A few years ago, there was a popular podcast called S-Town. This was shortly after the success of Serial, which broke the mold for similarly formatted true-crime docuseries like Dirty John, Dr. Death, and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. S-Town was about a couple things, really. First, the protagonist: a colorful, idiosyncratic horologist named John B. McLemore. It was also a snapshot of Woodstock, Alabama, or as John B. McLemore liked to call it, “Shit Town.”
I dedicated an Instagram post to how much I enjoyed this series and one of my followers, “Ryan,” DM’d me. “Hey Bobby, glad you liked the show. You should come visit sometime. We have a really cool music scene down here, it’s not what you think!”
Turns out Ryan was not only a lifelong resident of S-Town, he was the sole neighbor who had access to the late John B. McLemore’s mysterious maze garden. As it goes in the story, before he died, our hero landscaped a hedge maze with 64 solutions. The current inhabitants of the McLemore estate were friendly with Ryan and allowed him to visit whenever he wished. I couldn’t believe it. Ryan laughed. About a half-hour later, he sent me a selfie of himself in the middle of the maze. “Told you!”
Speaking of the new homeowners, they were the Burt family, who – if you listened to the podcast – were also central figures to the storyline. For one, John B. McLemore suspected the son Kabram Burt of getting away with a murder (Ryan was friends with Kabram and even took his sister to prom). Secondly, Kabram’s father Kendall owned a lumber company called K3.
“Is it true?,” I asked Ryan, “K3 doesn’t stand for their family initials?”
With anyone else, I would’ve treaded lightly. Ryan and I had established a friendy banter, but I was perhaps too cavalier with how I dumped the next query on the table. “It’s KKK, right? Are they Klan?”
Ryan took a beat, then responded. “Look man, Los Angeles is a far cry from Woodstock, Alabama.” Even over text, I could feel the weight of that reply. The conversation was already getting long, so we traded a few more hopes for me to visit his town one day (I sincerely still plan on it). After that, I spoke with Ryan a couple more times before our exchange went where all tenuous online connections go. Frozen in time, somewhere deep in the inbox, to be excavated when life finds convenient and necessary.
The year was 2017 and Donald J. Trump had been in office for approximately a year at that point. Those first few months were as equally frightening as they were frustrating, and Americans were raw and exposed to a sensitive political climate. What I most remember was how exhausted I was. I wouldn’t say I’m a longtime activist, but I’d been engaged in left-leaning political causes since I could attend punk shows as a teenager. The brand I co-founded, The Hundreds, was a forum to express and fight for a lot of these opinions. We even co-produced a social justice festival around that time to raise awareness for issues we considered most dire and at risk. As the shock of Trump’s election transitioned to reluctant acceptance, I desperately sought solutions to heal a divided nation. My ego has always told me that there is a fix for every crisis, that justice prevails, to attack the problem from a different angle. Yet, no matter how I turned it, I couldn’t find a way out of this worsening nightmare.
Outside of marching in protests, donating to causes, and staying informed of daily disasters, we didn’t know much else we could do short of running for office. Many of us retreated to Twitter to establish solidarity, disseminate our truths, and change others’ minds. Much of that, however, came down to circulating Trump quotes and deriding the White House press secretary or unleashing our vitriol on the Covington boys. I did my best to stay away from Facebook, but once in a while, I’d find myself ensnared in a fight with some asshole I hadn’t seen since the third grade. In the first stage of Trump Era grief, I loathed and cried and complained. Then, I tried to understand the opposing view not just as a valiant gesture to reach across the aisle, but to make sense of this bizarre simulation we call Life. After a year of this, I was ashamed to admit that I had made no progress at all. I was no closer to empathizing with a devout Trump supporter as I was in getting them to exercise gender neutral pronouns. Debating politics with strangers on the Internet in non-sequitir paragraphs was inefficient, if not endless. Even if I did win an argument or humiliated someone online for their moronic beliefs, I rarely felt better. In fact, I felt much worse, not just about them and the state of the world, but about myself and the time wasted. And then there was the residual anger that lingered and polluted interactions with my loved ones for a time afterwards.
Los Angeles is a far cry from Woodstock, Alabama. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ryan’s statement. Yes, our neighborhoods are almost 2,000 miles apart. But, in some aspects, they might as well be 2,000 light years apart. Ryan’s reality is fixed in an entirely disparate set of cultural practices, social norms, and generational customs. How, over the course of an Instagram direct message, could I convince him to see things from my perspective? I’m a second-generation Korean-American, son of immigrants. I’m almost twice his age, have lived in Southern California my entire life, and get squeamish anytime I’m in a room with any racial majority. Of course, I still believe I am in the right to judge and abhor prejudice and hatred. But, was I really going to convince Ryan (someone whom I’ve never met or established a personal relationship with) to abandon his reality over a blind SMS thread? Of course not. That’d be like convincing a stranger to marry me by folding a marriage proposal in a bottle and hucking it into the ocean. If anything, our cursory exchange would cement him further to his beliefs.
