Steve Aoki already has one full-time career as an electronic dance music artist and the fifth highest-paid DJ that has him regularly touring more than 250 days a year. He’s collaborated with such well-known musicians as Will.i.am, Linkin Park, Iggy Azalea and Fall Out Boy. And he has more than seven million followers on Twitter and 5.6 million on Instagram.
That would be more than enough for most people, but Aoki also has become increasingly involved in fashion. He launched the Dim Mak fashion label — named in honor of his 20-year-old record label — more than a decade ago, became a partner in Vision Street Wear and is now collaborating with Asics on footwear.
In addition to his music and out-of-the-box fashion presentations, Aoki is known for his high-energy performances on stage. He’s created Aoki Bootcamp for his tourmates, brutal workouts that have become as much of a signature as his onstage cake-throwing antics. Anyone who commits to a Bootcamp workout and doesn’t complete the challenge donates money to the DJ’s charity, Aoki Foundation, whose primary goal is to support organizations in the brain science and research fields.
In between workouts, concerts, collaborations and everything else, Aoki took a short break to talk with WWD about music, fashion and charity.
WWD: Why did you decide to branch out into fashion with Dim Mak?
Steve Aoki: Clothes and style have always been a part of music. And since the first time I picked up a guitar, a microphone, a recording device to make music or a silk-screen emulsion kit to make my own screen-printed T-shirts, I knew that’s just the culture I was in: you have to make T-shirts to go with the show. And for me, the satisfaction is the same when I see a kid singing along to my lyrics and a kid wearing a T-shirt of mine. It’s part of that same world of passion and the whole idea of sharing and connection. So fast-forward 10 years and I’m getting a little more sophisticated and jumped into the MAGIC trade show trying to sell graphic Ts and graphic sweaters to the market for the first time.
WWD: Your first big break with Dim Mak came in Japan. How did that happen?
S.A.: I partnered with the mall company Parco in Japan, which gave me a platform to do a full collection. They gave me a team to allow me to fulfill my vision, because with fashion, it’s not a DIY project like music that you can do in your own bedroom. It has so many moving parts and it requires funding — serious capital — that I didn’t understand how to raise in the beginning. But after doing three seasons with them, I was fully integrated into the system, meeting with the designers, going to the factories, dealing with sales, going to the stores and touching all the points of the business. That’s when we brought it to America.
WWD: What did you learn in Japan?
S.A.: Japan was a very closed market, which was great for me, because we could grow the brand. We didn’t sell any of it online. There you have to go to the stores, you have to feel the materials, you have to hear the story. You don’t just buy it off the rack, you buy it because you’re buying culture and the story of that brand and that season. That’s the way in Japan. There’s so much to the story of what they’re wearing. They don’t just buy it because they like the colors. I love how sacred that is. There’s no room for [just] “good” in this world — there’s so much out there — you’ve got to be exceptional. And even more important, you have to be authentic and tell your story and go back to your roots and find where the passion is and explain that.
WWD: Can you personally relate to that?
S.A.: Yes, I am the consumer; I’m the same kid who’s saved up my money to buy this sweater so I can be part of this club. It’s like back in the day when you picked up a flyer and you had to go down this alley and climb under this hole and you find that place where all these cool kids are listening to music that no one has ever heard. That’s the feeling I want to give to people who buy the clothes — this is our little world and it’s a special thing.
WWD: You introduced Dim Mak in 2016 in the States. How is it doing?
S.A.: We did a launch in Saks and we were also in a few specialty stores. We had big events in Canada and L.A. We’re very selective in how we present the line in the traditional fashion space. We only did one CFDA show and we turned the runway into a skate park. We want to let the fashion world know we’re here, but we want all of our points of presentation to be random, nothing structured, nothing routine. For our second time, we took over Fourth and Broadway and I did my Kolony album launch party in New York and showed the spring fashion line. It was along the same lines as what I did in Los Angeles in 2015 when I threw a party in conjunction with the city and did my “Neon Future II” album launch — we did a free party on the street for three city blocks. When you find those special moments, they have a lot more connection to our fans and the fashion community than having a fashion show every time. That’s not our mode.
WWD: Is Dim Mak sold mainly at retail or online?
