Streetwear occupies that rarefied space where genuine "cool" coexists with big business; where a star designer might work concurrently with Nike, a tattoo artist, Louis Vuitton, and a skateboard company. It’s the ubiquitous style of dress comprising hoodies, sneakers, and T-shirts. In the beginning, a few brands defined this style; fewer still survived as streetwear went mainstream. They are the OGs, the “heritage brands.” The Hundreds is one of those persevering companies, and Bobby Hundreds is at the center of it all.
The creative force behind the brand, Bobby Kim, a.k.a. Bobby Hundreds, has emerged as a prominent face and voice in streetwear. In telling the story of his formative years, he reminds us that The Hundreds was started by outsiders; and this is truly the story of streetwear culture.
In This Is Not a T-Shirt, updated with a new introduction by the author plus a new 16-page full-color insert, Bobby Hundreds cements his spot as a champion of an industry he helped create and tells the story of The Hundreds—with anecdotes ranging from his Southern California, punk-DIY-tinged youth to the brand’s explosive success. Both an inspiring memoir and an expert assessment of the history and future of streetwear, this is the tale of Bobby’s commitment to his creative vision and to building a real community.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
WELCOME TO HELL
"Fuck you and your weak brand!"
His name is Derek. From what I can see in his profile pic, he's not quite twenty with mangy blond curls and a sharp nose. He looks as if he could be a stony surfer from Topanga, a portly Spicoli. But according to his bio, Derek is landlocked in northern Ohio. I caught him in my Twitter replies, fastening together a chain of insults against my brand. He'd started off tweeting about how The Hundreds "used to be cool" and eventually sank to cheap taunts and lazy expletives.
"Nobody wears this trash. Why don't u just die already?"
By the time I saw Derek's spew bubble up on my feed, I was sitting in traffic on my commute home from Vernon to Venice. It had been a long day, the sort that mercilessly takes and takes. And here was this snot-nosed teenager burrowing into my scalp. I typically let abuse like this wash over me and dissipate; they're just thoughts, really. Thoughts come and go.
But not today.
I fired back: "Even a small dog can piss on a big building." Then I hit select all, deleted, and rethought my approach.
"Hi Derek. What's wrong, dude?"
It was as if somebody had turned off the faucet. Crickets. I got home, ate dinner, and worked from the couch. Occasionally, I'd check my mentions to see if Derek had rebutted with a goofy meme or let loose a tirade against me. Nothing.
Near midnight, a red notification blipped across my screen, the echo of a star's explosion that took hours traveling from a distant galaxy.
"Didn't think you'd respond. Just having a bad day."
"No problem. Me too."
"Rrrrright. You're rich."
"I mean, we all have our thing. I got a production order of pants back from our factory today, but all the tags were mislabeled. We had to fix them ourselves. Took six of our guys twelve hours, cutting and sewing ... such a nightmare."
"Yeah? Well, I think I'm gonna fail school and my mom is threatening to kick me out. I can't even find a job that I like in my town. Don't really know where to go."
"That's rough. What would your ideal job be?"
My wife, Misa, walked into the room and plopped down next to me. She teased, "Who are you talking to? Another one of your internet fans?" She'd noticed that I'd stopped paying attention to the TV and was hunched over my phone.
"Some kid in Ohio. He's having a hard one."
"You're so weird," she said, smiling, then retired upstairs for the night as Netflix droned into the background. For the next twenty or thirty minutes, Derek and I volleyed our daily frustrations back and forth. This eventually segued into a discussion about streetwear and fashion.
"So, what's bothering you about The Hundreds?"
"I dunno. I used to feel like it was really special. But now it's sold everywhere, and everybody in my school is wearing it. And it's not just your brand, it's streetwear in general. All these bandwagoners don't even get what it's about and it pisses me off. It was my thing."
I logged on to The Hundreds' Instagram account. We'd been hyping up a big collaboration with adidas, and I watched my comments sizzle with positive emojis and friends tagging each other — the digital equivalent of a high five. Cool, fashionable kids from around the world were checking in. Indonesia, Norway, Mexico City, and — Derek was right — even Ohio. Yet when my partner, Ben, and I first formed the idea of a fun storytelling project, it never occurred to us that The Hundreds would become a globally recognized street-wear label, grow this big, and be sustained for this long.
