A year ago, Humberto Leon opened a restaurant on the northeast side of Los Angeles with his family.
It has been a destination for fashion fans from the start, and not just because Mr. Leon is a well-connected designer and was one of the founders of Opening Ceremony, the brand and former cool-kids boutique.
The food and decor were equally intriguing, with plates of Japanese sea bream and bowls of “wellness soup” (ingredients vary according to the weather of the day), served on undulating sea foam marble tables for diners in emerald green velvet chairs – a description that holds. disregard the zebra-esque print wallpaper or the minty terrazzo floors of the space.
The restaurant, Chifa, is an updated version of Mr Leon’s mother’s restaurant, which she closed in 1977 when she emigrated from Peru to the United States with her family.
“She had to close this thing she loved to give her kids a better life,” said Mr Leon, 46. “Forty years later, my sister and I, along with my brother-in-law, decided to reopen it with her. ”
Within its first year, the Chinese-Peruvian restaurant earned bib-gourmand recognition from Michelin, landed it on the Condé Nast Traveler list of the world’s best new restaurants and, Mr Leon said, has a wait of several weeks for indoor tables.
One thing it didn’t have, despite its ties to the fashion world? A robust collection of merchandise, which has grown in popularity especially during the pandemic as off-menu offerings in restaurants and bars. That will change this week with a ‘capsule collection’ designed by Mr. Leon in partnership with Vista, a small business design and marketing platform.
Here, in an interview edited for length and clarity, Mr. Leon how fashion and food can merge in bucket hats and tote bags (and chopsticks and sweatshirts and lunch bags).
“I think fashion has been a canvas for me in the past,” he said, “and this restaurant is a similar canvas.”
What exactly did you want with this collection? What was your motivation?
When I created the feel and look of Chifa – when my sister asked me “What do you want it to be? How do you want it to be expressed?” — I said that as a consumer I’m always thinking about what to buy, like, “Oh my God, I love these chopsticks. I want to buy them.”
I have to think about what the staff are going to wear, and I really think about those things because I want all of those things to be desirable. I’m not trying to make a waiter’s uniform in the classic sense. I try to think: what do I want to wear? What do they want to wear?” And why can’t a customer also say “Wait, I want to wear that too”?
So to do the waiters wear?
They generally wear jeans and soon they will be wearing these T-shirts and sweatshirts that we made in the color that matches the building. There is an interesting combination of colors that Vista did well and did really well. They teamed up with a local production company called Everybody World.
I think most non-fashion companies don’t get the chance to make T-shirts and sweatshirts from scratch, so for me that’s a great luxury.
Was that building color hard to match?
Oh my God, the hardest color in the world.
If you came to the restaurant, you would probably think, “I need sunglasses to look at that building.” It is a very special green. It’s not fluorescent, but it’s not jade. It’s this interesting bright green – and then combined with a primary red.
That combination evokes childhood memories and speaks to my Chinese culture. Those colors simply radiate happiness and prosperity and look ahead.
Is there a product that stands out for you?
I am so enthusiastic about the paper take-away bags alone. They have our official heart symbol, which I wanted to symbolize our family.
Growing up as an Asian immigrant in America, you don’t really talk about love. Oddly enough, you just don’t say it like I’ve always seen it in movies. I wanted to break that weird kind of boundary.
I think in our family you show love by doing things, not with words. You do it in your actions. It’s never like “I love you” or “I’m going to tell you how I feel about you.” I wanted to have a symbol that could talk about love, and have a space where people could feel the love. I know it sounds cheesy.
This is the same heart shape cut out of the front of your building, like a window.
The heart is tilted and I drew it especially because I wanted it to almost look like the building was winking at you.
You recently released a few non-fashion projects, such as a VR collaboration with McDonald’s and a video clip for the Linda Lindas, in addition to running Chifa. Want to move further into these worlds – especially food – and further away from the traditional fashion device?
Really, at the core of everything I ever do, it’s all about storytelling.
I think I’ve opened the door in terms of restaurants, and it’s a super fun place. But I also don’t rule out the possibility of not touching the fashion in my restaurant, and that I will probably also bring food to the opening ceremony. They all exist in one world for me.