I have a book club called Death Sentences and this month’s selection is “Why We’re Polarized” by Vox’s Ezra Klein. In it, Klein addresses why our differences are more pronounced and capitalized than ever: the changing demographics of the country, the social algorithms, the media business, partisandship over party, and politics as sport. One of the notes he finishes on is a suggestion, that if we are to concern ourselves with any sort of politics, it should be at the local level. There is very little we can change at the national level, with even less of a chance of accessing leadership. Meanwhile, our daily lives are most influenced by what happens in our city, county, and state. These are our people, our families, and homes. And that made me think about Woodstock, Alabama.
Our politics are very much dictated by geography. When it comes to worldview and philosophy, we are reflective – and a product – of our immediate communities and neighborhoods. I drove down to Huntington Beach this weekend to visit my parents. I drove through downtown HB, passed open restaurants and crowded beaches. It was a rarity to see a COVID mask on bros in American flag boardshorts and women guzzling hurricanes. As we exited the freeway back home in LA, joggers and bicyclists were covered and faceless. Just a mere forty minutes up the coast, and I entered a different reality with an entirely opposite set of rules and ethics. 2,000 miles away, Ryan was probably adhering to his own sense of right and wrong in the midst of a global pandemic. I doubt that I could go onto his profile and shame him into adopting my understanding of social distancing protocol, based on the news I’ve digested, the conversations I’ve shared, the education I’ve attained, in one of the largest cities in the world. And maybe I wasn’t meant to. The Internet, for all its awesomeness and effectiveness, is a hopeless place for meaningful discourse. They used to say to avoid politics and religion at the dinner table, and that’s in the confines of a warm home over a lovingly prepared meal, with people you’ve known and loved your entire life who share your experiences and culture. Now reduce that complex dialogue to comment slaps with strangers who live on the other side of the world. People whom you’ve never seen and never will, and all you’ll ever appreciate of their entirety as a human being is a square avatar.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t debate with people about politics. How are we to make progress if we don’t challenge people on their wrongs and convince them otherwise? But, we should be smart as to the proper venue to engage others (probably not social media), and realistic about end goals (it’s okay if we haven’t converted them, it should not deter our spirit). Which, is why my politics have taken a different trajectory over the last year – on a course that’s strategically personal, intimate, and offline. This isn’t far removed from how I invite people to discuss faith and religion as well as my life’s work. My business approach has always been to meet and make customers one at a time. I know how shallow and short-lived it can be to market to the masses. I’d rather plant the seeds deep with a patron, affording the time to listen and learn, even if it takes years. Having my mind changed before changing theirs. After 17 years, this is why we have such a thick and loyal base. It’s not that they agree with everything that we make and stand for. But, we share a respect and fellowship that’s come from accepting the other.
We are all such intrinsically different people with deeply entrenched belief systems. In fact, in most ways, this diversity is what makes our country so innovative and interesting and powerful. Of course, there are the uglier nuances that divide us on life and death matters. And yes, we now clutch these points as underpinnings of our core identity. But, it serves us to also brandish other facets of our identity that we share and love together – as workers, as students, as family people. As members of our community. As local citizens of our towns. Perhaps if we begin there, we’ll have better visibility on our collective standing as Americans.
We are only a couple months into the lockdown portion of the 2020 pandemic, but so much has already been profoundly affected, if not altered. I’m at once impressed by how quickly humankind adapted to drastically different and unnatural social norms. It’s a wonder that we have been so forgiving and malleable against an unbending storm. People are strong and beautiful in this way.
If anything, I’ve accepted that life now – more than ever – is about approaching and appreciating its fullness one day at a time. So, I treat my days not as paragraphs or even chapters, but full stories in themselves. I awaken painfully early, I lean into the mundane moments, I wrestle with sleep as it steals my last conscious moments in the evenings. I like to feel every corner of my emotions, I long to suffer and delight in their ephemeral residue. Speaking of longing, I have learned to befriend it. It’s the inertia that pulls me through.
I make the effort. I go to the beach when the window provides, I sift the grains of the sand through my fingers, I stay underwater a half-breath longer. If I have six seconds to spare, I offer it to a few sentences in a book I’m committed to. Yes, I will listen to your band. Yes, this is my new favorite song. I am clear and engaged and I don’t leave the days behind with many regrets anymore.
What is this pandemic if not a time to sit with ourselves? There is a drowning quiet and solitude. Even if we are living with others, this is a lonely time. I have confronted myself on more than one occasion. I’ve studied the mirror. Who is this man?
There are some nominal changes as I’ve entered a new decade. I’m finally starting to show my age after a lifetime of looking 12. My eyes, once puffy and swollen from the salt in the food or the tortured nights are now apparently cast this way forever and that’s okay. My skin is coarse and flecked. Not freckled, but spotted. I kiss my son’s smooth face, clear and pure of imperfections – the fountain of youth. When I smile, my crow’s feet branch halfway down my cheek and tug at my jowls (that part, I like).
