LOS ANGELES — Vernon is an industrial city south of downtown filled with low-rise industrial buildings, where big rigs heave and clog major thoroughfares. Here, as well as places dotting the San Gabriel Valley, is the California apparel industry’s beating heart, and it’s here, in a nondescript, 90,000-square-foot building, that The Hundreds sits. Framed art adorns one wall of the lobby entrance. There’s a screen printer, a recording studio and space to host the occasional punk show, most recently New York hardcore band H20. It’s what cofounder Bobby Kim (or Bobby Hundreds) calls a Never-Never Land of Lost Boys and Girls, holed up in a world created nearly 16 years ago.
WWD caught up with The Hundreds at an interesting time in its history. The business blew up, cycled into a contraction, the staff had to be cut and stores closed, but in recent years there’s been another upswing. The Hundreds is no longer an emerging brand, but it hasn’t been relegated to old and irrelevant either. Now it’s stretching its legs into a new endeavor — helping other brands get off the ground — through the fledgling Second Sons services arm.
Kim, on a more personal level, is perhaps at an even more interesting time in his life as he readies for the launch of a memoir — a story about a kid from Riverside who never felt heard and grew up to be one of the industry’s loudest voices. It’s titled “This is Not a T-shirt” in reference to the band Fugazi.
He’s in some ways figured out streetwear, although is in no way disenchanted with it, and is now fixated on claiming his stake in the literary world. Maybe Hollywood after, or simultaneously.
Kim spoke about his new book, aspirations to write fiction and a shift in streetwear he already sees knocking. Here, an edited version of the conversation.
WWD: How long had the idea for this book been brewing?
Bobby Kim: I never considered myself a writer or a storyteller. But even when I was a kid, I’d write short stories — these elaborate stories and I was nine. I also grew up in a time where everyone was allotted one talent or one career and so for me I said if I’m going to choose, I want to be an artist. So I built my entire life on this foundation of “I’m an artist” and built the brand around that.
In the course of building The Hundreds, the blog was such a big part of what The Hundreds was and is. Along the way, I was told here and there, “Hey, I love The Hundreds and you guys make great clothes, but I really like reading your blog.” Or, “I don’t read other people’s stuff, but I like reading your stuff and you have a way of speaking in a way that connects with, especially, a younger male who isn’t feeling received.”
Really, my entire life has been about just trying to be heard. I use my art to be heard through messaging and graphics in fashion. I think after I turned 30, I thought, “I really want to write a book.” I want it to outlast me. It’s very much a male ego, legacy thing. One day my wife was like, “Hey, why don’t you just stop talking about it and do it?”
Short story long, I wanted to write more of a fiction piece and [the publisher] asked me to enter the door by writing a more non-fiction piece about my life because I have a built-in audience for it. After this comes out, I can get into writing stuff I really want to write about.
WWD: And there’s been talk of optioning the book?
B.K.: I wasn’t intending for it to become a TV show or a movie or being adapted for the screen. I live in L.A. It’s a company town and people were talking “Hey, Bobby’s sitting on this IP. He wrote this book about his life and it has some streetwear stuff.” I think in terms of trends and culture, it’s hitting at the right time. I’m a person of color and it’s an interesting Asian-American story that’s not like other Asian-American stories. There’s streetwear stuff in there. So for the last few months I’ve been in three meetings a day in Hollywood just meeting with production companies and studios. There’s a lot of interest and that’s fun, but you know how these things go. I won’t believe it until it actually is on the screen somewhere.
WWD: Would it be a movie or a series?
B.K.: We don’t know yet. Different people want it for different things and that’s also opening up a conversation of I may just start writing multiple things. This is a whole other piece of my life and where that goes I don’t know. I’m sitting on so many stories that have nothing to do with The Hundreds or streetwear. It’s life and things I’ve just seen out in the world that I want to touch upon. So there’s an interest just being generated in me being a writer for film and TV production. That would be fun. We’ll see. You’re catching me at a weird inflection point so I don’t know. My answers could change tomorrow.
