The brand called me.
The other part of the story is that the value of brands that represent business conglomerates (as opposed to individuals) will continue to decline. Would you be more likely to trust someone as opposed to something?
July 30, 2006
The Brand Underground
By ROB WALKER
Aaron Bondaroff is 29, part Puerto Rican, part Jewish, Brooklyn-born and a high-school dropout. His life weaves through the most elusive subcultures of lower Manhattan. A-Ron, as he is also known, is one of those individuals who embodies a scene. “I’m so downtown,” Bondaroff is fond of saying, “I don’t go above Delancey.”
Even so, he longs for something bigger, like the cultural noise made by the Beats in the 1950’s or Andy Warhol’s Factory in the 1960’s or the bands and fans who clustered around CBGB’s in the 1970’s. He wants to “make history” and join “the time line” of New York. He is not an artist, an author, a designer, musician, filmmaker or even a famous skateboarder or graffiti writer. So in another era, Bondaroff might have had to settle for his cameos in some of the acclaimed images of youthful outsider debauchery captured by his photographer friend Ryan McGinley. He could be, in other words, a counterculture muse, like Neal Cassady or Edie Sedgwick.
In our present era, however, he may not have to settle. There’s a new alternative, one that’s neatly summed up in a question that A-Ron has been asking himself lately: “How do I turn my lifestyle into a business?”
The answer he came up with is worth paying attention to because it speaks to a significant but little-noted development in contemporary culture. Young people have always found fresh ways to rebel, express individuality or form subculture communities through cultural expression: new art, new music, new literature, new films, new forms of leisure or even whole new media forms. A-Ron’s preferred form of expression, however, is none of those things. When he talks about his chosen medium, which he calls aNYthing, it sounds as if he’s talking about an artists’ collective, indie film production company, a zine or a punk band. But in fact, aNYthing is a brand. A-Ron puts his brand on T-shirts and hats and other items, which he sells in his own store, among other places. He sees it as fundamentally of a piece with the projects and creations of his anti-mainstream heroes.
This might seem strange, since most of us think of branding as a thoroughly mainstream practice: huge companies buying advertising time during the Super Bowl to shout their trademarked names at us is pretty much the opposite of authentic or edgy expression. But branding is more complicated than that. It is really a process of attaching an idea to a product. Decades ago that idea might have been strictly utilitarian: trustworthy, effective, a bargain. Over time, the ideas attached to products have become more elaborate, ambitious and even emotional. This is why, for example, current branding campaigns for beer or fast food often seem to be making some sort of statement about the nature of contemporary manhood. If a product is successfully tied to an idea, branding persuades people — consciously or not — to consume the idea by consuming the product. Even companies like Apple and Nike, while celebrated for the tangible attributes of their products, work hard to associate themselves with abstract notions of nonconformity or achievement. A potent brand becomes a form of identity in shorthand.
Of course, companies don’t go into business in order to express a particular worldview and then gin up a product to make their point. Corporate branding is a function of the profit motive: companies have stuff to sell and hire experts to create the most compelling set of meanings to achieve that goal. A keen awareness of and cynicism toward this core fact of commercial persuasion — and the absurd lengths that corporations will go to in the effort to infuse their goods with, say, rebelliousness or youthful cool — is precisely the thing that is supposed to define the modern consumer. We all know that corporate branding is fundamentally a hustle. And guys like A-Ron are supposed to know that better than anybody.
Which is why the supposed counterculture nature of his brand might arouse some suspicion. Manufactured commodities are an artistic medium? Branding is a form of personal expression? Indie businesses are a means of dropping out? Turning your lifestyle into a business is rebellious?
And yet thousands and thousands of young people who are turned off by the world of shopping malls and Wal-Marts and who can’t bear the thought of a 9-to-5 job are pursuing a path similar to A-Ron’s. Some design furniture and housewares or leverage do-it-yourself-craft skills into businesses or simply convert their consumer taste into blog-enabled trend-spotting careers. Some make toys, paint sneakers or open gallerylike boutiques that specialize in the offerings of product-artists. Many of them clearly see what they are doing as not only noncorporate but also somehow anticorporate: making statements against the materialistic mainstream — but doing it with different forms of materialism. In other words, they see products and brands as viable forms of creative expression.
Through aNYthing, A-Ron sees himself as part of a “movement,” a brand underground. And maybe there is something going on here that can’t simply be dismissed just because of the apparent disconnect between the idea of a “brand” and the idea of an “underground.” After all, subcultures aren’t defined by outsiders passing judgment; they are defined by participants.