S.A.: Our main business is e-commerce, we’re selling direct to the consumers. It’s not just the 18-year-old kid, some of these people are in their late 20s or 30s. That’s the thing about fashion, it bridges a divide on the age side of things. With my music, it’s youth culture that pushes it. It’s really the voice of the youth and the Millennials.
WWD: Tour merchandise has become a multibillion-dollar business. Do you find it more advantageous to control your destiny through e-commerce?
S.A.: In the craze of all this, it’s nice to know we take control in our own hands. That’s where e-commerce comes in. It’s less about B2B and more about B2C. This is our message and we have a way to directly touch people rather than having to use another business to do that. It also gives us feedback on the collection. We’re still very new, but we get a gauge on what they’re buying, what they like. The way I design clothes with my team is that I design it around the concept. Lucky for me, I get to travel the world — I call myself a walking sampler. I get to sample everything, I take pictures, buy fabrics — even architecture and furniture become part of the mood board. And based on the previous collections, we see what people really want.
WWD: Youth culture changes so fast, is that how you stay current?
S.A.: What I’ve learned is that when you’re a musician or an artist, the important thing is trying to think ahead of the culture. You don’t want to go too far and you don’t want to be on the dot. If you’re too far, you’re going to go over everybody’s head. But if you’re on the dot, you’re way too late. You have to be just enough ahead and that minute angle can either make or break you. You get a lot of flexibility if you have a great track record. But you always have to rebuild the wheel and you need a team that is on point with you and totally alert with what’s going on in culture.
WWD: It must be stressful to stay current, but not too far ahead or too far behind.
S.A.: It’s very stressful. And it’s a very expensive pressure. That’s the problem with fashion versus music. In fashion, you present things so early that by the time it’s out some of these big retailers have already taken the ideas from the fashion shows and in five weeks and selling it in their stores. So by the time you put it out, it’s late.
WWD: Dim Mak means “touch of death.” That’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy name. Where did you come up with that?
S.A.: I was 19 and I wanted to come up with a name that had a reference to Bruce Lee. He was the hero of my life, my spiritual guide. As an Asian-American boy when you look at media, you don’t see any other Asians that are crushing it. You see Asians that are crushing it for other Asians, but not an Asian that crosses into all cultures. So when you see an Asian that your white friends like and your black friends like and your Latino friends like, there’s only one: Bruce Lee. So as a kid, I always looked up to him as that guide and when I started Dim Mak as a record label — which is now more of a lifestyle community — I couldn’t call it Bruce Lee Records. So I thought, what’s the mystery around Bruce Lee? That he can harness the touch of death. There’s this whole mystery around this martial arts move and I loved the mystique of it and the ancient fables. And there’s a very badass vibe, too.
WWD: Why do you throw cake at people at your concerts?
S.A.: By the time I even decided to throw a cake, which was 2011, I’d already been playing 300 shows a year from 2007. In 2009, I was playing festival stages: big shows with a full stage where I started thinking about production and how I could entertain the audience. Everyone does the same thing: move your hands to the left and to the right, make some noise, sit down, jump up. So I tried to think of things that would be a signature of my show. Before the cake, I used to pull out this life raft and I would sail over the crowd. Soon people would bring life rafts to my shows and they were jumping in my life raft and it became part of the Steve Aoki experience. Then in 2011, I was looking for the next signature experience of my show and came up with a random, silly idea: I went to the bakery and got a cake and said, “I’m going to ‘cake’ someone at this show and we’re going to film it.” So we caked someone who wanted it and put it up online. Now at every single show, I go to the bakery, get a cake, write “Turn Up the Volume” and “Dim Mak” on it. Now at festival shows, there are 30 to 50 signs that say: “Cake me,” and now I have to negotiate who I pick.
WWD: Back to fashion…why did you get involved with Vision Street Wear?
