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Tiffany Chung

Date

04 Nov 2020

Text by Tiffany Chung

ØLÅF CITIZENS: MIKE CHERMAN

04 Nov 2020

Think fast, act faster, constantly hustle. Mike Cherman embodies the principles of what his streetwear brand, Chinatown Market, was built on. The founder and creative director is known for unapologetically creating work that causes a cultural stir and encourages a new generation of designers to create what they believe needs to be created. In this episode of Citizens, we discuss what running a business looks like in 2020 and get Mike’s thoughts on creativity.

Snap from "How Chinatown Market Seeks to Challenge the Status Quo of Collaborative Projects.

 

Hey Mike, how is pandemic life for you right now? Still working from home?

“You know I’ve honestly been pretty normal, well not normal, but we’ve been working pretty actively in my office for awhile now. We do weekly testing. We have a lot of protocols in the office to keep people safe. And luckily, knock on wood, we haven't had any issues. So all around, I think it's really about how we keep each other safe, more than making sure that no one comes back into the office. But luckily, we’re also in a big open air loft kind of space so it allows for us to have that kind of environment."

 

Has 2020 affected your business in a negative or positive way, or both?

“I think for the positive to be honest. You know, I think that when the pandemic happened, it kind of forced us to organize, have way more meetings and structure. We couldn't just go fly by night with ideas because we all now had to be sitting on computers, having meetings, coordinating, getting on the same page. So, you know I think when that all happened, it was a really good moment for our company to be challenged to think differently. I think also at the same time our online business catapulted in a big way and I think we just realized why not invest in ourself. I think a lot of times you get caught up in these ideas of all the cool stores and all this other stuff you can do. For me, it was a big eye opener of how we could really double down on us and see that investment come back."

 

Capsule collection with Mike Tyson.

 

Creating brand experiences, connecting with your audience, building a community, has been a big part of Chinatown Market. Do you think this has also helped you thrive in Covid-times?

“I definitely think that we are lucky to have a team that’s part of everything that we do. Every kid in my office, whether they are in a photoshoot or creating some kind of content, they are a part of submitting ideas of what we make. There is a really succinct 360 effect to what we have. A lot of companies have a separate warehouse, people who do they’re photoshoots, and all the things are separated. Where for us it's all under one roof, so when this all happened we were able to vertically operate 100%. So, it was a really interesting time and actually showed that we were in a good spot, we just needed to get more optimized and continue to get smarter. I mean obviously we’re fortunate to be in that position because I know a lot of people not so much. To me, it just depends on whether or not they were ready to innovate and I was lucky to have a great partner, someone who pushed to get organized because this was such an unknown thing."

 

So, you’re based in LA right now.

“In Los Angeles now, yeah. I haven’t really gone much of anywhere except for Colorado once to go see my mom. I drove 16 hours."

 

But you grew up between New York and California. So, is Chinatown Market influenced by both these worlds?

“I would say that Chinatown Market was more influenced by New York City Chinatown. The idea of the stores, the t-shirts, the rapid commerce that happens. Not just the idea of bootlegging because I think that’s just the easy scapegoat of what Chinatown is. There are so many clever, fun, and amazing things that come out of these marketplaces that were always so interesting. Every day I'd be on my way to school or work and I’d go to appreciate the amount of different things that were coming out of these places. Every week, these dudes would have a new pun t-shirt that made fun of the most trend-based, new age thing. They were just on it, but they weren't getting the credit they deserve. So, it was kinda like a funny moment where I took a step back and thought ‘You know what? Some of these shirts are some of the most classic shirts ever’ because we’ve seen them since we were young. Now even the classic ‘I Love New York’ shirt, rest in peace Milton Glaser, but the other kind of funny ones, ‘I’m with stupid’ or whatever, obviously that one is a dumb shirt forever, bad example, but they’re a nostalgia point and really interesting in that sense."

 

Citadium, Paris."

 

So, in a way you’re paying tribute.

“You know in the initial creation of the brand, it was the idea of that innovation and that constant creation that really inspired what we do. Looking at what Chinatown Market is today and it’s still what that is. We have an entire innovation lab, all of our kids are in there, always creating new things, we’re constantly putting out new ideas, and there's a new product created every single day. It's truly that kind of spirit that is what Chinatown Market is referencing. It’s not referencing Chinese culture. I think a lot of times there are misconceptions and I have to draw a clear line. It’s a very serious thing to me to be culturally sensitive and respectful of those things."