To try to understand this phenomenon and how it might play out, I sought a test-case category in which I could compare the experiences of several upstarts over time. The T-shirt, a simple commodity, seemed an ideal vessel. While some indie products are handmade, many more are, like T-shirts, manufactured goods that attract consumers largely through branding. Even with this single product as a framework, the variety is dizzying. Some T-shirt branders target high-end consumers, some are attached to the curious world of sneaker collecting and some are harder to categorize. Like A-Ron’s brand.
Bondaroff dropped out of high school at age 15 to spend more time partying, getting into trouble and hanging out with the people who were worth hanging out with. He ended up getting a job in Lower Manhattan at the Supreme store. Theoretically a skateboard brand, Supreme was really an attitude brand, and the store had a reputation as a place where clerks would insult you to your face if you weren’t cool enough. A-Ron was not only cool enough, he was photographed for Supreme ads and became its “unofficial face.” He offered his opinions about what would make the photo shoot work better or which underground artists the brand should work with. Supreme caught on in Japan, and by the time Bondaroff was 21, he was visiting Tokyo and getting asked for autographs by kids who had seen his picture in magazines. “I was always bugged out by that — people are like, ‘Oh, you’re that guy,”’ he told me not long ago. “You get famous for nothing.”
While still basically working a retail job, he was also becoming the cool guy who is flown to Australia to sit on a trend-setter panel or whose elaborate birthday party is underwritten by Nike. He was figuring out that he had the option of becoming, in effect, a corporate muse. But he concluded that there was no reason to rent his coolness and knowingness to other companies. The point of aNYthing was to turn his lifestyle into his own business.
He devised his brand not long after Sept. 11, 2001, and it is deeply tied to his love for New York City and his own status on the current downtown scene. The “NY” in the logo resembles that of the New York Giants football team, and aNYthing designs often blend familiar New York iconography (from The New York Post nameplate to Lotto signs) with the brand’s name. His boutique opened last year on Hester Street on the lower Lower East Side.
One reason an underground brand sounds nonsensical is that countercultures are supposed to oppose the mainstream, and nothing is more mainstream than consumerism. But we no longer live in a world of the Mainstream and the Counterculture. We live in a world of multiple mainstreams and countless counter-, sub- and counter-sub-cultures. Bondaroff’s brand is built on both the sort of microfame that such a finely cut cultural landscape enables and on his absolutely exquisite ability to analyze that landscape. He knows that he is seen by the various trend-hunters or Japanese magazine editors or marketing types who hit him up for the latest news as a professional Cool Guy. He recognizes that taste is his skill.
He and his friends have even turned downtown demographics into a kind of parlor game: there are Cool Guys and the Art-Damaged crowd, the Parent Haters, the Dropouts and so on. “I like to label all the different scenes,” he says. “I coin the phrase, and people use it, and it goes back to me.” In fact, he has a related set of T-shirts coming out in the fall. He called up his friend Futura, the veteran graffiti artist, and asked him to write “Cool Guys”; that will be one of the shirts. “I’m exposing everybody,” Bondaroff says, and includes himself in the critique. (“I’m definitely a Cool Guy — the top Cool Guy on the scene,” he said. “I’ll say it loud and proud.”) This is the quintessence of the postmodern brand rebel, hopscotching the minefield of creativity and commerce, recognizing the categorization, satirizing it, embracing it and commoditizing it all at once.
If A-Ron and his crew are the ideological descendants of the scenesters who clustered around Warhol in the Factory period or hung out at CB’s in its heyday, then perhaps they’re trying a new tactic in the eternal war against the corporate suits who co-opt the rebellion, style and taste of every youth culture and sell it right back to the generation that created it. Perhaps the first lesson of the brand underground is not that savvy young people will stop buying symbols of rebellion. It is that they have figured out that they can sell those symbols, too.
Daniel Casarella represents a second iteration of the brand underground. At 28, he is a young man who has something to say. Several years ago, he became fascinated with the gritty, turn-of-the-century New York underworld described in Luc Sante’s book on the era, “Low Life.” His brother, Michael, who is 23, was writing his college thesis about 19th-century New York literature, and the Casarellas came to believe that the depths of the forgotten past offered an intellectual antidote to the superficial, surface-driven present. The first time we met, in early 2005, Casarella told me the story of the Collect Pond in lower Manhattan: drained because of pollution in the early 1800’s, it was filled in and became the brutal Five Points slum. “My brother and I have this theory of the Collect being the original sin of Manhattan,” he said, launching into a riff on man’s betrayal of nature and its consequences.
