Schouler and Alexander Wang. Soon Leon and Lim found themselves with serious cool-hunter credibility, as well as a little problem on their hands: In the retail world it’s considered poor form to routinely ditch designers after a short, successful run, so the partners decided to open a showroom—a veritable UN of design underdogs—to represent some of their favorite imports once they were no longer on the sales floor. “All of a sudden we thought, Wow, we’ve created this whole thing; now we have to help all of these people,” says Leon. When asked if they have mentors of their own, they mention some of the “amazing people” they’ve worked for, such as Rose Marie Bravo, formerly CEO at Burberry, and Millard “Mickey” Drexler, formerly CEO at the Gap and now at J. Crew, but are careful not to give them too much credit. “What’s really kind of interesting and weird,” says Leon, “is that we opened the store not knowing what to do, and that has been our saving grace.”
Still, success is seldom all earnest instinct and no strategy. Of the latter, Leon, who maintains the creative side of the business while Lim tends to the numbers, cops to the idea that “retail in general is about keeping things exclusive.” Key to that notion has been a series of limited-edition collaborations. Among the early ones were Tretorn, Stetson and, two years ago, a collection designed by Chloë Sevigny, which drove a wild press run. Opening Ceremony also became the sole U.S. retailer of Topshop until its New York flagship opened. (The L.A. store continues to sell the collection.) Those partnerships have fueled substantial buzz, which Leon and Lim hope to duplicate this year. Their fall lineup includes a Sevigny-designed unisex collection, Betsey Johnson Archive and Opening Ceremony for Pendleton, the 100-year-old company known for its granny blankets and L.L. Bean–style catalogs.
Sevigny has already proved salable, but the latter two collaborations are prime examples of what Opening Ceremony thrives on: sourcing from left field. “You can ask a lot of girls and they’ll say, ‘Betsey Johnson was one of my first designer pieces that I bought when I was 18,’” says Leon of the Archive collection, which consists of 30 replicas of vintage pieces from Johnson’s days designing for juniors’ line Alley Cat and the New York store Paraphernalia, as well as her own namesake collection. “She’s so fun, and I feel like she’s somebody who has been somewhat forgotten about, or people don’t really talk about her as much.” For her part, Johnson couldn’t be more thrilled. “It was really nice to have them say, ‘We want it exactly the way it was before; it was good enough the way it was,’” she says. “It’s been a real exciting offshoot for us to break into other magazines, like Australian Vogue.”