In our long-running series, “How I’m Making It,” we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Bobby Kim and his business partner Ben Shenassafar met at law school before they launched streetwear brand The Hundreds back in 2003. “It wasn’t about running for office or anything like that on the government level, but being an activist,” says Kim on why he decided to study law. “I wanted to break shit up from the inside, because I can’t do it being a punk, so let me get in and do it that way.” This outlook is not unlike how he approached the streetwear world in the first place, which was by starting a blog — during the early days of Blogspot — to write about up-and-coming names in skate, hip-hop and design that generally make up streetwear’s subculture. “My blog opened that world up, and I just started broadcasting every day from our neighborhood in Fairfax,” remembers Kim.
Now 14 years later, Kim’s strategy remains the same as he launches his new women’s line, Jennifer. The brand debuted at the end of last year, and Kim aims to provide a platform for the (famous) female role models in his life, whether it’s having Jessica Alba consult on the fit of Jennifer’s garments — hoodies and T-shirts so far — or having Lena Dunham contribute to the website’s blog. “It’s not really me on there talking about what I think; I’m here to listen,” says Kim, in hopes that his following will listen as well. “This is a process for me, too. I want to level the playing field. I want there be a more equality when it comes to my world and how they view women, so Jennifer is helping that process.”
We caught up with Kim to chat about what it was like like launching The Hundreds during the early aughts, how that compares to debuting Jennifer 14 years later and what streetwear means to him.
How did you launch The Hundreds?
We started in 2003 and I was really inspired by Supreme, Stussy, Alife — a lot of the New York brands in the late ’90s. But I wanted to do that in LA. I felt like a lot of the attitude with streetwear at the time was very exclusive, which made it cool, but also was not really my personality. I’m more inclusive; I believe in community. I want to share things that I like instead of holding it for myself to make myself look cool. So I wanted to talk about A Bathing Ape or the crazy Air Force 1s that I picked up in Tokyo and share that with people.
The internet facilitated that because of my blog, and a lot of people wanted to learn about this underground world because up until that moment, streetwear had been very closed off and clandestine. My blog opened that world up, and that helped to uplift The Hundreds as well. It became more of a worldwide global streetwear brand, and we rode a lot of early success of that trend exploding in the late 2000s. Where we’re at now in 2017 — The Hundreds has been around for 14 years; in streetwear, that’s like 300 years — we’re kind of like a heritage brand in this space, which is totally fine with me. I love that. I think that’s great.
Do you think your blog helped build a better, transparent relationship with your customers?
Yeah. I wanted to do that, too, because the brands that I admired when I was growing up were Stussy, Mossimo, X-Large. These brands were all very cool but I didn’t know anything about the founders or the people designing the clothes. I was wearing it, but I didn’t know, like, ‘What do you stand for politically? What music are you listening to? What did you eat today?’ These are actual things I want to know about whoever I’m supporting. I don’t want to be a walking billboard for someone I don’t support. It’s a very punk rock ideal, and it was because I grew up in that scene. In the punk rock world, you can share the stage with the singer; you can jump up, grab the mic and sing along; you can hang out with a band backstage, really got to know them as people. How do I create a brand like that? My customers can feel like they’re part of it. They’re involved in the process and they know who I am and what I represent. Whether I’m for it or against it, they know where I stand with everything.
Thank God the blog world came around. I’d already been blogging for a few years and built a little bit of a following when we launched The Hundreds. So when we launched the brand I was just like, ‘This is as important as the T-shirt.’ Really, you buy the T-shirt and in the bag, we would write ‘TheHundreds.com’ on them. When you bought the T-shirt, you’d visit the website and it would tell you the story of the T-shirt. ‘Hey, man, I made this T-shirt, this is why I made it and this is how I’m feeling about life right now.’ When you wore it, it wasn’t just another T-shirt, and that’s how we sold it, too. We’d go to stores and they were like, ‘Well, we’ve seen a million T-shirt companies.’ This was when American Apparel was blowing up and everyone was starting a T-shirt brand. I’m like, ‘It’s not just a T-shirt brand. You have to go to our website.’ They’re like, ‘A website! That’s so dorky! The internet? Who’s on the internet?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m telling my story there every day!’ That was what helped open up that communication between me and the customer.
