Photography by Chandler Kennedy

A few hours before Opening Ceremony’s Fall/Winter 2016 show, inflatable hovercrafts are being hung above an orange racetrack while brash techno plays at warp speed in the background. The “future Kentucky Derby,” the theme of the collection and presentation, is shaping up to be as decadent, frivolous, and mystifying as the annual horse-around rituals of our current day. Instead of prim hats and gloves, the models will wear pink velour suits embossed with snakeskin prints and matching go-go boots. Holographic glitter will be pressed along their jawlines, and they will don dresses screen-printed with the work of Syd Mead, the artist behind the movies Blade Runner and Aliens as well as mid-20th-century urban planning for cities like Los Angeles. Opening Ceremony’s designers, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, like to imagine that these outfits will be customary for the bright young debutantes of the retro-future—but also for you, right now, in the present. 

“We’re always into the reality of how [a person] is wearing the collection,” Lim says when I sit down with the pair below their flying objects before the show. “You’ll see a lot of innovation in terms of fabrication techniques and whatnot, but we’re thinking of where she’s wearing it. It’s not supposed to be abstract. It’s supposed to be something that she can understand.”

Leon agrees, saying, “We look at our closets and say, ‘What am I in the mood for? Where am I going?’ There’s the nice stuff that you go to meet your boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents in, then there’s the stuff like, ‘I’m going to go out tonight, and I’m going to have some fun, and I want to go dancing.’ And then, ‘I feel shitty today; I feel like dressing up during the day.’ There’s never a separation between fantasy and reality. We don’t know how else to approach [design].” 

At the afterparty at 88 Broadway, actress Rosario Dawson embodied Leon’s vision of a sensibly clad, but sexy, party girl in a denim one-piece jumpsuit. She affirmed this proclivity toward believable space-age attire: “I think a lot of what we’re doing now is going to carry on into the future—we’re not going to be wearing plastic! It’s not just about the technology, it’s about the strength of the materials. The colors were really bright and rich—it wasn’t pastel, it wasn’t neon. It was really sexy!”

Opening Ceremony’s intentions for the collection are grounded in upbeat practicality, even in times that can feel dystopian. The future is, in fact, here—so what the hell do we wear? Dawson said, “You have all of these people who have been saying, ‘This is the end of the world,’ for so many years, and then that’s all being surpassed as we go forward. We’re having these different visions of the future.”

How do you impart the immensity of our shared march through time in the 10 short minutes it takes models to lap around a runway? Set designer Desi Santiago says his intention was “inspiring people with ephemeral ideas that have been made manifest—that have been built. It’s sort of implanting a memory into someone. That’s what I get off on! Everything that I design is as experiential as possible. I think about these installations as pockets in time.” Drawing from Mead's 1975 illustration "Running of the 200th KD," Santiago created his once-and-never-again vision of the ’60s utopian future with a set featuring “inflatable vehicles and UFOs. Their shapes are very cartoonish and exaggerated, but they’re filled with nothing! They’re filled with air. When you breathe into them, they occupy space—and then they’re gone.”

Using blow-up UFOs as an allegory for the fleeting nature of utopian visions of the future might seem a bit much at a fashion how. But this season's presentation is quite in keeping with Opening Ceremony’s unorthodox take. Their shows are tongue-in-cheek pop art as much as they are earnest meditations on style and society. This confluence of “lo-fi and hi-fi,” as Leon puts it, has resulted in some of the most memorable shows of New York Fashion Week’s past few years.

Spike Jonze and Jonah Hill wrote and directed a play at the Metropolitan Opera House starring critically adulated actors like Rashida Jones to show their Spring/Summer 2015 collection. Guests were led through a back entrance, unaware that when they sat down and the proscenium lifted, they’d discover that they were sitting on the stage, facing the seats of the theater. The Spring/Summer 2016 presentation bamboozled its audience when a model tripped, then another…and then another, who sprang into graceful, acrobatic contortions upon rising. The New York Ballet Company had never modeled before, but they were naturals at it under Opening Ceremony’s direction.

Spectacles are their specialty, according to Lim. “We want to create shows that are more of a moment in history. Where the collection is just one part of it, and you’re able to say, ‘Do you remember when it was the Syd Mead collection…’”

Leon finishes a sentence that must be a refrain in their private conversations: “‘…When they did the ballet show, or the car show, or the play at the Met?’ We’ve always wanted to give the audience an experience.” This year, front-row guests like Jaden Smith, Charli XCX, and Natasha Lyonne were among those who came to witness the performative shows for which Opening Ceremony has become notorious.

Leon says that Opening Ceremony’s presentations are meant to capture a place in time for more personal reasons, as well: “[The shows] mark a time period of where we’re at. We like to use our runway shows to express ideas that are personal conversations between us.” The resulting collection this year stems from the pair looking back to the recent past and trying to square up if the future actually is what it used to be, as predicted in Mead’s retrofuturist illustrations and his other artworks.

Leon says, “Carol and I have thought a lot about what the future means to us. In the sixties, people really felt like the future was going to be this amazing place—you’d have organic farming and self-sustaining communities. Where are we as people, where are we with technology, with cityscapes? Syd [Mead] is a futurist illustrator and artist. We’re in the future he was drawing for, and in many ways, we’ve surpassed it. In other ways, we’re not even close.” This season’s collection appears to reflect that tension by using traditional shapes—business casual skirts paired with coats with jazzed-up shoulder points instead of pads—in black, searing orange and pink, and metallics. The best pieces, though, are the dresses that feature exact replications of Syd Mead’s drawings for what a potential “future Kentucky Derby” would look like.

Lim and Leon were drawn to Mead’s work because of its functional approach to sci-fi’s special brand of fortune-telling, Leon says. “We asked him, ‘What was the fashion based on in your drawings?’ He said, ‘The fashion’s real. That’s what real people would be wearing. I wasn’t trying to say that clothing would be a bauble and a headpiece. There’s a reality to it.’ As he goes through, he’s like, ‘That person’s a security guard, which is why they’re wearing those pieces.’” 

Their hope for the person who wears the new collection is a simple one, Lim says. “It’s about amplifying her own confidence—however way she wants to do it. She has it in her, and these are the tools that she can put on. She’s going to have fun, and feel even stronger.” The design team’s impetus was described succinctly at the afterparty by the Urban Bush Babes writer and model Cipriana Quann: “Instead of man on the moon, it was woman on the moon!”

Opening Ceremony’s Fall/Winter 2016 collection was made for a person who believes that the future is an occasion worth dressing up for. “For us, this modern future-reality is very optimistic,” says Lim. Neither designer laments the end of times once during our conversation. That stellar view of our modern world is a disruption not only of Fashion Week, but the tone of the rest of this year.