May Streetwear Keep You Forever Young

Mishka’s Mikhail Bortnik Deals with Success and Getting Older

By Wilbert L. Cooper

Mikhail Bortnik, the founder of the revered fashion brand Mishka, lives on a quaint street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—a neighborhood that used to be full of Polish immigrants and is now most famous for being where Girls is shot. When I visited his home on a frigid day in January, I wasn’t surprised to find that the Russian-born and Brooklyn-raised artist and businessman has an immaculate but uniquely decorated apartment. Even though Mikhail shares his home with his wife Kate, whom he met on Makeoutclub, and two rambunctious cockatiels named Louis and Milo, the vibe in his crib is all his own. Obscure B-movie horror posters adorn the walls, priceless actions figures are positioned in action poses on shelves overhead, and a meticulously organized library of comics stretches from the floor to the ceiling. I felt like I was in a pop-culture museum, or maybe inside the head of a geek with impeccable taste.

Mikhail was such a gracious host that before I could even take off my coat he had already offered me a drink. The ink-haired bear of a man handed me a beer and we sat down to talk. I took a sip and we started to chew the fat, but before we could get good into our conversation, my mind began to wander. I was vibing on the angular jazz music playing in the background so hard, I interrupted him to find out who the hell we were listening to.

“Oh, that’s Roy Ayers,” he said. “I listen to a lot of music and I get bored easily. I have to discover new things to get interested and involved in. The past month I've hit that point I thought I'd never hit, where I said to myself, ‘I'm going to discover jazz.’ ”

It was clear to me, sitting in a home bursting with so many different cultural artifacts from my childhood, that here was a man who’d spent his entire life rifling through a succession of youthful obsessions, from G.I. Joes to punk rock. But one of his passions had turned into something more than another collection piled high in his apartment, and that was streetwear. Why streetwear? Maybe because to Mikhail, as he later told me, it represented “being 16 forever, a permanent adolescence.”

Mikhail started Mishka—which is Russian for “bear cub”—back in 2003. It began as a line of graphic T-shirts following in the tradition of classic streetwear companies like Stussy and Supreme. But unlike many of the streetwear brands that were popping up around the same time and peddled limited-edition shirts with subversive prints, Mishka presented shirts featuring eclectic references, comic-book imagery, and a whole-hearted embrace of nerdom. Today, the brand’s iconic graphics—which include a gnarly bloodshot “Keep Watch” eyeball and the scrawled bear “mop” logo—are sewed, printed, and embroidered on everything from wristwatches to rugs and sold from here to Tokyo. Mishka gear has become the uniform of choice for the wayward young people who float effortlessly from skate parks to the bottom of mosh pits at Waka Flocka Flame concerts.

But Mishka’s success wasn’t always assured. In fact, it was born out of a near-fatal accident.

Like most immigrants, Mikhail’s parents stressed hard work above all else. So every year, while on summer break  from studying art at Bard college, he got both an internship and a paying job. One year, when he wasn’t slaving away for Matador records, he tried his hand at driving tourists around New York City in a pedicab—a job he wasn’t any good at. On one of his first days on the job, shit hit the fan. 

“I picked up a couple at the Empire State Building and there was a car behind us going all weird,” Mikhail recounted. “It was one of those moments where time slows down. The driver’s wife was trying to swat an insect or something and they lost control. I looked behind me and was like, Fuck. This guy is going to hit me. And of course, he hit me.”

Mikhail got a busted back and a $20,000 settlement out of the ordeal. He used the cash as seed money a few years later to launch Mishka. But even with that early infusion of cash, the brand got off to a rocky start, mostly because Mikhail, at 23, was unfamiliar with the business side of streetwear.

“I had no clue how to do what I was trying to do,” he said. “I had been in art school since I was five and always gravitated towards the graphic elements of comics and band and skate tees. I always wanted to do this, but there wasn’t a class at school that teaches you how to actually run a T-shirt business.”

The streetwear game was all about limited product back then. Unfortunately, Mikhail had no idea what “limited” meant when he started out. For his first run of shirts, he ordered 75 tees in eight different designs—that’s 600 shirts by an unknown brand with no retail outlets.

“There was a point when I was sitting on all of this product in the bedroom of my parents' house, not knowing what the hell to do,” Mikhail told me. “Originally, I imagined I would show it to stores and they'd be like, ‘Yes! Absolutely we want this! Give us 100 shirts!’ But that definitely was not the case.”

As I received the grand tour of Mikhail’s cozy apartment, he kept alluding to the fact that I was only seeing a sliver of the cool shit that he used to have at one time or another.