 

You’re someone who has seen amazing results from taking risks. For example, the Frank Ocean X Nike shirt. As your business grows, becomes more established, and collaborates with bigger brands, do you still feel capable of taking the same level of risks you once did when you first started out?

“Yes, but it’s also hard to stand out. Even online; everyone on Instagram is influencing each other in a way, and the algorithms push it even further.

I think there are definite risks in a lot of this, but it's a calculated risk. It's the idea of asking for forgiveness not for permission. For any young creative, I'm not trying to help you go bootleg, I'm more trying to say go shamelessly create what you believe needs to be created, and if you believe it needs to be created then go make it. If it needs to be made, then it needs to be made. I put a swoosh on a pair of Converse and we didn't make it so I could sell thousands of swoosh Converse, but it ended up on Lebron James. He wore it before the finals last year and it became this crazy moment and it was literally just a funny idea. I'm not the first one to do it actually, but it became a thing we’re now known for."

 

Jay-Z.

Mike and Erykah Badu.

 

 

SMILEY GLOBE PUZZLE.

 

Are there any projects you’re particularly proud of?

“Honestly, this last one is the most proud I've been of a project coming together and being executed at the highest level. It was this Grateful Dead project we just did. Basically, we did everything, we bought a 1969 VW campervan, we got a guy to fully gut it, wrap the whole thing, fully custom, the entire interior was done too. It was one of these moments where we planned to essentially recreate the Grateful Dead experience where you go to these different spots and you can experience the music and buy this bootleg merch. The whole idea was how can we do that now during Covid-times? Go get a parking lot, only allow a certain amount of people, bring the van out and create an experience. I think with the Grateful Dead though it was also because...and I hate to keep saying Lebron James, but...Lebron James wore the stuff before one of the games again recently and it created a huge moment for us. I think being able to work with these iconic properties, as a brand like Chinatown Market while sure we're growing and building a bigger fan base or whatever, we're still tapping into a totally new crew of people that have never seen us before."

 

You seem to really want to empower young people. Why is that important to you?

“The biggest thing to me, beyond just empowering the business side, is empowering these kids to make decisions, to step up and say stuff. When I was coming up, no one wanted to hear my opinion and no one wanted to get my thoughts, it was like, you do what we tell you and if we ask you then sure say something, otherwise shut up and go over there. While as our company grows there is a little bit of the ‘shut up and go over there’ because you can’t have 100 voices in everything, I do believe we created an environment where we have a team meeting every week, everyone submits an idea, we have a challenge, there's an ability for someone to walk over to the design area and say ‘I have an idea to do this’ and literally the next day we have a sample of it. To me, that’s the beauty of what we do. Anyone can affect our business. One of our warehouse kids came up with a t-shirt idea one time and we sold hundreds of units of it, and so it's like a beautiful moment where we were like ‘Yo dude, amazing! You literally came up with this in a team meeting and now look what happened, the shirt is real and now you can see your idea went from concept to creation."

 

 

When you first tried to land a job, you created a guerilla poster campaign to get Jeff Staple to hire you. Have any young creatives tried stunts like that on you? Did it work?

“None have done it really well. They’re always lazy. I’m like come on man you can’t try this, do exactly what I did and not do it better. I'm going to be pretty critical, I had to sit in a New York City holding cell for a night. It's just ridiculous with any of those things, so, yeah it's definitely happened but it's always disappointing. Not to be a snob or anything, it's more like if you’re going to do some shit like that, go do it."

 

Let it burn.

Chinatown Market's office.

 

You’ve pretty much been on your career path since highschool. Was there ever a moment where you doubted what you were doing?

“When I dropped out of Parsons I was living in this person’s second bedroom and I was getting graphic design gigs off of Craigslist. I took the subway up to the Bronx, did this flyer for this cell phone store and it was a nightmare for 50 bucks. It's just funny to think about the things I would do to try to make some shit happen. I can’t say there was ever a time where I was like, I don't think I can do this. But I think there were so many times where I was like, no one cares. I think it's part of the self-deprecating thing you have to do to yourself to keep going. I always build up this idea that the ship is always sinking, so I have to keep pushing hard."

 

Would you describe yourself as an introvert or extrovert?