Within. I am as impatient as ever, yet somehow oblivious to how long my stories unfurl. I have fewer friends now, but deeper conversations. I don’t chase as much anymore. I let the world come to me. I’ve accepted that I’ll never stop being passionate and zealous about the things and people I care about. I overstep those boundaries without apology. I love wastefully. I am less hopeful now, but more of a romantic. I believe that people can be better, no matter how much they betray me and break me time and again. This is what makes me weak and less than. I am ruled by betrayal.
These are the thoughts I carry with me as I walk back and forth and across. I have never heard myself so loudly. I am listening.
Meanwhile, locusts have been decimating the other side of the world. I’ve been quietly following this story the last couple months, just because it’s soooo Revelations. But, it’s actually turning out to be kind of a thing.
You can read about it here.
On another note, I was intrigued by this locust and the accompanying caption. Me, as an insect.
The desert locust undergoes physical changes as it transitions from its solitarious phase (left) to its gregarious phase (right).
“Was that life? Well then, once more!”
Lately, I’ve been deep-diving into scientific literature around entropy. In physics, entropy is defined as a “lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.” Kinda like how there is a natural trend for your house to be messy and cluttered, versus clean and organized. I know I’m not the only one who believes that the universe, and life itself, are unraveling. In some ways, I feel like it’s speeding UP, like the thinning of toilet paper as you get nearer to the end of the roll.
There is a new theory emerging that – somewhere out there – exists a reality with low entropy. In fact, a parallel universe exists that is moving backwards in time. This means that while entropy propels us into our future, we are simultaneously hurtling towards someone else’s past.
Have I thoroughly confused you yet? I’m probably doing a terrible job of explaining it.
Read the article for yourself HERE.
This art and essay are regarding a 1-of-1 T-shirt I designed for Keyla Marquez, who has curated different artists to interpret white T-shirts for charity this week.
It’s called The White T-Shirt Project. You can learn more about it here.
I already have everything I need. More importantly, I already have everyone I need.
If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that my cup is full. It’s been full. And yet, I’ve spent my life – and my life’s work – scouring the earth for more friends and followers and customers. I am addicted to people. I collect them like baseball cards. But, this pursuit for more – it’s endless and insatiable. It can be exhausting. And two months of isolation have reminded me that what already sits before me is infinite – my loving people, my loved work. They are oceans in themselves and it would take a thousand lifetimes to reach the bottom. Why distract myself with other books when I’ve yet to finish these?
When Keyla told me about this project, I was struck by her boldness and ambition. Here we are, staring into the face of an opaque global virus, and yet she felt compelled to incite positive action amongst a circle of artists. The ripples echo wide. It took just one person to organize an effort that will affect thousands, millions.
Each one reach one. When I talk about my work, I say, “It’s not for everyone. It’s for someone.” Even I forget that sometimes. I was never interested in winning over the world. It was about speaking with one person at a time. It wasn’t about being popular amongst many. It was about diving deep into a curated few.
So, there are two things going on here.
One, the recognition of beautiful relationships existing, instead of being enchanted by the social frontier. From now on, may we pause to live in the castles we’ve already built.
Two, the power of the individual cry. We are each potent in our capacity to inspire, mentor, and create significant change. Like Keyla.
You can bid on my T-shirt for the next week here: https://www.ebay.com/itm/Bobby-Hundreds/402261145058
This website is slowly just turning into an Itaewon Class fan page.
After Sinead O’Connor’s controversial SNL performance where she ripped the photo of the Pope, she next showed up at a Bob Dylan tribute. She got booed when she took the stage, so she cut her performance and shouted the song lyrics to WAR.
Then she was so overwhelmed when Kris Kristofferson embraced her afterwards, she threw up.
So brave and powerful. Good on Kris Kristofferson also. Here are the lyrics.
Until the philosophy,
Which holds one race superior
And another inferior,
Is finally and permanently
Discredited and abandoned,
Everywhere is war.
Until there is no longer first class
Or second class citizens of any nation.
Until the color of a man’s skin,
Is of no more significance than
The color of his eyes,
I’ve got to say “war”.
That until the basic human rights,
Are equally guaranteed to all,
Without regard to race,
I’ll say “war”
Until that day the dream of lasting peace,
World-citizenship and the rule of
International morality will remain
Just a fleeting illusion to be pursued,
But never obtained.
And everywhere is war.
Until the ignoble and unhappy regime
Which holds all of us through,
Child-abuse, yeah, child-abuse yeah,
Sub-human bondage has been toppled,
Everywhere is war.
War in the east,
War in the west,
War up north,
War down south,
There is war,
And the rumors of war.
Until that day,
There is no continent,
Which will know peace.
We find it necessary.
We know we will win.
We have confidence in the victory
Of good over evil
Fight the real enemy!
This is my favorite Sinead O’Connor song, “This is a Rebel Song.”
Yuval Noah Harari on Sam Harris.
Texting with my brothers. Zooming with old friends.
Itaewon Class on Netflix.
Opening windows to let the warm air in.
