By Michelle Woo
Photographs by Eric Sueyoshi
Bobby Kim is cool.
He knows it. Those in his industry know it. The herds of guys standing around at his L.A. block party on this sweltering Labor Day afternoon — they know it, too.
He’s not a musician, actor, model or anyone whose face you’d see splashed across billboards or in the pages of People magazine. He’s just a 27-year-old guy who found a way to turn a bunch of hobbies into a career.
We’d like to call this a story about fashion, simply because it would make things easier, but Bobby might protest. Fans of his streetwear brand The Hundreds, or “the kids” as Bobby refers to them, know it’s about more than that.
So instead, this is a story about a lifestyle project. One early disclaimer: If you love buying sweaters in bulk at the Gap, The Hundreds probably isn’t for you. Chances are you just won’t get it.
But those who do understand it, and, in many cases, live for it, have come out in droves to spend their summer holiday hanging out in front of The Hundreds retail store on the corner of Fairfax and Rosewood. Armed with handheld fans and water bottles, boys in slim-fitting jeans and girls in oversized sunglasses make attempts to mingle over the blaring deejay set.
Bobby, donning a black cap embroidered with the words “The Hundreds Is HUGE, Inc.” is bombarded with handshakes, hugs and compliments. “Are you Bobby Hundreds?” one kid asks. “Man, I just want to say I love what you’re doing.”
To trend-watching industry folks, being cool comes down to a formula. They’re zeroing in on this fast-rising company, which, evidently, has gotten it right. Co-founded by Bobby and his friend Ben Shenassafar four years ago, The Hundreds refers to the streetwear brand and an online magazine, both of which are inspired by the young duo’s roots within the Southern California skateboarding, punk and hip-hop subcultures. The clothes are chased down relentlessly by in-the-know buyers and are now carried in more than 160 stores across the globe. The corresponding online magazine, TheHundreds.com, anchored by Bobby’s daily blog posts on what’s new and fresh in the streetwear scene, attracts a whopping 12,000 to 13,000 unique visitors a day.
“The Hundreds has taken off faster than any other brand I’ve ever seen,” says Aaron Levant, director of Agenda, a San Diego streetwear trade show that brings together star companies such as Crooks & Castles, King Stampede, 10Deep, Obey, and, of course, The Hundreds. “Bobby’s blog catapulted the speed of the brand immensely. It’s required reading for anyone in the industry.”
What exactly is streetwear? While those in the scene — known in the industry as “streetwear heads” — might drop an ambiguous response like, “It can’t be defined,” the clothing genre began as a rebellion against mainstream commercialism. Those who didn’t want their sense of style to be decided by some rich designers with European accents — or even worse, by Urban Outfitters, which Bobby calls “the Starbucks of contemporary fashion” — decided to create their own gear. Many of these upstarts began with T-shirts bearing parodies of familiar logos: Kraft became “Krap,” Tide became “Jive,” Snickers became “Slackers.”
Today, the streetwear genre encompasses a much broader style vocabulary, which includes ’80s pop colors juxtaposed against standard black or white, cartoon-y illustrations and political symbolism. The Hundreds most recent collection features tees with phrases like “The strong take from the weak, but the smart take from the strong,” “Old Scool” and “The Porch Life.” They’ve also got hats embroidered with the company’s atom bomb logo, print hoodies, plaid button-downs and jeans.
The scene is still pretty much a boys-only club, but streetwear heads are diverse in race and interests. “Before, you were either the Sean John kid or a DC Shoes kid,” says Bobby, who has a calm, laid-back demeanor. “Streetwear totally eliminated those categories. You can be a black kid, a white kid, you can skate, you can surf, you can listen to punk music.”
As long as you know the style.
Sitting at an outdoor table at Schwartz Bakery on Fairfax Avenue, interrupted at various moments by the sounds of ambulances and police sirens, Bobby tells his rags to way cooler rags story. He was born and raised in Riverside, Calif., a manure-scented suburban city 55 miles east of L.A. The middle child of three, he grew up with modest means. When his immigrant parents couldn’t afford to buy him new clothes, he rummaged through neighborhood swap meets for socially acceptable attire: white tees, Dickies’ shorts and Converse sneakers. “That was L.A. style for the guy who doesn’t care about style,” he explains.