He wanted to get these ideas across to others, but instead of writing a novel or making a series of paintings, he started making T-shirts. He learned screen printing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but never considered actually joining the industry to work long hours for somebody else. Instead, in 2003, he founded Barking Irons — the name is 19th-century slang for pistols — a line of T-shirts with stark but intricate graphics that looked like old woodcuts, paired with mysterious phrases that refer back to the secret history of New York. One was inspired by the Collect Pond and another by a Washington Irving story. After he had printed some of his first designs, Casarella dropped off samples at Barneys in a paper bag.
A pricey department store doesn’t seem a likely place for expressing ideas, but the store’s buyer called him the next day. It turns out “new ideas” are exactly what the company was hungry for, according to Wanda Colon, a Barneys vice president. Its “young minded” Co-op spinoff stores cater to consumers who seek self-expression specifically through nonmainstream brands, like Gilded Age or Imitation of Christ, she said. Barking Irons got attention in the fashion trade press and on blogs like Coolhunting.com — and from an apparel distributor called Triluxe. A Triluxe executive told me that what the Barking Irons brand had going for it was “point of view.” Adam Beltzman, the owner of a Chicago store called Haberdash — one of many boutiques serving the same shoppers Colon describes — liked Barking Irons’ aesthetic, but what sold him on the brand were the background narratives. “There’s something meaningful behind it,” he says. “There’s something to talk about.” Soon Casarella was thinking way beyond T-shirts, and he projected confidence. From that first batch of a few hundred shirts in 2003, Barking Irons had seen its orders climb to 12,000 a season.
It is often said that this generation of teenagers and 20-somethings is the most savvy one ever in its ability to critique and understand commercial persuasion, and it is probably true — just as it was true when the same thing was said of Generation X and of the baby boomers before that. (And it will no doubt be true when it is said, again, of those now in middle school.) But understanding or “seeing through” the branded world is not the same thing as rejecting it. What bothers Casarella about mainstream branding are big, blatant logos that turn the wearer into a walking advertisement and are supposed to function as simplistic “badges.” That approach, he suggests, is what makes big brands as shallow as most Top 40 music or Hollywood movies. It is not that these forms are inherently bad; it is that they always seem built for the lowest common denominator, and the contemporary consumer demands more — more originality, more sincerity, more not-in-the-mainstream, a greater goal than just making money. That is what he sees Barking Irons as doing in the realm of the brand.
Barking Irons does have a logo, but it appears inside his T-shirts, where only the consumer sees it. That’s the way, Dan Casarella maintains, to make a deep connection. If it seems a little incongruous to combat superficiality by way of T-shirts that retail for $60 or more at Barneys or A-list boutiques, well, in his view, that’s the best place to find an audience that “gets it.” When Casarella declares that his project is part of a “revolution against branding,” what he really means is not the snuffing out of commercial expression but an elevation of it.
My third example of a grass-roots brand maker is the Hundreds. Its co-founder, Bobby Kim, is 26, one of three children of Korean parents who came to America and made good; his father is a physician. Growing up in multicultural Los Angeles, Kim was into hip-hop, punk and skateboarding. He is the kind of person that the marketing industry chases relentlessly, and he knows it. But of course he scorns mainstream efforts to speak to his generation. In an essay on his Web site, for example, he blasted the “commercialized” version of skateboarding culture that he sees in the X-Games or on MTV as a “big-industry ruse.”
Four years ago, he met Ben Shenassafar, another child of successful immigrants (his father is an accountant from Iran), not while skateboarding but at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, where they had some first-year classes together. They bonded over their mutual interests in art, music and design — and their mutual horror of becoming the respectable suit-wearing drones their parents wanted them to be. Seeking a more fulfilling alternative, they came up with the Hundreds (as in “selling by the hundreds”).
Now known as Bobby and Ben Hundreds, they started with T-shirts and a Web site. TheHundreds.com featured Bobby’s essays and interviews with people he admired: “The culture’s finest brands, artists, designers, photographers, retailers and media,” the site says. Department-store chains were too mainstream for the Hundreds; instead, they wanted to get their T-shirts into certain skateboard shops or independent “streetwear” stores. Their bête noir was Urban Outfitters, which they saw as the ultimate corporate vulture.
The first store they set their sights on was Fred Segal, the trendsetting boutique in Santa Monica. They showed up one day in 2003 and “ambushed” the buyer. “There are 50 new T-shirt lines that come out every day,” Bobby explained to me, so they knew that theirs would rise or fall on the strength of the Hundreds as a brand. “We really emphasized that we weren’t just a T-shirt line — we were more of lifestyle” that aimed to “bring this subculture out,” he says.
