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If you were to ask someone, “What’s streetwear?,” you’d likely come across a myriad of answers. But The Hundreds co-founder Bobby Kim, who founded his Los Angeles-based streetwear brand in 2003, hopes to change that with his latest film documentary.
Built to Fail, premiering Saturday at the Los Angeles Film Festival, explores the fashion phenom that has gone from the subcultures of the skate and punk movement to a mainstream $70 billion industry. Kim speaks to a number of streetwear figures, including Eli Bonerz of X-Large, Rick Klutz of Freshjive and Russell Simmons of Phat Farm. Tommy Hilfiger also makes an appearance in the doc, talking about his own influence in the streetwear community.
Kim shares that he was met with some resistance from his peers while working on the project “simply because other people were featured in the film or simply because I was the one directing and it would be a conflict of interest.” However, “That’s part of what makes a streetwear movie streetwear — that competitiveness,” he says.
Here, The Hollywood Reporter chats with Kim about what led him to work on Built to Fail, the possible backlash he may receive for the film and his definition of streetwear.
What made you want to create a documentary about streetwear?
I’ve been working in this space for almost 15 years and this genre of clothing wasn’t called streetwear. There was no viable industry there. It was very much artist-led, really just these independent t-shirt labels. It was really about guys hanging out and designing stuff here and there. As the years have gone on, the streetwear moniker has been attached to it by the media and marketplace — it’s now a $70 billion dollar industry that spans everything from athleisure to casualwear to sportswear. It’s all just called streetwear now, whereas we understood streetwear to be completely different.
The more I thought about it, I thought it was really interesting that no one really had that definition for it. The history in itself has kind of been obscured and undocumented by design. It was intended to stay underground. No one has gone out there and preserved it on record, and I wanted to do that for myself to chronicle our generation of streetwear and what we did and also the giants whose shoulders I stand on and pay homage to these people before it all evaporates — which is starting to happen as streetwear goes more and more mainstream.
Having been in the industry for some time now, does it bother you when something is called streetwear that you don’t identify as being such or do you think it’s just part of the evolution of streetwear?
I compare it a lot to hip-hop culture and rap music. When hip-hop started, it was a comprehensive culture that embodied all these different aspects of break dancing, emceeing, turntables, and when I was growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the music aspect of rap was very underground, very independent and defiant and rebellious in its culture and message-driven. When you look at rap today, it’s almost synonymous with pop music — it is the mainstream music. The biggest rock stars are rap stars.
I think there’s a lot of comparisons to be made with what happened with streetwear, which was a very underground movement. Now it is so entirely mainstream — there’s streetwear that the media celebrates right now, for example, whatever is happening on the high-fashion runway, they love streetwear and they’re calling a lot of this stuff streetwear. I don’t necessarily identify with it or relate to it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not streetwear. It’s just not streetwear to me.
It just spans so many definitions and niche audiences and different demographics that there’s many different kinds of streetwear. The kind of streetwear that I do is completely different than something like a Off-White or Vetements does. Same as Tommy Hilfiger in this film considers himself as the inventor of streetwear, and I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. But it is in his brand identity and he’s very much streetwear. It can encompass a lot of different things.
How much cooperation or resistance did you face in the streetwear scene when you were filming your documentary?
I think that was one of the greatest hardships of making something like this. Historically, this type of core streetwear, we came from a very dog-eat-dog world. There weren’t a lot of us in our generation, and there were even less in the generation before. We kind of learned not to work collaboratively with each other. So to bring everyone together and try to get them to speak on record in one cohesive project was a challenge. I call it “the greatest streetwear collaboration of all time,” just to get everybody on board, but there were a lot of people who chose not to participate, simply because other people were featured in the film or simply because I was the one directing and it would be a conflict of interest. That’s part of what makes a streetwear movie streetwear — that competitiveness.
It’s funny, even some of the men and women who did choose to participate ended up not wanting to be in the film anymore. There’s a lot of egos, a lot of big personalities, but it’s also why I love streetwear and why streetwear is so successful. That’s kind of why we end up in the space. We don’t work well in a traditional, conventional job setting. Every single person that I talked to in this film could be their own documentary themselves. They have such diverse backgrounds and experiences. It was hard to get everyone on board, but that’s what makes the movie the movie.
Was this your first time directing?
It was. I was fortunate to have a couple of co-directors by my side to show me the ropes — Scott Weintrob and Alexis Spraic. I’ve directed a lot of myself, my own brand. We make short films here and there; I directed Fall Out Boy’s music video (Bloom) last year, which is probably more or less my directorial debut in that sense. As far as a feature-length documentary film, this was the first — might be my last (laughs).
Why the title Built to Fail?
I think the idea of starting a streetwear brand is very much built to fail. I think streetwear in itself as a viable business or as an industry is built to fail, very much because it borrows so much from this kind of punk-rock philosophy that the more you sell, the bigger you get, the less you may remain relevant, the less you retain a connection with your audience. It’s this hustle between art and commerce — the fear of selling out.
What I think is fantastic and remarkable about it is that the people who choose to still do it anyway. Generation after generation, we keep making the same mistake. It’s exactly that youthful, invincible attitude that makes the youth what they are. I think the very idea of it may be built to fail, but that doesn’t mean these people fail. They’re the ones that overcome — that’s what makes them champions to me.
Did you have any worries or concerns with getting backlash over this film?
Oh, yeah, that’s essential character to understanding streetwear is the hate and the backlash. I’m no stranger to that. I very much expect to see strong backlash against the film from people not included in the film. Throughout the course of production, I had a lot of friendships severed because of “Oh, you didn’t put me in this film” or “You put this guy in the film and he shouldn’t even be in there.” I very much look forward to what people have to say.
I’m generally unfazed by that hate as long as people are talking about streetwear and the history. To me, my job is done. I’m not here to say that this is the A-to-Z history of streetwear. What I’m trying to do is just build conversation and open up a dialogue as to what the history looks like. No one is talking about the history, yet there’s this real thirst for an understanding as the younger and younger kids move into the space. It’s never been recorded. It can’t just be about us selling sneakers and waiting outside of Supreme for something to drop — there must be something more. I’m barely scrapping the surface of the surface here.
Now that you’ve been in this industry for so long and have also made this documentary, how would you define streetwear now?
Streetwear to me is about a culture. It can’t be appreciated outside of that context of these people’s stories and the community and the history of these men and women who built this. Otherwise it’s just fashion. Streetwear without culture is just fashion. Streetwear isn’t necessarily a clothing aesthetic or design — it’s not a hooded sweatshirt or a pair of sneakers. What makes streetwear so special is all of these stories and the attitudes and personalities. If you want to participate in streetwear, if you really love it and want to know more, you need to do your research and you need to do your past to support these people who made it what it is — past, present and future.
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