This month’s Death Sentences selection, Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein.
Listening to my children laugh with each other.
Dying and bleaching.
Social commerce and video games.
Reading Rilke like it’s the first time.
The Plot Against America on HBO.
It’s like the train just started moving again. With a jolt.
The world is coming alive, the colors incandescent.
Had so many promising meetings today, setting the tone for the next chapter of The Hundreds. Setting the pace for the others…
But, my starkest moment arrived earlier in the morning. I drew liberally. I listened to The Beatles at full volume. Alone in my office, at the end of the hall.
It’s May now.
The first iteration of Monologue – in the sense of photography, musings and poetry – was actually not The Hundreds’ blog, but my Tumblr, which I stopped updating almost 4 years ago to the day.
I transmitted from there between the years of 2011-2016. I shot this photo in 2012.
You can still read the entries here.
High school cliques in the ‘90s were fascinating because the youth were segmented along music tastes, interests, and attitudes. Subsequently, it was easier to identify people by their style of dress. You knew the ravers by their beaded bracelets and cartoon character necklaces. The skaters in their big colorful pants and bleached hair. There were the jocks in jerseys, the preps in plaid, the band geeks, the punks, the taggers… and I was the hummingbird, cross-pollinating. As a teenager, I was curious, if not obsessed, with teenage tribes (I dreamt of one day writing a book or movie about them). How friends would clump together and adopt badges and uniforms to express who they were… and who they were not. Why didn’t the b-boys play tennis? Why were there no gangbangers in theater groups or cheerleaders sporting mohawks? I was trying to explain this to my son this weekend while we watched the Travis Scott Fortnite concert together. “You know, you’re pretty lucky to grow up in this time, because kids who were into video games used to be considered nerds.” He was shocked. “Nerds? But, video games are the coolest thing! Everyone plays video games.” And he’s right. I mean, we were watching the biggest concert of the year on his Nintendo Switch.
These days, high school cliques are still very much a thing, but it’s gotten harder to tell who is who – not just ideology-wise, but by clothing. Maybe it’s due to the Internet or maybe people just aren’t as narrow-minded, but you can listen to whatever you want in 2020, without it pigeonholing you as belonging to a certain social group or lifestyle. You can be into social justice and MMA and cooking, and that’s totally acceptable. The fashion is just as universal, even across genders. You can dress like a hypebeast one day and an emo kid the next. Even better, just mix it all together, bending genres and crossing boundaries.
“Cliques” by The Hundreds and Puma is a discussion of high school cliques over the past couple generations. We modeled each sneaker and its corresponding outfit along three silos of ‘90s teenagers: “jocks,” “preps,” and an all-encompassing “party crew.” The fourth profile is the modern youth who is an aggregate of all subcultures and niche interests. He/she/they are a worldly figure, reflective of their ecosystems, openminded and inclusive. And beyond labels and classifications.
The Hundreds X Puma “Cliques” drops Thursday, April 30.
Almost 20 years ago, I bought my first painting for $100. I was at my friend Dave Kinsey’s new gallery, BLK/MRKT, in Culver City. Kinsey and I knew each other from our San Diego days, then we reunited in LA when he was one of the first to open in what would eventually become a big arts district. That evening, Tiffany Bozic was having a solo exhibition themed around hummingbirds. I was not only there to support her work, but to interview her for our new website, thehundreds.com.
At the time, I couldn’t afford most of the paintings (they were priced in the thousands), but she had this one series on the wall of a group (a flock? a gaggle?) of individual birds in squares. There were probably 50 of these, priced a hundred bucks each like I noted, and unsurprisingly, most were sold out. By that point in my life, hummingbirds had come to signify something very special regarding deceased family and friends. My dad had passed on his belief that birds carry spirits of loved ones and so when his father died, I was the first to see a bright rainbow hummingbird visit outside our window as we ate breakfast the following morning.
But a hundred bucks was a lot for me and as a struggling artist myself, I couldn’t justify spending that much cash on someone else’s artwork. In my self-centered head, I was like, “I could just paint that myself!” (Which, I eventually attempted. And failed miserably at!).
After hemming and hawing for the duration of the show, I ponied up and adopted this bird. There was a tinge of buyer’s remorse when I had to pay that month’s rent, but at that moment, I felt like a grown-up. I hung that wooden board proudly by my front door and studied it every day as I reached for my keys and wallet. Since then, I’ve moved three or four times – from a bigger studio apartment, to a 1-bedroom, to a house, then another filled with a family. And the hummingbird has always come with me.
Always by the door. Always heading out into the world.
Best hundred dollars I ever spent.
The writer – and one of my favorite people – Elizabeth Gilbert has another unique perspective on the hummingbird. She believes that some of us are “hummingbirds” – driven by our curiosities, which takes us from place to place, person to person. And it is through us, that ideas are cross-pollinated and “the culture is aerated.” Watch.
