During the roasting New York summer of 2014, aspiring photographer Imran Ciesay spotted the veteran hip-hop documentarian Chi Modu in a bar.
Back then, Imran didn't know much about taking photos, besides pointing his camera at the subject and hitting the shutter. Meanwhile, Chi had drawn widespread acclaim in the 1990s for his portraits of Tupac, Biggie and Snoop, their skin mottled with Bible script, cigar smoke wafting across cloudless blue skies, jeans down and gang signs up. Imran approached him and said, "That's a nice camera, how much is it?" Chi, says Imran, smirked: "More than you could afford."
Today, Imran – together with his partner Solomon Boyede, AKA Soulz – owns the streetwear label Places + Faces, worn by everyone from AJ Tracey to A$AP Rocky. They've become hip-hop's unofficial-official documentarians, photographing names like Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Future; they've released multiple magazines, designed a range of home goods and a campaign jersey with Nike for the women's World Cup, hosted free raves with LED walls and live sets from Skepta. There have been art exhibitions in Tokyo, mixtapes with RedBull, collaborations with Guess Jeans, and they've spent the summer taking their own stage around the festival circuit.
Imran reckons the camera in Chi's hands was a Mamiya RZ67. He now owns one himself. "Since that day I've had a vendetta against Chi," says Imran, smiling in a way that makes it difficult to tell how serious he's being. "I hope Chi's reading this."
Stepping into their studio on a leafy Dalston backstreet, the feeling is laid back, as though good things come when you don't try too hard. Soulz sits with his friend Sarena, eating Nando's takeout and watching Halle Berry on Hot Ones. Sarena shows me her new tattoo; she just got the word "blessings" inscribed in lilac on the inside of her finger.
Young staffers walk in and out, talking about how long we have until AI kills us all and having complicated chats about 3D-printing cameras that I don't understand. There's also a gorgeous French Bulldog called Kodak (named after the camera, not the rapper). He belongs to Imran, but he tells me he's often too busy to look after it, so their friend's girlfriend babysits him most days.
Imran and Soulz met in 2013, at Comic Con. Anime wasn't cool back then, so they bonded over their covert love of Dragon Ball Z and Cowboy Bebop. But they didn't start working together until later. It all began when Imran's uncle messaged him on Facebook, telling him to come stay at his house in New York. Luck or fate, a few days into his trip, Imran got into a lift after taking pictures of his friend at the top of a tower block in the Bronx. As the door shut behind him, he noticed A$AP Ferg standing mere feet away.
While most people would have spent the journey down texting their mate or dribbling out something wet like, "'Shabba' helped me grow as a person," Imran just started talking to him. "I was like, 'Where are you going?' He said, 'The studio,' and I asked, 'Can I come?' He was like, 'Yeah, sure, come through,' and we've been good friends ever since."
What was supposed to be a two-week trip turned into a three-month working holiday.
"A lot of people were having album release parties," says Imran. "I took pictures of Travis Scott, Big Sean, 2 Chainz. I sent the photos to Soulz, like, 'Can you edit these?' because I had a camera but I wasn't into photography at all. By the next morning he'd uploaded them onto our Tumblr. Soulz asked, 'What should we name it?' And I said, 'I don’t know – Places + Faces, or something?' And from there it was birthed."
To gain access to parties, Imran had to sneak into venues, but blending in can be difficult when, like him, you're 6'4" – so he had to come up with something clever.
"Funnily enough, I used to claim I worked for VICE," he says. "I would just tell the doorman: 'I've come from London to document this event,' and nine times out of ten they would let me in."
I ask Imran if he ever got rejected. "At Eminem's release party for his G-Shock collab, the guy was literally like, 'Bro, you're wearing a tie-dye T-shirt – you're not getting in,' and I was like, 'Watch me.'" After hanging around on the pavement for a while, Imran eventually made it past the doorman by pretending to know some industry guy with a familiar name: "Solomon".
Largely self-taught, bar a university module here and there, I ask the pair how they got to where they're at with photography. "We just bought a shit load of cameras, and then it was trial and error until it worked out," explains Soulz.
Imran adds, "With film cameras, you never really know what you're getting. You can do the most amazing shoot and then come back and all the photos look overexposed or underexposed, and then you're like, 'Fuck, cool.' But then you know what you did wrong, so the next time you'll be able to do it better."
Even now they're professionals, the Places + Faces approach to photography remains fairly spontaneous. Imran describes a recent shoot in an AirBnB at 2AM, when a model lay down in between two sofa cushions.
"He goes, 'I'm a sandwich!' I thought, 'Damn, this guy is strange – but I like it.' There's another where he's on the phone and he throws an orange in the air. It was pitch black at night and I was thinking, 'Fuck, is this picture going to come out blurry or out of focus?' Because I couldn't see nothing. I had to hold my camera phone flash just to see where he was to take the picture. But it came out sick."
