The Legacy of Herb Ritts Lives on in Opening Ceremony’s New Capsule

By Mitchell Nugent

Photographed by Herb Ritts

July 2, 2021
Herb Ritts
Humberto Leon & Carol Lim. Polaroids courtesy of Opening Ceremony.

It’s 1977 and on the dusty outskirts of San Bernardino, two stars were born in the unlikeliest of places: an off-road gas station in the middle of the Californian desert. Newfound friends—the wannabe photographer Herb Ritts, then 25, and the budding actor, Richard Gere, 27—were on a joyride when their car’s tire popped. While mechanics went to work, so did Ritts—shooting Gere as the actor tiptoed around the body shop, armpits out and flexing his well-oiled physique as if he were a shiny new convertible at a trade show. Unbeknownst to Ritts and Gere, the two rolls of film shot that day would become their vehicle to breakthrough success. Soon, Gere’s publicist got the images into glossies like Esquire and Vogue; and as Gere’s film credits flourished, Ritts became a sought-after celebrity portraitist. 

Peter Shire, The Linda Lindas, James Veloria.

Upon his passing in 2002, the late Interview editor Ingrid Sischy attributed Ritts’ success to his “California ease” and “sharp and rigorous eye.” In a warm tribute in our March 2003 issue, Sischy writes, “People often talk about [Herb’s] elegance as a photographer and as a person. They were right. Ritts was genuinely one of the nicest guys you could meet. He was also a photographer whose significance in the history of the medium will only continue to grow.” Since writing that eulogy, Ritts’ influence, as Sischy anticipated, continues to resonate. Two figures who are particularly enthralled by Ritts are Carol Lim and Humerto Leon, the designer duo behind Opening Ceremony. Late last month, Lim and Leon released a limited-edition capsule collection that consists of four t-shirt designs that splash some of Ritts’ iconic portraits across their torsos. The collection, a part of their company’s 365 Days of Pride initiative, was created in collaboration with the Herb Ritts Foundation. To commemorate the capsule, O.C. threw bicoastal parties in Los Angeles and New York last week that brought together a mix of industry icons and tomorrow’s class of cool kids. Below, peruse polaroids from the events and read more about the iconic photographer.

Jalena Keane-Lee, Jenevieve Ting, Jezz Chung, Jordan Firstman, & Jason A. Rodriguez.

While an older audience may recognize Ritts’ signature sensuality in a Janet Jackson music video or Marky Mark’s crotch-grabbing Calvin Klein ads, a younger consumer may not. That’s where the t-shirts come in. As Leon puts it, “Carol and I are the king and queen of bringing back people whose stories that we want to tell, and introducing them to a younger generation.” 

DeVonn Francis, Kyle Luu, Fiffany Luu, Sandy Kim.

It’s not lost on Lim nor Leon that their capsule ignites may also illuminate aspects of the HIV/AIDS crisis for younger people. While Ritts’ celebrity portrait work is well-known, his ability to present the unflinching humanity of his subjects is perhaps the photographer’s greatest strength. For this reason, the design duo decided not to feature Ritts’ more famous celebrity portraits in their collection, opting instead for some of his more ambiguous and bodily work. As Leon tells us, “It’s about remembering the people that have died of AIDS and how vulnerable that period was. As somebody who’s lived through it, I never want to not remember what AIDS did to gay men and to people in general.”

Patia Borja, Kim Gordon.

As part of the pair’s commitment to honoring Ritts’ life and work, Leon and Lim sat down with a selection of iconic Herb Ritts photos from the Interview archive. Below, they share their quick takes on the iconic stills.

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George Michael, Interview, October 1988

Herb Ritts

Leon: “My First karaoke song [was] definitely “Freedom”—  thinking I can do every part and acting out like every supermodel, [George Michael] is obviously a gay icon.”

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Djimon Hounsou, Interview, December 1991

Lim: “Wow. For Herb and like his willingness to [tell Djimon], ‘This is what I want you to embody and be powerful and yourself.’ That’s an amazing image that I think that maybe not all men would have done.”

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Michelle Pfeiffer, Interview, August 1988

Leon: “I mean, who doesn’t love Michelle Pfeiffer, obviously. She looks exactly like the still, she’s so mega.”

Lim: “She’s up there in terms of aging gracefully and choosing to come in and out of the spotlight when she wants. She’s one of the all-time greats.”

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Madonna, Interview, June 1990

Leon: “I mean, it’s so perfect. And I also think that [Herb’s] work with Madonna transcends time. There’s so much of it. I mean that “True Blue” profile photo couldn’t be more iconic. [It] feels like he’s worked with her from the very beginning.”

Lim: “It’s amazing how [Herb] had this relationship with so many different people. And I think this is a testament to obviously who he is, that he is able to continue to work all these different years, capturing someone like [Madonna] in a lot of different ways.”

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David Bowie, Interview, May 1990

Lim: “I mean, this is just perfection. One icon meeting another. You can’t ever recreate that again.”

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Naomi Campbell, Interview, January 1991

Leon: “He’s got so many images of [Naomi] that I can’t even pick. And I think…the beautiful thing that I find so amazing is [Herb] really shot Black [subjects] so incredibly; he really allowed their skin tone to shine.”


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