The streetwear brand billed at the outset as a “sustainable Supreme” of sorts drops its first collection Friday, and it’s giving cool, not just conscious.
With entirely plant-based products that decompose at end of life, Unless is working to bring sustainability a kind of swag it hasn’t yet had. And cofounder Eric Liedtke’s way isn’t the finger-wagging “wokeness” of other eco purveyors.
“The idea is how do you make sustainability cool instead of always coming in with your finger wagging, [saying] ‘we should feel really bad, we should feel really bad right now because COP26 was a failure and there’s all this dumping going on here,’” he told WWD ahead of the drop and before a launch party Friday in the start-up’s headquarter city of Portland, Ore. “Yes, all those things may be true, but we’re going to provide a positive solution to them that people can tap into and feel good about being part of the change they want to see.”
The approach is to put the style before the sustainability because that’s still what consumers connect with first — the sustainability is the bonus from a brand that believes it’s just the right thing to do. And because streetwear is about culture, subculture and counterculture, community and collabs are intertwined with the Unless business model, which is why the brand is keeping things small and local in promoting its products made from things like cotton, Tencel, corozo nuts for buttons, and all with a promise of zero plastic waste. (Its website reads: “Every drop is created from the elements, for the elements, and designed to harmlessly return to the elements.”)
“Every order, I send out a personal [handwritten] note with it saying how much we appreciate their support in doing things a better way,” said Liedtke, Zooming in from a conference room table in the brand’s Northwest Portland office covered in Ts set for sale. “It’s just trying to do some of those little things that add a lot of value.”
This first Unless drop (which follows a soft launch earlier this month), lending to its “street by street, block by block, city by city” approach to brand building, features in-line product, including a canvas jacket and three new Ts, as well as Ts and jackets done in collaboration with Portland creatives. After Portland, Unless will take its sustainable streetwear show on the road, following up with city drop collabs in Atlanta and Los Angeles and on after that.
“The idea is the cities give us inspiration and communities to tap into, and our job is to be honest about those cultural insights and represent them in an undistorted way,” Liedtke said.
To approach things authentically, Unless tapped streetwear veteran, creator and storyteller Frank Cooke — who counts among his past roles sneaker designer for Jordan Brand — to curate the PDX drop. Cooke, as well as three other collaborators, each designed a limited-edition Unless product that speaks to themselves and to the city they live in.
One of Cooke’s designs sets the tone for Friday’s launch fete — which will be held at Portland Pearl District’s Pomarius Nursery, easily marking the first time a streetwear brand has partied in a house of plants — with the words “Bury Me” atop a bed of tattoo artist and illustrator B.J. Betts’ hand-drawn leaves.
“We’re running with this kind of slogan, ‘Bury Me.’ So, it’s like bury me in this shirt but like a play on words since it can be biodegradable. We just wanted to have something kind of jarring that would grab people’s attention because if you see somebody walking around with that shirt, it’s probably a good conversation starter,” Cooke said. “Just really wanted to educate a lot of people on plastic waste and, you know, just want to get it out there…I think it will be different for Portland and I’m super excited about it.”
As Liedtke added, “This is a really cool idea: the product decomposes at the end of life — guess what else decomposes at the end of life? We do. So [Cooke’s] like, ‘why don’t we talk about you can be buried in this shirt?’… It gives this edge of streetwear where it’s got that attitude to it where the first read’s not going to be like, ‘oh, it’s a sustainable brand.’”
Quanie, also a tattoo artist and illustrator that’s part of the PDX drop, created a “Strange Fruit” design channeling, as Cooke explained, “Nina Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit’ [song] but also talking about GMOs just kind of like in our community, just not the best food goes there, you know what I mean? So, he wanted to talk through that.”
Each creator brought their own graphics to Unless blanks (T-shirts and jackets) with no holds barred from the brand.
Admittedly, giving new collaborators free rein gave the new brand a bit of pause, according to Liedtke, whose previous role was as brand president of Adidas.
“We did wring our hands a little bit on some of the work because it was like, ‘Is it from us?’ And Paul Gaudi [our cofounder and creative and innovation officer] was very clear, it’s not about us. We gave the platform, we relinquish control and let the creators create,” he said. “And that’s what Frank has kind of taken and really run with and he’s curated it for us. And then the event’s about the celebration of that.”
Friday’s Pomarius event promises tunes from DJs Nature (whose real name is Milo Johnson) and Statik Selektah (Patrick Baril), food (in keeping with the theme, all plant-based), T-shirt customization, a display featuring Unless Ts in various stages of decomposition to drive its plant-based point home, and a little bit of brand talk in the background for a guest list that’s expected to cap out at around 250 people. On Saturday, the space will open as a pop-up retail spot for local shoppers.
‘We’re making it fun. We’re trying, again, to represent the community,” Liedtke said, noting that Unless wants to avoid going the way of most brands, which often forgo intimate events and lesser-known influencers in favor of high-profile everything. “We’ll be there talking about the product, we’ll be there talking about the good things it does, ‘Bury Me’s’ kind of got that tongue-and-cheek where it’s kind of a cool idea and by the way it speaks to the product benefit — so it’s finding those product sweet spots and it’s fun. Storytelling is 90 percent of this game.”
The Unless PDX city drop hits site “shelves” Friday and will sit alongside the handful of logo T-shirts and a flannel jacket (ranging in price from $50 for the Ts to $159 for the jacket) that the brand rolled out earlier this month.
So far so good for the start-up, which is determined to expand its reach without shrinking its pledge to make better products.
“It’s not even three weeks since we started testing the site yet so it’s still early days, but I have to say we’re meeting expectations,” Liedtke said. “It’s a start-up, right, so every three steps forward is two to four steps backward and so you’re learning a lot every day. But I think the great thing is we’re getting great feedback on our product, we’re getting great feedback from consumers, we’re getting interest from the right people and now it’s just a matter of really taking the brand to a wider audience and starting to introduce ourselves in all the different facilities it has, so not just a sustainable one but also a streetwear one.”