It’s the last week of January, and I’ve caught creative directors Carol Lim and Humberto Leon a couple of days before their men’s presentation for Opening Ceremony. Five days ago, they showed Kenzo menswear in Paris; the women’s O.C. show follows in a few weeks, and then it’s back to Paris for Kenzo womenswear. If that weren’t head-spinning enough, in the middle of it all, they’ll head to Los Angeles for the premiere of Snowbird, a short film by indie director Sean Baker that functions, in an offbeat way, as Kenzo’s spring ’16 campaign.
Shot entirely on iPhone (like Baker’s 2015 breakout hit, Tangerine), Snowbird isn’t your typical fashion film. You might notice Abbey Lee Kershaw’s oversized patchwork tank and floor-dusting patterned skirt as she brings cake to residents of a rundown trailer park in Slab City, Calif., but you’re probably too caught up in the film’s hyperreal, unblinking look at this isolated desert community. And that’s OK. “It’s about telling a story and creating a connection,” says Lim. “Yes, it could be tied to buying something, but it’s beyond that.”*
From design to digital, the duo has always been nonconformist and forward-thinking. Where other designers might use art as inspiration, Leon and Lim could conceive a collection loosely linked to something as unexpected as overfishing—the touch point for the “no fish, no nothing” slogan plastered on Kenzo’s spring ’14 show—or even riff on the idea of a perfect, GMO-free environment, as they did for Opening Ceremony’s spring collection of silky utopian loungewear. “We’re definitely not shy to tell you what we believe in,” says Leon. “We’re not saying it’s the right view. We’re just saying it’s our view.”
That shared POV can be traced back to the University of California, Berkeley, where the two met in the early ’90s. When they launched Opening Ceremony in 2002 as a multi-brand shop at the tip of NYC’s SoHo, their idiosyncratic buying (Rachel Comey, Alexandre Herchcovitch, a clutch of niche Hong Kong labels) and quirky store vibe clicked with shoppers who wanted an alternative to the upscale boutiques in the area. “When we started, we didn’t have formal fashion backgrounds,” admits Lim. “We were just curious people who liked to shop and discover, and we’ve always used that as our guiding force. We’re constantly asking ourselves, What are we looking for?”
Killer sweatshirts, for one. Indeed, Kenzo’s now iconic tiger pullovers sent ripples through street style in 2012, not to mention through the high-fashion label itself (their request for sweats was initially met with shock by company higher-ups). Their ideas, they say, come from a “humanistic” place—one that values realness over hype. In other words, they prefer to operate by instinct. The result? Two highly covetable brands that each reflect the zeitgeist and youth culture to unique and varying degrees. Where Kenzo continues to chop, slice and dice the brand’s Japanese-Parisian heritage, Opening Ceremony drifts through a borderless cool.
Key to achieving this is working with collaborators they call “originators” and “authenticators.” “We grew up at a time when everything was real, and we want to be real to our brands,” says Leon. “It’s about recognizing people we’re huge fans of”— from launching O.C.’s sister line with Chloë Sevigny and creating a capsule collection with Spike Jonze to designing limited-edition sneakers with Vans (for both brands) and dreaming up Kenzo’s pop-surrealist campaigns with Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari of the vividly provocative art magazine Toiletpaper.
A week after our conversation, Snowbird is released, and the final scene lingers in my mind. I’m not one for spoilers, but the poignant twist confirms something Leon conveyed about their creative philosophy: “We’re in this fun world of fashion, but we have a hard time removing the humanity in what we do.”