Since 2002, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim have run their trendsetting label Opening Ceremony more like a social club than a clothing line. “People often come to the brand through an event or a party we throw,” says Lim from the patio of Chifa, a 1980s-inflected Chinese Peruvian restaurant, with zebra-print walls and a big heart-shaped picture window, that Leon designed with the architect Michael Loverich. It’s a cool mid-February evening on the 15th and final day of Lunar New Year celebrations, and the pair’s loved ones have gathered in the glow of a full moon, in the cozy, vibrant Los Angeles neighborhood of Eagle Rock, to observe the Lantern Festival, a closing ceremony of sorts that symbolizes rebirth and promotes good fortune.
Leon and Lim are feeling sentimental. Although they’re primarily here to usher in the Year of the Tiger, tonight also marks Opening Ceremony’s 20th anniversary and a new beginning for the designer friends, who closed their multibrand retail stores in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo two years ago to focus on developing their own label. “It’s almost like we have a new start,” says Leon.
To kick off Opening Ceremony’s next phase, they’ve released a Lunar New Year capsule collection of T-shirts and hoodies in a bold shade of vermilion that represents joy, luck and prosperity in Chinese culture. For the past year and a half, they’ve been flying back and forth to Italy, where they’ve moved the company’s headquarters. Now, everything from design and production to product development is done with an Italian hand. “It feels like the perfect time to rethink what the brand could be, and what it could mean,” says Leon. “We are always thinking about how we interact with our customers, and how to build the strongest connection with them.”
Surprising design collaborations have long been at the core of the pair’s operation — they’ve previously made collections with Chloë Sevigny, Yoko Ono and even Disney — and those will resume now that they’ve relocated from New York to the West Coast, first with the Los Angeles-based female Asian American and Latinx punk band the Linda Lindas, for whom Leon directed a recent music video, and then with the Vietnamese American designer Peter Do. “We love representing our culture,” says Leon, whose father is Peruvian and whose mother, Wendy, is Chinese. Lim’s parents are Korean. “Even though we’re a global brand, Carol and I are two Asian Americans. And we always make sure we remember that.”
Under the twinkling lantern lights at Chifa — which Leon owns with his sister, Ricardina, and her husband, John Liu, who also runs the kitchen — the first course, following an amuse-bouche of Popo’s wellness soup, begins with family-style servings of si yao chicken, just like the kind Wendy makes. “Chicken is healing and a source of protein, so having that was important,” says Leon. Then another dish, whose recipe was created with the musician Solange, arrives: typhoon shelter shrimp fried rice, with garlic and scallions and bright red tobiko for an extra umami crunch. Next come shallow glass trays filled with milky, yellow custard made with duck egg yolks. “It’s a very traditional thing we eat at home,” says Leon, “and the egg gets at the idea of starting over.”
For the main course, the usual protein in the menu’s popular black pepper prawn dish has been replaced with fresh lobster, and we’re offered Chilean sea bass steamed with sweet soy sauce and topped with ginger and scallions. “We see the fish as a symbol of moving forward,” says Lim, who makes it a point to work her way around the table and personally catch up with each of her guests, among them the actress Zoë Chao, the singer and rapper Audrey Nuna, the model and D.J. Soo Joo Park and the skateboarder and photographer Jerry Hsu. As the night wears on, Lim sends out rounds of tequila shots to help keep everyone warm.
When it’s time for dessert, we’re served tang yuan, or mochi balls with mixed nuts in a sweet ginger syrup soup, a customary part of the Lunar New Year tradition. There are also heart-shaped pan-fried mochi cakes from Gu Grocery, their stickiness a symbol of togetherness. Leon pairs them with a drink made from red dates, lotus nuts, Pu’er tea and whiskey. “Young people are supposed to pour tea with dates and lotus nuts for their elders as a gesture of respect. As a reward, they’re given envelopes,” says Leon about the tradition in which money, stuffed in ornate red packs, is handed out to encourage happiness and good luck. “We turned the tea into a tiger toddy.”
For all the talk of new beginnings, though, the party is also a return to the familiar. Leon grew up in nearby Highland Park, and Lim was raised in the area’s San Fernando Valley; they met at U.C. Berkeley. “We’ve always been where our community is,” says Lim. “They were with us in New York for every major milestone and event. But we’re back here now, and our family’s here. We’re excited to rediscover L.A. through a new lens.” Below, the duo tells us how they executed their elaborate Lunar New Year party, and how you might pull off your own.
Don’t Skimp on Symbolism …
Along the brilliant blue and gold embroidered runner sat eight miniature feathered and sequined lion figurines amid branches of kumquats, which were sourced from Tarsadia Organic Farms in nearby Riverside. Both are meant to bring prosperity to those seated around them. Lions are harbingers of wealth, and eight is considered a lucky number in much of Asia. “It even sounds like the Chinese word for ‘prosperous,’” says Leon. Every place setting also had a fan (“You’re supposed to wave luck toward yourself,” says Leon) and a red envelope containing a crisp $2 bill.
… Or Nostalgia
Bettina Chin, the vice president of special projects and legal affairs for Opening Ceremony, put together a playlist that favored ’90s pop, hip-hop and R&B. Songs by Donna Lewis, Diddy and SWV got guests talking and dancing in their seats.
Personalize the Place Settings
Each name card was printed in a typeface made by the Taiwanese illustrator Li Kuanzhen, whose drawings of Leon and Lim’s famous friends, including Natasha Lyonne and Karen O, were printed onto garments in Opening Ceremony’s spring 2022 collection. “She created alphabets that are loosely based on the calligraphy you get on the street,” says Leon, referring to the artist stalls often found in tourist-attracting Chinese enclaves across America. “But she does a hyper-real version of them,” he adds. “She drew all of these letters by hand.”
Play Fun Games With Great Prizes
As the main courses rolled out, Leon and Lim passed around a separate set of green and red Chifa-branded mini envelopes with Lunar New Year scratchers inside — with which each guest tried for a three-peat reveal of a dollar amount that they’d then win. Then the hosts handed out yet another, longer red envelope with an Opening Ceremony scratcher in it that, once uncovered, revealed a witty joke, good fortune or prize. Everyone took turns reading their card, and the actor Jake Choi was pleased to win two tote bags full of Asian snacks.
Karaoke Is Always a Good Idea
After the food had been eaten and the lotto cards scratched, Leon and Lim fired up their karaoke machine and projector screen. Throughout the night, the hosts encouraged guests to sing. And when the tequila started circulating, some of them even did.