The Hundreds lifestyle and its components — Los Angeles, skateboarding, music, art — sound a little vague and may be most apparent by analyzing a recent Hundreds T-shirt graphic. The shirt has a title: Jerky Boy. The design takes the logo of Tommy Boy, the pioneering hip-hop label, and reimagines its three silhouette figures in the style of the moshing cartoon teenager used as an emblem of the legendary Southern California punk band the Circle Jerks. Looming over the Circle Jerks mascot, who is repeated in three Tommy Boy poses with props including skateboards and handguns, is “The Hundreds” and the phrase “California Culture.”
Streetwear designers often refer to graphics that riff off some other logo or icon or brand name as “parodies.” Kind of like the Ramones logo, which took the presidential seal but substituted a baseball bat for the arrows the eagle clutches in its talons. But the word “parody” can be misleading: often the visual references are more like a sampled bass line — recognizable to some but not to others — that makes a remix add up to more than the sum of its parts. It can be tribute or mockery or something in between, but the new cultural value that results accrues to the minibrand that did the remixing.
It is impossible to overstate the number of tiny streetwear brands with names like Crooks & Castles or Married to the Mob that are working variations on this territory. And it is easy to see the attraction for the new upstart branders that seem to jump into this realm every day. You don’t have to worry about the credentialing procedures that now define the traditional high arts, like getting a master’s degree from a well-connected art school or hobnobbing on the writer-retreat circuit. For people like Ben and Bobby Hundreds (or the Casarellas or A-Ron), you don’t even need to study marketing. Their apprenticeship was the act of growing up in a thoroughly commercialized world.
The symbols and references and logos these minibrands create are usually said to “represent” a culture or lifestyle. But I found myself asking, What, exactly, did that culture or lifestyle consist of — aside from buying products that represent it?
Bobby did his best to clue me in. “It’s just the idea of trying to be rebellious,” he said. “Or trying to be a little bit anti, questioning government or your parents. Trying to do something different.” Those are familiar answers, and this is hardly the first time that vague rebelliousness has been translated into an aesthetic. The style and iconography of punk, like that of other “spectacular subcultures” (to use the phrase Dick Hebdige coined in “Subculture: The Meaning of Style”), arguably did more than music — let alone ideas — to fulfill one of the crucial functions of any underground: group identity. It just happens that in this instance the symbols, products and brands aren’t an adjunct to the subculture — they are the subculture.
Many of the success stories that these minibrands aspire to replicate — like A Bathing Ape, Supreme and Stussy — have been around since the early 90’s or longer. Countless others have come and gone. Among the survivors are Lenny McGurr and Josh Franklin, better known as the graffiti writers Futura and Stash.
McGurr, who recently turned 50, has seen many iterations of the dance between subculture and mainstream. He made the transition from painting on subway cars to selling paintings in East Village galleries back in the 1980’s. The Futura-Stash creative partnership began around 1990. Separately and together, they made T-shirts, and they struggled to get by. Today, the brands and products they create or oversee — from clothes to vinyl toys to rugs and pillows — are sold in boutiques around the world. Franklin has his own stores, Recon and Nort, in New York, San Francisco, Tokyo and Berlin; Futura has stores in Fukuoka, Japan, and Bangkok. Futura and Stash’s Williamsburg headquarters is a rambling series of rooms filled with boxes of merchandise, 10 or so employees and a skate ramp.
One thing that has changed since the days when they scrambled to make a living is that Japanese consumers have embraced certain small New York brands as something culturally significant and worth a price premium. Nigo, a Japanese designer, built a fanatical following for his A Bathing Ape brand partly because he collaborated with so many graffiti writers and others who had an aura of authenticity that impressed young, hip Japanese consumers. “The legacy of our history from New York gave us a lot more credibility over there than it did here,” McGurr says. He compares it with the black jazz musicians who had to go to Paris to be appreciated.
The second change is technology, which has allowed production to become more accessible. (It is easier than you think for a two-person brand to work with factories overseas, using computer files and the occasional package.) The technology of the Internet has also acted as an amplifier. Ten years ago, a new T-shirt design could not be flashed around the planet minutes after completion. Now there are blogs like Hypebeast and Slam X Hype dedicated to this practice, reporting dozens of new products or design collaborations from the brand underground every day.
