streetwear without culture is just fashion.
At this point, basically everything that was once sacred to your very own socialization has been marketed and exploited. What was once considered niche is now bigger than anyone could’ve ever imagined, and what was once a carefully and consciously built clear distinction with very visible boundaries has turned into a billion dollar industry to feed the mainstream’s sense of belonging. And there is actually nothing wrong with that. Streetwear in particular has gone through some rather drastic changes within the last twenty years: what once started as a juvenile insurgence fuelled by punk, hip-hop and skateboarding against established visual formulas now enjoys the fine dining experience with Europe’s traditional fashion houses. So far, there hasn’t been a documentary on this elusive phenomenon, but now famed designer/photographer/ writer and illustrator Bobby Hundreds - or Bobby Kim to his parents - has taken up the director’s chair to change that. He co-directed “Built To Fail“ together with Scott Weintrob and Alexis Spraic, and the doc luckily isn’t trying to deliver the complete picture, as it is much more interested in exploring personal stories - including interviews with Rick Klotz, Eli Bonerz, Stash & Futura and Tommy Hilfiger to name just as few - and how small beginnings can have big endings, indeed. “Built To Fail“ had its world premiere at the LA Film Festival in June. Bobby took a quick break from working on a new book that’s going to be published by FSG in order to give Lodown the tour through his directorial debut.
Bobby, to start with, please tell me a bit about the early stages of “Built To Fail“... what triggered the idea to sink your teeth into the impossible task of doing a doc on streetwear? And how hard was it to find the right production partners?
It was more a question I wanted to answer for myself. The longer I worked and existed in this thing called “streetwear,” the less I understood it, which is an uncomfortable feeling. Imagine if you’re a pro basketball player, but no two people can agree on the rules. Everyone seemed to have their own answer for what streetwear is, how it started, and who was responsible for it.
Meanwhile, we’re watching so many outside industries, media, and companies co-opt “streetwear” and change it. I wanted to preserve this chapter of streetwear, by acknowledging the OGs, and asking them where to turn next. As you watch and learn, I’m there alongside you taking notes. This film changed my perception of streetwear, what it was, and where it’s headed.
Were there any key players from the past, which you would have loved to include in the project, that totally refused to speak their mind on camera after all these years? Were there even some who were rather sceptical because they were a bit afraid that - besides your best intentions - the result would somehow be branded since you’re involved with The Hundreds?
Of course. It was a risk and a factor I had to accept by taking on this project. I understood the film’s credibility could hinge on it, but I also believed my perspective is valuable because I’ve been involved in this space for fifteen years professionally, and my entire life as a fan. An outsider wouldn’t understand the nuances, the emotions and unsaid dynamics of what it’s like to create in this space. And that’s really what this movie is about. Not a veritable A-Z history of streetwear - that’s impossible to do in 90 minutes - but a window into the trials and tribulations of certain brands’ stories.
As so many of the interviewees told me, if I didn’t do it, who else? People have been talking about documenting streetwear for years, but nobody cares enough to do it, or doesn’t know how. I accepted that I’d be critiqued for taking on the endeavor, but I’ve never cared about my personal image. I believe there is a responsibility, a duty, to an individual’s work. It stands apart from ego and self. The existence of a documentary about streetwear is more important to me than my reputation
Streetwear obviously was always connected to subcultures and it’s connected to a DIY ethos. Would you say that subcultures, the way we experienced them while growing up, are still intact - or did the digital age kill them?
I believe subcultures still exist, if we follow Dick Hebdige’s definition of resistance by youth and symbolism. I used to think that the Internet killed the underground, but that’s impossible. People think the Internet is a finite book that you can read from start to finish. But, it goes on forever. There are millions of subcultures that are out in the open on the Internet today that you will never find. Even if I told you all the places where the underground exists, you would need three lifetimes to explore them all.
I think the Internet did the opposite for subcultures, it exploded them. There are more nuances and subgenres than ever. Individuals in themselves can be an entire underground movement.
Another very important term related to streetwear - at least in its earlier years - was authenticity and integrity. It was important to know about the creative cats behind the brand, to know about their background - something that seems to be almost obsolete these days as it is more important to find out which celeb is wearing the gear, don’t you think?
I agree, and that’s why I emphasize culture and community so much in discussing streetwear. I say, “STREETWEAR WITHOUT CULTURE IS JUST FASHION.” Nowadays, younger streetwear fans are more interested in resale value and price tags. I don’t mind hype, I think that’s the excitement and value of brand association. But, I do have an issue with clothing being used to drive a classist or elitist divide.
The streetwear that I know and love is about people. At the end of the day, it’s all just t-shirts and jackets and baseball caps. No matter how far you get out there with design, it’s just cotton. The people behind the brands are what makes things special.