“I’m an introvert but extroverted in a comfortable setting."

 

So, how does it feel to be a public figure as an introvert?

“Well, I guess there's a beauty in the fact that Chinatown Market is not just me. Luckily, I'm not like the Willy Wonka, sure I'm technically a part of it and the leader of it, but I also believe it's about the community and the kids that work in my office and those guys are also going to become big things. It’s bigger than just me and at a certain point it's going to transcend me. At the core of what Chinatown Market was created on, you can say I was there, but it's going to transcend me because it's about the evolving culture of creativity and kids loving apparel. I try to make it less about the ego side of all these things because I also recognize and am grateful for the fact that I get to make clothes every day."

Rug in collaboration with ABSENT.
You make clothes every day, but what do you wear every day?

“You know, there’s companies like Teatora, a brand in Japan, and it’s really interesting because it's not designed for the modern runner or cyclist, it’s for the modern office worker who is sitting at a desk or flying on a plane. Everything is so functional and built for your everyday life and that's what I wear now because I want stuff that functions 100% for me. But usually I wear all black and a white pair of shoes. That's it. Every day the same thing. It almost looks like I’m wearing the same clothes every day. But, I literally have 50 t-shirts that are black and 4 pairs of these pants that I wear. I know it sounds psycho, but it's basically easy for me and I just like the way it looks."

 

Tell me about some of your tattoos.

“Uh yeah, I guess this is a funny one. Basically, I have this tattoo on my ribs. I did my grandmother’s name and I misspelled it. So, I went back two weeks later and I crossed it out and I redid the whole thing. So, that has always been one of those shameful moments in my life of like ‘goddamn it, why did I rush this?’ I called my mom for the spelling, wrote it down, and obviously didn't write it down correctly. I was probably distracted. So, yeah that's a fun story."

 

Last question, outside of the streetwear and fashion world, where have you been drawing your inspiration from lately?

“A lot of architecture and Frank Gehry design where he takes really cheap materials and makes something really beautiful out of them. I don't know, just plants and cactuses and the idea of surrounding yourself with plant life and all those things. I was lucky enough to get a home this year and have a yard and plants around me. It's the biggest gift I've been able to have, somewhere I can truly have my own space and just be with me. I was in apartments for so long, sharing apartments, roommates, and like its nice to have peace."

 

Article image by: Christina Choi

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views from different key figures

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Text

Tiffany Chung

Date

21 Feb 2021

Text by Tiffany Chung

ØLÅF CITIZENS : Nicole McLaughlin

21 Feb 2021

Designer, artist, and social media phenomenon, Nicole McLaughlin, has changed the way the fashion industry thinks about upcycling and sustainability. It’s her unexpected translation of materials and tongue-in-cheek concepts that make her a leader in innovative design. In this edition of Citizens, Nicole reflects on how her career started and where she wants to take it in the future.

 

Hey Nicole, you’re a highly sought-after designer working with international fashion brands. What gravitated you to the industry?

“Yeah, I have kind of a weird backstory. I went to school for speech language pathology. I had a deaf boyfriend when I was in high school and became fluent in sign language. I was very passionate about it, so I went to school to pursue it. Then I got to school and realized that I liked sign language more for the art of it and the visual form of communication. I toyed around with switching to an art or design school, but I ended up staying at the college I was at and started doing a general media program. I was doing more design, website design, packaging, that kind of stuff. That led me to my internship with Reebok right after I graduated. I still don’t know to this day how I ended up getting this internship because I had zero experience in terms of the fashion industry and footwear. But they had me come on as a graphic designer making graphics and prints for sports apparel, like running tights and tanks. That’s really when I started to learn about fashion; the patterns and the construction that comes with making clothing as well as the production side of it, like going to factories and understanding timelines. It was really during that time where I was curious to know how things are made. That's when I started to mess around with footwear, taking samples and things that were just laying around the office, cutting them up and frankensteining them together, just seeing what I could make out of it. During that time, everything was exploration and that’s kind of where I still am today. Everything I do is always practice. It’s always exploration. It’s never anything that’s meant to function perfectly or to be sold and mass produced. That’s never the intention behind it."

 

Yeah, it seems like a lot of your pieces can also be considered art.

