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Tiffany Chung

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

Tiffany Chung

18 Apr 2021

Text by Tiffany Chung

Citizens: Ahmed Ismail

18 Apr 2021

Ahmed Ismail is an entrepreneur, political thinker, public relations marketer, and philanthropist whose purpose has always been about serving the community. In this edition of Citizens, the future-minded businessman tells us about his inspirational journey from hospitality to becoming the co-founder of HXOUSE – an incubator devoted to helping foster innovation and opportunity for young creatives.

 

Hey Ahmed, you’ve achieved a lot of career success. Where did your career journey start?

“When I was 19, I had already dropped out of high school because my teacher and guidance counselor were putting me in programming to become a janitor. They didn't care about my political IQ or my business IQ. They didn't see me. So, I dropped out and started to work as a valet at the Fairmont Royal York. That job changed my whole perspective on life forever."

 

How did that first job change your perspective?

“I got to see everybody: high roller guests, mom and pop, politicians. When you live in a concentrated urban neighborhood, like the ghetto or one of the projects, you always see the cops or people like you. You don't really see people from other worlds. Every day, I got to see what position or career I wanted for myself. I tried to ask every guest one question and learn how to connect with older people. I asked one guest who had all these cars, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and he asked me ‘Are you in school?’ I said, ‘No’ and he said, ‘Don’t waste my time.’ The first time I ever approached a Black man at the hotel, and he shuts me down. I was so mad. That motivated me to prove myself."

 

 

Did you go back to school?

“I went back to school and got into a university. When I saw that guest again, I told him which university I was going to and he said the school was garbage and I should go to Wayne State in Detroit where he was a professor. He even offered to help me get a scholarship and hook me up with a job so I could afford it. What ended up happening is once I get to Detroit, the professor ended up transferring to another school before he could help me. I didn't have the money and I couldn't ask my family for money 'cause they didn't have it. My whole plan just fell apart. "

 

How did you handle that setback?

“So, the day that I'm about to give up on university, another guest from the hotel pulled up in front of me. We talk, he gives me his business card and tells me to call him. I don’t call him. But I stay and study political science. In my fourth month at school, I was running out of money. In America, if you run out of money for school immigration deports you. What ended up happening is I was reading one of my history books and recognized a face. I'm like, why do I know this man? He was an old civil rights politician who got Rosa Parks out of jail and fought for Martin Luther King. I don't know why but something made me check my wallet and the former guest who gave me his business card, Christian Barton, was the Chief of Staff for the Congressman that I was reading about in my history textbook. So, I call him and he's like, ‘Why the hell did you wait three months? I’m at this bar, meet me there.’ We start to talk, and he offers me an internship with the United States Congress. The highest office in the country. I say yes and he mentors me. When he quits, he recommends me to replace him. That just boosted my confidence. So, I would go to work and watch them change laws and then at night I'd be studying the laws they were changing in school."

 

With @The Weekend and @Cashxo.

 

What do you think he saw in you to give you that internship?

“I think he saw that I was just really hungry. I had no baggage. I just wanted to work. He saw my immigrant spirit. He knew I had only one agenda which was to dominate and work hard and he gave me the opportunity to do that. I never let him down. When I was supposed to go home at 4 in the afternoon, I would stay till 10 at night to learn what I don't know. He mentored me. He told me what to do and who to stay away from, which is very important because nobody ever told me that people in an office could also be cancerous."

 

 

Who are the people to stay away from?

“The people only working to make a check and don't believe in what they’re doing. The ones that are only are working when the boss walks by. Everybody sees it. Management knows and they're just waiting for the right moment to dump you."

 

How did you move from politics to PR?

“I did the same thing I did at the hotel, I started to look around at other people and their positions and saw Karen Morgan. She was the public relations person for the congressman. If you look at a congressman’s schedule, they could be in 3 or 4 states a night, 2 or 3 planes a day, 10 meetings, and she gets to go tell the congressman who they’re meeting, give them the research, give them the speeches. I never wanted to be locked in an office, so I was like that's my job. I went back to school for public relations. Long story short, that opened up a lot of doors because I didn’t want to do political PR. I did a little bit of automotive PR and then I started to work in sports and entertainment because I realized it's recession proof. When people have no money, they still watch basketball games on TV. I quickly realized what I liked about being in politics and what I liked about sports and entertainment and combined them both to start a socially sustainable marketing PR firm. Helping celebrities and corporations make money, but also help them build their philanthropy or teach them how to become better philanthropists."

 

2018 Toronto Brand Star and host Ahmed Ismail begins the ceremony.

 

So, how did HXOUSE begin?

