As he jumps from fashion designer to restaurateur to creative exec and back again, Humberto Leon is in permanent flex mode.

To get a sense of his personality, one only needs to survey those who have known him the longest. There’s Bobby Sankary, a friend since high school: “If he ever asks you to go out, you should just do it because he will bug you to death until you do.” His former business partner Carol Lim shares a similar story from when they first met in college at the University of California, Berkeley, almost 30 years ago. “He came over with my roommate, Cynthia. They were in art class together and were getting ready to go dancing in San Francisco. It was, like, 10 o’clock at night. I was in my pajamas. I thought it was too late, but of course he convinced me to join them. It was a fun night—and it’s been pretty much like that ever since.”

Infusing his relationships and projects with frolicking energy seems to be one of the overarching themes of Leon’s impressive career and has become the special sauce in his latest endeavors, which include opening three successful restaurants in his hometown of Los Angeles (Chifa, Monarch, and Arroz & Fun), directing a music video for the teen pop-punk sensations the Linda Lindas, and becoming creative director for The Debut: Dream Academy, a girl group competition series from Geffen Records and the K-pop entertainment company HYBE. Also keeping his perpetually youthful spirit afloat are Leon’s 10-year-old twin daughters, Mazzy and Emi. “They definitely have an interest in things,” he says with a laugh. “I just try to hone in on whatever they’re interested in.”

Up until fairly recently, Leon, 48, was typically recognized as one of the co-creators of the Opening Ceremony multiverse. Post college he held corporate jobs at Old Navy and Burberry, but the LA-born Leon, who never studied fashion but always admired it, wanted to make his own inroads into the industry. In 2002, he and Lim founded Opening Ceremony in New York’s Soho neighborhood. Part clubhouse, part retail emporium, OC was where they could design and sell their own in-house label and, most notably, give up-and-coming fashion lines exposure (among them were JW Anderson, Martine Rose, Acne Studios, Cheap Monday, Jacquemus, and Telfar). Limited- edition fashion collaborations with friends like Chloë Sevigny, Spike Jonze, and Yoko Ono were regular occurrences too. Leon and Lim also used the space to curate art, music, and film projects at their various locations (additional OC boutiques opened in LA, London, and Tokyo).

“When we started in 2002 there was this whole big return to luxury and I was really excited about supporting young designers and finding nuanced brands from around the world,” Leon says. “I loved discovering strange, interesting curiosities everywhere I traveled. I was more about experimenting, giving a chance to a graduate student and creating an opportunity for them.”

The cultural draw of Opening Ceremony was immediate and lasted for a solid 18 years. Leon and Lim were so successful in their quest to attract a younger consumer that they were tapped as co- creative directors at the LVMH-owned fashion house Kenzo from 2011 to 2019—the first Asian American artistic directors installed at the conglomerate. Their fun and collaborative energy made a huge impact at the renowned label.

In January 2020, Opening Ceremony was acquired by Farfetch’s New Guards Group and Leon and Lim announced the retailer’s physical locations would be closing (but you can shop the brand via Farfetch). Although Leon still works in fashion through collaborations with brands such as Timberland, he decided during the Covid-19 lockdown to take on a few different “firsts.”

back, from left: James Emrani, Rica Leon, John Liu, Wendy Leon, Josefina Leon, and Humberto Leon; front, from left: Emi and Mazzy

He started with opening Chifa in LA’s Eagle Rock neighborhood in November 2020. Dedicated to serving Asian Peruvian cuisine, Chifa is a riff on his mother Wendy’s former restaurant, also named Chifa, which she opened in Lima, Peru (where the family was living at the time), in 1975. It is very much a family affair: Leon is usually there greeting guests and steeping tea, while his brother-in-law, John, is the chef and his sister, Rica, is the manager. Leon designed the eatery with the saturated sets of director Wong Kar-wai’s movies in mind. Inside are plush velvet stools and wavy green-and-white marble tables, while the façade, painted jade green, has a sideways- leaning heart-shaped window that Leon says holds special meaning.