There is a third factor: manufactured commodities have in fact become accepted as quasi art objects, and there is no more stark example than the sneaker. Hunting for unusual sneakers and modifying them with markers or different laces has been cool for decades, a phenomenon defined in Harlem and the Bronx. (“We were the first generation, and only one, to enjoy sneaker consumption on our own terms,” Bobbito Garcia declares in his book about sneaker-hunting in the 1970’s and 80’s, “Where’d You Get Those?”) Eventually the sneaker companies began to cater to this market, manufacturing rarity through “limited editions,” commissioning small runs of sneakers made for specific stores or designed with the help of people like Mister Cartoon or Neckface. (If you don’t know who they are, these shoes aren’t for you.) Instead of stealing ideas from the underground, the big sneaker makers positioned themselves as supporting it. The strategy seems to work. Both Stash and Futura have designed co-branded products with Nike.
If sneakerheads were willing to treat athletic shoes made by multinational corporations as cultural objects, then new boutiques would treat them that way, too. Today, there are such boutiques all over the country; people sleep on sidewalks outside some of them because they have heard about some new limited-run product and want to be first in line for it. Occasionally things get out of hand and the police are called. There are magazines about sneakers, and there is a sneaker show on ESPN, and a sneaker Podcast called “Weekly Drop,” and a sneaker documentary, “Just for Kicks.” NikeTalk, a community and gossip Web site created by and for sneakerheads, claims to have more than 50,000 registered users.
Several years ago, some sneaker fans in Australia decided to mount a show of their collections, and this became Sneaker Pimps, which has been on a permanent world tour ever since. When it last hit New York several months ago, the line outside the club Avalon, where the sneakers were on display, stretched well down the block. Inside was a cross between a trade show, a museum exhibition and a night club. Walls were lined with notable sneakers, famous customizers were on hand and an artist named Dave White, who paints impressionistic portraits of sneakers on canvas, was on a platform, working under a spotlight while D.J.’s spun. Later, Public Enemy performed. Warhol’s Factory laid the foundation for giving consumer objects fine-art scrutiny, and Keith Haring’s Pop Shop built on that foundation, but it is hard to imagine that either artist could have predicted such a thorough product-as-medium spectacle. A line of Sneaker Pimps clothing is in the offing.
The effect of the Internet on sneaker hunting has been to make the scene more accessible — and more visible. With the Web, a relative handful of fanatics scattered around the world can look like a scene, and if enough people buy into that idea, then eventually it becomes a scene. This has created a new layer — half-consumer, half-entrepreneur — who snap up hot commodities with the sole intention of reselling at a profit. A T-shirt that Futura or Stash designed 10 years ago, made in small numbers because that was all the market would support, might now trade hands on eBay for $100; today some of the most successful minibrands keep production runs well below demand to maintain an image of specialness and rarity (just as the sneaker giants do). You can say the Internet made the market or that it simply made the market visible, but these are the same thing. Nothing draws people like a crowd, virtual or otherwise.
TheHundreds.com is not fancy, but it makes clever use of technology. The site is regularly updated with gossip from the scene and pictures of the Hundreds’ friends (and of parties and girls). There might be a clip from YouTube, the video-sharing Web site, of an evening news report on the crowd lining up to get the latest Stash-Nike collaboration from a boutique in San Francisco or of local teenage skaters showing off in free Hundreds T’s. Bobby also has a MySpace page and more than 3,500 “friends” (in the MySpace sense of the word). “I don’t want us to be a faceless entity,” he says. “People can talk to us.”
People like Scott Litel, for instance. The Hundreds barely existed when he found their site and sent an enthusiastic e-mail message asking to be part of their promotional “street team.” He was 16 at the time, just another kid in Valencia, 40 miles north of Los Angeles. He listened to punk and hip-hop, preferring to seek out lesser-known acts. But skateboarding was basically the center of his social life. Through skate videos, magazines like Mass Appeal, which covers alternative culture, and then the Internet, he learned about Supreme and various Japanese apparel companies. He would make his mom drive him, or when she wouldn’t, he would take a bus to the Union store in Los Angeles, where the coolest stuff was sold.
Litel liked the Hundreds because of the Southern California connection and because it wasn’t a brand that everybody knew about. It was like hearing a great band before anybody else caught on, the familiar yet underrated pleasure of inside information. “When something’s not made for the masses,” Litel told me, “it’s more personal.”
Soon he was part of the Hundreds team, helping out however he could, spreading the word, just being around. By the time I met Scott earlier this year, Ben and Bobby had started to pay him and had given him a column on the Web site. Now 19, he loved talking to the people at the little stores that sold the Hundreds shirts, going to the events and being part of the community — being, in fact, as he is now known, Scotty Hundreds.
