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VM Visionary: Humberto Leon Opening Ceremony

As co-founder of New York cult retailer Opening Ceremony, Humberto Leon has more than 15 years’ experience in visual merchandising.He speaks to WGSN about his vision.

In 2002, Humberto Leon co-founded multi-label retailer Opening Ceremony with friend Carol Lim. The store has since expanded to Los Angeles and Tokyo, and the pair often create capsule collections with designers, brands and celebrities - recently being linked to collaborations with Rodarte, Levi’s and actress Chloë Sevigny. This month Opening Ceremony lands in Hong Kong luxury department store Lane Crawford (pictured).

Part of the retailer’s charm is its quirky on-the-floor aesthetic, often featuring colourful, larger-than-life displays and fixtures.

“When [Carol and I] first met [in the late 1990s], minimalist luxury was the big thing. But we wanted to create a store that was comfortable and inviting,” Leon explains. “When we were in college, we would shop at The Salvation Army. There was always an element of surprise as to what you would find. We wanted to recreate that - but without that feeling of ‘eugh! I don’t want to touch that rack!’”

Wanting the same for their Hong Kong debut, the duo wove signature elements - giant Hollywood-sign style lettering and a parade of oversized animals - through Lane Crawford’s IFC Mall flagship. Leon says: “We wanted something with a sense of humour and that wow factor. This was our main point, then we created different themed areas and developed displays from the environment. Our main themes were destinations … such as New York and the French Riviera. It’s important to invite people into the display. We don’t just want to put a display up for people to look at. We try not to do too many disposable windows.”

Despite interaction being a focus of Leon’s, he admits technology does not play much of a role in his store vision. The internet can be a great source of branding online, but he feels putting a projector or video display on the floor can feel restrictive, as one might always feel the need to fill it.

This restriction and predictability is what Leon always tries to break. “You can go to New York, Paris or Hong Kong and most of the chain stores are exactly the same. Right now, a lot of mass brands are trying to create an environment of luxury, which seems a little too try hard. There’s a bland luxury aesthetic that might work if you are a luxury brand but, if you are a mass brand, customers are smarter. [They] need a richer experience. It doesn’t need to be polished, but it shouldn’t be put on or false.”

As he affirms: “Shopping is about the product. Brands get so caught up in image they forget that sometimes.”

Leon’s top tip for VM success

Look at things from two different perspectives:

  • When you open the door, what do you want it to look like? If you could take one snapshot, what would you want the customer to see?
  • Look at each individual rack and break it down. How are the products showcased? How does the rack look in relation to everything else? Always keep the bigger and smaller pictures in mind. Don’t neglect one for the other - this is one of the biggest mistakes visual merchandisers can make.

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