When he’s stumped or in a quandary, Humberto Leon often asks himself, “What would Wendy do?”
It’s a question he has posed any number of times since founding Opening Ceremony, the outpost of alternative style that he runs with Carol Lim.
Wendy, as it happens, is Wendy Leon, Mr. Leon’s mother — a dynamo, who, whenever her son is feeling pressed to feed mobs of guests at one of his frequent gatherings, to unscramble his finances or to beef up inventory, will gamely step into the breech.
In 2002, when Mr. Leon and Ms. Lim opened their doors on Howard Street, Ms. Leon could often be found tucked into a corner of the store whipping up batches of the company’s hand-knit sweaters and signature hoodies.
A fixture in those early years, she remains in her son’s orbit, making 11th-hour alterations backstage during fashion week, preparing carne asada and thin-skinned Hong Kong-style wontons for visitors, or traveling with her extended fashion family to Paris, where Mr. Leon and Ms. Lim are the creative directors for Kenzo.
But now, at 72, Ms. Leon has made a brash move of her own, stepping out from behind the scenes to vamp for the camera in the Kenzo spring/summer 2019 advertising campaign, which was unveiled last week.
Earlier this month she reminisced with her son at the Opening Ceremony showroom on Centre Street. She wore a flounced Kenzo dress in a bright yellow rosebud pattern over an otherwise unadorned black turtleneck and boots. Her debut as a model, she said, began the day last fall when the photographer David LaChapelle turned to her on set, demanding, “You, stay in the picture.”
Ms. Leon demurred. “I like to watch,” she told him at the time, her final and somewhat feeble plea before being whisked to hair and makeup and gussied up for her star turn.
Recalling that moment the other day, she was still bemused, confiding with a shake of her head, “I thought at my age, and with such a young crew, I wouldn’t know what I was doing.”
It turned out she was a natural. She appears in Mr. LaChapelle’s surreally kaleidoscopic image with arms outstretched, gazing skyward and floating against a backdrop of primordial looking greenery.
Nor was her outfit, a vibrant mélange of pink, blue and green, much of a stretch. “As a young woman I would look at people in the street,” Ms. Leon said. “I was jealous of the way they dressed, but I never had money to buy, so I would make my own clothes. I liked wearing clashing colors.”
For all of her initial misgivings, she has embraced the role of model, happy enough to join the meager ranks of women over 60, a stable that includes Isabella Rossellini, China Machado and Maye Musk, who have posed for a roster of high-fashion brands.
“I want to see more people my age doing what I do,” Ms. Leon said. She is inclined, she added, to tell even her most skeptical friends: “Why not? You can do it.”
Her bred-in-the-bone positivity has left its mark on her son. “She instilled in me a lot of ideas about how to express yourself and how not to be shy,” Mr. Leon said.
“When I was 5, my feet were too small to fit into the boys’ dress shoes that I wanted to wear to school,” he said. Without thinking twice, his mother ushered him into a girls’ store to find him a suitable pair. “You want to wear dress shoes,” she told him briskly. “Well, this is a dress shoe.”
“When I was older, I was really into Morrissey,” Mr. Leon recalled, “so my mom would go out and buy these sheer materials and make shirts for me. She never judged. She was very open stylistically. If I felt there was something I wanted, she would find a way to make it happen.”
His mother’s resourcefulness is rooted in a hardscrabble past, and she came by her particular skill set in a less than glossy setting. At 9, she left her home in Zhongshan, near Macau, to live with an aunt in Hong Kong. By 10, she was supporting herself and her family as a nanny and housekeeper. She learned to launder, sew and cook, a skill that would later become indispensable.
Married in her 20s, she moved first to Peru, where she opened a Chinese restaurant — chifa, as they are known — then on to San Francisco. Mr. Leon, an infant at the time, traveled on her back as she performed odd jobs, including a stint cooking for a neighbor in his fast-food restaurant.
“In the storeroom they had 50- and 100-pound bags of rice,” Ms. Leon recalled dryly. “Humberto would take naps on the rice for two hours every day.”
She eventually found work running up seams at home for a clothing manufacturer. When her son was 4, she taught him to sew, instructing him in the beginner’s arts of snipping wayward threads and seams.
She has never stopped sewing but is otherwise occupied ladling out dollops of fashion sagacity as freely as she does her soups.
Her friends point out, she said, that she can wear anything now because her son designed it. Still, they tend to heed her when she urges them to be as bold. “Now they all copy; they dress like me,” she said, smiling broadly.
“As you age, it’s best to wear color,” she likes to tell them, fanning out her butter-tone skirt for emphasis. “Why not? Color makes you cheery. It gives you more energy.” And if that’s an illusion … well, fine.
Narrowing her eyes, Ms. Leon added: “You’re old anyway. But dressing this way, you don’t feel it.”
By RUTH LA FERLA