It took an accident to spawn an idea. Mike Cherman, then living in New York, had a near hit with a taxi while cycling. Fed up with vehicles not noticing him due to Cherman's penchant for an all-black ensemble, he heat-pressed reflective dots onto a pair of plain socks. That led to the functional reflective-wear company, ICNY.
But that was then. Cherman left ICNY (the business would later close) and after moving to LA, Cherman formed Chinatown Market, inspired by his youth growing up among New York City’s Canal Street—known for the hocking of bootleg merchandise.
As part of his Asia tour for Chinatown Market, Cherman returned to Seek to run a customisation session with his digital gun printers—the last time Cherman was here, he also ran a customisation session for ICNY.
During one of his respites from his customisation, we sat with Cherman in a cosy nook of Seek and talked about Chinatown Market and about pushing a new generation to do it themselves.
ESQUIRE: The last time you were here for ICNY, you were also doing a customisation workshop.
MIKE CHERMAN: Retail is pretty dead, at least in America. In Japan, it's a little bit different because retail over there is very much an experiential moment. When you buy a pen in Japan, they put that in a bag, tape it close, walk you to the door and hand it to you.
This kind of stuff gives the customer something more than just buying stuff. It's an experience. It's the only thing that is saving retail. If someone wants to get a t-shirt, they can get the same thing online without the hassle. A customisation workshop is one of the ways to give back to the kids—not the cool ones, not the influencers—it's for the people who support our brand.
ESQ: But workshops like these can also be a way to market your brand?
CHERMAN: The goal for us is the continual evolution of these pop-ups. I want retail stores to start doing it and not just keep it exclusive to a select few. Because of what we've done, Nike had every one of its US stores to have a [ink jet] guns.
ESQ: Tell us about the handheld inkjet printer gun.
CHERMAN: This [ink jet gun] has been around for 10, 20 years but we put our spin on it and made it a whole new thing. That's the idea we want to do with other stuff; to put our own little twist on something.
At the end of the day, it's about pushing technologies. It's about inspiring creativity. If I thought that this was my best reinvention of a piece of tech then I'm guaranteed to fail. I need to keep on going, keep innovating.
ESQ: Since leaving ICNY, what has that experience taught you?
CHERMAN: How important it is to own every aspect of the business. From understanding how to finance the company to doing up payroll… you actually need to be a business person. The thing with ICNY, I had an investor so that I didn't have to worry about money and still be able to focus on being creative. But at the end of the day, I still lack the understanding of what it took to run a full business.
ESQ: So, with Chinatown Market-
CHERMAN: I run it 100 per cent. I'm the owner and I also work on every single step of the business. Obviously, as we grow, I'm going to have to step away from certain things but I believe that you need to, at least, do everything in the business; if you hadn't done something, you can't tell anyone else to do it.
ESQ: There was a lot of criticism with the usage of the name, Chinatown Market. Did you expect that sort of blowback?
CHERMAN: At the time—it was so quick—we were creating and it felt good that everything was working. I didn't think there would be repercussions. I think that only after—probably—two months since its inception, people started saying stuff.
But peel back the cover and look inside; you'll realise that we're not out here to appropriate. We're not stealing people's heritage and use that to sell t-shirts. Yes, the brand is called Chinatown Market but I'm very clear that I never want to disrespect any one's culture. To have a worldview, that's a big thing to me.
I can't say that I knew what it's like to grow up in Chinatown or China but I'm conscious of it. I know that there's a big grey area there. I know that some will get offended but at the end of the day, I'm always happy to have that conversation. I want to show them that I'm staying true to my craft and be respectful as well.
ESQ: So, what are you afraid of?
CHERMAN: Not being able to do what I love every day. I'm afraid that the business will grow too fast or that things can implode. I've watched ICNY done that so I know what's it's like to fail. I'm not in a position like, oh, shit we're killing it. I'm always looking over my shoulder, wondering what's going to happen next. I have the mentality that the ship is sinking.
CHERMAN: It's a fucked-up thing to carry but I believe that's what entrepreneurs do to keep themselves in the game. I've always hunkered down. I don't party, I don't drink. I don't go out. All I do is work and I love it.
ESQ: If you've no expectations, you will never be disappointed.
CHERMAN: Exactly. That's my thing, man… I don't come into anything with expectations. We did our best year ever with Complexcon but days before, I was nervous: is anyone going to care? And on the day itself, there was a constant line at our booth.
It's hard to take a step back in the moment to appreciate what you have because many things are happening then it's on to the next one.
ESQ: Are all the Chinatowns you visited different?
CHERMAN: Every Chinatown that I've been to, like, in Korea or in the Middle East; in New York, Boston, LA, etcetera… they may be very different but they all possess the same ethos, which I believe, is to keep their neighbourhood strong.
At the end of the day, the food, the culture remains true to those places. It's a tough question to answer fully but I think that everyone has their favourite but New York is special to me because I grew up there. It's a whole different world. New York's Chinatown is the last stronghold that hasn't been fully gentrified.
ESQ: Gentrification seems to be the by-product of progress.
CHERMAN: It's unfortunate: people selling buildings that are turned into high-rises. It's sad. It's a global thing, y'know.
ESQ: You've called what you do as 'fast streetwear'. Does sustainability factor into that?
CHERMAN: I'm not making anything more than I need. I'm not producing 20,000 pieces to sell as many as possible and if I don't sell them all, I'm not shipping them to El Salvador or whatever. If I'm selling a hundred, I'll make a hundred. If I'm selling five, I'll make five. I know that fashion is one of the things that is hurting the planet but at the same time, I'm trying to do what I can to reduce that wastage.
ESQ: 'Fast streetwear' also means that whatever is happening at the moment, you're able to make a product that reflects it. Do you also try to predict the next big thing?
CHERMAN: While it can be easy to look at Chinatown Market as just waiting for things to happen so that we can put out a t-shirt, that's not the case. A lot of times, we're also creating original products that are beyond just bootlegs and other things like that. At the end of the day, that's the 10-20 per cent that's supposed to get you excited but I'm not here to make all the money off all the bootlegs or the things that we don't own. Our 'bootleg' stuff gives you a taste and then here's the rest of the original stuff we do.
ESQ: What's your take on the new generation of consumers?
CHERMAN: I wanna inspired DIY. I wanna inspire kids to do it themselves. I find that the big thing for me in Asia is that, a lot of the kids, are in a culture where it's harder for them to believe that they can go out to do it themselves.
The communities that they are in are so small but they are also special because they can empower themselves and have a strong voice in the country. They should be allowed to fail.
I find Tell Your Children inspiring. I've come to Singapore twice but the last time I was here, I talked to them and told them not to be afraid to fail. Your parents preferred it if you be a lawyer or doctor but you should do what makes you happy.
ESQ: Was it a high point when you found out that your stuff is being bootlegged in China?
CHERMAN: I think it's a beautiful thing. I can't be all, what the fuck? I should be suing them! That would be stupid.
ESQ: Kinda like Supreme suing Married to the Mob.
CHERMAN: Yeah, I'm not going to be that guy because I've to acknowledge that I wanna inspire DIY. And if that means bootlegging, so be it. It just means that something is going right.
ESQ: Have you tried bootlegging that bootleg? The mindfuckery of it all…
CHERMAN: I saw Heron Preston did that recently. He bought a bunch of Heron Preston gear from Taobao, printed on top of that and sold that at Hypefest. That was fun.