TA们 | COMPASS: Bobby Hundreds, with exclusive Q&A from Boston's book signing event
" It was at this point that I had a vision. Black sheep, like me, dotting the rolling hills of skate culture, flocking to the new frontier of streetwear. But we weren’t lost, not nearly. We were looking for each other. In step with being out of step — together."
Welcome back to the COMPASS series, featuring Asian designers, photographers, and artists from other genres. In the last episode, we introduced Korean-American hip-hop artist Dumbfoundead. Today we will talk about another Asian-American pacemaker in the streetwear scene, co-founder of California's streetwear brand The Hundreds — Bobby Kim, a.k.a. Bobby Hundreds.
Bobby co-founded streetwear label The Hundreds in 2003 with Ben Shenassafar. The Hundreds may not be the most hyped streetwear brand at the moment, but its contribution to fortifying the streetwear culture cannot be overlooked. With their motto being "People over product", The Hundreds is dedicated to building a street culture community. The brand is deeply grounded in storytelling, creating narratives for people to resonate with.
Like most entrepreneurs, Bobby had to give up on the 9-to-5 job and "started from the bottom". What's unorthodox is that The Hundreds didn't originate from a financial incentive. It is solely about gathering and communicating with like-minded people who have a mutual interest and passion in the streetwear culture. Last year, Bobby published his debut memoir This Is Not a T-Shirt: A Brand, a Culture, a Community—a Life in Streetwear, in which he talked about all the highs and lows throughout the brand's journey from "having everything to say and nothing to lose" to the realization of "stay true but don't stay put."
Pt I. “Carved out your little corner and step out to invite people in”
Bobby’s parents immigrated from Korea to California in the 1980s. As one of the only Asian kids at school, he became the easy target for bullies. Fortunately, Bobby was gifted with innate artistic talent that granted him more control over his own impact.
"My art granted me a voice in this world. My drawings set the stage from which I would be heard."
The egalitarian and inclusive nature of the skate culture captivated Bobby from an early age. He was later also intrigued by the free spirit rooted in punk rock. However, the minority was still being underrepresented in these subcultures. There was no doubt that the American youth fashion was driven by, and contributed mainly by white males. Bobby felt like he was excluded by this lifestyle. As street culture became more diverse, kids with different backgrounds were more eager to leave a mark on this culture. Young Bobby was struggling in finding a platform to speak for himself. This struggle incubated his later devotion in creating his own brand, set him off on the quest of building a Utopia that's inclusive to everyone.
"Dissociation has historically been a major source of unhappiness in people’s lives. I believe the future of successful branding lies in genuinely bridging the gaps that divide people."
Bobby never looked at arts as a viable career choice. After graduating from UC San Diego with a degree in Communications, Bobby lived in Japan for a while, freelancing in writing and photography. In quest of "better" career potential and making real changes for the world political wise, Bobby proceeded to law school. During school, Bobby’s blog was born as an outlet for his artwork, photography, and writings. To this day, it has grown into a curated editorial, a leading voice on how culture shapes streetwear.
In 2003, Bobby met his future business partner at law school, another devotee of sneakers —Ben Shenassafar. The two instantly clicked on creating their own T-shirt brand, with Ben taking care of operations and sales, and Bobby focusing on design. It started off as a side project, Bobby at the time was also interning at Los Angeles Superior Court and a veteran research attorney by the name of Abram Edelman. The turning point of his career was when his boss Abe Edelman opened up with him one day on The Hundreds:
"You are gonna have all the cars in the world, all the women, but don’t do it. Every lunch The Hundreds was the only thing you talked about. You were really chasing the passion. Do you want to be like me, 40 year old and dying of cancer then realize you spent your life doing something you weren't passionate about? At least I can say I did something I cared about and loved. You don't love being a lawyer. You're not passionate about this. You're passionate about The Hundreds. I see it in you, I see how you talk about it, it's all you ever think about, man. Do The Hundreds. Life's too short."
Abe opened that door, and Bobby seized it.
Pt II. “So long as at least one person was listening，I would be interested in talking.”
Bobby's blog is still one of the best leading online destinations for men's streetwear fashion, equally notable and influential as Highsnobiety and Hypebeast. But unlike Highsnobiety and Complex who covers all spectrums of entertainment news and fashion, Thehundreds.com revolves around Bobby's genuine conversations with other artists, his laid-back thoughts on the status quo of streetwear, and the background story and inspiration that empowers The Hundreds' collaborations. As one of the pioneers in streetwear that set the stage for its growth, Bobby has always held a clear vision in the streetwear landscape.
His The 50 greatest Streetwear brands of all time for Complex written in 2011, still sparks debate to this day.
I truly believe we were the earliest to structure and broadcast our personal culture via fashion merchandise. You log onto our lives and take a piece home as merch, as evidence that you experienced it, or as proof that you’re a part of it.