“December 2016, La Mar Taylor tweeted after winning Forbes 30 under 30, ‘There's so much talent in my city, we’re undervalued. Before I’m 30, I'm going to build a facility for young creatives so they can outshine me and The Weeknd.’ So, I called him and said, ‘Brother, two years ago I designed exactly this project, but nobody wanted it. If you’re serious about this, we can build it together."

 

Do you look for an immigrant spirit and hunger when considering future tenants at HXOUSE?

“100,000,000%. That's all I look for. I look for somebody who doesn't want me to build their dream. Anybody can have an original idea. So, I just check how hard they're going to work on it. Time and consistency equals success. Some of my friends became successful in the first 3 years of their career, I waited 12 before my career started to make sense but I still came with the same energy every day and knew I was destined for my opportunity sooner or later. You have to work. If you don't put in the work, you don't get the results."

 

 

That must’ve felt good.

“It still feels like the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my career."

 

Speaking of your career and results, can you name a few of your proudest moments?

“In my neighborhood, owning a vehicle was a big deal, all the street dudes had nice cars. So, having my first nice car and making money was a proud moment. Second, was getting the job in the US Congress because it gave me a confidence that I can't overlook ever again. HXOUSE is definitely my biggest accomplishment and I don't even want anything to be bigger. Then the icing on the cake is seeing my career come full circle, from learning to speak English by watching news about politics, to studying political science in school, to now speaking to the Prime Minister regularly and helping him come up with ideas on how to get the Canadian economy back on track."

 

Today annocuement of 200+ million to Black Entrepreneurs is a testiment of my father's two favourite teachings he instilled in me.

 

Originally, the government didn't fully support your idea for HXOUSE. So, it must’ve been a big deal to host the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau?

“Almost two years to the day that we opened HXOUSE, the Prime Minister came to make a historic announcement and offer the Black community $250 million to launch a fund to repair the relationship with the Black community that has suffered and endured systemic racism in Canada. Why that was so monumentally important to me is because it was hard for us to get a grant, it was hard for us to talk to the government, the only thing that really helped was my patience in knowing how the government works from my previous political experience in the US. It was historic because it's one thing to give a check, but it's another thing to acknowledge there was wrongdoing. To have the Prime Minister say that systematic racism is real, it's happening, and it's stopping our growth, became a wake-up call for corporations to get their act together. Now money is flowing in Toronto for Black organizations which has never happened before."

 

With co-founder La Mar Taylor.

 

That must’ve felt good.

“It still feels like the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my career."

 

Describe your partnership dynamic with HXOUSE co-founders La Mar Taylor and The Weeknd.

“A lot of respect. I feel like the little guy because when I talk to them about politics or community or partnerships it's like I'm almost over excited about it and seeing something they can't see. Then when they're talking about creative things that the world doesn't see but needs, I feel like I don't even know what they're talking about, I’m just in awe and I always try to catch up. So, we have a very supportive nature where we all help build each other's ideas."

Celebrating the opening of Hxouse with Swizz Beatz.

 

Are you more of a traveler or a homebody?

“As you get older you become a homebody, but traveling is the only way I live because it’s my inspiration. I write and my writing becomes a plan. My plan becomes a project. When my project is in a place where I'm happy with it, I like to come home and build. So, I'm a homebody when I'm building but I still travel as well."

 

Are you a thinker or doer?

“Both."

 

Zanzibar doors.

 

Any causes you think need attention right now?

“I'm in Europe and what they’re doing with migrants is appalling. Corrupt colonial countries that still haven't acknowledged their wrongdoing have benefited and continue to benefit off of bad policies that disrespect immigrants without ever acknowledging what these countries have done to those communities. So, I would love to see a version of Black Lives Matter but for immigrants. I would love to see our communities wake up because you can only be enslaved if you allow whatever they're telling you to become your truth. Canada has had to acknowledge they've got to start finding ways to pay things back. America compensates by still allowing minorities to grow, have jobs, or even become the president of the United States. I just feel like Europe has made zero concessions and is still exploiting Africa every day. Europe needs to change."

 

We like to conclude each interview by asking our citizens to name a person, place, and thing they find inspiring.

“People that inspire me are immigrants. All immigrants have a story. I'm always keen to plug in and ask them where they are from, where their journey started and why it started. It sparks my imagination and when I ask those questions, it always takes me back to when I started as an immigrant and first arrived in the United States and Canada. One of the places that inspires me is Amsterdam. It has this introverted, communal vibe. If you don't want to be around anyone you can ride your bike, you can walk the shops, check things out and have a great day. But if you want to see people, they are also very community oriented. It’s one of those places that helps recharge my battery. I think the only ‘thing’ that inspires me is I try to be a better Muslim every day. It's not easy but I feel that when I pray more, I have structured order and my life makes sense. "