Even in a world where the mainstream is less than monolithic, every subculture sooner or later has to reconcile itself with the larger cultural forces around it. A movement has to move somewhere, and the scene makers have to figure out how to make a living. That is what the Retail Mafia was up to last year at Magic, an apparel trade show that filled the entire Las Vegas Convention Center, with an impressive booth arranged to resemble a Coney Island boardwalk. The Retail Mafia was an alliance of brands associated with the downtown New York scene, including Alife, SSUR — and aNYthing, A-Ron’s brand. Boost Mobile, the West Coast wireless company, had just produced a set of limited-edition phones, co-branded with the Retail Mafia members, as an elaborate strategy to impress “influencers,” which is what corporate America calls Cool Guys.
Stash and Futura had a booth across from the Retail Mafia, and the Hundreds were nearby as well. Instead of displaying their shirts, Ben and Bobby had them on a rack blocked by a table and covered by a sheet. Ben explained that the point wasn’t how many stores they could sell to but which stores. This sounds like a strategy borrowed from luxury goods, but the Hundreds framed it as a matter of integrity: the sheet was there to fend off retail buyers representing stores that stocked too many mainstream brands. The Hundreds brand was being sold in about 60 stores, from New York to Paris to Tokyo, and what mattered was that they were the right kind of stores, stocked with other independent, properly underground brands. They would only lift the sheet for people they could trust.
In his 1934 memoir, “Exile’s Return,” Malcolm Cowley asserted that by 1920 the bohemian “doctrine” of Greenwich Village could be broken down to eight key points. Several of these remain fairly timeless markers of counterculture: liberty, living for the moment, protecting one’s individuality from the common fate of being “crushed and destroyed by a standardized society.” Each person’s “purpose in life,” the codification states, “is to express himself.” Cowley wrote that the bohemians saw themselves standing in opposition to “the business-Christian ethic then represented by The Saturday Evening Post,” a mainstream valuing “industry, foresight, thrift and personal initiative.”
But that old-fashioned value system, Cowley argued, shifted to a consumption ethic of spending and leisure, and the bohemian doctrine, it turned out, “proved quite useful” to the new mainstream ethic. Cowley posited that bohemian ideas about the primacy of self-expression and living for the moment “encouraged a demand for all sorts of products — modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match.” The shift, he wrote, happened shortly after World War I. So for 80 years or more, the central problem of consumer culture and counterculture has been the same: it is very easy to confuse the two. Which is why, actually, Cowley was not so much praising the bohemian idea as scorning it.
Every subsequent counterculture has wrestled with the same basic predicaments, although the terms of the debate have, gradually, evolved. Punk’s media moment passed by the early 80’s, but it helped inspire a new counterculture, sketched by the music critic Ann Powers in her pop-culture memoir, “Weird Like Us.” She described how under-the-radar fliers and fanzines, small record labels and other modes and tactics “coalesced into practices that went by names bluntly characterizing their hands-on approach: indie, for independent, or D.I.Y., or do-it yourself.” The hip-hop and skateboarding subcultures operated in much the same way. And while Powers has less to say about the visual arts, a generation of designers and graffiti artists in cities and suburbs across America — Barry McGee, Mark Gonzales, Kaws, Ryan McGinness and others — built reputations outside the gallery world and under these very influences.
In “Beautiful Losers,” a catalog for a traveling museum exhibition of those artists, Aaron Rose, a curator, points out that pretty much all the artists in the show “have at some point broken the law to express themselves.” On the other hand, Rose points out that many of these artists have dabbled in the commercial world, whether accepting projects for big companies or becoming de facto brands unto themselves. The 1980’s and early 90’s was a time when certain record shops, small record labels (Sub Pop, SST, etc.) and even logos (like the artist Raymond Pettibon’s for the L.A. punk band Black Flag) started to matter almost as much as the bands. And while some brand-underground participants cite the influence of hip-hop as evidence that their tastes transcend standard demographic categorization (it’s a “mash culture” or a “merge culture” and so on), the real significance of that influence may be that no other spectacular subculture has so exuberantly venerated the leveraging of nonmainstream authenticity into entrepreneurial and material success.
If the dance between subculture and mainstream has always been more compromised than it appears and if every iteration of the bohemian idea is steadily more entrepreneurial than the last, then maybe a product-based counterculture is inevitable. Maybe subcultures are always about turning lifestyles into business — or the very similar goal of never having to grow up. Maybe the familiar corporations-against-individuals dynamic (“They manufacture lifestyle; we live lives,” as The Baffler, the alt-opinion journal, declared in 1993) is simply outdated. In “Weird Like Us,” Powers wrote, “I believe that alternative America becomes stronger by willingly engaging with the mainstream.” Maybe that’s what this optimistic generation is up to and maybe its strategy of engagement is simply more pragmatic than the carefully crafted cynicism of past cliques of self-styled outsiders.
