Elvis, $3,000 Sweater Inspire Designer Humberto Leon

I made Humberto Leon tell me what he thought of my outfit.

“Did that blazer come as part of a suit?” he asked, wincing slightly as he looked me over. “If you wore it with darker things, it could look better.”

He was right -- and that is the secret of his success: Leon knows how to make clothes work.

Leon and his business partner Carol Lim each chipped in $5,000 to found the downtown department store Opening Ceremony in 2002. A decade later, the two remain entirely self-financed and have seven stores across the world. They design their own label for Opening Ceremony, and in 2011 were named creative directors of the French fashion line Kenzo.

We met in a conference room in the Opening Ceremony Chinatown offices, a few blocks from the original store. Wearing a button-down shirt from the new Kenzo collection, dark suit pants and white Reeboks, Leon, 37, spoke about style, art and Elvis.

Tarmy: Do you have any advice for your customers?

Leon: I always encourage people to buy a suit, but not wear it as a suit -- to wear the jacket as a separate, and the pants as a separate. I’ve never liked this idea that suits have to be together.

Suit Investment

Tarmy: How much is too much to spend on a suit?

Leon: If you’re a connoisseur of fabric, you can go really high, because there are some gorgeous Italian and Japanese wools and cashmere blends.

The most I would want to spend on a suit is probably $5,000. I think it’s a great investment.

Opening Ceremony’s suits start at $600 and go up to $1,200, while Kenzo suits sell from about $900 to about $1,700. Very reasonable.

Tarmy: I saw a $3,000 sweater in your store and wondered who would buy it. Is offering something like that based on faith or on market research?

Leon: For me, it’s really simple. I look at the item, and I think, “Is this worth $3,000 because of x, y and z?” And if I can’t come up with those justifications, then it’s not worth it.

The fabric must be incredible or something about the construction must be gorgeous.

There might be a Rodarte piece that is astronomically expensive. But you’ll probably find out that you’re one of two people who own that piece. And that in itself is value.

Elvis Presley

Tarmy: What items should a man invest in?

Leon: Shoes and jackets are the man’s answers to the bag. I always think about things that you can put on every day -- like your Barbour coat -- and no one will say, “Hey, you’re wearing the same thing!”

You can wear the same shoes for months and no one will say anything. Those are the things that I love.

Tarmy: How else do you spend your money?

Leon: I love art, I love homeware, I collect ceramics, lots of weird objects. Sometimes if I want something really special but I can’t afford it, I’ll do a lot of auctions and buy off the secondhand market.

I bought a Robert Longo diptych for a really affordable price. I’ve bought a couple of pieces by Weegee and an Elizabeth Peyton.

Tarmy: What’s next for the fall 2013 season?

Leon: We did a partnership with the Elvis Presley Foundation. We wanted to interpret Las Vegas in a way that didn’t feel like your typical version of the town.

I think that they could tell that we would do something that would really elevate Elvis’s stature, like this sweatshirt: It’s printed with his original album cover font, which the skateboard brand Thrasher lifted in the 1980s.

We found amazing information, and then we took it further.

(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s NYC Weekend Best and Lewis Lapham’s podcast.

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