Union x Adidas Spezial

LOS ANGELES At any given time, Union’s Chris Gibbs is juggling a multitude of projects.

On Thursday afternoon, he was busy at a photo shoot, stopping to take an emergency call for that shoot as he’s talking about Friday’s launch of his boutique Union’s collaboration with Adidas Spezial. Then there’s the budding apparel collection he’s funneling plenty of energy into, not to mention several collaborations in the works for ComplexCon.

Gibbs on Friday is set to mark Union’s capsule collaboration with Adidas Spezial, a line at the sportswear firm that takes its cues from the football casual culture and fashion arising out of the U.K. around the late Seventies and early Eighties.

The capsule is technically men’s wear, but with the trend in unisex, could be for women and includes a new take on the Adidas Garwen SPZL shoe in two colorways, a suit jacket and matching pant, T-shirt, sweatshirt and bucket hat.

“I really get psyched on specific product,” said Gibbs, who in 2008 bought the La Brea Avenue boutique long seen as a purveyor of what’s hot and what’s next in men’s fashion and streetwear from founders James Jebbia and Mary Ann Fusco. “The [Garwen SPZL] shoe is what started it all. The shoes are quite unique. It’s basically their take on a casual shoe from the Seventies.”

Gibbs latched onto the aesthetic. He said it reminded him of another time, which he and Adidas Spezial head of creative Gary Aspden saw as ripe for interpretation through the Union lens of today.

“I’m from Canada originally but used to travel to New York a lot,” he said. “People took care in how they dressed and they dressed formally and sometimes they would wear Adidas with it or orthopedic-looking shoes. What’s interesting is that Spezial takes notes from that same era, but mainly through what was happening in the U.K., through the lens of a soccer fan. We tried to look at it as a trans-Atlantic mirror of a similar point in time, coming from different cultures.”

Gibbs, when asked if he thought the pendulum might swing back to those days of far more formal dressing, noted fashion’s cyclical nature.

“I think why people have gravitated to that [casual style of dress] right now is because you can and for so long you couldn’t,” he said, pointing out his own outfit for the day: ripped-up sweatshirt, T-shirt one size too large and cut-off Dickies. “For some time you had to dress a certain way. Now, we’re living in a time where you can be really free and you can wear whatever. The pendulum will eventually swing back.”

Union has a steady flow of collaborations due out, including with brands such as Born x Raised and Real Bad Man for ComplexCon next month. The importance of those partnerships is something firmly entrenched within streetwear, the retailer said.

“Streetwear is this outside perspective. It’s a [do it yourself] kind of sensibility and I think early on, there were a bunch of misfits and outsiders who didn’t fit the norms of what was happening in fashion and they had to come together and work together to plant their flag, so to speak,” he said. “So it’s part of the foundation of streetwear.”

The success of said partnerships, though, has trickled into more mainstream fashion categories, from luxury to contemporary, with companies seizing on the strategy. Even companies outside of fashion see the value in syncing up with brands other than their usual wheelhouse, said Gibbs. He says he often jokes it likely was a streetwear kid who came up with the mash-up between Taco Bell Corp. and Frito-Lay’s Doritos for the Doritos Locos tacos.

“Streetwear is something that comes from the consumer; it comes from the street,” he said. “If you think about fashion in its more formal sense, it’s a genius designer coming with their take on the world and offering it to us. Streetwear is the opposite. It’s what the street wants. It’s more organic and it’s not necessarily bad or different. Collaborations have been so successful for streetwear that other fashion genres are also seeing they should do this, but I do think it started in these roots where it had to be this cooperative effort from people who were not allowed to participate.”

The thought underscores the reality of just how hard it can be, whether one is an established name or not. Union launched its own line nearly a year ago. The label, which does not operate on the traditional fashion calendar, is sold exclusively through the store for now. However, Gibbs has plans to build a wholesale business once the line has had more time to sink into the market.

“It’s doing well. We’re learning a lot,” he said. “I try and tell people all the time, I started working for the company in ’96. So for 20 years I’ve been buying what other people make and, although it’s related and it’s still in fashion, it’s a whole new business model and a whole new mind-set to be creating something new. A lot of people, myself included, underestimated that. I’m now really learning on the ground level just what it takes to go from an idea to making it to distributing. It’s fun; it’s also been hard. But I’m taking on the challenge. The line is coming along.”

For the first six months of the line’s existence, Gibbs worked out of the Union office next to the store. That changed two months ago when he opened a space about a mile away on Fairfax Avenue dedicated almost entirely to designing the line, which is made in Los Angeles and Japan.

Gibbs said the space has helped remove himself from the day-to-day distractions that come with managing a store to immerse himself in designing the line.

He estimates by the fall, he’ll have the line producing on a regular calendar, ready to take orders from stores.

“The gift and the curse of our store is we’re a store first and because we’re a store first, we can take our time and grow this at our pace,” he said. “On the one hand, it’s good we can do that. On the other hand, because we’re not forced to make this the utmost priority, it doesn’t always get the priority it needs.”

Retail certainly hasn’t been pushed to the side, with the company opening Union’s Tokyo store in April. Gibbs and team are focused on ensuring that door gets off the ground. The store, he said, has so far been doing well and seeing a positive reaction from consumers. He views it as an incubator to bring more Japanese brands to Union’s L.A. store, while also giving a platform in Tokyo to the U.S. brands he works with. And for the time being, the store and the apparel line are enough to keep him busy.

“We’re taking it one step at a time. I would definitely love to open up more stores. There’s nothing in the plans right now. We’re just concentrating on getting the right brands and making sure the Tokyo store is the way we want it to be.”

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