Disclaimer: As it turns out, the scary and unsettling byproducts of pandemics aren’t just limited to unstoppable viruses and contagions. The movies conveniently leave out the parts about not being able to hug your grandparents or anti-Asian racism or that glaring bit about half the population losing their job, their purpose, and identities. Maybe these side effects just don’t compare to the umbra of grisly death, but portions of this feel like a living hell. So, let me preface this essay by remarking that Life and health are most valuable and worth fighting for. After that, the economy (which, is also a public health issue) must be salvaged and redefined. When human beings are being trampled by a merciless disease, streetwear is inconsequential. Yet, for many of us, streetwear is inextricable from life itself. It’s our livelihood and recreation. It’s our people and point of view. And so, the conversation must be had. How does streetwear continue and prosper in a pandemic?
Earlier this morning, we released a collaboration with Animaniacs, the irreverent ‘90s Warner Bros. cartoon. It’s looking like this will be the most successful drop in the 17-year history of our company, but we aren’t surprised for a couple reasons. For one, we’ve been down this road before. If you read my book, you’ll remember that we worked with Animaniacs on a smaller collection in the fall of 2017. The anecdote puts a bow on a series of trials The Hundreds survived as we re-established ourselves amongst a new generation of customers and competitors. And, like many businesses at the time, we were pivoting harder into our online sales over physical retail.
The afternoon of that first Animaniacs release, we broke the news to our San Francisco staff that we’d be closing our Union Square flagship after a decade. Mere hours later, Ben and I sat at the hotel bar and tugged at the Shopify app, refreshing the escalating Online Shop sales as The Hundreds X Animaniacs unleashed to the world. While one chapter was closing, another was unfurling into an open frontier. By ending my memoir with this story, I was not only memorializing a turning point for the brand but documenting what that digital segue meant for greater streetwear, the fashion marketplace, and the global economy. However, I was still convinced that while e-commerce would continue to eat up the majority of transactions, actual stores were necessary for introducing one’s product to niche markets, providing a face to the brand, and designating a grounds for culture to flourish. I refused to envision a world where retailers were absent (especially with the community-powered streetwear that I championed).
By February of 2020, I didn’t have to use my imagination. On the 17th, I half-jokingly tweeted: “If streetwear really dies this year, it’ll be because of the coronavirus.” Many businesses, like ours, who rely on overseas manufacturers, had already been dealing with the ramifications of COVID-19 since the New Year. With production stalled in Chinese factories and travel restrictions clamping down, there were brows furrowing across the industry. Would our Summer collections arrive on time? Can we get to Fashion Week? What most of us failed to foresee were the ensuing stay-at-home lockdowns, how they would shutter wholesale accounts worldwide and chill future seasonal bookings. Soon those questions unraveled into, “Will people ever shop in stores again? By the time there’s an appetite for it, which retailers will have survived?”
I’ve been sitting on this essay for weeks, waiting for the ground to stop shaking before I give an assessment on how streetwear best fits into the new normal. But, the tremors are relentless, the new normal is yet to be normalized, and it will be years – if not decades – before we have clarity and see this thing for what it is. Therefore, I’ll begin by addressing what streetwear was, then perhaps we can get to a place of what it is, before I make an attempt to hypothesize what it might be.
For the last couple decades, streetwear captured the imagination of youth culture, larger fashion, and the entrepreneurial generation for three reasons: authenticity, roots in community, and artistry. Streetwear’s recent, mainstream appeal foamed as a Veblen good – where scarcity and scrappiness collide with image and luxury. But, as I like to say, “Streetwear without culture is just fashion.” The special distinction – that X-factor – that separates Streetwear from anything else out there is the personalities involved. There’s a heritage to heed. An attitude to traffic in. It can’t be explained, it can hardly be earned. But these are the social nuances we picked up by hanging out at stores.
Although the digital forum has amplified streetwear, most of us can trace our formative beginnings to a specific shop (or shops). Even if we didn’t have access to a streetwear store, we were well versed in the language and politics of these underground spaces. Ben and I learned much of streetwear’s ins and outs by hanging out in the smoky backrooms of SSUR in New York or Brooklyn Projects on Melrose. We read A-ron’s GLOB on the aNYthing site. The generation prior to ours can tell you tales about Behind the Post Office in San Diego, Animal Farm in Miami, or Union NY. Kids today can speak on watching the Round Two show on YouTube or lining up at Supreme on Fairfax.
Regardless of generation and geography, streetwear stores are a breeding grounds for creative youth to gather and share ideas. They are clubhouses but also laboratories. If you’re a disaffected square-peg, it’s hard to dwell in these rooms without daydreaming about your own future brand. If the biggest labels and shops are architected by unpolished artists (not savvy businessmen), then “I can do it too.” Thus, shops are also incubators. Just some of the relevant figures who used to work in – or hang out at – our stores: Dillon Francis, designer Danielle Guizio, Luka Sabbat, artist Matt McCormick and Odd Future. Some went on to build their own brands like Quinn from The Good Company and Joshua Vides. Even if they weren’t associated with our brand, the shops gave the kids somewhere to go: to skate, to smoke, to make friends and make lives.