I empathized with Derek. The Hundreds started back in 2003 with some drawings that I'd put on T-shirts, then blogged about. Ben sold the tees to local stores — a few hundred shirts per delivery. We'd crossed our fingers and prayed for the best, walking blindly into a shrouded future. We didn't even rely on logos or branding back then. We didn't have wide-scale name recognition, but our fan base would eventually become so attuned to what we were doing by following my blog that if I drew a stripe down a shirt, they could spot it from a mile away. It was our own clan, united by a shared love of OG streetwear brands, skateboarding, music, art, and a wide array of other interests like taco trucks, social issues, and cult movies.
Fifteen years later, and I now share my creations with millions of people across the planet. But as the brand grew, so much of that fundamental, personal code was lost. When you bestow your work on the world, you allow others to attach their own meanings to it and draw definitions around it. The Hundreds still means the same thing to me, but it also means millions of different things to millions of other people. I appreciate the money and success, but I also miss the days when The Hundreds was more like a secret-handshake club.
"I get it. It was my thing too," I said, referencing The Hundreds, but more specifically streetwear on the whole. (I'll explain "streetwear" more fully later, but for now imagine young men and women collecting limited-edition clothing like comic books.) In the late 1990s and early 2000s, kids like me wanted streetwear because nobody else wore it. In the span of a generation, that thinking has flipped. Today, young men and women hunt for streetwear precisely because everyone else is wearing it. Like all compelling subcultures, the secret was too good to keep to ourselves. Streetwear broke through the underground and went unapologetically mainstream by the early 2010s. High fashion is now smitten with street-turned-runway designers, an era ushered in by Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, and their apostles. Indie streetwear labels that sold to obscure boutiques a decade ago now flood malls and department stores. Supreme, once a niche New York skate shop, is now a luxury brand, valued at more than $1 billion. Meanwhile, every morning, there's a new Tshirt brand, started in a garage by some cool fourteen-year-old, with a pop-up shop opening somewhere with a line around the block. Somehow.
It was well into the early hours of the morning. I sank deeper into my couch and waded back through our conversation. Has The Hundreds changed? Of course it has. Ben and I are older, more experienced, our story has a longer tail. We've made more stuff; we've hired more people. Plus, streetwear is completely different now, powered by resale and celebrity endorsements. The harder questions are, have I changed? And, have we sold out? Amid all the long lines, noisy collaborations, news headlines, and sales reports, were we still true to ourselves and our audience?CHAPTER 2
INSPIRATION. ASPIRATION. PERSPIRATION.
If you drive southeast, outside downtown Los Angeles, you'll cross a couple of bridges, duck under an overpass, and eventually enter the hopelessly industrial district of Vernon. A water tower greets you at the city's gates (you might recognize it from the opening credits of True Detective season two, which was based on the neighborhood). Next is the Farmer John factory, a remnant of what was once the meatpacking district of L.A., before all the slaughterhouses moved to the Midwest. Then, behind an unassuming facade of pale green walls and razor wire, you'll reach The Hundreds' headquarters, which sits inside a ninety-thousand-square-foot warehouse. The building holds one hundred employees stationed in departments ranging from sales to digital marketing to customer service. There's a break room near the front with vintage arcade machines like Street Fighter II and NBA Jam and, in the back, "L.A.'s best ramp" (the pro skater Marc Johnson's words). Here, you'll also find our very own screen-printing shop, where we produce shirts and headwear for ourselves and our competitors: young designers and start-up brands, some of which we even lease office space to. There's also a photo studio, and the rapper Alexander Spit has a recording studio in the basement. Our village is a never-never land of L.A.'s lost boys.