S.A.: Going back to my roots is where I find whether it’s something I want to invest my time into — I was a skater when I was a kid and I used to wear Vision. I looked up to kids who wore Vision and it was an aspirational brand because I could only afford so many things or my mom would only buy me so many things. Vision in the Eighties was one of the top skate brands in existence. So I got this opportunity to be a partner and it was a no-brainer for me. I love this brand to the core and we’re finding a way to develop it for all these new fans who love skate culture and love that logo. It’s got a heritage that I love so much. Whenever I go to [South] Korea, I meet with the Vision Street Wear there, I’ve met with them in Japan and we are opening 10 stores in China. I’ve gone to China 12 times in the last two years. There was a point in time when I was going every month and I was breaking territory as a DJ there because EDM has exploded in China. People have picked it up for their musical generational voice. And it’s allowed me to do business on so many different fronts so in China, we’ve been also curating Vision so it’s something the fans can pick up. And instantaneously, it’s doing really well. China has some of the most fashionable people in the whole world. They’re wearing Vetements, Givenchy, Balenciaga. Instead of the basic core pieces we wear here, they’re wearing high-end pieces as their core. At the end of the day, they want culture from different places where they find inspiration and Vision having this rich American skate culture is something that allures them.
WWD: What do you like to wear?
S.A.: I’m pretty casual. I’m always wearing my own brands and I also sew and design and alter my clothes constantly. I’ll screen print on top of my old T-shirts. It’s my own way of recycling. These pants are from Dim Mak season four in Japan and I put some patches on from bands I used to listen to. It makes it fresh and cool again. This shirt is from the David Choe collaboration we did and I screen printed on it. And I’ve got my Asics on. Your clothes are a representation of who you are.
WWD: Speaking of Asics, they were impressed by your energy and your following. But why did you decide to work with them?
S.A.: I always seem to go back to Japan when I talk about why I decide to work with brands. It’s not just that they’re a Japanese brand, but they just spoke to my heart. Just like Bruce Lee was that Asian influence for me as a kid, whenever I see a Japanese or Asian brand that is able to speak to all different cultures, I love that. You can’t just work with a brand because they’re cool, you have to talk to them and see where their heads are at. So when I first met with them, they were more interested in what I had to say and my creative vision. For me to be a partner in something, I need to feel like my creative input is valued. And I have a lot to offer. So when I sat down with them, I gave them a deep dive, a kind of zero to 100 on the creative side and what I wanted to do. They heard me out and they really want to develop that vision with me. They’re a great athletic brand and for me, my shows are very physical and I love to train and work out and I needed to work with a brand that can provide functional shoes that are fashionable. That’s what the Hypergel-Kenzen is all about — it’s not just the cool kids who can afford the really expensive fashionable sneaker, everyone wants that fashionable shoe.
WWD: Your workout routine is enviable. You even have the Aoki Bootcamp. How do you find the energy with your schedule?
S.A.: If I get out of bed and I don’t have a challenge in front of me, or a very apparent, realistic goal I can hit, then I might not even attempt it. I’m not just the kind of guy who will stroll up and start doing a workout. I need to have a program. I love group accountability and having everyone be part of the same mission. [The way it works is that we determine] the challenge for today and if you don’t keep up with it, you have to pay a fine. And the fine goes to the charity. I don’t want your money, but if you sign up for this plan, that’s how we push ourselves. And when you feel that burn out of your pocket, you’ll make sure you don’t pick up that cigarette or eat that pasta dish. It’s basically you setting your own goal with the Aoki Bootcamp. It can be anything. I have a guy who’s part of our business who wanted to quit smoking. I said, “I want to help. You give me $50 every time you light a cigarette.” In a year, he only donated three times and he quit smoking. That’s the kind of system I put out there. I’m not going to call you every day — it’s based on a trust bet and at the very least, you’ll know you’re helping people and it works.
WWD: What’s your future plan? Do you see yourself continuing to make music, work in fashion, do something else?
S.A.: The five-year or 10-year plan is hard for me to gauge because five years ago if I were to tell you where I’d be today, it would not be here. Ten years ago? Absolutely not. My creative outlet is my guide. With things like fashion and outside of music, it’s more about tackling both the creative and the business. It’s not about how much money I can make. In my world, if you put that first, you’re going to lose your customer, your connection and your authenticity. Being authentic is about the most valuable currency you have. Where am I going to be in five years? I’m always going to be involved in music, but fashion has been eating up a lot more time in my 24-hour pie chart. It’s different than doing an album, making music and playing shows but it gives me so much satisfaction.