1. WELCOME TO HELL
“FUCK YOU AND your weak brand!”
His name is Derek. From what I can see in his profile pic, he’s not quite twenty with mangy blond curls and a sharp nose. He looks as if he could be a stony surfer from Topanga, a portly Spicoli. But according to his bio, Derek is landlocked in northern Ohio. I caught him in my Twitter replies, fastening together a chain of insults against my brand. He’d started off tweeting about how The Hundreds “used to be cool” and eventually sank to cheap taunts and lazy expletives.
“Nobody wears this trash. Why don’t u just die already?”
By the time I saw Derek’s spew bubble up on my feed, I was sitting in traffic on my commute home from Vernon to Venice. It had been a long day, the sort that mercilessly takes and takes. And here was this snot-nosed teenager burrowing into my scalp. I typically let abuse like this wash over me and dissipate; they’re just thoughts, really. Thoughts come and go.
But not today.
I fired back: “Even a small dog can piss on a big building.” Then I hit select all, deleted, and rethought my approach.
“Hi Derek. What’s wrong, dude?”
It was as if somebody had turned off the faucet. Crickets. I got home, ate dinner, and worked from the couch. Occasionally, I’d check my mentions to see if Derek had rebutted with a goofy meme or let loose a tirade against me. Nothing.
Near midnight, a red notification blipped across my screen, the echo of a star’s explosion that took hours traveling from a distant galaxy.
“Didn’t think you’d respond. Just having a bad day.”
“No problem. Me too.”
“Rrrrright. You’re rich.”
“I mean, we all have our thing. I got a production order of pants back from our factory today, but all the tags were mislabeled. We had to fix them ourselves. Took six of our guys twelve hours, cutting and sewing … such a nightmare.”
“Yeah? Well, I think I’m gonna fail school and my mom is threatening to kick me out. I can’t even find a job that I like in my town. Don’t really know where to go.”
“That’s rough. What would your ideal job be?”
My wife, Misa, walked into the room and plopped down next to me. She teased, “Who are you talking to? Another one of your internet fans?” She’d noticed that I’d stopped paying attention to the TV and was hunched over my phone.
“Some kid in Ohio. He’s having a hard one.”
“You’re so weird,” she said, smiling, then retired upstairs for the night as Netflix droned into the background. For the next twenty or thirty minutes, Derek and I volleyed our daily frustrations back and forth. This eventually segued into a discussion about streetwear and fashion.
“So, what’s bothering you about The Hundreds?”
“I dunno. I used to feel like it was really special. But now it’s sold everywhere, and everybody in my school is wearing it. And it’s not just your brand, it’s streetwear in general. All these bandwagoners don’t even get what it’s about and it pisses me off. It was my thing.”
I logged on to The Hundreds’ Instagram account. We’d been hyping up a big collaboration with adidas, and I watched my comments sizzle with positive emojis and friends tagging each other—the digital equivalent of a high five. Cool, fashionable kids from around the world were checking in. Indonesia, Norway, Mexico City, and—Derek was right—even Ohio. Yet when my partner, Ben, and I first formed the idea of a fun storytelling project, it never occurred to us that The Hundreds would become a globally recognized streetwear label, grow this big, and be sustained for this long.
I empathized with Derek. The Hundreds started back in 2003 with some drawings that I’d put on T-shirts, then blogged about. Ben sold the tees to local stores—a few hundred shirts per delivery. We’d crossed our fingers and prayed for the best, walking blindly into a shrouded future. We didn’t even rely on logos or branding back then. We didn’t have wide-scale name recognition, but our fan base would eventually become so attuned to what we were doing by following my blog that if I drew a stripe down a shirt, they could spot it from a mile away. It was our own clan, united by a shared love of OG streetwear brands, skateboarding, music, art, and a wide array of other interests like taco trucks, social issues, and cult movies.
Fifteen years later, and I now share my creations with millions of people across the planet. But as the brand grew, so much of that fundamental, personal code was lost. When you bestow your work on the world, you allow others to attach their own meanings to it and draw definitions around it. The Hundreds still means the same thing to me, but it also means millions of different things to millions of other people. I appreciate the money and success, but I also miss the days when The Hundreds was more like a secret-handshake club.
“I get it. It was my thing too,” I said, referencing The Hundreds, but more specifically streetwear on the whole. (I’ll explain “streetwear” more fully later, but for now imagine young men and women collecting limited-edition clothing like comic books.) In the late 1990s and early 2000s, kids like me wanted streetwear because nobody else wore it. In the span of a generation, that thinking has flipped. Today, young men and women hunt for streetwear precisely because everyone else is wearing it. Like all compelling subcultures, the secret was too good to keep to ourselves. Streetwear broke through the underground and went unapologetically mainstream by the early 2010s.1
High fashion is now smitten with street-turned-runway designers, an era ushered in by Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, and their apostles. Indie streetwear labels that sold to obscure boutiques a decade ago now flood malls and department stores. Supreme, once a niche New York skate shop, is now a luxury brand, valued at more than $1 billion. Meanwhile, every morning, there’s a new T-shirt brand, started in a garage by some cool fourteen-year-old, with a pop-up shop opening somewhere with a line around the block. Somehow.
It was well into the early hours of the morning. I sank deeper into my couch and waded back through our conversation. Has The Hundreds changed? Of course it has. Ben and I are older, more experienced, our story has a longer tail. We’ve made more stuff; we’ve hired more people. Plus, streetwear is completely different now, powered by resale and celebrity endorsements. The harder questions are, have I changed? And, have we sold out? Amid all the long lines, noisy collaborations, news headlines, and sales reports, were we still true to ourselves and our audience?
Copyright © 2019 by Bobby Kim