Bobby classifies himself as a child of the early ‘90s. While his teachers lectured on European history and algebra formulas, he’d combat his boredom by doodling cartoons and graffiti-style letters along the borders of his notebook paper. When he got home from school, he’d flip through books of Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes comic strips, tape up skateboarding posters in his bedroom or rock out to tunes on his Sony Walkman. His friends were mostly white, black and Latino.
“I was listening to hip-hop in one ear and heavy metal and punk in the other,” he says, figuratively. “I grew up with all of it.”
Bobby says he had a rebellious side. At home, he’d push aside his homework to create sketches of T-shirt prints and logos. In comparison to his younger and older brother, who eventually became an aspiring lawyer and a pastor, respectively, Bobby was more of a dabbler, never wanting to lock himself onto any given path. “I’m not the biggest fan of authority, rules or anything organized,” he says. “I can tell stories for days about all the hell I put my poor parents through.”
Still, he made good grades and attended the University of California, San Diego, where he majored in media and communications and triple-minored in psychology, theater and computing arts. During college, having always loved to write and take pictures, he started his own alternative zines and snagged an editing gig at Transworld’s Stance, a San Diego-based lifestyle magazine for male teens. In the meantime, he maintained a Web site called BobbyKim.com, where he posted his illustrations, tinkered with graphic design and blogged about street culture.
After graduating, Bobby moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in writing and photography. He got by on a handful of freelance jobs for small magazines, but after 9/11, the opportunities seemed to dry up. With his bank account draining and his future a blur, he figured it was time for a change. He decided to apply to law school.
“My parents were ecstatic I was finally doing something with my life,” he says. “I was just looking for a normal job to pay the bills. I thought I could work during the day and all that other stuff — writing, art and photography — would just be for fun.”
Fast forward many months later when Bobby found himself churning out endless legal notes as a first-year student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He was fed up. “Law school strips you of all your creativity,” he says definitively. “I knew this wasn’t for me.”
Bobby shared his miseries with his classmate Ben, who also cringed at the thought of donning a tie every day and slaving for The Man. Ben’s real passion was for art, music and design. A moment of revelation came one night when the two were studying in the library.
“We were bored out of our skulls,” Bobby recalls. “We started thinking of ideas for how we can make money by doing something that’s fun. We just wanted to do something, anything, to ease the pain. I wanted to start a cool project where I could use all that I have amassed in my two decades of life. I told him about BobbyKim.com.”
Ben loved the concept. “We were trying to come up with another way to live our lives and this was it,” he says.
That summer, with only $400 to invest, the two launched a T-shirt business and online magazine and called their venture a “lifestyle project.” Bobby did the bulk of the creative work, reading tutorials on computer illustration and doing most of the writing, while Ben stationed himself on the business side.
They named the project The Hundreds. “Saying that something is happening by the hundreds connotes a great deal of force,” Bobby explains. “There’s energy and strength in numbers. Although, the less sexy answer is that I was playing around with the typography and the letters looked cool.” They took on the aliases Bobby Hundreds and Ben Hundreds.
Bobby created designs and put them on T-shirts using a makeshift screenprinting press in the backyard shed of a friend’s house. “[The designs] were really horribly bad,” Bobby now admits. “One was like a big letter ‘H.’ Another was of a rapper holding a microphone.” But with pride in their work at the time, he and Ben hit the streets, hoping to chat up shopkeepers and convince them to pick up their collection.
One of their stops was the ubertrendy shop Fred Segal, known for stocking everything that’s cool. They sat down with a guy who just happened to be one of the store’s buyers and presented him with black-and white copies of their catalogue. They explained to him the brand and the story behind it. They talked about street culture and how they wanted to influence it. The guy looked at their stuff, told them he liked what he heard and placed an order. The shirts flew out the doors.
Bobby and Ben both decided to finish law school, taking classes that could be pertinent to the business like negotiation and copyright law, while working on The Hundreds during the summers.
To build capital for the brand, they also started a lower-end streetwear line called Playing For Keeps, which is carried in more mainstream urban fashion retailers such as Against All Odds and Journey. Bobby says it’s a different type of brand for a different type of clientele.
As for The Hundreds, the designs got better and the fan base grew.
“We just ended up taking off,” Bobby says.
Bobby wants to get one thing straight.
“No malls,” he declares. “No Nordstrom. No Macy’s. Every month they ask us and we say no. We’re going to try to do that for as long as we can. The essence of streetwear is that you don’t want to look like everyone else. We’re keeping it exclusive.”
