“I’ve never done anything small in my life,” Ben Baller says. And any of his 795,000 Instagram followers can attest that Ben Baller, who’s real name is Ben Yang, doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. Whether it’s music, sneakers, jewelry, fashion, or cars, Yang goes big.
The son of a university professor who grew up in a tiny 600-square-foot apartment so that he could attend an elite high school in Beverly Hills, Yang embodies the American dream. He started out as a DJ and eventually moved up the ranks to become the head of A&R at Priority and Aftermath Records. He then branched out into the jewelry business, which he funded with the $1.3 million he earned after selling his enormous sneaker collection. Without much experience in diamonds, but with a ton of hustle, Yang turned IF & Co. into a successful venture, creating custom pieces for celebrities ranging from Michael Jackson to Justin Bieber to Dr. Phil. Now Yang is embarking on a third career, as the driving force behind Superism, a recently launched menswear brand that creates simple and refined basics, ranging from T-shirts to jackets to pants. The garments are a far cry from the blinged-out logos Yang was known for a decade ago and reflect a more mature sensibility. These are clothes for the guy who wants to look cool but not trendy, grown up but not old.
We caught up with Yang, who has never been shy about speaking his mind, to find out the story behind Superism, his favorite sneakers, and the thread that ties all of his varied ventures together.
Where did the idea for Superism come from and how did you get involved?
Not necessarily the name Superism, but the idea, has been something I’ve been trying to do since 2008. I was involved with a brand back then called LRG that was started in the backyard of my best friend Jonas Bevacqua. He died a few years ago and was a fashion genius. He was trying to bring an urban Polo to the world. He created a nine-figure company that was a mix of hip-hop and high fashion at a cool price. He had a passion to do something high end. He was like “I want to do something that can match up with Balenciaga. I need you to help me market this.” We set up a corporation, but it was all over the place at the time so that took a backseat. Then after [Jonas] passed away, I got involved with a different brand, Diamond Supply Co. I started doing capsule collections [for Diamond] that generated lineups at the malls. People started to identify me more with that, the Ben Baller thing of wearing hoodies and T-shirts and big chains and coming out of Rolls-Royces and Ferraris. But my wife would be like, ‘That’s not how you would dress when you’re out with me’. When you see me on the street I have Balmain jeans on or Alexander Wang tees or a Helmut Lang shirt. It’s totally different.
So around 2014 I started to slow things down with a lot of stuff. My second son had just been born. I was like it’s time for me to figure out is this the end or am I going to go and fulfill my last dream [of a career in fashion]. Most people only have one successful career, let alone two. Now I’m embarking on a third career and hoping to be successful. I started entertaining ideas with a few companies and people. I connected with Michael Huynh, the founder of Publish Brand. He goes, “I don’t want to waste your time because I know you’ve heard it all. But what do you think about doing an upscale brand?” It all sounded great except I didn’t even know this guy. So he says, “Come to my factory and I’ll show you how serious I am.” So even though I hate flying, I jumped on a plane with Michael to China. I saw the quality [of the clothes they were producing]. Then Michael presented me with the name and said what did you think of Superism, all things being super. He showed me the logo of the “S” and no matter which way you flip it it’s still going to be an “S.” And it looks like a street, which represents life being a crazy, twisted road. I was like, “Wow, that’s brilliant. Let’s run with it.” That’s where it started and from there we started building the collection.
There’s a lot of elevated basics brands right now. What sets Superism apart?
I think elevated today means it’s elevated in price. When you put my brand next to the basics from other brands like a Saint Laurent or a Givenchy, the quality is a big thing. These guys have quality, don’t get me wrong, but some are getting away with cheaper things that they’re obviously just using for higher margins. The Superism quality—once you touch it and feel it— is going to supercede any other brands. I love Vince. I went to high school with James Perse. But with with a brand like Vince or James Perse, I look at them and it still seems light. That’s cool for California, but not cool for everywhere. With Superism, we’re a little heavier and are set for all seasons. Another thing is I didn’t want to have is big logos anywhere, and that’s something I’m proud of. [Logos] don’t feel rich to me. If you take the labels off of all the companies and you put our clothes next to them, people will see [Superism] is what they want. It’s like the Pepsi taste test.
Who is the guy that you see Superism being for?
I feel like Superism is made for the 27-45 year old guy. It’s a pretty wide demographic. You’ve got dudes in their late 30s and early 40s and they might feel weird throwing on a Supreme hoodie and some Jordans. They might look like they’re trying too hard. Superism is for the guy who’s not trying too hard. They want the effortless look. They want to close their eyes and pick out an outfit. We want to be that happy medium between a Tom Ford suit and the J.Crew polo. Superism is for that professional who’s doing well in life and just wants to look cool.
Sometimes it takes growing up to feel confident enough to not need labels.
My boy Michael Voltaggio won Top Chef and owns a restaurant called Ink in Los Angeles. He hit me up right after we launched and he’s like, I’m on the site right now about to order 15 things. He’s a very successful guy in his mid to late 30s and was like, “This is perfect. This is what I want to wear every single day.”
How are you balancing Superism with your jewelry company, IF & Co.?
One thing that I haven’t let the public know is the jewelry venture is in the backseat now. It’s not in the trunk yet with the groceries, but it’s in the backseat for sure. Right now Superism is in the front passenger seat. I don’t want to do anything half-ass. I’ve been doing jewelry for 11-and-a-half years now. I’ve murdered it. Nobody really inspires me as far as jewelry except for maybe A$AP Rocky and Tyler the Creator. That’s a problem when I don’t have any inspiration. I’ve built an amazing team, so I don’t need to be there all the time. When it comes to executive decisions, I’m there. But 99.9 percent of my time is focused on Superism now. That’s where my passion is.