Actually, I’m not sure I completely buy that. Refusing to be the fodder for someone else’s lifestyle-making machine because you are building your own still strikes me as a hollow victory. But maybe I’m just too old to get it. And I have to admit, the more time I spent with the minibrand entrepreneurs, the more I had to concede that what they have been up to is more complicated than simply imitating the culture they claim to be rebelling against. They believe what they are doing has meaning beyond simple commercial success. For them, there is something fully legitimate about taking the traditional sense of branding and reversing it: instead of dreaming up ideas to attach to products, they are starting with ideas and then dreaming up the products to express them.
When I saw Ben and Bobby with their collection at Magic, the trade show in Las Vegas, they had just taken the bar exam. Their parents — who wanted their kids to take advantage of the American-dream opportunities offered by a good education — were disheartened that the Hundreds was looking less and less like a phase. Of course, to Ben and Bobby, the Hundreds is the American dream.
The thought of ending up a lawyer, stuck in the mainstream world in such a decisive way and forsaking the partying and hanging out with other people involved in the brand-underground scene, had been much on Bobby’s mind as he worked on new designs. He came up with a shirt that borrowed the silhouettes of the Lost Boys from a Peter Pan cartoon, included a quote from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and tweaked the results into a starker, streety style by the inevitable inclusion of the Hundreds logo.
A few months later, they got the official word: they had both flunked the bar. Ben sent out the specs for the spring ’06 line; orders climbed to 4,500 shirts. “We never have to grow up,” Bobby said.
Barking Irons popped up in GQ, Elle Girl, Maxim and elsewhere. The main character (played by Adrian Grenier) on the HBO show “Entourage” wore a Barking Irons shirt, and this fact was reported in People magazine. Late last year, the brand went global: a friend of the brothers’ helped coordinate a miniature trade show in Tokyo, leading to their first sales to Japanese retailers and a full-page spread in a Japanese shopping magazine. The Casarellas included a few more point-of-view brands like No Mas, whose T-shirts and other products explore the deeper meanings of sports culture. And they traveled to Turkey, where they had found an apparel factory to manufacture “better garments,” like polo shirts, thermals, hoodies and belts.
The brothers felt they needed to expand quickly, they told me late last year, because imitators were already at their heels. Daniel showed me a magazine page featuring one of their T-shirts along with several other shirts that knocked off their visual style but paired the graphics with words and phrases like “Crap” or “This Sucks.” This was one of Casarella’s fears: competing against a dumbed-down, meaningless version of his own ideas. Meanwhile, the relationship with Triluxe, their distributor, collapsed. Such firms promote and distribute apparel brands, showing their wares at trade shows and in private showrooms, advising them on sourcing and pricing strategies and taking a cut of the money. The brothers had decided that based on some belated research, they were paying too big a cut. After months of bickering, the partnership melted down for good in April.
By then the brothers had signed a lease on a 3,000-square-foot space on the fourth floor of a building downtown on Bowery, below Delancey. When I visited in May, it seemed like an awful lot of room for a two-or-three-person company. A few antique pieces were lying around, some framed maps, a trunk, a barrel, a fitting dummy. The plan is to turn the back half of the space into a showroom, possibly pulling in some other brands. They were also plotting a Web site — part magazine, part online store for selling some of the antiques they have collected. But the better-garment orders were around half of the minimums that the Turkish factory required, and in late June they were still waiting for deliveries that they had hoped to have a month earlier. T-shirt orders had been around 10,000 — a slight decline from the previous year. The trend-spotting blogs that helped early on had moved on to spotting more upstart brands, with new points of view. Lately, Daniel was suffering from headaches that he couldn’t seem to shake.
One thing that makes these upstarts harder to write off than the familiar waves of M.B.A.’s declaring that Internet companies are rebellious or that being a middle-management “change agent” is the new rock ’n’ roll is that, for all the literal and figurative headaches, they are sticking to their ideas. It just happens that their ideas are tied up in products. The Casarellas are now making jewelry out of some vintage New York silverware pieces they have collected. And printed inside their branded garments is a Walt Whitman quote: “Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.”