“I get that question quite a lot, ‘Do you consider yourself more of a fashion designer or an artist?’. It took me a little while to figure out where I sit in the space. To me, I think I’m more of an artist and it just so happens that my medium is fashion. A lot of the pieces I make do function, they can be wearable pieces, but it’s just more about concept and an idea. So, I think that would sit more in the art space."

 

Sushi slide.

 

How long does a project usually take?

“Uhm, it depends what I’m making. I think footwear is probably the thing that I’ve gotten the fastest at because I make shoes the most. I think a shoe would take me up to 1 or 2 hours. It involves the least amount of material and pattern making. I’ve spent days on things, and I’ve spent 20 minutes on things. It varies. The funny thing is — in terms of social media which is the more instant gratification type projects — the less time I spend on a project, the better it does in terms of engagement. The things where I just think of an idea that’s kind of stupid and it only takes me a couple minutes to put together are the ones that tend to do really well. It’s never the ones where I painstakingly spend hours stitching, sculpting, and figuring it out. But I always hope that the people that really understand what I’m doing in terms of construction are the ones that see it and can appreciate it."

 

Which projects were the quickest to make but had the biggest impact?

“Recently, I did a glove made out of bread which surprisingly did super well. I literally just carved out a piece of bread and stuck my hand in it. The idea was ‘warm and toasty’. That project only took me less than half an hour to make and it did quite well. It had a little bit of a viral moment. I also did a project where I put a stamp on the bottom of a high heel. It was such a simple thing and did so well."

 

Warm and toasty.

 

Is there a project you’re particularly proud of?

“It was a personal project. I did an auction in June last year for Black Lives Matter. I put my head down and was grinding and made 6 or 7 pieces by hand in less than a week. I put them up for auction. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, but I just felt like I needed to do something to help in some way. I think we raised $20,000 in a couple of days and that’s probably the most fulfilling thing I had done as a freelancer. To share and help as much as I could through creating art was very rewarding. I was very happy about that. It inspired me to go and pitch to work with brands for more charitable opportunities. Finding ways to do auctions and have them donate, raise money, and raise awareness."

 

 

When making the transition to freelance, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

“A lot of things. I never intended on going freelance. I always thought I was going to work in a company. The way I grew up, my parents taught me that secure jobs are a good thing, growing in one company from start to finish is a good thing. So, when all this started to take off and I was talking to my parents about the opportunity to work for myself and be a freelancer, they were freaking out and were like, ‘What about your 401K? What about health care?’. It was really nerve-racking to take that jump. You do lose this sense of security. At the same time, it's a very rewarding decision. Working for yourself, you're making your own luck in a way. Everything that you do, you can take a step back afterwards and say, ‘I did that. That was mine and take ownership over it.’ It's a good feeling. I’ve always kind of gone with my gut and that usually tends to work. But there are a couple things I wish that I was a little bit more knowledgeable in and on myself about, like understanding taxes, establishing my residence and my studio residence, and all of the more logistical things of running a business. I’d also say, maybe save a little bit more before you quit your full-time job."

 

You went freelance just before 2020 and the pandemic. That must’ve affected you.

“Yeah, that was such an ‘oh shit’ moment to go through. Especially to have that happen in less than a year of being freelance because a large part of my business was traveling for workshops, meeting with brands, and hosting events throughout the world. Right before the pandemic, I just finished teaching a workshop in China, I was about to leave to go to South Africa, and the following week I was going to be in London, then all of a sudden all that just gets pulled out from under me. I was like, ‘Woah, woah, what's going to happen now? That's a huge part of my business. If I can’t travel and I can't do these things, what’s about to go down?’ I freaked out a little bit. I was nervous but I took a step back and let everyone regroup because all these brands were in the same situation where they're freaking out too. Two weeks later, all these brands came back to me and proposed digital workshops and social media things. It was a way to leverage being home and because so many people are consuming content in masses which is a big part of what I do, I was like, ‘Okay, what if I work with brands and help find cool ways to help their brands on social media?’ So, my business became a little bit different during this time, but I've embraced it and it's been fun."

 

Jacquemus.

 

Have any of the places that you visited influenced the work you’re doing now?