WWD: Do you see yourself eventually transitioning away from The Hundreds to focus on writing?
B.K.: I don’t foresee myself doing any less with The Hundreds than what I’m doing right now. I wrote this book over the last two years — wrote it for a year, edited it for a year, and did that all on time outside of what I had to do with The Hundreds.
I feel I need both. I don’t know if I could just stick to one thing. I’ve been a designer for the last 15, 16 years, but I’ve always balanced that with my blog, interviewing people for our web site, working on editorial, producing videos, editing videos. All those parts help me to balance my design work.
WWD: For someone who is steering what is considered a heritage streetwear brand, you’ve seen the business cycles, the new competition. What has it been like to watch the luxury houses’ more recent interest in the space?
B.K.: I think it’s been interesting. I think high fashion and streetwear have always had this dialogue. My generation of streetwear started with Stussy and they were ripping off Chanel logos, bringing high fashion to the streets. Sofia Coppola and Kim Gordon when they worked together on X-Girl, they did a runway show on the street in Manhattan. The idea of high fashion being on the literal street was interesting. We’ve always aspired to be high fashion and high fashion has always looked to streetwear and street culture to stay grounded and be relevant.
In that sense, there’s nothing really to gripe about. The only thing that does irritate me is either it’s the marketplace, the consumers, or maybe more than anything the media who is conflating the idea of high fashion is streetwear and that’s it. That to me is wrong. The media always has a spotlight and the spotlight has to move around, right? For the last couple years high fashion has really focused on a select group of brands and designers as representing all of streetwear. The thing is, with streetwear it’s always done best and thrived in the shadows. It’s always been outside the perimeter of the light. It’s streetwear despite the gatekeepers.
At some point, I feel like the media, especially street fashion-minded media, got it wrong because that media used to always focus on what was in the shadows. In the last five years it went to, “We’re only going to care about what’s in the spotlight.” Well that’s what the mainstream has always been about. That’s just fashion. I always say streetwear without culture is just fashion.
WWD: Do you see that spotlight moving soon?
B.K.: I think so. The last few Paris Fashion Weeks I’ve heard that commotion more and more that people are generally fatigued by streetwear. It’s been a long time. The idea of fashion is to move fast and to cycle in and out of things. The fact that it’s been sitting on streetwear this long I think it has less to do with the design of streetwear and more to do with the diversity and inclusiveness of streetwear, which fashion has traditionally neglected.
WWD: So streetwear when we’re just talking about it from a trend point of view — not culture or community — the conversation more recently has been about the shift away from overpriced T-shirts and sweatshirts to suiting. Does this leave room for the bounceback of the $30 T-shirt?
B.K.: There’s been a real movement and it’s been over the last year where the influx of new brands that are really popular are a cheaper T-shirt. We started a brand two years ago called Washing Machine and Washing Machine is entirely set in 1993, which is my favorite year of my life. I was 13 years old, so that’s when I was exposed to my favorite music and subcultures. So everything’s borrowed from that period of time, and the clothes themselves are set at 1993 prices. So T-shirts are $23 and things are extremely cheap by today’s standards because The Hundreds, our pricing just continues to go up because our materials are getting more expensive.
So, yes, that’s coming. That’ll come in the next year or two and this streetwear that we know of today will take a backseat. That’s my favorite time in streetwear because it gets harder for all of us. We have to make cuts and everyone’s making less money but then we all retreat back into the shadows. The spotlight completely leaves our arena, goes over here to suiting or wherever it wants to go back to, and then this is a time for true creativity and for exciting design and for innovation to happen. People are pressed to think outside the box.
WWD: Has The Hundreds, as a business, benefited from this overall mainstream interest in streetwear?
B.K.: Oh, 100 percent. I talk about it at length in my book. My book is not a success story; it’s a failure story. The first part I talk about where I came from and why I got into streetwear. Then I talk about how The Hundreds blew up. The rest of the book is about how the brand fell apart and lost a lot of sales. How we had to make a lot of cuts. We had to cut a lot of staff. It was heartbreaking. We went through about four, five years of a real slump. We’re not out of the picture. Obviously, we’re still around today.
