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Crooks & Castles Lands in L.A.

Crooks & Castles has joined a select group of streewear brands that are shunning mass market channels in favor of building their own branded retail existence.

LOS ANGELES — Once a small cult brand with a passionate Japanese following, Crooks & Castles has joined a select group of street and skate brands that are shunning mass market channels in favor of building their own branded retail existence.

In Los Angeles, the epicenter of this direct retail trend is the Fairfax District near the intersection of Melrose and Fairfax avenues, once home to several European designer boutiques that have since moved to tonier locales.

Crooks & Castles’ inaugural boutique, a narrow, 1,100-square-foot space located at 8021 Melrose Avenue and described by founder Dennis Calvero as a “pimp’s jail cell,” will showcase the brand’s expanding product line. It includes varsity jackets, made in collaboration with Mitchell & Ness, and the new Carry & Conceal accessories line of $180 monogrammed backpacks, croc-stamped leather wallets and nylon oxford bags with Gucci-esque, red-and-green accents. The space, which opened last week, features black marble floors, concrete walls and a wood-paneled upstairs room that displays Taschen books.

In the past year the Fairfax District has seen an invasion of street/skate boutiques, from Supreme and SLB to Alife. DC Shoes recently took over a 7,400-square-foot space on Melrose Avenue that housed Miu Miu until it shuttered last year, while Japanese hip-hop label A Bathing Ape plans to open a shop in the former Costume National space nearby. “This used to be the Harajuku of streetwear with Freshjive and Stussy,” Calvero said. “There are a lot of small brands like us coming to this area that need a storefront to show what their lifestyle is.”

That’s if you consider Crooks & Castles to be a small, independent brand. Calvero insists it still is, despite a devoted fan base that counts Outkast’s Big Boi and Rocawear brainchild Jay-Z as members. Founded in 2002 and sold exclusively in Japan for the first two years, the line is now carried in more than 150 doors worldwide, ringing up a reported $5 million a year. A paltry sum, compared with competitors that have the same mass appeal but far greater distribution. (LRG, for example, does $175 million a year in sales and is carried by department stores like Macy’s.)

For mall-based chains like Up Against The Wall and Metropark, Calvero said the brand has handpicked only certain items, while withholding other pieces in the Illuminati collection, such as premium T’s and $600 zip-up knits for boutiques like Commonwealth in Washington, D.C. “We’re not ready for Zumiez or PacSun yet,” said Calvero, who added that both chains have approached his company in the past. “If this was all about money, we’d do it to make the quick buck. But that’s not what we’re all about.”

Preserving a streetwear label’s exclusivity is a perfect fit for the Fairfax District, an area traditionally known more for kosher delis, said The Hundreds designer and cofounder Bobby Hundreds, who opened a boutique in February two blocks south of the new Crooks & Castles space. “It’s still a bit off the beaten path, and only people who know what they’re looking for know that we’re here,” Hundreds said.

Like The Hundreds, Crooks & Castles will sell exclusive lines in its West Coast flagship, including the 8021 collection of T’s and hoodies that draw on the brand’s trademark satirical interpretations of luxury markings: a Versace Medusa replete with a thug’s bandana, for example, or the grill of a Bentley wrapping around a T-shirt like a metallic corset.

Several 8021 pieces are inspired by Crooks & Castles’ southern California roots, said marketing director Chris Natalio. “We’ve never done anything that signifies that we’re an L.A. brand, so this gives us a chance to do more L.A.-inspired pieces.”

Crooks & Castles is the third line for Calvero, a former member of the Filipino gang Satanas who asserts he’s long since reformed. The Cerritos, Calif., native launched Big Game Hunters in 1995 with Vans apparel designer Emil Soriano. In 1996, Calvero created L5 Landscape, an outerwear line for exclusive sale with Japanese retailer United Arrow.