In March, the Hundreds had a breakthrough. Their spring ’06 line, still dominated by T-shirts, included a hoodie with an all-over paisley print. The day these arrived, a number of their cool-guy friends dropped by the new office space they had rented in West Hollywood; Bobby took pictures and posted them on TheHundreds.com. One of these images ended up on the front page of Hype Beast, the streetwear blog. Bobby put the whole line up for sale on the Web site at 1:30 in the morning; then he turned off his cellphone and went to bed. A few hours later, his girlfriend was pounding on the door of his apartment. Ben, unable to reach Bobby, had called her with the news: the entire line had sold out. Bobby posted a new entry on the site: “Which one of you sickos is up at 4 a.m. buying T-shirts?”
Soon the paisley hoodies were going for $250 or more on eBay, two or three times the retail price. Of course, Ben and Bobby had only made about 500 of them and under the orthodoxy of the scene would look like sellouts if they manufactured more. (Ben’s accountant father has softened on the Hundreds as a potential business, but couldn’t understand why they didn’t make more of those “stupid paisley hoodies,” Ben says.) A few weeks later, the retail consulting firm Doneger, whose clients include major department-store chains, sent out a bulletin called “Streetwear — The Next Generation,” naming brands that trendsetting kids in New York City were wearing. The list included Nike and Stussy, but also upstarts like Artful Dodger, Triko. . .and the Hundreds. Their summer ’06 T-shirt orders were up to 10,000.
Not surprisingly, the Hundreds were optimistic; Bobby talked about the brand being around “for centuries.” On the site, he posted pictures of the latest line outside Supreme: “It’s a great sign for our industry/culture/scene/whatever-it-is. It shows how fast we’re all growing. . .another notch for the independents.” In a way, the primary goal that binds together all the disparate entities of the new brand underground is independence: the Next Big Thing will be a million small things.
Even so, sometimes Bobby felt as if something were missing. When he talked about it, he seemed to be grappling with the kinds of things that had bothered me earlier when I had been trying to figure out whether there was more to the Hundreds lifestyle than buying certain products and brands. “I kind of feel like these kids — all they know is sneaker collecting and buying T-shirts, and they don’t think about anything else. Every T-shirt brand is just something stupid — a rapper and some guns.” Bobby said he wanted to steer the Hundreds look in a more “socially conscious, activist-oriented” direction, maybe dealing with issues like the way efforts to defend freedom can curtail freedom. Now that the Hundreds has a voice and a following, he said, “I’d like to say something.”
Just like his subculture and bohemian heroes, A-Ron has an uneasy relationship with the commercial mainstream and its representatives. He sees his brand as something apart from the sneakerhead world, let alone fancy department stores. “I ran into the Boost guys recently,” Bondaroff told me some months after the phone-marketing stunt had ended, “and I told them I wasn’t really happy with the project. It didn’t change anybody’s lives; it didn’t make history.” Maybe it helped Boost, since the phones were written up in Rolling Stone and other magazines, but it hadn’t helped him. The Retail Mafia basically ceased to exist as a concept, and half the brands in what he called “the movement” were scrambling to work with the sneaker giants or other big brands, from Levi’s to New Era. “We’re independent brands, we did this for a reason, not to be like the establishment brands,” he said. “It’s, like, what’s the purpose? Why’d you start your brand — just to be an offshoot of a major company?”
But while A-Ron has figured out how to turn his lifestyle into a business, it is still not a business with much scale. “I don’t want to be sitting at my desk 10 years from now,” he told me, “trying to be cool and witty, better than the next little brand.” He is trying to tie aNYthing to more projects, with more meaning, to more people: music, books, even a documentary. He has opened an online store on his Web site, where his blog announces the latest parties and offers pictures of the cool people dropping by his store. He traveled to Europe for the summer trade shows there and has been thinking about whether he can open a store in Japan.
But lately he has come to the conclusion that to join the time line of underground movements that left a mark on the culture, he has to figure out how to get aNYthing recognized well beyond Delancey Street. To “cross over,” he said, you need “to make your thing official, to stamp it” — the way rap videos did it for A Bathing Ape in the U.S. or how the brief glimpses of Supreme logos in Larry Clark’s movie “Kids” helped that brand. You need access to the mainstream. He would not even rule out shopping malls, under the right circumstances.
“My whole thing now is if you don’t sell out, you sell out on yourself,” he went on to announce. If he could get the money, the resources, he could go bigger, with more creative projects, reaching more people — and he wouldn’t worry about being called a sellout. He raised his eyebrows for emphasis: “I was cool before this thing happened. It didn’t make me cool.” It’s a line of thought that many cultural rebels come around to, sooner or later. “We’re here,” he told me, “to do business.”
Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for the magazine and is working on a book about consumer behavior.