WWD: Can the business grow back to what it was in the heyday?
B.K.: We’re almost, in terms of profitability, we’re actually at the same spot if not better today. In terms of trend momentum and brand energy, I’ll never get it back to the place we were when we first started because that’s impossible. Everybody wants the new kid, and so the brand energy is just different now. We’re not looked at as the cool new thing. I’ve been around for 15, 16 years, and so it’s about reframing it as the cool heritage brand. They’re OG’s, and owning that identify has been pretty awesome. I’ll never be that again, but I also used to bleach my hair in high school. I’ll never bleach my hair again, you know?
WWD: Let’s talk Second Sons and is that a real growth engine in the future?
B.K.: We’ve been really lucky in that we’ve worked out a machine here where we can handle The Hundreds very fluidly. Our process and output is insane. We release new collections every week. We have a new collaboration coming out every two weeks. We’ve been doing that for years, and we’ve been able to do it in a way where it hasn’t broken us, and we can also take on other brands and people who are having hardships in building out their companies.
I think we’re at this point right now in entrepreneurial culture where it’s very easy to start a company. If you’re a new company today your biggest complication is the amount of energy coming toward you. You now have the entire world showing up at your doorstep, whereas when we started this business, we were selling stuff out of the trunk of our car one to one.
So we looked at The Hundreds and what we have here as our greatest asset. We now call it Second Sons in terms of the factory and the machine we have. We look at brands that are fledgling brands catching momentum. They just need infrastructure behind them. You are going to come in and you share our company. You share our resources. It took us at The Hundreds seven years to be a $20 million business. How about if you want to hit that in year one? Year two? Year three? It’s just about speeding up the operation for you.
We’re taking two, three meetings a week and it’s not just streetwear. We’ve been talking to everyone from lingerie brands to food festivals.
WWD: How many brands are you currently working with?
B.K.: We’ve probably had 10 in the course of [the business’ life], but in the last couple [years] where we’ve really mastered the science of this, it’s been two brands that are really killing it, and I can’t say what brands they are.
WWD: Are they streetwear brands?
B.K.: One’s a streetwear brand. One is probably more skate-oriented.
WWD: How many brands would you take on this year?
B.K.: We are actively right now talking to four other brands. It’s hard to get people on board. They get cold feet because it’s a different model. They’re like, “Oh, so you’re going to put money in?” We’re like “No, no, no. We don’t pump you with money. Why do you need the money?” “Oh, we need the money to hire staff.” No, you’re using our staff.
They think the idea of a partner is someone who comes on board and juices you with $2 million.
It’s also been hard wrapping peoples’ heads around the fact that we’re The Hundreds, and they have a women’s line. So they say “You’re streetwear.” It doesn’t matter. On the back end, it’s all numbers. People are getting distracted by the fact that Bobby Hundreds wants to work with a women’s brand.
WWD: OK, let’s round back to what you said earlier and that this book isn’t the typical business story, and it’s about failure. Do you still feel you’re having to prove yourself?
B.K.: I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore in streetwear. I’ve played the game. I’ve solved the video game. If I really want to win this now, I can do it. It’s not easy, but I’ve been doing this long enough. I’ve played this level. I’ve seen this level. Oh, this guy’s coming in? I know how long this guy’s going to last. So, in that sense, I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I don’t really care what the industry thinks anymore. I don’t really care what streetwear consumers in general think of my brand. I care about my customers.
Now, other avenues and industries, yes, I still need to be heard. I want to write more books and I want my books to gain a certain level of exposure and attention. If I end up filmmaking or doing TV, same. So there’s a zillion things. I’m constantly trying to prove myself to my children. As a minority in this country, I won’t be happy until I see a lot of me on the screen or in business. That never ends. But in streetwear, in terms of gaining the respect, understanding how streetwear works, I got it. That’s cool. Now, I just want to play the game and have fun.