The fashion rivalry between Paris and London is as old as time (or at least fashion week), and designers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim are watching the battle play out from both sides.
In New York, the duo rule over what’s arguably the city’s most buzzed-about independent boutique, Opening Ceremony, which they started in 2002 and have spun into a fully fledged fashion line with outposts in Los Angeles and Tokyo.
And in last five years, they’ve brought new life to Kenzo as its creative directors, transforming a fashion house in decline, into a commercially viable, streetwise brand that dominates both the street style blogs and department store floors.
“I think it’s a luxury to be able to work in two amazing cities,” said Lim from Opening Ceremony’s New York headquarters. “The places are all different, but the actual experiences are very similar.”
We caught Leon and Lim between shows to find out what it’s like to work, live, and find inspiration in the world’s style capitals.
CNN: You’ve been at Kenzo for five years now. What was the most striking difference when you first started living in Paris?
Carol Lim: Language? (Laughs)
Humberto Leon: Language is a huge one!
Did either of you speak French before you moved?
HL: Carol probably more than me.
CL: Barely. I think we know how to order food and ask for a taxi to wait for us. (Laughs) French culture — business culture and living culture — is something we got very used to, but it’s very different than New York. Like Saturdays and Sundays, a lot of things are closed. The things that you normally would never question in New York, I think we knew you kind of work around in Paris. Things are pretty precise in Paris but once you know what those rules are, you can really get into it.
Oh, and the produce is better! The fruits and vegetables, the ingredients for food on a pure level. Everything tastes like it’s supposed to taste. It almost tastes fake.
You’re both from California, but Opening Ceremony feels like a distinctly New York brand. Do you still remember your first impression of city?
CL: Prior to moving I came to visit Humberto in 2000 — he was here seven months before I moved. He was working all day and I’d taken a leave off work in San Francisco, and we would go out until like six in the morning. He’d sleep for an hour and then go back to work. But we had the craziest time exploring and doing so much that it made me want to move, because the city has this energy that’s like nothing else in the world.
HL: I always tell everyone that the downside of living in New York is not being able to experience visiting New York. I think that when you don’t live in New York, you get this sense of amazing mayhem, energy and eclecticism; this 24-hourness that you really don’t feel in any other city. Coming from California, this was very different for me.
How do the cities manifest themselves in your collections? Is there ever any crossover?
HL: Carol and I are Americans — and diehard Americans. When we design for Opening Ceremony, we’re in New York, living and breathing it. I feel like there’s an American sensibility to how we build the collection that will always be there.
At Kenzo, there’s a quality and workmanship that’s really exciting, yet Carol and I infuse our American ease into that brand. We have a very traditional Parisian atelier, but at its heart is a foreigner [Japanese founder Kenzo Takada], one of the first Asians to ever land in Paris and start his own house. So it’s eclectic in its own right, but we’re really sensitive to making sure it still stands the grounds of being a Parisian house.
How does your Paris atelier differ from your New York studio?
HL: Some of the people working at our atelier have been doing this for 40 years for Kenzo. They possess a knowledge of the brand, Parisian fashion and techniques and skills that lives within the house that is really exciting. And yeah, you know, Opening Ceremony is now in its 14th year, and it’s something that Carol and I built by hand. The relationships and the way we work is something we started from scratch, so it holds its own merit in a different way.
And of course there’s the old competition between Paris and New York as the style capital of the world. Who’s the winner in your books?
HL: There’s a beauty to how people of all ages approach fashion in Paris, that I think is unquestionable to this day. I think that no matter if you’re someone who’s working in a grocery store of if you’re an office clerk, whatever, you really look your best. Everyone really respects the way they dress and I think fashion is inherently a part of the culture, and that’s something that’s super appreciated when we go to Paris.
In New York, I think the amazing thing is that everyone has their own culture. It’s a little more mixed, diverse, and I think that that in that sense, it makes it more inspiring. Not everyone looks so perfect and tidy. There are times when I go to my butcher and I’m like ‘My butcher is dressed rad and he looks so cool.’ Or I’m in Chinatown and see the amazing lady that’s selling me fruit, and I’m like ‘Damn, she’s got some really cool-ass gloves on.’
There’s something inherently interesting that happens that I think has to do with the nature of New York, America’s melting pot. The different types of people woven into the city are what make it feel so alive and so rich.