Bobby's blog is the medium for communication, bonding The Hundreds and its audience, which also acts as a way to keep the brand transparent. Each of their collaboration is powered by an idea, a story. Customers who purchased the products can search for more in the blog. A company with both clothing lines and an editorial hub was kind of revolutionary. This type of interaction and engagement hasn't harnessed by many brands until recently. Although the conventional clothing industry is built upon necessity, sales, and marketing, the real essence that empowers The Hundreds to grow is the culture and community. Bobby insists on the concept of stronger the bond is, deeper the roots go. He wants to overturn the market status quo of frantically buying and reselling, by hosting more intimate block parties, warehouse sales, having frequent interactions with fans on social media, as well as publishing this memoir and hosting This is not a Podcast to further share his vision throughout the journey.
"So long as at least one person was listening, I would be interested in talking."
The Hundreds never treated their customer base on a macro level, instead, aiming to persuade one person at a time. Label name "The Hundreds" also symbolizes the people strength in numbers, a strength that facilitates the pure street culture.
Pt III. “Streetwear is brave and invincible. It’s foolish and urgent”
Bobby believes that street culture radiates from an attitude, a rebellion in youth, or the disapproval towards high fashion. Around the mid-2000s, media labeled all independent fledgling brands as "Streetwear". Skater boys and girls were bored by those big sports brands, in the hopes for something more grounded, fashionable, and something they could attach feelings to. By the early 2010s, street culture officially skyrocketed from underground to becoming one of the mainstream genres in fashion.
The news about streetwear could have been too singular, with topics only revolving around sneakers' resale market or celebrity endorsement. But street culture is diverse in so many dimensions and degrees, it involves a whole spectrum of subcultures. Bobby doesn’t think the media’s spotlight would remain on streetwear for too long, and it is, in fact, healthy for its growth. Nowadays, the profit brought by streetwear can be enormous, devouring some designers' true enlightenment. A recession could give them time to self-reflect and revert back to building the cultural foundation.
Prosperity is dangerous. It can dull the senses.
After all, street culture is rooted in diversity and culture exchange. Streetwear is youth-driven, full of passion, and averse to plastic marketing campaigns. Streetwear is brave and invincible. It’s foolish and urgent, but that’s forever been part of what attracts people to a cause.
Pt III. Exclusive Q&A from fans at Boston's book signing event
I was delighted to attend a book signing event Bobby and Ben hosted in Boston and got the chance to write down some of the questions raised by other fans. (Kudos to them!)
Q: How important it is to stand up to a sensitive social issue? How do you see the New York brand Bstroy’s Bullet hole design inspired by school shootings?
A: It’s important to use your brand as a voice to speak about whatever that is closed to your heart. Great designs begin with great opinions. Constructing a brand is reinforcing that ideology. By talking about things that are nearest your heart, you are also getting closer to what truth could possibly be. We are here offering ideas. Design is a way to start a conversation with people, it is not the billboard to preach to people. It’s to invite people in.
I also believe in free speech. We are all built differently, we all have different mindsets. The marketplace did offer some different reactions to that design as well.
Q: Besides streetwear, how should other brands communicate with their customers?
A: I’ve spoken at a surf conference before. So the message you want to send can be conveyed through the material you use and the people you hire, whether it’s using sustainable material, or hiring both genders to promote gender equality.
Q：Now we have more women in streetwear, how as a community should we support that change?
A: Streetwear has been misrepresented and overrun by dudes who have daddy issues and who are insecure. They’d be like, "we don’t need girls. Streetwear is men dressing for men. Before is that men dress for women to impress."
One way to fix this is to use the platform to highlight young female designers, even hire them. Complex wasn’t ready to do that, until they establish a team and realize people do want to read about women. I’m not saying you have to build your women brand, you can also work and be employed to support the industry.
Q: Why is it important to be so transparent?
A: I came from hardcore which is an honest medium. So I also want to create a brand that behaves that way.
Q: By writing this book, are you opening up a new chapter or closing down?
A: Personally, I think it’s important to write a memoir or diary. When writing down a story, I had to knock out the uncomfortable difficult moment. Through this process, I also figured out things that I haven’t been honest with myself about. Writing a book is a cheap and easy therapy, not to mention that I'm letting everyone else to pay for it.
Q: I don’t want culture to influence business too much. In order to balance, where should I draw the line?
A: Use your business to fortify the culture. We are out here supporting other people, we are all out for the neighborhood. It’s about bringing people together, all brands start to come around. The more we’ve gone out to highlight other people’s brands, the more we bring the whole industry together. We are not doing it for the profit, we are also out here supporting arts. I don’t exist without the ecosystem. We need the ecosystem to exist, thus we need to feed it.
"Without culture，The Hundreds is just a label."
To Bobby, The Hundreds isn’t about reselling, or celebrity endorsement. It originates from a group of kids who are dedicated to building a community. Without culture, The Hundreds is just a label.
I hope Bobby’s story and mindset can inspire more like-minded people who are either grinding in the industry or trying to get in. I’m not qualified to call myself a street culture devotee, or a hypebeast that knows everything about the sneakers, but I enjoy the raw spirit and the sense of belonging that streetwear embodies. Again, I hope my introduction will resonate and inspire, as Bobby said, even it's "only one person at a time."
Watch/Read his interview here:
Listen to his podcast here:
Buy his book here: