Opening Ceremony co-founder Carol Lim knows her retailer’s customers are savvier than ever and that there’s a lot of noise in fashion today. This knowledge guides the collaboration and partnership strategy at Opening Ceremony, which has worked with brands including Columbia Sportswear, Google and the Muppets. Most recently, the retailer launched its third collection designed in partnership with German apparel brand Esprit.
“Our lens is the customer. When we design a collaboration, we ask, ‘What would make this different? Why would someone buy this one, as opposed to something else?’” said Lim. “We have to know that it’s gonna be something that’s appealing because it stands out. That’s our success factor.”
Lim and her co-founder, Opening Ceremony designer Humberto Leon, have been engineering design collaborations since 2012, when they opened Opening Ceremony. She and Leon are also the creative directors of Kenzo, which is no stranger to collaborations, having worked with H&M on a collection in the past.
Now that the retail tactic has surged in popularity as brands and retailers look to give sales a jolt with limited-edition product, Lim shared her ground rules for pulling off a popular collaboration.
Understand the brand you’re working with
Lim said that she and Leon have always been inspired by Esprit, and that she’s been collecting Esprit pieces for years. In the past five years, however, the company lost about 90 percent of its valuation, and pulled out of the Asian and North American markets, selling exclusively in Europe and Australia. When Lim and Leon first decided to work with Esprit last year, the goal was to reintroduce the brand to a new set of customers.
Items from the latest Opening Ceremony x Esprit collection
“We wanted to tap into what the brand was once known for — the attitude, the sensibility, a connection to real people — and infuse it into the categories we know. They thought about the story they wanted to tell to our customers, and we incorporated that into both the product and how it was sold,” said Lim. “We see it as a celebration of the brand, because we want people to go back and rediscover them.”
Form a lasting relationship
Lim said Opening Ceremony collaborations are considered partnerships, because the retailer isn’t interested in flash-in-the-pan one-offs that disappear after the collection sells out. The idea is that the collections can evolve over a few seasons, and customers of Opening Ceremony — which Lim and Leon consider a “democratic” brand — will get multiple chances to score items from the collaborations. This makes the success of collaborations more sustainable, as retailers that have had huge one-off collaborations often have a hard time repeating that same lightning-in-a-bottle magic year over year.
“We have longstanding partnerships that maybe don’t come back every season, but they eventually do come back. I️t has to feel right for a long time; there’s no set formula, but we don’t do things once,” said Lim. “We want to express [brands’] vision alongside our vision and create some consistency. If customers like a brand, we’ll continue to [sell] it. We’re not interested in the one-time marketing fix of a collaboration.”
Know when to say no
Opening Ceremony has a lot of collaborations under its belt, but Lim said she is highly picky about which she decides to work with. The overall mission is to make collections Opening Ceremony customers respond to, and Lim said her customers can immediately identify when something feels off-brand.
“We do a lot, but there’s more we don’t do. We’re really good about saying to a brand, ‘We don’t know how to tell that story. We’re honored, but we need to know why we’re coming together, and it has to make sense.’ If it’s not personal to us, we won’t do it,” said Lim. “Our customers also need to be excited. Otherwise, in two seconds, they would be like, ‘Um, what is that? Why are you doing that?’ They’re vocal, and they can smell out a bad match, and that’s because we’ve always been able to explain why we do things. What matters, ultimately, is that people want to buy it. It’s successful when I see it sell and people are wearing it on the street. ”
Look for experts
Opening Ceremony’s most successful collaborations capitalize on borrowing areas of expertise from other retailers. Lim and Leon want the answer to, “Why are we doing this?” to be: “Because we can’t do it ourselves.”
“The partners we’re most excited about are the experts in their space. For instance, Columbia is an expert in technical outerwear. They can do something better and with legitimacy that we can’t, and then we add our element to it that can set it apart,” said Lim. “We create something in a new language that’s best of the both sides, and then it’s a win. We make a lot of product, but there are times we know this isn’t our strength, so we partner with someone and put our mark on it.”
Don’t forget to think beyond product
According to Lim, the product itself is only one-fifth of a successful collaboration.
“You have to think about the full 360. How is it hanging in the store? How is it marketed? How are you speaking to the customer on behalf of the two brands working together? These questions come up with everything we’ve done, and the answers are different for every new project,” said Lim. “But inspiring people and bringing them into a new community is as important to a partnership as the product itself.”