My partner, Ben Hundreds, holds court in the biggest office. I like to tease that we had to find space to fit his ego, but he also makes room for his retro sneaker collection, sports memorabilia, and a collection of art books. Down the hall is my corner. This is the creative spring that inspires much of our design. The space is adorned with collectible toys, skateboard decks, and vintage clothing harvested from 1980s and 1990s culture — from street to pop. I've re-created the antique store scene from Back to the Future Part II in one corner alongside a shelf of rare KAWS and Bounty Hunter figures. Every inch of wall space is dedicated to original art by Mark Gonzales, Mike Giant, Raymond Pettibon, and James Jean.
The soul of the entire company, however, lies dead center in the fortress. There, you'll find a lone photograph cheaply framed in an IKEA square. It's easy to miss in the corridor next to the Ron English paintings and Aaron Kai mural. It's a picture of our first official studio and clubhouse in L.A.'s Fairfax District that I shot late one night in 2006. I took the photo of our office from across the street, but you can see Ben through the window, lit by the orange glow of a halogen lamp. There's a stack of T-shirts behind him, representing the inventory we had in stock, and makeshift folding desks for our laptops. That's it. That was the entirety of The Hundreds at the time. It barely filled a four-hundred-square-foot room.
We had customers back then, but not much of a following. We printed T-shirts, but didn't exactly have a clothing line. We did, however, have each other. And we had a mission: to design a brand themed around California culture, complemented by an online magazine that painted the backdrop for our lifestyle. Ben and I wanted to put Los Angeles back on the map in terms of streetwear. We wanted to participate in and promote a new wave of street culture. And we wanted to tell our story, in real time, bringing our customers along for the ride. The world of fashion was concerned with making clothes, but we wanted The Hundreds to stand for more than cotton and plastisol.
Over the next fifteen years, we poured our lives into The Hundreds. We evolved from graphic tees and baseball caps to woven shirts, technical jackets, and even novelty food items. Ben and I went from working out of my bedroom to employing our friends out of a massive workshop and warehouse. We traveled the world, sold our line to the best skate and street boutiques in every major city, and opened a few of our own shops in the process. Meanwhile, my blog evolved into a media platform, read and viewed by millions. The Hundreds outlasted most of its peers and then held its own among a new class of competitors.
I can chalk up our success and longevity to the obvious: hard work, brand integrity, discipline. But these aren't the secrets to the success of our brand. We aren't consummate businessmen or trained designers. Ben and I literally made it up as we went along. Today, we still have no idea what we're doing, plugging different numbers into the combination lock until we get it open. Yet our brand is more profitable and notable than ever. Fifteen years is forever in streetwear, so why is The Hundreds still standing strong? My theory is simple. The Hundreds was never just about clothing. In the pure spirit of streetwear, The Hundreds was always about community.
T. S. Eliot once described hell as a place "where nothing connects with nothing." Dissociation has historically been a major source of unhappiness in people's lives. Humans long for connection; we want to feel that our lives have value and significance. Around 2010, many thought social media might be the answer. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram shrank the earth and granted us a voice — an opportunity to share, to mobilize, to complain about airlines. It seemed as if we'd finally broken down the last of the walls barring communication. We assumed that as long as everyone could express themselves, they'd be received.
We all know how this story ends — with the internet only isolating and polarizing us further. Therefore, as a consumer and purveyor, I believe the future of successful branding lies in genuinely bridging the gaps that divide people. This is something streetwear has always inherently achieved. Because it's youth-driven, streetwear is full of passion, and averse to plastic marketing campaigns. Streetwear is transparent and purposeful by design, not financial incentive. It's brave and invincible. It's foolish and urgent, but that's forever been part of what attracts people to a cause.
When we started this company, I was in my early twenties. I thought I was interested in brand building because I was an enterprising artist and wanted to participate in the cool underground culture of streetwear. But the truth was that I was just seeking a connection with like-minded people. I'd always searched for a home — as a minority, as a skateboarder, as a punk. But I never quite found the right fit until I built my own community. I think our clientele understands the importance of that community and that's why they've stayed loyal to us through trends, recessions, and the distractions of the internet.
