Bobby Kim is streetwear's renaissance man. The LA-born illustrator, writer, photographer, and designer co-founded the iconic lifestyle brand The Hundreds in 2003. His latest project is Built to Fail: A Streetwear Story, a documentary that follows him as he takes a deep dive into the style and culture around streetwear. In honor of its recent premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, we asked Bobby to tell us what made him fall in love with streetwear and why he felt it was the right time to try to make a documentary on the culture that changed his life.
The first time I saw anything that we'd now define as "streetwear," I was in the fifth grade. This was back in the late 80s, when hip-hop was still finding itself and MTV rarely showed anyone of color. White culture was still super ubiquitous, so surf fashion fed the youth trends. Even teenagers who were brown and landlocked in the Midwest wore white tees with bright, neon logos by Quiksilver or Billabong.
So you can imagine my surprise when I saw this one kid in my class named Mike wearing a black T-shirt with a scratchy scribble across the top and an illustration of dice underneath. Mike was a cool guy who was always on some shit. While my mom stuffed my feet into Payless Velcro shoes twice a year, this dude was spoiled rotten with a weekly sneaker rotation of crispy Nike Airs and Reebok Pump trainers. But this T-shirt was different.
The brand name was illegible, which made it feel kinda weird and irreverent. After I learned it said "Stüssy," I practiced writing my own signature like that (and still do, to this day). Stüssy shirts were a little harder to come by and not necessarily something your grandma would pick out for a Christmas gift. The brand used all this subversive imagery: the eight-ball, the "irie vibes," and the ads with yo'd out blond kids styled like black kids. For the first time, I read the distinction between a T-shirt and an identity. Mike's shirt was more than clothing—it was a statement. It was a line in the sand. It said, "I'm not like you, I'm ahead of you." Maybe it was even saying, "I'm better than you." That T-shirt—and plenty streetwear tees before and after it—had nothing to do with fashion. But it had everything to do with attitude.
It wasn't called "streetwear" back in the 90s; that term didn't get tossed around until the next wave of brands erupted from the intersection of hip-hop and skate. While the action sports and rap industries ballooned, artist-led independent T-shirt labels flourished in their shadow. I'm talking about labels like X-Large, Fuct, and Freshjive on the West Coast. On the East, you had Pervert, PNB, and 555 Soul. The Japanese honed in on this phenomenon and mastered it. Nigo's A Bathing Ape made a science of low supply and high demand. Harajuku's Busy Works shop was more art gallery than clothing boutique, and the customers lining up out front treated the graphic T-shirts accordingly.
By the early 2000s, Japan was informing a lot of what New York was doing and vice versa, and I was traveling back and forth to Tokyo to study this movement. To date, some of my favorite labels came up from downtown: SSUR, Alife, Supreme… Streetwear's raw and seditious spirit made a lot of sense to me during this period when the fashion landscape was Old Navy commercials and Von Dutch trucker caps. Fashion was going through one of those waves where it was in vogue to dress like everyone else. At the time, everyone wanted to just fit in. But there are always those people running toward the other end of the pendulum, championing independence. To a suburban Southern Californian kid like me who wanted to stand apart, streetwear was the answer. With streetwear, I was safe knowing I wouldn't look like anyone in my class, let alone my neighborhood. Chances are, if you were rocking a Supreme box cap around the turn of the millennium, you had the only one in your zip code. If you did see someone wearing it, he or she was probably important in an artsy Paper Magazine type of way.
Of course, the tradeoff for owning all this rare shit was flying across the country—or around the world—to get those one-of-a-kind things. But that was also part of the appeal. All of my streetwear clothes bore a story. They felt special. Most valuable of all, I felt special, which is important since so much of streetwear is about elitism and ego. Most people buy clothes to feel good. Hypebeasts and fuccbois pursue limited streetwear to flex and make others feel bad.
These are the strange, nuanced parts I love about streetwear: the personality, the community, the game. Today, mainstream fashion has absorbed so much of streetwear's cultural roots and churned it into a processed, profitable trend. I'm not a fashion guy, and I'm not really into this current wave. Instead, I care most about the creation and commentary. There's an entire generation of kids today who are into this stuff but are ignorant of its history. The sad part is it's not by their own volition. There's a real thirst and desire out there to learn more. The youth are smart. They know there's something missing. They know it can't just be all about flipping Yeezys and Supreme.
I made Built to Fail for them and selfishly for myself. I wanted to acknowledge these giants whose shoulders I rode in on, while canonizing this chapter of artists, designers, and brands that tilled the soil for a fertile marketplace. Most of streetwear's foundation was undocumented by design. It was more fun this way, more authentic to keep streetwear off the grid and unrecorded. But today's generation only sees what's highlighted online. We're seeing the same mistakes repeated, people attributing streetwear to the wrong influences, or stealing it altogether. Let's give it back to its rightful owners or at least pay them their respects.
Follow Bobby Kim on Twitter.