Imran and Soulz take a similarly relaxed approach when it comes to their clothing brand.
"Our hoodies started out as business cards," says Imran. "We made them with this reflective print so that, when we were at venues, our logo would light up in photos. We started putting out pictures of us and our friends wearing them, and found that people wanted to buy them. So we put 15 up on our site and they sold out, then we used that money to make more products."
The brand's popularity skyrocketed after Imran met Wiz Khalifa outside a radio station and gave him a hoodie that Wiz wore throughout an entire press run of interviews and appearances.
For Imran and Soulz, designing clothes means following where their mind wanders and creating as and when they want to. "Often ideas come from movies, quotes or when we're in new places. In Tokyo, we went to this club and one of the signs said 'No photos, no drugs, no filming,' and 'cause we're photographers who film – aside from the drugs... I can only speak for myself," laughs Imran. "We used that as a reference for a T-shirt."
The creative process is clearly working: walk the queue of any rap show and you'll spot Places + Faces hoodies, shoulder bags and T-shirts. Get inside and you'll probably see the same onstage. Recently, after A$AP Rocky introduced Imran to Guess Jeans' Nicolai Marciano, Places + Faces collaborated with the brand on a collection, lighting up their iconic striped jerseys with a P+F logo.
From Baywatch star Alexandra Daddario and Maze Runner's Will Poulter, to James Wan, the director of the Saw movies, Imran and Soulz are now starting to notice people outside hip-hop culture wearing their designs. Given that some streetwear brands can be quite purist about who's allowed to wear their clothes, I ask whether they mind that the brand is moving beyond its core fanbase.
"Not really," says Imran, pulling Kodak onto his lap. "We never said, 'This is a hip-hop brand,' or, 'This is a skater brand.' It's more of a lifestyle."
Soulz isn't yet used to the newfound attention the success of their brand has attracted. He tells me about a recent trip to Manchester where a paparazzi starting taking pictures of them as they walked out of the train station. "I tried to introduce myself like a normal person, you know – 'Hey, how are you doing? What's your name?' – but he was just holding down the shutter speed so he was getting a picture every second, and I thought, 'Yo, this is weird.'"
While still interested in clothing, the duo are looking to concentrate more on lifestyle products. "We would love to do random shit, like shower curtains," says Imran. "I feel like there are enough clothes in the world already. I want to make a bookshelf or something."
The brand has already made movements in this area, having released a range of sunglasses with Gentle Monster, a collection of incense sticks and lint rollers, and headphones with AIAIAI. "Everyone wants a package now," Imran explains. "You can have nice clothing, but what are you going to wear the clothing with? If you sit on your Gucci couch, in a Gucci gown, with your Gucci slippers, it's going to look nice."
Places + Faces isn't the only brand to have identified this trajectory. In April, Off White's Virgil Abloh designed a range of rugs for Ikea, from a Turkish-style print with the words "KEEP OFF" inscribed over the middle, to another that looked like a shopping receipt. Last year, Kanye West announced he was working on pre-fab concrete homes for an affordable Yeezy housing scheme. Then there's Supreme's range of ephemera, which includes everything from a pinball machine to the infamous $30 (£25) brick, now reselling for up to $1,000 (£825).
"Travis Scott just released a Reese's Pieces cereal," says Soulz. "I like that – maybe we could do a collab with Kellogg's."
From Tumblr kids to collabs with huge fashion houses, the two friends are following a relatively untrodden path. I ask whether their families understand their work.
"My parents are African, so they're not really up to date with social media and all of that," says Soulz. "They used to want me to be a lawyer or a doctor, but growing up in London you're exposed to so much... I was into art and photography, so I pursued that."
For Imran, things were slightly different: "My mum works for the UN, so she was always travelling, and my dad would travel too, so they understood that aspect of my work. What they didn't get was how I was making any money." Imran says the turning point came when he flew his mum out to Tokyo to see one of their pop-ups: "She saw all these kids lining up for our clothes, and people were trying to get pictures with her because she was my mum. That's when she started to trust me."
From the outside, it would seem that Imran and Soulz were entrenched members of the streetwear illuminati – but it both still live at home, and it wasn't long ago that Soulz worked at Tesco. He only quit when he saw his colleagues queueing up outside the Places + Faces pop-up at Selfridges.
"Half of the people that work at my place were there, and after they saw me they kept asking questions like, 'Yo, when are you going to drop that T-shirt,' and I was like, 'I'm trying to work.'" Eventually, stacking cans of chopped tomatoes started to feel a bit weird after spending a weekend hanging out with A$AP Mob in Paris.
Clearly, things are on the up – what remains to be seen is what comes next. Who knows: perhaps a collab with Chi Modu?
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.