“Actually, I'm slowly trying to phase out the toys in the apartment,” he said. “We're in the process of getting some new pieces of furniture. There used to be a whole shelving unit here with G.I. Joes that we got rid of when we got this couch.”

This was weird to hear considering toys and the culture around them have been a fixation of Mishka since the beginning. Today, the brand is renowned for the toys it makes of its grotesque band of characters that also appear on its apparel. And their stores in the US and Tokyo are overflowing with action figures, even more so than Mikhail’s home. To hear that the man behind Mishka was replacing his toys with furniture was like hearing that Liberace was selling his pianos.

What was even more surprising to me was that Mikhail was also losing interest in sneakers, which he’d been collecting since high school. The moment that made him start selling off his collection occurred back in 2009, when he and Kate were on their way to visit MoMA. Mikhail had decided to break out a pair of Air Jordan IVs he hadn’t worn in ages, and when his feet hit the pavement, the sneakers—which were 20 years old and worth several hundred dollars—crumbled to pieces.

Things are just different these days than they once were when he obsessed over new tennis shoes and toys, hunting for the right pieces to add to his collection. Another big part of that shift, a part that can “kill” his interest, is the internet—something that wasn’t around when he was a young man first developing his taste and building his collections.

“Whatever you get into, you can find out everything about it with the internet and that usually sucks the fun right out of it for me,” he said. “I've been into sneakers since long before the internet. But it wasn't until NikeTalk that I realized there was a gigantic culture around it. And it just kills it for me. These days, I purposely do not associate with that side of stuff when I get into things because I don't want to ruin the enjoyment.”

Like many adults who remember a time before the web, Mikhail waxed poetic on the days of his youth when every obscure cool thing on Earth wasn’t at your fingertips. Instead of hunching ove a MacBook Pro, he spent his childhood loitering around the movie rental store with neighborhood kids, copping VHS tapes one by one to become the walking B-movie encyclopedia he is today. And he fell into comics the same way he got into the T-shirt business—through an accident.

“I broke my leg really early on when I was in first grade by horsing around,” Mikhail said. “It was broken to the point that I had to relearn how to walk. It was a freak accident and I was bedridden for six months. Nurses would come by the kids' ward and give out comics and stuff. That’s how I got into [comics], because I had nothing better to do.”

Even though Mikhail prefers to enjoy his interests isolated outside of a community, he wants Mishka to reach as many weird kids as it can. And, somewhat ironically, the internet, which is something that has the power to “kill” his enjoyment of things, has been the best tool for that.

“As a streetwear brand getting started in '03, you didn't sell on the web,” Mikhail told me. “The whole point of being a streetwear brand was having your clothes as inaccessible as possible. We were influenced by that old scene, but we started retailing on the web around 2005. These days, I'm open to finding a channel for every kid who wants to wear our things to have it available to them. If that means selling in Hot Topic or opening Mishka stores wherever those kids are, then that's what it is.”

The brand has used the web more effectively than any other streetwear company. Its blog, the Bloglin, which was launched in 2007, racks up more than 7,000 visits a day and hosts mixtapes for up-and-coming artists like Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire and the now defunct Das Racist. The musical element of Mishka’s blog, which was at first just a way to help market the brand, has become so popular that Mikhail now spends a lot of time dealing with artists and negotiating in the music industry, and less time designing. In fact, Mishka’s expansion seems to have forced him to pay attention to all sorts of other business-related matters rather than simply making cool shit.

Going from being a fan of streetwear to starting a brand called for a completely different mindset from me,” he said.  “It didn't completely kill it for me, but it is different now. We've had a lot of change this year. There are always growing pains and I don't know if they ever stop.”

As we neared the end of our conversation, I admired his eclecticism and his willingness to constantly jump into new things. But I never imagined the man behind the “Keep Watch” eyeball would be schooling me on jazz instead of punk rock. It made me wonder if, as he grew older and his interests continued to evolve, would Mishka change too? Would there be Mishka furniture instead of Mishka toys in another ten years?   

Then Mikhail turned to me and said, “Look, I'm 34. I started this when I was 23. There was a time when I wanted to have the brand mature with me. I hit that point a few years ago. Mishka can't go into its 30s with me because that's not who Mishka is. We do what we do for the kids. This brand is the youth. There's no point in me making a Mishka overcoat. Who wants a Mishka overcoat?”

Mikhail Bortnik co-owns Mishka with Greg Rivera. Follow and support the brand by checking out their website and blog at MishkaNYC.com.

All photos by Conor Lamb

@WilbertLCooper

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