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States Pop Quiz #39: Humberto Leon

Getting arrested in McDonalds, high-school crushes and telling CEO’s to shut up: How America is now to Opening Ceremony and Kenzo designer Humberto Leon

As part of our States of Independence summer takeover, 50 American indie icons have volunteered to take the Dazed Pop Quiz; a quick-fire Q&A about what they love and loathe about life in the USA. Check back here every day for more from the series. 

Humberto Leon is a very positive person. And that’s half the magic when it comes to the designer. As half of a fashion duo (alongside his business partner Carol Lim) that started off as shop owners and quickly became radical influencers in the industry, it’s always been about colour and optimism. Sort of like a rainbow for many of the clothes and pop-culture obsessed people across the globe, young and old. They opened the now legendary boutique Opening Ceremony back in 2002 in New York’s SoHo. The store, a home to groundbreaking young designers became a haven for both the fashion elite and trend hungry party kids. Now it boasts stores across the world, including Tokyo and London. Their knack for knowing how to buy and sell clothes in a new way and building a family of employees that people genuinely loved bagged them the job as creative directors of Kenzo.

And if anyone knows a thing or two about fashion, the duo’s reworking of what was once a minimal, 90s fashion house with a thing for stenciling and an apparent disability to update itself relevantly, you’ll know that Kenzo is now the heart of dressing up for anyone invested in grown-up, luxury street and contemporary wear. It was even part of the movement that placed the sweater as a dream item again. “We’re very lucky because we’re surrounded by so many people we admire,” Humberto gushes when Dazed ask him about where he and Carol source their seemingly never ending waves of inspiration. “Even people that aren’t in the same field as us. Our friends like Chloe Sevigny, Spike Jonze who are established in what they do who inspire us on a daily basis. Our friends who are chefs, documentarians or co-workers- those people keep us going.” 

Which living American do you most admire and why? 

Humberto Leon: Carol Lim, my business partner. She has many amazing personality traits that I don’t have.

Which living American do you most despise and why?

Humberto Leon: Americans who use guns irresponsibly and kill for no reason. 

Whose face should be on the $100 bill?

Humberto Leon: It should always be Benjamin Franklin. If he weren’t on there, ‘It’s all about the Benjamin’s’ wouldn’t make sense. 

What is your favorite quote about America?

Humberto Leon: ‘The first amendment gave us freedom of speech. So what you saying’? It didn’t include me’ it’s from a song by 2 Live Crew called Banned In The USA.It’s an interesting question to ask. The first amendment is meant to protect all Americans.

What three words define the States today?

Humberto Leon: Obsession, escape, eternity.

Who gave you your first break? Do you still talk?

Humberto Leon: Yes, actually. A girl named Liz Eleart. She was the first person at college to really believe in me and said ‘One day I will work for you.’

When + where are you the most happy?

Humberto Leon: I’ve been happy in many stages. I’d like to say now as I don’t really like to harp on about things or look back with a woe is me attitude.

What high school clique were you in? Do you stay in touch?

Humberto Leon: Personally, I would say part of the nerd group. Like, the outsiders hanging with the skaters and Goths. We all got clumped together. Then I saddled with the cheerleaders and the jocks because I hung out with the cheerleaders and the jocks wanted to know them. I stay in touch with my tennis partner and my homecoming date.

What food reminds you of home?

Humberto Leon: A mix between fast food and home cooking.

What smell do you associate with the city of your birth? 

Humberto Leon: Live chickens.

What's the best road trip you've ever been on? 

Humberto Leon: Probably my runaway trip to Mexico when I was still in school. 

Where did you first fall in love?

Humberto Leon: In high school with the first boy I ever kissed. It was senior year and it was the first time I really ever felt something for someone.

What would make you leave America forever?

Humberto Leon: I would never leave America forever. I will live and die in America. 

What noise reminds you of the States?

Humberto Leon: The noise of jackhammers and sirens.  

What is your favorite American building?

Humberto Leon: The Guggenheim. It was one of the first landmarks I visited in New York and it reminds me of the first time I was away from home. It’s just timeless and I’ll never forget seeing it in pictures in magazines and then actually seeing it in real life. 

Ultimate American film?

Humberto Leon: The Twin Peaks movie.

Ultimate American album?

Humberto Leon: The first Fugees album.

Most overrated US tourist attraction

Humberto Leon: I love all tourist attractions. I really do. I love Museum Of The Moving Image in Astoria, New York. It’s beyond nerdy. They have everything from Jim Henson exhibitions to robots.

Most underrated US tourist attraction

Humberto Leon: Museum of the moving image.

Favorite slang phrase?

Humberto Leon: ‘Shut up’. It’s both positive and negative. It can inform alot depending on how you say it.  I got in trouble for telling the CEO of a company to shut up. He didn’t know I meant it in a positive way though.

What is your ultimate American guilty pleasure? 

Humberto Leon: Popeyes. I don’t do it very often. I will indulge in some fast food in the airport too actually. Although, I have moved away from fast food thing a lot since having kids.

What law would you change or invent?

Humberto Leon: The law on firearms. For obvious reasons.

Where in the States would you ride out the apocalypse?

Humberto Leon: I would want all my friends and family to be somewhere like The Joshua Tree in California where you can really try to escape civilization in a nearby way. 

When was your last run-in with the cops? What happened?

Humberto Leon: It was in McDonalds. A customer was being really rude to a worker so I got in a physical fight with the person. The cops had to pull us apart but they got kicked out and I got to stay and order my breakfast. This was back in 1998 by the way. I stay clear of the cops now.

If you could change one thing about the US, what would it be?

Humberto Leon: A tighter restriction on ingredients that should be banned in the US that are in Europe. There are certain ingredients in shampoos and household supplies that are used to preserve those products. These are ingredients that are listed to cause cancer and all sorts of illnesses. There are actually 300 of these ingredients the US that Europe doesn’t allow.

Which fictional American do you most identify with?

Humberto Leon: Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid’. I think we all have that longing to live in somebody else’s world. 

If you could vote for Obama again, would you?

Humberto Leon: Yes.

If you lost it all tomorrow, what would you do the day after?

Humberto Leon: I would hopefully have some money for breakfast to go think about what I was going to do next.

What will America look like in 2050?

Humberto Leon: Well, hopefully we will have done some great cleaning up of the global warming mess we have made. That and I hope Manhattan still exists. I think it will look as futuristic as we imagine it to be with cars driving themselves and floating skateboards.

Does the American Dream still exist?

Humberto Leon: Yes. I think that there are still people who come to America with a wish. America is so big so the dream is different for many, but it’s still a very optimistic place.