LOS ANGELES — Ali Qureshi is sitting in the middle of a factory floor as sewing machines buzz and workers churn out jersey shorts that will go on to sell for a few hundred dollars. This is where high-end streetwear meets its reality.
Qureshi, founder of the fledgling streetwear brand Norwood, owns the factory with business partner and production manager Sona Gadani and together they have a workforce of about 40 with a modest client base of six. That’s in addition to the not even two-year-old Norwood brand, which recently came back from showing spring 2019 — its third collection — in Paris. The brand is now set to link with Barneys Japan on a pop-up in possibly two stores in October. There’s also a deal with Timberland set for 2020 and a collaboration in the works with music artist and designer Taz Arnold’s line Tisa.
Norwood, which has managed to get its product on Kanye West, J Balvin and Migos, is distributed in retailers such as American Rag, Wanderset, Mortar Tokyo and Fred Segal Japan. It picked up accounts with retailers such as LuisaViaRoma in Italy and American Rag Dubai following Paris Fashion Week Men’s as buyers perused Norwood’s T-shirts with a starting retail price of $105, hoodies with an opening price of $145 and track pant retailing for $250, among other items.
Back in downtown, the settings are far less glamorous but none the less real as Qureshi talked about the bag — the Ikea bag to be more specific — that set the business into motion.
“My father has a background in manufacturing. That’s what I always wanted to do, but we didn’t have the funds so it’s kind of a funny story. I made around $300,000 off of 99-cent bags, which allowed for us to do all of this,” he said motioning to the factory.
Rewind to last year. Qureshi had one of those Ikea bags like so many people, using it to cart around samples or groceries. He was bored one day, waiting around for his assistant Pablo Romero when he began taking it apart. He turned it into a hoodie.
“Everybody said ‘no,’” Qureshi said of people’s reactions to his idea.
“I just couldn’t really see it at the time,” Romero said. “You’re going to make a hoodie out of a bag? The good thing with him is that he’s one of those intuition guys so he always goes with his gut.”
Sure enough, the bag-hoodie that retailed for $140 gained attention. In one day alone, the Norwood web site generated $46,000 in sales.
“We were going to Ikea buying so many bags,” Qureshi said. “One girl said ‘I know what you’re doing. I think you’re trying to turn this into clothing’ and I was like ‘Nah, it’s for my Grandma. She loves these bags.’”
Ikea never reached out to the brand with a cease and desist. In the meantime, the bag got the business to profitability, its own factory and a greater focus on quality.
It’s also good timing with Norwood coming in at what some might say is the height of luxury’s collision with streetwear.
“If you look at Virgil, he’s at Vuitton now. I just see it growing and growing because those labels are looking to us now to carry them,” Qureshi said. “They want this market. There’s so much money in the market and these kids spend so much money. They want to be a part of it.”
Norwood isn’t Qureshi’s first go at running a brand. Seven years ago he started the apparel brand Caravagio, but a knee accident forced him away from the business and a number of other things for about a year. At the time of Caravagio, the streetwear landscape was different and brands such as The Hundreds and Diamond Supply defined the category.
“If you weren’t on Fairfax [Avenue], it wasn’t going to work,” Qureshi said of the market fundamentals at the time of his first brand. “What’s crazy is now you could say the same: ‘If you’re not Off-White or Fear of God, it’s not going to work.’ But you just have to push through.”
Norwood seemed as good a place as any to restart an apparel line and name it after the street where Qureshi grew up in Los Angeles.
“I learned a lot on that street. I learned who I am as a person. My brothers were skaters and they played punk music, but I was really good at basketball,” he said. “I always got beat up for it. I always got this racial question of are you white or are you black? And I would get made fun of because one year for back-to-school shopping my parents could only afford to buy me a pair of Vans so I had to play basketball in those. The next year I could only afford to buy one pair again so I got Jordans. So I skateboarded in Jordans, which is now the cool thing. It’s funny because people nowadays pay thousands of dollars for a look that we had to have because we were broke — wearing my brother’s Nirvana shirts because I didn’t have clean clothes. So Norwood Street is where I learned to be who I wanted to be and felt that it was OK.”