There's a ton of bestselling literature out there on how to make a business blow through the tech start-up model — raise capital and exploit influencers. But this is not a book about how to build a billion-dollar business (you'll probably never find your boy on the cover of Forbes). There's no worksheet at the end of each chapter or set of universal principles to memorize. This is a story about how a couple of guys created a clothing brand with the intent of fostering a community. It's a story about how, through that relationship with their customers, they have maintained an authentic and successful business that grows as they grow. Our mantra is "People over Product" to remind us that without culture, The Hundreds is just a label. My blog always took precedence over the online shop. We'll sell you a T-shirt, but not before we tell you about the artist behind it and his or her message. Our stores are less about sales and profits, and more about providing a venue to experience our culture. And the more we connect the dots between our people, the stronger the bond they have with our brand, the deeper the roots go.
But like that light in the photograph of our first office, the wildfire of community is sparked by one idea, one voice. Under the right conditions, that flame can spread from one person to the next, until the entire world is ablaze. By the end of this book, I hope you can find that ember within you, just as we did. This is how we kept ours burning bright and leading the way.CHAPTER 3
Then everyone looks at me They've never seen individuality
— Voodoo Glow Skulls, "You're the Problem"
Riverside, California, began with round, dimpled oranges. In the late nineteenth century, a gift of three Brazilian navel orange trees took to the ranch town's rich soil and climate. In the following years, a different sort of gold rush occurred here. Spectators flooded the valley with orange groves, setting off the state's citrus industry.
A hundred years later, Riverside County welcomed another influx of residents, the result of white flight from the greater city's escalating crime and housing prices. Riverside's construction boom of the 1980s wooed L.A.'s pale population with affordable tract home developments furnished with matching pools and bleached gables. The opportunities were as infinite as the landscape; virginal neighborhoods snaked through the desert's creases and disappeared into the horizon. Strip malls dressed in Mexican mission architecture merchandised Kmart superstores and Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlors.
In the summers, the Pacific Ocean breeze would link arms with the hot breath of the Santa Anas and sweep L.A.'s pollution into our recessed armpit. On a 120-degree August afternoon, the opaque smog would bury our town at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains. I assumed this was typical. (Don't all kids have to stay indoors during smog alerts? Don't they all walk outside after an acid rainstorm and find their basketball corroding into a charcoal briquette?) Most playground days were cut short by the toxic air's spindly fingers closing around our lungs.
Yet when my Korean-immigrant parents moved to Riverside in 1982, they were sold on the suburban American dream of a two-car garage and a laundry room. They bought a house atop a long driveway that my brothers and I would skateboard down on our butts, dragging our Velcro Pro Wings sneakers as brakes. Our home was simple, with a triangle roof and square front windows — straight out of a children's book — but it was our castle. I remember every corner and cavity. The splintered banister I held on to during the big earthquake. The air-conditioning vent in the floor that my brothers and I wrestled over to lie on in the dog days.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "This Is Not A T-Shirt"
Copyright © 2019 Bobby Kim.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction to the Paperback Edition ix
Part 1 Stay True but Don't Stay Put
1 Welcome to Hell 9
2 Inspiration. Aspiration. Perspiration. 14
3 Rivercide 19
4 Step Out 26
5 Outside the Box 35
6 Streetwear: A Brief History 40
7 Escape to Los Angeles 48
8 Rising Son 54
Part 2 Set Up the Upset
9 Burn 65
10 Kill 'Em Mall 68
11 In Good Company 84
12 Fanning the Flames of Content 90
13 Get Up Kids 98
14 Upside Down and Backward 120
15 Upset the Setup 127
16 The Hardest Part 138
17 The Black Tarp Strategy 143
18 Fight Back 154
19 Outside the Lines 161
20 Allover 174
21 We Don't Build Stores. We Build Stories. 181
22 Blow Up 194
23 Boom 206
24 Abe 211
Part 3 Passion and Patience
25 Big Deal 223
26 Don't Get Me Wrong 231
27 Point Proven 237
28 Sometimes It Takes Some Time 243
29 Dear Mom 260
Part 4 People over Product
30 Blow Out 267
31 End of Daze 276
32 The Rear View 285
33 Homecoming 295
34 Lauren's Lesson 300
Frequently Asked Questions 309