“Yeah, I’m really fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I have. I mean obviously not during this time, but when I was working at Reebok traveling was a really important part of our job. We would go to the factories in China and Vietnam. From there, I would always take trips to Thailand, the Philippines, and Japan. I loved that part of my job. When I left Reebok, I was really nervous that I wasn’t going to get to travel as much. It was so amazing when Adidas reached out and invited me to come to Shanghai and teach a workshop. So, I went to China and that was a cool experience because I felt a connection to sign language by teaching a workshop to people where we don’t speak the same language at all. We were making something together but had to communicate and speak to each other in a visual way. That really inspired me. I want to continue to travel to other countries and try to find ways to teach workshops to young people and people who are just curious about the industry."

 

What advice would you give to up-and-coming designers?

“I’d say this is probably the most important advice as a freelancer, it’s kind of corny, but don’t lose the reason why you started doing it. I think sometimes it gets really blurry and all these amazing commission projects come into play — and obviously you have to make a living, that’s first and foremost — but a lot of the time you lose the passion of why you started creating the things, or writing the things, or doing the things you were doing that inspired you to want to be a freelancer. Personal projects are still something that I feel very passionate about and something I carve out a lot of time to try to do that. A lot of the time it ends up being late nights and weekends to still maintain those projects. It’s tough but you have to make sure you do it or you’re going to lose your sanity."

 

 

What’s the most challenging part of your career right now?

“Finding the balance between the commissioned projects versus the personal projects. It gets busy sometimes and the first things to go are your personal well-being and mental health because you’re just in grind mode and sometimes that can last a really long time. Right before Christmas, I was back-to-back-to-back on so many projects and by the time Christmas came I slept for like a week straight. It was amazing but I realized that I pushed myself way past my limits. It was kind of funny because the week that I was able to sleep and rest and not check my email, my skin was so good."

 

Do you ever have to overcome the feeling of imposter syndrome?

“Yeah, I mean I still do. Full transparency. It’s really hard not to feel like that sometimes. Especially not coming from a fashion background or product design background. I just kind of show up and am like, ‘Oh look at these things that I’m making that could fall apart at any moment.’ It’s hard but you have to find this level of confidence and ride that. Ride the line of staying open and humbled by what you're doing, but also feeling confident in what you're making and your ideas. You don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to come from a prestigious school where you learned all the tricks of the trade. You can learn as you go and own that and be okay with that. I’ve always kind of been this way. If I’m curious enough about something I’ll figure it out. I think a lot of people are that way. You just have to be confident enough."

 

 

What career milestones or goals are you hoping to achieve?

“I would love to continue to build upon the workshops and become more of a non-profit. I see myself going in less of a brand direction and more of an educational direction or become a resource within the industry to support younger people who are looking to get into design. Kind of what I’m doing now but on a larger scale. I hope to have a team of people that can help come up with solutions for brands that have excess materials and get those materials to schools that need it. I hope to still be making things for fun too. I want to explore homeware and larger scale things. I started working in the furniture space, like chairs, but it'd be great to do bigger installations with upcycled materials."

 

Nike chair.

North face puffer umbrella.

 

 

You’re an outdoorsy person.

“Yeah, I rock climb. That’s my preferred sport. I love outdoor anything: clothing, accessories. There is just so much design detail that I think also gets lost quite a bit, like reflective details or trims, stuff that we don't always look at and get excited about. I love that kind of stuff."

 

What’s your go to outdoor activity outfit?

“Ooh. Well, I’m always wearing a beanie. Mainly, I like Carhartt for beanies. I’m kind of traditional like that, I guess. I’d say Arc’Teryx jackets are my favorites. If I’m to buy anything new, Arc’Teryx would be the only outdoor brand I would go buy a jacket from. I find a lot of Patagonia, L.L. Bean, and Colombia in thrift stores. I usually wear climbing pants, Gramicci or North Face. Then shoes, I have National Geographic shoes. They’re really cool and no one really knows that National Geographic has shoes. They’re really sick. They’re like my prized possessions. I like Smartwool socks too. Socks are very important to me. Even for my projects too. The way I style my stuff, my socks are usually visible, so I don’t skimp out on the socks. Gotta go all in."

 

Gummy.

Toolbelt.

 

 

For a thing that inspires me, this is kind of weird and I guess it's ‘things’ plural, but I like oversized objects. Things that are meant to be in store displays. I have this oversized Vans shoe for example. I actually have a couple of these. I like the idea that things could be taken out of context completely and I think store displays are the best example of that. They just go crazy with it and then the stuff is always on eBay for really cheap after because no one knows what to do with it. So, I’d say my giant shoes have inspired me."