A few months ago when we were freaked out hard over the Comme Des Fuckdown hat that one of the A$AP Mob was wearing in their VICE shoot a couple of months back? Itmade us get all excited about streetwear again, even after tumblr completely over-saturated the internet en masse with endless photos of their swag new swag? Well, Ukrainian-born, Coney Island-raised Russ Karablin is responsible for turning us all into gaggling tweenage girls, as he designed the hats almost a decade ago, before recently re-releasing them as part of a whole Comme Des Fuckdown range.
If you know your streetwear – as in, really know, not just who collaborated on the last Hundreds line, or whatever – then Russ's name will mean a lot to you. He has been running SSUR, his main brand, for the better part of 20 years, and has released an impossible amount of clothing under masses of different brand names, including The Cut, Rebel Ape and Natural Born, throughout that time. The brands he currently has on the go are SSUR, Comme Des Fuckdown and Caviar Cartel, but that could change at any moment. I had a chat with him about his time designing streetwear and why his Comme hats are so fucking cool.
The SSUR NYC store.
VICE: Hey Russ. So, you've been a constant on the New York streetwear scene since the late 80s. How have things changed?
Russ Karablin: I've seen it get dumbed down. Kids these days don't care about the meaning behind the graphic, they just want it to match their sneakers. Back then, people were more receptive to deeper concepts and stuff with more meaning to it. They didn't always get it at first, but when they did, they appreciated the stuff even more. These days it's a little more loose.
Can you remember what the first graphic was that you saw and instantly got? The one where everything just clicked for you.
Through the years there have been so many, you know? But I remember one that had Marx and Che on it and said, "Some People Talk About The Weather." So that describes that kind of dumbed down thing, people talking about the weather because they've got nothing else to say.
Right. What about brands? Any in particular who made you think, 'fuck, they've got it spot on?'
Oh sure, absolutely. I was definitely inspired by brands like GFS, Fuct, and Stüssy, for sure. They were bringing out stuff that was more up on a par with the subject matter that I like. Stuff that has more to it than just a nice-looking design.
Russ, far right, circa 1992.
Do you think that's gone now? As in, has the golden era for streetwear come and gone already?
Yeah, the golden era has definitely come and gone. You know, some of the biggest supporters of streetwear round the world have been the Japanese and they're economy isn't what it used to be. I mean, there's definitely still some relevant brands doing streetwear right, but it all seems to be more commercial and more mall-based. It used to be moral-based, now it's just mall-based.
Because when you started out, you weren't out to make a load of money out of it – you just switched your art from the canvas to t-shirts to get it seen more, right?
Yeah, I switched from silk screening a numbered line of prints, over to silk screening t-shirts. I just thought of it as switching mediums, basically.
Has it gradually become equally as much about the clothes for you – the cut and the quality, etc – as much as the art on the clothes now?
Well, I'm actually focusing more on art, canvases, and prints these days for the SSUR stuff, then the Caviar Cartel stuff we do is still based on artwork, but it's more leaning towards a younger crowd.
Is Comme Des Fuckdown, Caviar Cartel, and SSUR all your design, then?
Yeah, Comme Des Fuckdown is a design we did eight to ten years ago for a brand that myself and Jamie Story, who used to do a brand called JMoney, collaborated on, called The Cut. We put out the design years ago and it had a good response then too, but we put it on ice for a while. The timing seemed right to bring that one back out with the whole 2012 thing and all that stuff. We brought it back again to tell the world to just chill the fuck out.
Russ holding the SSUR x Converse Pro Leather 1976.
Ha ha. What's the distinction between each brand? Why did you set up different labels and not just do it all under the SSUR name?
The SSUR stuff is kind of more personal, there's more of myself in it. There's definitely hints of my Russian heritage, but it's kind of more taking inspirations from the imperial art – from back in the day – and other elements from, you know, 200 year-old factories from Russia and stuff like that. Caviar Cartel is more like a group, like a movement. It's not individual like SSUR is, it relates more to a wider range of people and hopefully creates a bit of a sense of camaraderie.
Cool. So the way we found out about the Comme Des Fuckdown stuff was through the whole A$AP Mob. Did you know those guys or know the amount of exposure the hats and shirts were getting?
Oh yeah, the way that happened was completely organic, actually, it was all down to timing. I'd just moved to LA, but still had my shop in New York, which is partnered up with Blackscale. The A$AP guys were coming and hanging out in the shop before they got big. The hat was out at the right moment and the A$AP guys understand both the high fashion thing and the street fashion thing – they kind of mesh the two together—so the hat was perfect for that, being that it's kind of a slap in the face to all the high fashion stuff they wear. You know, like, calm the fuck down!
Russ with Mary, Ali, and an ape's head.
Have the real Comme been in touch at all?
Not yet. We're waiting for someone to call us for a collabo', ha ha.
Lastly, you mentioned you moved to LA. Do you think living there has changed your approach to design at all?
Well, I'm sure there's stuff I'm not conscious of yet, but sure, we adjust, we change. We're chameleons – we fit in, we make it work, but the idea is also to have this kind of universal meaning behind all of the lines, something that everyone can relate to. Something as intuitive and easy to get as Comme Des Fuckdown, I guess. It stretches from people in the Chanel store to people in the hood.