Why do you think The Hundreds has been able to stick around for so long?
I get tired of companies. I get tired of products. But I don’t really get tired of people. That’s the same thing with The Hundreds. At the end of the day, our customers connected to us as people and they’re interested in hearing like, ‘Oh, Bobby’s a dad now,’ or ‘Bobby’s making womenswear now.’ They don’t care about the graphic T-shirt — it’s only trendy for those two seasons. That style of pant that I made, that certain cap, it’s not about that. It’s about, ‘I want to hear where Bobby’s at with his life and what he thinks of The Hundreds.’ That, I think, is what interests our core audience. They’re very interested in who we are as people, and I don’t think that will ever tire. We’re complex, complicated human beings like everybody, and as long as I inform people of that storyline, I don’t think they really are interested in going anywhere else. The story only gets better.
How would you define streetwear now?
I don’t really know what that word means, but I will champion it if it stands for what I believe is this attitude of independence and not doing what everyone else is doing. That style of thought, I’m for it. If it’s called streetwear, then we are very much a streetwear brand.
You’ve been working on a documentary on streetwear, too. How is that going?
I wrote the treatment four years ago. It’s been a long process. I filmed a year and a half ago, spent the year filming, edited last year and it should be coming out sometime early this year depending on distribution deals. It’s the story of me trying to really understand what streetwear is. I want to explore what it means to other people. It takes me around the world and all these different perspectives — and everyone is completely different, by the way. I have over 150 hours of interviews and no one said the same thing. Even when I was just like, ‘What brands are streetwear?’ Almost everyone said different brands. But at the end of the day, it’s just really about these people. A certain attitude you have towards your design.
The Hundreds launched with just one graphic T-shirt, similarly to how Jennifer came out with only a hoodie, which is interesting.
It’s funny how it’s kind of similar to how Jennifer is going. When I launched this program — and I’d been talking about Jennifer for a little bit — everyone was like, ‘Oh, it’s a sweatshirt! Where’s the rest of it? We want more.’ That’s not how I build brands. I’m not here to come out the gate, be the biggest thing in two years and disappear. I’m telling a story, so the story begins with a prologue, like an introduction. Let’s tell the story the right way.
And now that social media is a huge part of launching a brand compared to 14 years ago, what has been your approach with Jennifer?
Probably the main form of marketing is putting it on friends. There’s this community of women who have been very awesome towards me; strong women that I look up to and that have inspired me: Lena Dunham, Sara and Erin Foster, Kreayshawn, Sophia Rossi of HelloGiggles, Nadia Bolz Weber, who’s a very liberal pastor from Denver. When I was thinking of Jennifer, they embodied it exactly with where they were at in their life, or how they conduct their business or how they are as a leader. Those are the qualities I wanted in Jennifer. They all represent these facets of interesting, creative, powerful women. I don’t want to come into a women’s space with a women’s brand and be like, ‘Listen to what I have to say as a guy.’ That’s not the point. I’m here to listen and these ambassadors and advocates do that speaking for me. If you admire these women the way that I do, maybe you’ll be into Jennifer the way that I am.
You’re focusing on the people and the bigger story more than just a good piece of clothing.
Yeah. That’s the same attitude we had with The Hundreds and it’s the same attitude we have with Jennifer. This is the medium for me to tell this story. These stories really last forever, and Jennifer’s a new chapter, a new avenue for me to tell a different story that exists beyond streetwear. I love streetwear and it’s cool to be in that category, but I want Jennifer to live beyond that. I want it to really speak to talk about women and men. What it means for what a woman wears, what a guy wears. Let’s change a lot of those perceptions. I want to break down walls constantly.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.