Industry insiders reflect on the impact of the institution founded by Carol Lim and Humberto Leon in 2002.
“It was as if New York fashion Tumblr was a store,” Jian DeLeon, editorial director of High Snobiety, says of Opening Ceremony, which announced this week that it would be closing all retail locations. “It was indicative of that time where, yes, there was the internet, but it was the hub that represents this era of the New York fashion community.”
Unfortunately, this comes as no surprise to anyone who’s followed the gradual decline of the retail business. (In 2019, more than 9,300 stores in the U.S. closed their doors.) The Opening Ceremony news came immediately after the announcement that its trademark and intellectual property had been acquired by Farfetch-owned New Guards Group, which backs Off-White and Heron Preston; founders Carol Lim and Humberto Leon are staying on as co-creative directors.
On Instagram, Lim and Leon shared that they have plans to focus on growing Opening Ceremony’s in-house brand and collections while they take “the chance to step back and evaluate the future of our Opening Ceremony retail experience.”
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Dear Opening Ceremony Family, We welcomed our first customers into Opening Ceremony at 35 Howard Street on Sept 1, 2002, a year after downtown New York was changed forever by the destruction of the World Trade Center. We wanted to send a message of love to New York with our company and our big idea to change the way a retail store had been done before. Our dream to connect people from all over the world with positivity, to create a vibrant and inclusive community through self-expression is embodied in the name Opening Ceremony and the idea from where it came, the Olympics. When we began, we took our modest savings and asked our friends to sell their clothes at our store in an area of Soho that had not yet been developed. Brilliant young designers like United Bamboo, Benjamin Cho, Proenza Schouler, Alexander Wang, Rodarte and AsFour were juxtaposed with designers from Hong Kong and Brazil who had never sold before in the US. We also made our own first pieces to sell, a diamond sweatshirt at first, which, by wearing it, became a shorthand for “I shopped at Opening Ceremony”. The store became a hangout and a meeting place for so many different visitors and locals who came by to find out what was happening in New York, because you could always get the scoop when you shopped. Opening Ceremony has expanded and evolved in countless ways since those first years in business. We’ve grown our own collection, starting from the platform of our first store, into a global Opening Ceremony brand for which we’ve held some of the most ambitious experiential fashion shows imaginable. At the same time, Opening Ceremony stores have been home to remarkable staff, customers and creative people where the wildest experiments in retail have taken place. Our stores in New York, Los Angeles, London and Tokyo have connected people from around world together and brought so much joy into our lives and to the lives of those who have come through our doors.
The duo first opened the Opening Ceremony store on Howard Street in New York in 2002. Connie Wang, Refinery29’s senior features writer, recalls her first impression of the shop being institutionally ambiguous: “For the longest time I couldn’t even understand what Opening Ceremony really was. I didn’t know if it was an event series or party series or if it was like a creative agency, someone that just did collaborations. But then, it had its own label.”
Over time, Wang says she’s come to define it much more as a community, incubator or, as they called themselves, a family. “It really was just a physical space where supporting people who are just starting out, whether that was designers or photographers or young people who just got to the city and needed a job,” she explains.
According to Phillip Picardi, former editor-in-chief of Out and founding editor of Them., Lim and Leon have always had a knack for picking people and making them feel welcome, in all aspects of their brand. “Their presentations during fashion week were often films or theatre pieces that involved the chosen family of Carol and Humberto, so going to participate always felt like you were being invited to a giant dinner table or an intimate party night,” he says.
Still, Opening Ceremony’s retail locations were known for their certified-cool staff. “It’s no secret that their employees have always been the coolest kids in New York City,” Picardi notes. “So many times I’d be in a fitting room, trying on something I thought was hideous, only to be assured by a teenager in Martine Rose that I looked ‘dope.’ (Yes, I bought the Raf jacket after he said that. Yes, it cost as much as my rent.)”
Jubilee, a New York-based DJ who never considered bringing her music to the fashion industry, first worked with Opening Ceremony for the retail launch of Rihanna’s River Island collaboration in 2013. “I was nowhere near ever doing anything in fashion. I was much more likely to go to a dirty rave until 7 a.m. In my mind, this kind of world would never be into what I was doing,” she says. Since that first gig, Jubilee has DJ’ed a handful of other events for the brand — including three of Leon’s birthdays. And she says the relationship has always gone both ways: “When I wanted to release my compilation with something other than Mixpak, instead of going to an indie label, I went to them. They totally supported it, threw me a party and found my graphic designer for it. They just have this really cute community and I knew I could always hit them up.”
Opening Ceremony’s reputation extended far beyond New York, or even Los Angeles and Tokyo, where its other retail locations are located. Picardi recalls visiting a boutique called Hi-BYE in Mexico recently and talking to one of the curators and designers, whose work was carried by Opening Ceremony. “He spoke so highly of it and the exposure it brought him, as well as the credibility,” he says. “Carol and Humberto’s outreach to Mexican talent came as a direct response to President Trump’s campaign of vitriol towards the country and its people — they wanted to spotlight the brilliance of Mexico as a cultural destination, and they did so in a way that amplified young voices and artists there.”
At Opening Ceremony stores, industry headline makers like Telfar and Dries van Noten were carried alongside up-and-coming names, insider favorites and accessible collaborations with Vans as well as under-$100 branded totes. It was a platform for creatives and designers to reach a larger, global audience. But it also became an entry point for would-be customers who wanted to learn more about fashion, discover new people or evolve their style identity.
Whereas other retailers peddled a “too cool for school” mentality, DeLeon says, Opening Ceremony was the opposite. It built an identity through the brands and the people it brought into the fold, from Raf Simons to Havaianas, Batsheva to Tevas. It was a safe place, where shoppers could develop and upgrade their wardrobe simply from shopping within the store. “It was the place where you could go from the starter pack to the advanced deck,” he points out.
Beyond inventory, this feeling of inclusion was felt in how Opening Ceremony used its retail space as well. Britany Chavez, owner of the online marketplace Shop Latinx, highlights its The Familia series, photographed by Stefan Ruiz as an example of “elevated, yet authentic representation of my Los Angeles Latinidad… Just to see those powerful images, in a non-stereotypical, extremely thoughtful way set an example as to how I want to display the brands in Shop Latinx.”
Whether it was a newly discovered brand, a favorite piece purchased, a party attended or just a part of a routine, it seems many in the fashion industry — and many more adjacent to it — have a memory attached to an Opening Ceremony store.
“We’re losing a platform for community, for showcasing and bringing together artists and tastemakers from around the globe,” says Chavez. “It was a hub for people to let loose and be eccentric; to feel themselves — whether that was in a $5,000 gown or a pair of handmade earrings.”