In traveling the world and doing hundreds of hours of interviews, I was reminded of how inspiring, passionate and eclectic these brand founders and designers are. Each personality could be a documentary in him or herself. We’re all square pegs that didn’t fit into normal jobs, or even into larger fashion. We don’t even play nicely with each other. Iconoclasts, frustrated rebels, us all.
Is there anyone - or any brand - in your opinion that never really received the love it so clearly deserved?
Probably Pervert. I never even considered Don Busweiler’s story being included in this documentary until I started interviewing the OGs. Young, old, West Coast, East Coast, when I asked who I should interview next, nine out of ten subjects told me to find Don Busweiler. Nobody even remembers much of the Pervert aesthetic, but they do remember Don’s legacy, his philosophy on branding, culture, and selling out. I hope people watch this movie and are curious enough about Pervert to go further and learn more. Same goes for the other brands and designers discussed. They only get a few minutes each, but they have a lifetime of knowledge to kick down.
Would you say that endless queues regarding new releases of whatever hyped brand has an almost fascinatingly obscene ring to it... or is it just a logical progression since the times we’re living in tend to be slightly more superficial than they actually need to be?
I get it. Last year, I took my son to the Kanye pop-up shop on Fairfax because some of my friends were running it. He was seven at the time, and his eyes were as wide as saucers. He had never heard of Kanye West before, he had so many questions while I was in that store. Why was there such a long line to get inside? Why were the clothes so expensive? It was all very exciting to him, and he begged me to buy him a t-shirt. He still talks about that day that we shared together.
People want to come together. As much as the Internet wants to keep us apart, and as comfortable as we may be on our couch with phones in hand, I believe there is a spiritual hunger to find one another again. Line-ups prove that. So do the success of music festivals. Or, the proliferation of foodie culture and new restaurants. These are the few industries that are actually making money while everyone keeps looking towards technology as the answer. No, it’s right there in front of you. It’s your fellow human beings. Maybe they’re standing in line at Palace today, and tomorrow it’ll be for concert tickets or a new car or whatever. But, that’s all it is, and I can’t knock it. It makes me happy.
Would you say that micro brands such as Paradise, Boys of Summer or 917 for example continue the legacy of what streetwear once stood for - spreading some attitude through a simple tee - even though the price range might be a lil’ different?
Sure. When I think of those brands, I think of specific people and a definite opinion. Those brands have such clear voices, and that’s all kids really want in streetwear, right? They want to feel like their clothes come from a person who speaks consistently and is resisting a greater hegemony. They don’t want to be walking billboards for a faceless corporation. Streetwear is a very personal relationship, and so it always serves brands better to stay close and relatable.
What is your personal opinion to trendsetting platforms such as Highsnobiety & Co... do they actually deliver any kind of support to a particular scene even though the majority of content is paid for?
High Snobiety, Hypebeast, Complex. These are businesses. They are the media. They make money off advertisers, and so of course, they will service them first. Yes, they have the duty to maintain journalistic integrity and transfer information to the people, but it’s on you to read between the lines and filter out your truth. I know that’s a big responsibility, but don’t confuse their platforms as non-profit charities. They aren’t feeding you news for the love of it. It may have started out that way, but nothing comes for free. You can’t look to them to build culture or draw communities together or spark movements. That’s on you, the reader.
When you co-founded The Hundreds back then, what was your main motivation... and how did your perspective on the business change over the years?
It was about community. That’s why it’s called The Hundreds. The overall project is a reference to people coming together for a specific cause. I sell clothes to make money and keep the movement going. But maybe this is why I’ll never be considered an esteemed fashion designer. There is something greater to The Hundreds, to me, than just cool apparel and being trendy and even profits. When I look back on our fourteen years, what I remember most are the times my staff pulled together to meet a deadline, or tradeshow nights out, or greeting fans on travels. I couldn’t tell you what was the hottest selling item in the Summer of 2010, but I can tell you about the road trip we took across Texas to meet all of our accounts and customers. My perspective hasn’t changed. People over Product. I have bags under my eyes, but I still see the same.
Would you say that a tee still is the perfect platform for delivering a pitch perfect mix between message & aesthetics?
Maybe. But, remember that there are certain years where the marketplace decides even t-shirts aren’t cool - this happened about five years back with the whole trad/Americana thing. Cool guys wouldn’t be caught dead in a graphic t-shirt). The perfect platform? Yourself. Your opinion. Whether you use your literal voice or express it on a t-shirt or a tweet. I encourage you to use it more because it’s one of the remaining unique things left in this world. Such a valuable and critical resource.