Much like “punk” or “hip hop”, the definition of “streetwear” has been debated for as long as the term has been used.
In our modern era of Supreme x Louis Vuitton collabs and hypebeast overload, it might take some imagination to think back to a time when streetwear was very much an underground, subversive counter culture. But behind today’s meta narrative of immaculately curated pop ups and enough consumer hysteria to make any Cabbage Patch Kid blush, there’s a richer, more nuanced story that goes back to mid ‘80s and touches on art, commerce, teenage angst and not so cheap thrills.
The excellent new documentary Built To Fail, directed by streetwear figurehead Bobby Kim (aka Bobby Hundreds of legendary brand The Hundreds), hopes to provide a historical context to a movement that has largely been ignored by the mainstream media. The film pays homage to the movement’s roots as a grimy DIY-style subculture, while also highlighting many of the scene’s key players from brands like Fresh Jive, Stussy, X-Large and more.
We recently caught up with Mr. Hundreds to talk about his roots as a politically-minded hardcore kid, his take on the modern streetwear scene and why in the world he took it upon himself to create an independent film about “funny clothes.”
Let’s start with the most obvious question. Why would you put yourself through the agony of making an independent film about streetwear? What compelled you to bring Built To Fail to the world?
A few years ago, I wrote this article for Complex ranking the 50 Greatest Streetwear Brands. It got a lot of play and was very “controversial” amongst fashion heads. The hard part for me wasn’t curating the list, but rather, determining what was and wasn’t streetwear. That really sent my mind thinking about how there’s no real history of this culture that was accessible to the general public.
You have to remember, this clothing is rooted in the underground, the off the grid stuff. I wanted to immortalize the last 25 years and give people glimpses into how it started. I wanted to show the references and culture behind the clothes, the people who actually designed and sold the clothing, stuff like that.
I couldn’t conduct an interview about your streetwear documentary without mentioning that Supreme only receives a few seconds of airtime. Was this intentional? Like, a way to show people that things don’t start and end with them?
Well, first off, I didn’t want to talk about Supreme without interviewing James Jebbia (founder of Supreme), although he and I speak all the time and he’s been very supportive. I think the bigger thing is that I wanted to show that this culture has existed over a 30 year arc. My goal for Built To Fail was to make it kind of evergreen and not center the story on “brands” per se but rather on the culture.
One thing that I picked up from watching the film was how in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, kids were really underserviced in terms of clothing that reflected a punk or hip hop or skater aesthetic. How did you style yourself in the pre-corporate streetwear era?
As someone with roots in the hardcore punk scene, I certainly didn’t want to be a walking billboard for Nike or big brands like that. Also, my parents were immigrants and they were definitely not about to shell out $100 for the latest Jordans. As a teenager, I was really into Fresh Jive, because their thing was kind of pop art, like anti-corporate. The clothing wasn’t logo driven, it was more about taking inspiration from rave flyers and stuff like that. At the time, they were one of the only brands who made clothing that diverted from the typical surf gear, which in that era was pretty basic and not cool. I needed something that was a bit more left of center.
Stussy was also mind blowing for me, the way the logo wasn’t even really legible but it looked so dope. And finally, being from Southern California, I have to shout out the swap meet/workwear brands like Dickies, Ben Davis and Carhartt.
Do you see any problems with the inherent consumerism of streetwear? Like, does a part of you wish kids were painting or starting bands or making films on their iPhones instead of standing on line to buy a $50 t-shirt?
Yeah, that’s actually been a big issue I’ve had with streetwear over the last five to 10 years. I always enjoyed that streetwear was philosophically driven and had a lot of urgent messaging and social commentary baked into it. Without connections to a progressive movement, it’s just fashion, which is fine, but it’s much less interesting to me. I think a culture that is just rooted in consumerism isn’t really a culture. It’s just the exchange of goods for money.
It’s like that Fugazi song, “Merchandise”, where they sing “you are not what you own!”
Yeah exactly. I’m all for people making and spending money, but with our brand, we’ve always tried to keep that spirit alive and encourage people to do more than just buy stuff.
Ok now that we’ve established that you and I are aging punk rockers, I wanted to ask if you had any advice for how dudes over 25 can incorporate streetwear into their looks in ways that are fly and more importantly, age appropriate…
Well, I might not be the best person to ask because I still dress like I’m 13 [laughs]. The thing is, now, streetwear is so intertwined with mainstream fashion that it’s super easy for anyone to wear. That said, it’s always been easy to wear, which is part of the appeal. Anyone can pair a nice hoodie with some rolled up chinos and some fresh sneakers and call it a day. I think the major shift has been that now it’s cool and elegant to wear that stuff to work. I’d say just be confident, don’t buy the first things you see and then once you have those perfect pieces, style them up or down so it feels like your personal vision.
As someone who has started a brand from scratch and overseen every element from design to marketing to sales to financing, do you have any advice for aspiring creatives?
It really takes time to build something that matters. Patience and discipline have a lot to do with it. A lot of young people complain to me that things are not popping off for them after six months, and I tell them that things that are worth creating really take a long time to create and nurture. I’ve been doing this for over 14 years with the Hundreds and we’re still a small niche thing. The reward is the journey, you know?