With your experience in jewelry, what do you think is the right amount for a man to wear?
If you Google me in 2006-2007, I’m wearing a kilo of gold and I have a towel around my neck because the blood circulation is being cut off because the chains are so heavy. Today, I’m wearing a very small micro necklace. “Micro” meaning it’s one inch or smaller. Then I made a “Nano” size that’s half an inch. We did these pieces to be more subtle, a little classier. I wear a watch. I don’t wear bracelets too much anymore. I know it’s bad to say this because as a jeweler you would want to encourage people to buy more jewelry. But I just believe less is more.
Who are some of the celebrities you’ve created pieces for? And why do you think they feel so comfortable with you?
I’ve worked with Kim Kardashian, Tom Cruise, Drake, Floyd Mayweather, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber, John Mayer, A$AP rocky, Snoop Dogg, The Weeknd, Tyler the Creator, Nas. It’s a long list. I think that the reason why a lot of celebrities can work with me is because I never really got starstruck after the age of 24. They see that I’ve made jewelry for a wide range of people. I mean, I made jewelry for Dr. Phil. They can also feel comfortable that I’ve been successful enough to not leak a story to TMZ. Plus the quality is always the best. When it comes to the top design houses like Cartier, Van Cleef, or Harry Winston, obviously I’m going to cost way less than them and the quality is going to match.
You are one of the most renowned sneaker collectors dating back many years. As someone who can have any sneaker you want, which ones still stir up an emotion for you?
At one point I had 1,800 pairs of personal sneakers. You go to royalty, like a Saudi prince’s wife, she’s not going to have 1,800 pairs of shoes. I was obsessed. There’s not many that still hold a strong appeal to me because even though I love them so much, I’m a grown man now. My style has changed. There’s only a few shoes that stayed relevant to me this late in life. One is the Adidas Stan Smith. There’s so many different variations: Pharrell killed it, Raf Simons, the classic white with green. The Vans Authentic has also been one of my favorite shoes since I was a little kid. There was a collaboration that Vans did with a skateboarder named Jason Dill, the Fucking Awesome collab. That is probably one of my favorite shoes of all time. They’re going for like $1,800 now. When I’m trying to look a little more fashionable, I’ll probably throw on the Yeezy 750 in all black. That’s one of my go-tos. The Yeezy 350 has been something nice. All time, my favorite shoe would be the Air Jordan black cement 3. That’s the shoe that changed the game for me. I thought it’d be the Jordan 1, and they battled for many years, but the black cement 3 is just my favorite.
You are also a renowned car guy. Where does your passion for automotive culture come from?
Even when I didn’t own them, I was so heavy into cars. My brother was into it and he mentored me. Smokey and the Bandit was my favorite movie. Back then if you had a Trans Am or a Corvette, you were a bad mother fucker. That’s what I loved. Then when Burt Reynolds, who was an idol of mine, did Cannonball Run, I was introduced to the exotic car world. In 1982, my brother took me to my first exotic car show at Concours d'Elegance in Pebble Beach. There was the Aston Martin Lagonda, the original Maserati Quattroporte. I just remember looking at these things and being like, “This is the lifestyle I want.” In high school, I was broke and had a Honda. I put some rims on it and got heavy into the Japanese import racing culture. It wasn’t until the mid 90s that I got my first Lexus because Jay Z had gotten one and he was on my record label. Around ‘96 I got my first BMW M3. That was a big deal for me. Ever since then everything I had had to be customized. In 2004, after I sold my sneaker collection I got my first exotic car and that was a 2004 Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale. Now I always keep an exotic in the garage.
What’s in the garage now?
I have 2016 Ferrari 488 GTB. I had the second one in the country. The only reason the other guy got his before me is because he paid $30,000 extra to have his flown in from Italy, instead of being on the slow boat. I have a 2014 Range Rover Autobiography, which my wife drives on the regular. For our sedan I have a 2014 Bentley Flying Spur. I have a rare, one-of-four Platinum edition. My daily driver is a 2016 BMW X5M with 700 horsepower. That’s a beast. I’ve got a 2015 Mercedes S63 coupe, but I’m about to get rid of it. I’ve got a ‘69 Chevelle SS. I have an ‘89 BMW 325i convertible, which I’m going to build up. That was a nostalgia car. When I was in high school in Beverly Hills all these rich kids had that car and I never thought I’d own one. I have a 2017 Rolls-Royce Dawn, which is the new Wraith convertible, that’s coming any day now. That’s what’s in the stable now.
What is the common thread that ties all of your various businesses and interests together?
One of the biggest things that ties Superism, my cars, my jewelry, my sneakers, and anything that I have a passion for, is hard work. It all starts out with a shitload of hard work and smart work. Another common thread would be quality. Everything feels luxurious. With Superism even though it’s new, there was a lot of hard work behind it, the quality is there. I’ve always been obsessed with architecture. With postmodern homes, you’re talking about a home that was built in the mid 20th century. They look so modern but it’s 2016 and these homes were built almost 100 years ago. That’s how I approached Superism. I wanted to have that classic look—take a few snips here, evolve this part there, make this a little better here. Like a postmodern home I wanted to renovate it, but also preserve it so it stays timeless. Modern, but with a classic design.
Are there any other new ventures that you’re working on?
No. This is the one. Superism is going to be the one that retires me.