Like some streetwear brands that have come before them and many that have followed, The Hundreds relies on a specific business formula that incorporates high-end pricing, limited distribution and the catering to an “underground” audience.
Bobby says he refuses to take the same route as Von Dutch, an independent streetwear company that blasted into the mainstream with its signature-stamped truckers’ hat. What started as an anti-status symbol was soon sighted on Paris Hilton, Justin Timberlake, Ashton Kutcher and every other Hollywood type in town. “You would find six stores selling them on the same street,” Bobby says. “They were even in airport souvenir shops. They made hundreds of millions of dollars and, yeah, good for them. But no one cares about them anymore.”
Instead, he aims to mimic the strategy of Shawn Stüssy, a Laguna Beach, Calif., surfboard shaper who, in the 1980s, created a T-shirt brand that was embraced not only by surfers, but by skaters, hip-hop artists and DJs. He utilized the same business model as luxury accessory brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, but brought it down to the streetwear level. Fans didn’t mind sifting through the racks at specialty shops and paying extra cash for limited-edition pieces. For them, the duds were more than T-shirts. They represented the California lifestyle. While the brand eventually reached the mainstream, it didn’t lose underground appeal.
For Bobby, it’s all about a careful balance of attracting loyal fans, while keeping a cap on the brand’s growth. He says his gear has been sighted on numerous celebs, from DJ AM to Jamie Foxx, but he doesn’t like to publicize that. “The kids don’t want to know that Ludacris is wearing a Hundreds hat in his music video. It dilutes the brand. They think, ‘Oh, it’s becoming too big. I need to go find something more obscure.’ These are the kids who need to get their clothes at some random hole in the wall shop where the guy at the counter is always a jerk. When people ask them, ‘Hey, where did you get that?’ they want to say, ‘Oh, you don’t know? Well, you can’t get one. Good luck on eBay.’
“Our goal is longevity,” he adds. “It’s not about blowing out and into the ground. You need to keep them hungry. You need to keep them coming back for more. We put some hats for sale online and they sold out in three minutes. People said, ‘Next time, you need to make more.’ I said, ‘No. Next time, I need to make less.’”
Mid-conversation, Bobby is stopped by a kid walking down the sidewalk wearing a cap and white tee. “Bobby Hundreds?” he says. “Sorry to bother you, but I’m a huge fan. Could I get your autograph?”
The kid’s name is Jonathan Campos. He’s 18 and goes to Santa Clarita College. He says he’s been following the brand for about a year.
“I just thought it was really cool and original,” Campos says. “No one else has this stuff. It’s really underground. It’s not too well known.”
On a sheet of spiral notebook paper, Bobby sketches a picture of a bomb and signs it “Bobby Hundreds.”
“Here ya go, man,” he says.
“Thanks,” Campos replies. With his fist in the air, he adds, “I’m gonna keep supporting The Hundreds!”
Still, not everyone shares the excitement. Sergio Ornelas, a writer for the Oakland-based alternative newsweekly East Bay Express, mouthed-off about the whole streetwear movement in a column titled “I Hate Rap Fashion”: “What annoys me is how this sh-t wants to put up some front of being down with the ‘streets.’ It’s not even on a ‘hood level — it’s just straight-up ‘Hey, rich kids! Let’s earn Cool Kid Points with overpriced limited-edition footwear!’”
By industry standards, The Hundreds gear is moderately priced: about $30 for T-shirts, $26 for the basic hats, $118 for hoodies and $129 for jeans. But even Bobby admits he’s often surprised when 16-year-olds come into the store and drop hundreds of dollars like it’s nothing.
“My mom would’ve jump-kicked me in the face if I asked her to buy me $200 jeans,” he says. “Personally, I still can’t justify buying any piece of clothing that’s more than $100, unless it’s for snowboarding. And even then, it better be lined with Gore-tex and Swarovski crystals.”
But the kids are committed to the brand in other ways, too. “Some have gotten tattoos of our logo, which is a little crazy, I think. But you don’t see that happening with some Macy’s brand.”
After finishing up at the coffee shop, Bobby offers the reporter and photographer a quick tour of The Hundreds empire. Leading the way, he walks past a shop selling all kinds of streetwear gear, such as artistically-altered sports team caps and neon-accented athletic shoes. “What up, Bobby?” one employee calls out. Bobby turns to him to share a friendly fist pound.