Streetwear was also founded on airtight branding principles. I can’t pinpoint where exactly this stems from, but perhaps it has to do with New York coolguy elitism, streetwear’s love affair with luxury, or Japan’s self-restraint. Regardless, the name of the game has forever been longevity. Discipline over dollars. Forsaking immediate gratitude for the promise and potential of a lasting legacy. We learned a lot by watching brands like Supreme and A Bathing Ape. They were meticulous about treating run-of-the-mill T-shirts as art pieces instead of disposable goods. This shit was meant to last forever. The distribution models reflected this degree of control and care. Limited wholesale, if any. Even tighter runs on production.
As soon as LA locked its doors in March, we went on sale. Most small businesses are sitting on enough cash reserves to last them a month or two (for restaurants, it’s half that). The Hundreds has no investors – it’s still just Ben and I – so there’s no pillow to catch our fall. We were already watching our European pre-books for The Hundreds’ end-of-the-year collections stutter and knew the worst wouldn’t hit us until this Fall or Winter. We had to shore up immediately, downshifting to conserve fuel anywhere we could in the business while making money to buy the most important commodity of all: time. The restrictions were changing as fast as developments around the virus. With the goalposts moving every morning, we knew the window of opportunity was shrinking. The staff started working from home, our sewers began making masks, and the warehouse moved at a glacial pace by following safety protocol. But at any moment, COVID-19 could shut us down entirely and so we went from planning for tomorrow to focusing on today.
Streetwear is all about brand-building, and brand-building is all about maintenance and endurance. But, what if you don’t have 50 years anymore – you have 50 days? You are suddenly unfettered by the usual creative restraints. You now have the latitude to say Yes without the fear of long-term repercussions. You can go on Sale, you can make the edition unlimited. And go ahead, lean into that guilty pleasure. This is a time of no judgment. Nobody is watching. Everyone is more concerned with shoveling water out of their own boat than laughing at your leak. So, take advantage of this rare moment to experiment, think freely, and stretch the limits of brand and business. How would you play your favorite game if you could re-write the rules in your favor? You now have the permission to do that.
Amongst business experts, there is one word that sits on the tip of everyone’s tongue: Survive. If you can tough it out, if you can be here this time next year, you will win by virtue of attrition. Even if it means making compromises or unnatural moves with the business. Nothing is natural anymore, relatively little makes sense. When you’re trying to outrun a tsunami, you’re not self-conscious of style points. You’ll dance once you’re on higher ground.
I have no idea what business will look like in a month, let alone a year. But, like every self-appointed expert these days, I can doodle some guesses. One thing is for certain: if you weren’t a DTC (direct-to-consumer) brand already, you are now. Perhaps we would’ve transitioned all commerce online at some point in the next five to ten years, but the coronavirus expedited this shift to a Ready Player One virtual existence literally overnight. ESPN is broadcasting e-sports, classes are held in grids onscreen, and live DJ battles are experienced together on our phones. Even if this isn’t a permanent change, we are getting a hard glimpse into what the future could be. And for many – like companies who are finding success with WFH and parents who see the fruits of homeschooling – this could be an awakening.
There will be lesser stores in the future and even fewer of those being streetwear boutiques. In many ways, the American economy never fully recovered from the 2008 recession and any veteran physical retailer can attest to that. So, the ones who do bloom post-pandemic will need to prove themselves as marketing vehicles above all else, which in itself will make leases a luxury for larger companies. Once shoppers and shopkeepers are accustomed to the convenience of buying specialty pieces online, it will be hard to unring that bell. It’ll be an uphill battle to motivate customers to IRL shop again, so shops must be re-imagined as communal spaces, art galleries, or lounges. Just like how restaurants have transformed into grocery stores (with some making more money selling produce than they did serving dinner), maybe clothing stores will also be where you dry clean your clothes, source the materials to produce your own, or re-sell them. Sometimes, we are so tunnel-visioned as to product and purpose. We allow a brand to be classified as one thing or a store to sell one type of way. What if it we didn’t look at it as a streetwear store, but as a black box theater? A gaming café? A workspace or day care center? What if it were all those things?
This is where streetwear excels, because for most streetwear boutiques, it was always about the culture over the clothing. Looping around to a point I made earlier, these stores were essentially clubhouses, so why not take it literally? Shops can survive by turning into social houses with memberships. Once you’re admitted, you have access to workstations to print shirts for your own brand, attend speaking events, or skate the ramp out back. Oh, and maybe you’ll be inclined to buy a shirt or two while you’re there.
Or not. Why relegate streetwear to, well, streetwear? Streetwear’s advantage is that the lifestyle comes first, so you can sell any genre of product against it. The kids just need somewhere to go and something to congregate around. For all of those headscratchers wondering why a high-schooler would sleep on the sidewalk to re-sell some sneakers, they don’t see the relational bonds that come from that experience or the social badges that come from being a player in the game. It can be Nikes or hoodies but streetwear can also be bananas and computer parts. Streetwear is the most adaptive and responsive industry out there. Yes, we sell T-shirts, but we can also sell you a brick.