Wendy Leon

“The heart was a commentary on how Asian people don’t talk about love and emotion,” Leon says. “I wanted to force that conversation as a Chinese person, and it opened me up with my family, talking about emotions and feelings and love, and I wanted to do that for everyone that came through the space.

Becoming a restaurateur was an interesting pivot, but Leon sees community as a through line in his work—and, like a pied piper, he is followed by his friends wherever he goes. At Chifa, Leon introduced the Friends of Chifa program, through which some of his well- regarded pals contribute limited- edition dishes for his menus. Jonze’s dish was wonton soup with a Peruvian base, while the singer Solange Knowles’s was trinity fried rice, and comedian Ali Wong’s a noodle special.

“When you come to Chifa I feel like one of the most common things that people say is, ‘Oh, wow, this feels like Opening Ceremony, but in a restaurant,’” Leon says. “To me, that’s interesting, because it proved my idea that I could create that same feeling in different places.”

top left: Jennie Chen, Ashley Yi, Christine Doan, and Soy Nguyen; top right: photographer Kanya Iwana; above left: Rica Leon and John Liu; above right: Carol Lim and Daniel Rasmussen

Another place where his creative spirit has manifested is the music industry. In 2022, he directed the Linda Lindas’ music video for their song Growing Up, which he calls a “passion project.” In it, Leon guided the all-girl group in a delightfully effervescent jam session complete with cats, bright make-up, and, of course, some playful dress-up. That video caught the eye of John Janick, CEO of Interscope Geffen A&M, and Michelle An, now president of the label’s creative strategy, who invited Leon to work on Dream Academy, its initiative with HYBE (the powerhouse behind the K-pop sensation BTS) in which 20 participants competed for a spot in a global girl group. “It was a very east-west project,” Leon says. “It was K-pop meets pop, and I think they felt like I rode that sensibility perfectly.”

The survival-style series debuted on YouTube last September and ended with a mid-November finale revealing the remaining six members—three contestants from the US, one from South Korea, a participant from the Philippines, and another from Switzerland—and their new group, Katseye. The journey has also been documented for a Netflix docuseries slated to air later this year. In his role, Leon relished the ability to have a hand in everything and to connect with each contestant.

“As a creative director in the K-pop world, you’re a part of every decision,” he says. “You influence everything, and I’ve never done this before. That’s part of why it was really exciting, and interesting new ideas came out of it because I was coming into it with such a different perspective. As much as we’re making a pop group, the girls have so much emotionality, and I wanted to make sure I was able to tell that side of the story as well.”

Niohuru X

from left: Johnson Yur, Mimi Kok, Jonathan Crisman, Phillipe Thao, and Howin Wong

Juggling so many projects is not for the faint of heart, but Leon makes it look seamless. His friend Sankary—who became a business colleague who worked at Opening Ceremony and, most recently, helped to manufacture the Chifa uniforms—says this breeziness is the quality he admires most in Leon.

“I’ve never seen him stress,” Sankary says. “I think he is really good at giving it his all and just being, like, ‘I did the best I could do with this and I have to let it go and go on to the next.’ He’s always very sure of himself.”

Whether it’s parenting, directing, designing, or running a restaurant, Leon does it all with his trademark energy. He acknowledges that, while there’s a commercial element to his projects (often, the need to sell a product), at the core of his pursuit is being able to pull out a seat at the table for other people, in creating things that are meant to be shared—and, in turn, become an experience that is more than meets the eye.

“When you think about Opening Ceremony, you’ll remember sitting there, you’ll remember meeting a friend there, and you might remember the product,” Leon says. “But at the end of the day, it’s about the feeling. The feeling can live forever. That, to me, is what I find success is—when I can create memories for people.”

top left: Joao Moraes and Andrew Thomas Huang; top right: Humberto Leon; above left: Phillipe Thao and Bobby Sankary;

above right: the dessert makers, Alicia Liu (Lavender and Truffles), Heather Wong (Flouring), and Stephanie Fong (Go Cakes)

Humberto Leon with Mazzy and Emi

from left: Valerie Vonprisk and Sully Layo

on right: Wendy Leon

Instagram: @humberto

Photographer KANYA IWANA


Photographer’s assistants JEREMY ERIC SINCLAIR and SANDIA

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