Hipsters Stage Fashion Olympics! Countries Claw for Shelf Space

Best friends and business partners Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, both 29, unveiled Opening Ceremony in September of 2002. Their concept: the Olympics. No, not cheesy promotional merch, but an actual retail version of the Olympics-a yearly contest between 15 U.S. designers and 15 designers from another nation that builds to a close with Olympic-style anticipation. “We were interested in the idea of countries, and how can we really focus on countries,” Mr. Leon said.

The top three designers from each country with the most sales “win.” The prize: an opportunity to stay on as part of Opening Ceremony’s permanent collection. Last year, the U.S. “team” competed against and conquered Hong Kong; it’s currently battling Brazil. At the end of August, the proprietors will tally the sales and announce the medalists, and then Germany will enter the fray.

Opening Ceremony announces the new country a full year in advance so that everyone, especially the amateurs straight from design school, gets a fair shake. The store’s owners discover the foreign designers through their international network of friends and business associates. The first year, the Hong Kong designers were a little vague on the nature of the contest-so, fortunately, they didn’t quite take in the fact that they lost. “I don’t think they were aware of what we were doing,” Mr. Leon said.

The predominant aesthetic here is unisex. Opening Ceremony might as well be operating under Title IX, since there’s a male and female version of practically every article of clothing in stock. The current house line, which is designed by Mr. Leon, comes in six sizes and includes items like a white blazer ($225) and reversible trench coat ($325). Most retail stores “buy their men’s very specifically and their women’s very specifically,” he said, “whereas we buy it very identical.” If you bought your entire wardrobe here, you wouldn’t look too much like a woman, or a man, which means that all people-male and female, gay and straight-would have the option of finding you attractive. That’s the theory, anyway.

“It’s for a girl who’s O.K. with looking different,” Mr. Leon said. “The 18-year-old, really fun girls. They want to buy really fun things that none of their friends can have.”

Ms. Lim cited another demographic: “Working professionals. Like women in P.R. who can really appreciate a certain aesthetic,” she said. “It’s a very intellectual customer.”

The two owners spend practically every waking hour together, often meeting before work to play tennis, eat breakfast or just hang out. “

“We could both sit here and not talk to each other for six hours,” Mr. Leon said. “We basically are more in a relationship than in our relationships!”

Their rare differences are handled with tactful phrases like “What made you decide to do that?” or “Do you think that was the smartest thing to do?”

“We’ve never actually fought about anything,” Ms. Lim said. “I mean, maybe one particular skirt I was like, ‘Hmmm …. ‘ We talk sometimes in code.” She gave an example: “What’s the B.D.? There’s a C here and there might be an S, a big S.”

Translation: “What’s the big deal? There’s a customer here and there might be a sale, a big sale.”

Mr. Leon stressed that it’s not all fun and games at Opening Ceremony. “When we’re at work, we’re really serious,” he said. “It’s not like we’re having cocktails at home and we come down here and continue that.”

Wooden chairs form a diamond shape in the center of the store’s floor, each piled with black-and-white sweatshirts at $70 apiece. Noteworthy Brazilian entries include a silver metallic leather jacket by Lorenzo Merlino ($495); a black cape/dress by Eduardo Inagaki ($295); and an off-white jean skirt by Alexandre Herchcovich ($195).

The founders of Opening Ceremony hope that their store opens people’s minds to other countries and cultures. “People may not go to Brazil,” Ms. Lim said, “so we try to expose a little bit.” The long-term vision is that the Olympic theme could expand to other fields: publications, music, “eventually food,” she said.

But for now, the clothing designers remain the focus. “We offer not only an opportunity for them in the store … but it really adds up to something much bigger in the future,” Mr. Leon said. And ultimately everyone’s a winner-even those who don’t make it to the “medal podium.” “We still communicate with those other designers,” Ms. Lim said. “You know: ‘How’s your collection going?'”

[35 Howard Street, Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday, noon to 7 p.m., 212-219-2688.]