And we can sell it to you online, over Twitch, through our app, or a text. Direct-to-consumer doesn’t just stop with sales. It encompasses marketing, cultivating trust, and most importantly, community building. Lockdowns may not last forever but society may be hesitant to re-enter the outside world anytime soon. That means designers and brands will have to meet their customers through technology, and I’m not just talking about an intrusive IG Live or a 40-minute Zoom session. Travis Scott is doing a live performance on Fortnite as I write this. Faze Clan is ruling YouTube, e-sports, and NTWRK drops. For those of you who have been texting my personal number (323) 310-2844 since December, you may have noticed more personalities telling you to save their contact. The next generation of SMS marketing is being beta-tested by a few different apps and will change the social conversation by the end of 2020. It’s the anti-algorithm – less mass and more personalized. Ideal for a generation exhausted by targeted ads and disingenuous influencers.
If you recall from the start of my essay, I was saying that we weren’t surprised by the success of our Animaniacs collab for two reasons. The second reason we expected this project to sell through is that outside of wholesale stoppage, our online business has been weathering the storm. At first, we thought it was a fluke. Maybe buying patterns would change once customers lost jobs. Yet, they continue to hold steady. It reminds me once more of the 2008 recession and how our business was largely insulated from the crash. In fact, it wasn’t until 2-3 years later that we saw sales slump (and I’m not sure if that had as much to do with the economy as it did with brand fatigue). At the time, we assumed that if it weren’t for the economic downturn, we could have gotten even bigger (but in hindsight, we were peaking at our max, with or without a recession). My theory remains, whether back then or a decade later, that our young clientele are generally unrattled by world events in comparison to their parents, and their shopping patterns are evidence. Not that they’re sociopathic or ignorant. They just see the problem from a different angle.
The first couple weeks of stay-at-home in Los Angeles, I was texting my followers about how they felt regarding the coronavirus. I have thousands of contacts but only a handful expressed alarm over the virus ravaging Italy at the time. I’m not sure if it’s because they considered it (errantly) an “old person’s disease” or because of lack of awareness, but most of my fans were instead fixated on when the Blue the Great collaboration was dropping or if I could critique their brand. This didn’t sync up with what I was experiencing in my immediate world as the news spun out of control and my neighbors drew their curtains shut. It was another two weeks before I saw a rise in texts on the subject matter of COVID-19, but even then, the dialogue was less distressed as it was with my peers.
One of my customers Terrence confided, “I lost my job today, so to make myself feel better, I bought some clothes.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that man,” I texted back. “I appreciate your support, but you need to take care of yourself right now.”
“Thanks Bobby, I understand where you’re coming from. But, this is how I take care of myself. I love The Hundreds.”
I was reminded of how old I am and how I’d lost sight of what it means to be 19, spirited, and invincible. Although COVID-19 can infect anyone’s health, regardless of age, it really can be an “old person’s disease” when it comes to mindset. As I get older, I’m more attuned to my body’s aches and pains. I am constantly fretting about my children’s well-being. I stress about the news like Kevin’s dad at the breakfast table in The Wonder Years, except I do it all day long. And I compare notes and anxieties with other responsible grown-ups. All of these serve as daily reminders of mortality and finiteness. Terrence, meanwhile, is infinite.
The reason why streetwear will prevail is because its fate is in the hands of young survivors. This generation was born in the fire, and so this new chaos is another puzzle to solve. So far, these kids have outlasted the recession, school shootings, devastating climate change, and a polarized nation. Now they are ripped from their schools and friendships in the most formative years. They are watching their grandparents die from afar. Yet, this generation is also the bravest, the most inspired and impassioned, because they know nothing else but disillusionment and struggle. While my childhood was wrapped in Happy Meals and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, these kids were born on 9/11. Streetwear is their playground, their blank canvas to throw paint at. Streetwear isn’t inconsequential, but for them, the problems associated with it are. They’ll be the first ones to get back in line to support the retailers. They’ll build brands ABOUT this. Like I said in my last essay, the Streetwear generation is about regeneration. Pivoting and adaptation are what we do.
Finally, what about design? After the last recession, streetwear toned down its flamboyance. There was a short hiccup where Americana menswear took center stage in streetwear retailers. Basic chambrays and selvedge denim silenced heavy logos and fleece. We couldn’t sell a graphic T-shirt for the life of us. It was all about neutrals, blanks, and miminalism. I’ll argue, however, that you won’t see the same trends emerge this time around because the same gatekeepers aren’t dictating what’s getting made.
In the early 2010s, e-commerce and DTC were still not commonplace and so brands were dependent on retailers to carry their goods. Store buyers ultimately – and confusingly – called the shots on what got designed and produced in the marketplace. Since they theoretically knew their customer best, they bought according to their insight and the brands either catered to that or forewent the dollars. So when the recession struck, shop owners transferred that fear onto the brands. They declared that It wasn’t the appropriate time to experiment with design. The buyers played it safe by curating conservative stock. The designers tempered their artistic expression with universally appealing collections.
