Rob Cristofaro and Treis Hill have bought back Alife and have a new investor.
Alife, which is now almost 20 years old, was originally founded as an artist collective and multibrand retail space by Cristofaro, Arnaud Delecolle, Tony Arcabascio and Tammy Brainard — Hill joined the team later. The company, which also operates Alife Rivington Club in the Lower East Side, a sneaker concept store that’s been open since 2001, and Alife, its apparel store that sits next to it, has been through a string of owners and financial partners, but it was most recently co-owned by Cristofaro, Hill and Seth Gerszberg, who is now no longer involved.
For the past couple of years, Alife — one of the original downtown streetwear brands that was founded when the term streetwear didn’t exist — has released a few things here and there, but Cristofaro and Hill have been mostly quiet and focused on cleaning up Alife’s global distribution and preparing for a true relaunch, which begins with an unlikely product collaboration with Crocs.
Cristofaro approached Crocs before the footwear brand re-entered the fashion conversation last October via a tie-in with Balenciaga on an imaginative, platform pair that retails for $850. The Alife x Crocs collection includes three styles. The art style, which is more of a collector’s item, features removable 3-D printed Jibbitz — or shoe charms — of popular New York landmarks. It retails for $600. The sport style pays homage to how Crocs are typically worn — with socks — and includes a tube sock that’s connected to the clog. It retails for $140. The classic style, which retails for $80, references the first T-shirt Alife produced with the black Alife logo and gray background.
Only 100 units were produced of the sport and art style and 300 for the classic style, which will only be available to purchase on June 14 at Alife’s New York shop at 158 Rivington Street.
“The partnership with Crocs is our reintroduction to the game,” said Cristofaro. “When we began the conversation, nobody wanted to touch the Croc. People thought I was bugging, but whether you love them or hate them, Crocs are an iconic piece of footwear and they sell.”
Alife was one of the first streetwear brands to pioneer these types of collaborations — it partnered with Lacoste nine years before Supreme did and Cristofaro noted that when Alife worked with Levi’s in the early Aughts, it was the first time the denim company put another brand’s logo on its tag. Hill and Cristofaro understand the market is oversaturated with collaborations, but say their approach hasn’t changed and because they believe their brand tie-ins are meaningful, they will cut through the noise.
“I think that whole cobranded thing has been beat to hell. People are done with collabs because they don’t mean anything anymore,” said Cristofaro. “When Nike was coming to us, we were a platform that was introducing creative solutions to these projects. It wasn’t just doing it for the hell of coming out with a collaboration.”
The relaunch also means the revival of Alife footwear, which hasn’t been produced since 2011 but will be back this fall, and expanding its apparel offering, which, depending on the piece, has increased in price by 10 to 20 percent to compensate for making better-quality goods at better factories. Alife used to produce in Vancouver, Canada, but is looking to do more in the U.S. They also plan on extending their apparel offering beyond graphic T-shirts and hoodies to more ready-to-wear pieces that will be available in the fall. According to Hill, there will be partnerships with Golden Bear and Manhattan Portage coming in the future.
Alife was Supreme’s peer at one point, but the brand took on a very different trajectory. Instead of slow and steady growth, it expanded quickly into wholesale and opened flagships. In 2007 it opened a store in Los Angeles, which was followed by Tokyo, Vancouver and a shops-in-shop within Colette. By 2014 all of the stores outside of New York had closed and they decided to scale back.
“We found out that the business of apparel was difficult. People don’t pay or they pay late and we were having to raise more money and get capital,” said Hill, who noted that at its height Alife did $7 million a year in wholesale. “It was a learning curve for us. We weren’t experienced in that level of growth and we weren’t prepared for it.”
Now Alife is focused on direct-to-consumer but it will reopen its Tokyo store this fall and has pop-up activations in the pipeline this year for specific collaborations. Cristofaro and Hill also say they will focus on a mix of retail partnerships. They are working with Foot Locker Europe on a capsule, and hope to work with other retailers including Dover Street Market, Barneys New York and Boon The Shop.
Becoming a heritage streetwear brand is rare, but Alife has been able to survive with its design work — at one point it operated a consulting agency — and its connection to culture. Alife Sessions, a series of intimate concerts held in the courtyard of its New York store — a venue that’s akin to CBGB for more rap-leaning artists — has drawn performers ranging from Drake and John Mayer to Jadakiss and King Krule. Before event-based merchandise was a thing, Alife produced T-shirts to be sold at each session.
The sneaker shop Alife Rivington Club, which was one of the first concept sneaker boutiques that still has no signage and requires customers to be buzzed in, has also helped. Hill said there are no plans to revamp that space, but there will be less focus on hype product — although Adidas did select ARC as the exclusive retailer outside of the Billionaire Boys Club SoHo store for an Adidas x Pharrell marathon pack that’s set to be released in August.
“At the end of the day, we are trying to offer a comfortable buying experience for our customers,” said Hill. “The experience of waiting on line or trying to get a raffle isn’t for our shopper. We feel just as much effort, detail and attention should be placed on an Adidas Gazelle or a Nike Blazer as there would be on a Off-White Jordan or a Yeezy 350 Boost. Too much hype on one segment of product isn’t a long-term strategy.”
Hill and Cristofaro have closely watched the ebbs and flows of the streetwear category over the years and believe that because the supply rarely meets the demand, there won’t be a big crash. But they do think it will thin out, and many of the brands operating now won’t exist in a few years.
“Every so often there is a wave that comes and kills a bunch of brands and the cream rises to the top,” said Cristofaro. “We’ve survived that life cycle probably two times and we are seeing that now. All these younger street brands are pretty much non-relevant. They are following each other and none of them are really bringing anything new to this game and that’s the recipe for disaster.”