Bobby says that in the two years that the company has been based in the Fairfax District, the area has evolved from an epicenter for small, Jewish-owned businesses to a concentrated streetwear hub. Along the strip are high-end skate shops Supreme, SLB and Diamond Supply Co., Deadline, known for its conceptual tees, and Reserve, the flagship boutique for streetwear mega-company Freshjive. Bobby has lauded these stores and others on the Web site.
Ricky Li, 31, a manager at consignment-based sneaker store Fight Club Los Angeles, says Bobby strolls down the street pretty often, visiting fellow shopkeepers and checking out what’s new.
“He’s a standup guy,” Li says. “He’s doing a lot for the Fairfax community. Everyone around here likes him.”
Bobby makes a left turn at The Hundreds store, a narrow establishment with an all-black exterior, and walks into an alley.
“That’s Bob,” Bobby says, pointing to a homeless man sitting on the street and plucking at a banjo. “Bob guards the alley.”
He walks through the door into the first-floor showroom, where “Intern Matt” is organizing the latest shipments of merchandise. Stacked underneath folding tables are cases of Red Bull and beer left over from the block party.
Upstairs, young men sit at computers, creating designs for the next collection. When they spot Bobby heading their way, they chuckle about his latest antic — squirting ketchup on a photograph of a naked model taped on the wall near one guy’s desk.
“Do any girls work here?” the reporter asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Girls and The Hundreds don’t work well together,” Bobby says.
The Hundreds staff of around 17 is diverse: white, black, Asian and Latino. Bobby says that many in the streetwear scene assume that he’s white, since he doesn’t disclose his last name on his blog or post many pictures of himself. “When they see me, they’re like ‘Oh my God, you’re Asian,’” he says.
Bobby believes his parents accept his career path, despite some early fears. “I think they’re happy for me, although they’d never tell me that,” he says. “They always knew I was into art and cartoons, and I ended up doing what I was passionate about.” Today, he lives with his wife, Misa, in L.A.
Ben calls Bobby over to a table. The latest shipment of hat samples just came in.
“Nice, nice,” Bobby says, plowing through the box. “Didn’t these colors come out great?”
The Hundreds recently launched a small women’s collection called Tens and will be opening its second retail store in San Francisco this fall. From there, Bobby believes the sky is the limit.
“I call us the Lost Boys,” he says of his team. “We’re fighting the pirates, the authorities, the corporate blood suckers. I do this out of love for the culture. This is what I live and die for. This is my everything.”
Bobby Kim is a businessman, an innovator, a poster child for an underground scene that’s emerging by the moment. He turned what he loves into what he does.
Now that’s cool.
Here are three more KAs adding flavor to the L.A. streetwear circle.
Methamphibian – Peter Kim
In the mind of Peter Kim, sneakers can do more than get you from Point A to Point B. They can be an artistic expression.
The graphic designer, known in the urban fashion scene as Methamphibian, fuses the classic designs of brands like Nike and Converse with splashes of bright paint, fabric appliqués and black-and-white sketches. The urban-style kicks are revered by streetwear heads, with limited-edition pairs selling for as much as $1,250 on eBay.
“We believe that clothes do not make a person who he or she is,” Kim writes on his Web site, www.methamphibian.com. “It is the individual that defines the clothing.”
Foreign Family – Richard “Chad” Moon
Never able to find T-shirts that looked and fit right, Chad Moon got fed up one day and decided to create his own. In 2003, the struggling K-town artist and a few of his buddies launched a brand called Foreign Family. All of the designs are hand-drawn and each has a strong meaning behind it.
“Our company is named Foreign Family because we are all foreign in what we do, who we are and what we are all about,” says Moon, 25, who now runs the company with his partner, MR44. “The family part comes from my wanting to build the company with friends and bringing everyone together as a family through designs and concepts.”
Fakesickness – Kyubum “KB” Lee
When Kanye West needed someone to design logos for his T-shirts and promotional album covers, he turned to KB Lee. (Lee and Kanye’s then-fiance went to high school together).
That’s how the Korea-born graphic designer got his start. Today, Bobby Kim calls Lee the “secret weapon” for all the coolest brands in the industry. In 2003, he started a company called Fakesickness, which does freelance design work for a variety of streetwear clients such as Stüssy, X-Large, Motive and The Hundreds.
“I’m not just trying to solve my clients’ problems,” says Lee, 25. “I want everything I do to fit with their vision. Some people want dope new stuff that no one has ever done before. I can do that for them.”