In the new world, the consumers are in control. There is no middleman who determines what’s best for the brand or the customer. As long as the customer feels adventurous, adventurous design will be supported. Likewise, if the customer gets scared, design will play it safe. For the time being – and I can only speak for today – the customer is still active and engaged. How that sustains is contingent on how this virus manifests and how the leaders in charge respond.
But, we’ll take it for now.
That’s the overarching thesis here. Nobody knows what’s happening now, let alone where this is headed next. Most experts didn’t see a pandemic coming. They are just as speculative as to where it’s going. Accordingly, my essay might be moot if a vaccine is discovered tomorrow or COVID-19 is found to be most transmissible through Jordans or a meteor hits our planet. All I do know is that until now, we managed our best to live under the illusion of structure and predictability when life has proven to be anything but. This time, it’s just different because we all got up-ended by the same thing at the same time. But life was never a straight line – there are car crashes and heartbreaks and bad sushi that can upset our night, our months, our entire lives. Yet, somehow, we adapt to the circumstances, say goodbye to yesterday and accept the morning. Every single day.
It’s funny. In some ways, streetwear is a virus in itself. It’s novel and innovative. It needs a receptive host to share it with a community. It’s infectious and resilient and mutates over generations. And although it comes and goes in waves, no matter what the world throws at it, it’s almost impossible to extinguish. It survives.
As you may know, we have a collaboration with the ’90s cartoon Animaniacs releasing later this week. This is the second time we’ve worked with this property. Our first project together released in November of 2017 and was chronicled in my book, This Is Not a T-shirt. The night of the debut coincided with our breaking the bad news to our The Hundreds San Francisco staff that we’d be closing the shop. As Ben and I sat at the Clift bar at midnight, refreshing the Shopify app and corresponding with our Digital Director back in LA, we saw a new future for our brand opening up before our eyes. We had worked hard to get business back on track after a series of trials. The phenomenal success of the Animaniacs drop signified a third or fourth beginning. A new generation of The Hundreds followers were arising. Plus, this confirmed what we’d been anticipating – the promise of direct-to-consumer business. Three years later, as wholesale is paused, we are grateful for the head start with our online commerce.
Fast forward to 2020, our DTC operation is a well-oiled machine. Yet, here we are in a pandemic, as limited as ever on resources. It reminds me of the early days of the company. I’m not only doing photo shoots again myself, but I’m having to find creative ways to execute ideas since I don’t have access to models, elaborate production, or a crew to assist me.
So, I asked (forced) my sons to participate in the lookbook shoot for The Hundreds X Animaniacs. They conveniently serve as the brothers Yakko and Wakko. Our next door neighbor’s daughter was playing in the front yard; she was excited to play the role of Dot.
I’ve never put my boys on the Internet before, but I felt comfortable doing it this time because they’re COVID-disguised anyway. One of the oddest and unshakable parts of the pandemic experience is watching young children riding scooters and bikes in the neighborhood behind medical masks. So dystopian… Well, I wanted to memorialize this dark episode, while also playing up the contrast from the last photoshoot I did around Animaniacs (which, was fun and irreverent). Hopefully in three years, we get to revisit Animaniacs once again. I’ll be able to refer back to this entry and note how far I’ve – we’ve – progressed. Fingers crossed.
Somehow, I get to have a job where I create something new and different every day. Even if it’s the same task, there are nuances within. I’ve been doing this for 17 years and I’m still learning, growing, having so much fun.. I’m grateful.
Just making it up as I go along. One train track at a time.
In this room, exists
A mirage of Better.
An incessant reminder
that I’m not invited
In this room exists
Everyone I hate
Even if they aren’t in this room, their odor is pungent
I am one degree away from being told
of their terribleness
We will always share this room.
In this room, I lust
For places that aren’t here
For success that isn’t mine
For bodies that belong to others.
A lust like a cancer.
In this room,
I stumble in the dark.
I am misguided and misled
I indulge in half truths
My imagination fills in the blanks
with all the worst answers.
What about this room
A room that is mine
A room that is enviable.
With unsung corners
Free of secrets
Well-lit with adventures
A room where I’m fed
and can feed those whom I trust
In this room
In this room
I exist in this room.
The week that LA initiated lockdown, I was Facetiming my friend Ellen Bennett.
You know Ellen. She owns Hedley & Bennett, which makes aprons and kitchen workwear right down the street from us in Vernon. We’ve done a couple collaborations with her before and I also interviewed her for my podcast last year.
But on this morning a month ago, Ellen called to ask how I was personally managing the shock of the Coronavirus and how The Hundreds was bracing for impact. We broke down our options as business owners facing a mysterious and threatening pandemic. Ellen’s husband Casey was off-camera, saying Hi over boiling water. He unpackaged a ream of fresh pasta and we admired the box design together. I told Ellen that as far as her offering