Chris Gibbs Talks Opening UNION Tokyo, Authenticity, and Japan’s Retail Scene
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For a long time, UNION has been a cult hit on the Los Angeles menswear retail scene, mixing the high-low of designer fashion and streetwear. Chris Gibbs, the store founder, wears his passion for good clothes on his sleeve, which has been instrumental to securing his shop’s reputation as a place for fashion fans by fashion fans.
Gibbs was an early adopter of Japanese brands like Neighborhood and visvim, and so he’s been visiting Tokyo for about fifteen years before launching a UNION branch there. It’s a way for him to both acknowledge his love for Tokyo and Japanese design, and to also put his own stamp on a city that certainly does not lack for shopping options.
Clearly, Tokyo loves Gibbs back. The day UNION opened in upper Harajuku last week, the mob that showed up outside the store caused the police to arrive, a rare occasion for the orderly Tokyo. Two days later, it was a sunny morning and Gibbs is walking through the shiny new store before it opened. He points out every detail with a fatherly pride, from the terrazzo floors to the McIntosh sound system.
On the racks, brands like Neighborhood and OAMC sit next to Marni and J.W. Anderson. Clearly the shop is a labor of love, and despite his anxiety about entering a crowded Tokyo market—compounded with the difficulty of staying authentic in an inauthentic world—he remains optimistic. Gibbs’s enthusiasm is infectious, his love of streetwear and fashion design remains as fervent as ever; he is a true design geek in the best sense of the word. Here’s why he’s excited to finally set up shop in Tokyo.
Eugene Rabkin: What’s the concept for UNION Tokyo?
Chris Gibbs: I’ve been coming to Tokyo for a long time, and I really love the area we put our store in. It’s away from the lower Harajuku, but it’s close enough. There are other cool shops around here, and it’s a bit quieter.
This store has been two years in the making. We worked with Case Real, a local architecture firm that I love, and hopefully we are coming with some new sensibilities for Tokyo, especially that mix of high-low we are known for. In Japan they tend to do one thing really well, and we are trying to mix several things together.
We brought in McIntosh amps and we found vintage Altec Lansing speakers, to make an all American-made sound system. I hit up my friend, the filmmaker and artist Kahlil Joseph, who did a fake 40-minute newsreel for us that we keep on loop on two TV screens. My wife and I are both black and it’s a black-owned store, and we wanted to represent that, but we wanted to represent that in our own way, without stereotyping. The reel is called Black News, and it’s like an unconscious stream of black culture. Kahlil calls it the SportsCenter for black culture. It’s a live feed from his studio, which they can edit at any time, so it will keep changing.
Another thing I wanted to change is that Tokyo is very transactional about shopping. And our store has always been a hang out; we’ve built a community around it. So, here we’ve made a couple of places, like a little lounge area, where people can just chill, without necessarily having to buy anything. Going back to our African-American theme, we had this midcentury furniture reupholstered with African cloth, which has a splash of color. And we have two photos from the African-American artist Arthur Jafa, another friend of mine. We are truly lucky these great artists agreed to work with us, because we simply could not afford their work.
ER: What are those things?
CG: The walnut paneling and the terrazzo floor were custom-made for us. We are obsessed with these details that may not mean much to a customer, but they do to us. The wallpaper on the back wall was done by another African-American artist, Sheila Bridges. I liked that it depicts African-Americans in this baroque setting but also in their own element. It’s kind of fun, and I did not want to go too heavily political in the shop, because to me at the end of the day fashion is first and foremost about expression.
And the last element is of course the gear. At the risk of sounding cliché, we are the archetype for mixing the high and the low, and we wanted to keep that going. Tokyo in particular is not a place where that has caught on quickly, so we are trying to bring that here, even though our product mix includes a lot of Japanese brands. You’d think that in Tokyo they know their fashion, but they’ve never really understood the mixing. But, I think the time is right – globally, universally this trend has been accepted, and now that means the Japanese can accept it as well.
Japanese streetwear has been the catalyst for us becoming who we are today, because they brought the same sensibilities, attention to detail, and quality that you normally see in high fashion but run through a filter of a hoodie, or a jean jacket. Quite frankly that was the bridge for us to mix streetwear and designer fashion. Back then it was Neighborhood, WTAPS, and BAPE—visvim didn’t even exist yet. And our customer got used to getting the level of quality they were previously unfamiliar with. I mean, someone actually cared about the fit in streetwear! And over time also the customer got used to the price point that came with that, which allowed us to bring designer fashion in.
ER: What’s your take on the current way kids dress?
CG: You know, back in the day when you wore certain things, they meant something. When I’d wear Supreme and I’d see another guy in Supreme, I’d think to myself, we probably have something to talk about. I think streetwear today as a whole is a different animal, and I make this comparison with religion. It’s like taking the soul out of religion, while keeping the rituals. When I got into streetwear, it wasn’t about the Nike logo, or my basketball team, or a band I liked – it was about, hey, this designer had this idea and I get it. It was about a message I wanted to wear; this is what I’m about. That’s the birth of streetwear, that’s what made it dope. Nowadays, the biggest selling point for brands are their logos. And I admit that we have a bit of that here, because we have to keep the store successful, so I am just as guilty as the next guy.
ER: Where is the meaning left, then? Kids don’t even hold on to the stuff they buy. They post it on Instagram, and then flip it.
CG: You know, if you asked me about this seven years ago, as a retailer I’d be really worried. They don’t have to buy the gear anymore to show off their knowledge. But we are finding a balance, and we’ve been pretty successful at it.
ER: Tell me a bit about the product mix here that lets you find that balance.
CG: It’s pretty similar to what we have in LA. There are a couple of brands we have not been able to bring over yet for territorial reasons, but we are working on it. We try to keep continuity—we go to Paris as a team, buyers from LA and from Tokyo. They may have a bit of a different perspective, but I let them do their thing. For me it’s more about the overarching creative direction.
One thing I’d like to happen here is that I want it to be an incubator for more young Japanese brands, because it’s actually quite hard to bring Japanese brands into the American market. For example, people will always want a hoodie, but why should they buy this hoodie over next one? Because of attention to detail, the high level of craftsmanship, which is hard to represent online. People have to come into the store to really see that. So, we here we want a new Japanese brand to come in, establish a relationship, see if it works, and then maybe bring it over to the States. One of these brands we are going to bring here is Kapital, which I am very proud of.
ER: Tokyo retail is so saturated. How do you aim to differentiate yourself?
CG: To be sure, we are worried about it. There is definitely no shortage of shopping in Tokyo, and the items you see here you can get elsewhere. But we are really proud of the relationships we’ve established with our customers. And this may sound like bullshit, but I firmly believe that one of the reasons they come to UNION—and I’ve learned this through many mistakes I’ve made as a buyer–when it’s honest and authentic, it just seems to organically touch someone. And when it’s inauthentic, they see that, too. They know when we are being real. Look, at the end of the day there is no shortage of dope shit everywhere, especially in Tokyo. Even in LA, three quarters of the brands we have you can get at Barneys. But people come to us because of the relationships we’ve built and because of the story we have woven through the store. We have a say and people are listening.
ER: It’s hard to remain a tastemaker today, when kids come into the store already knowing what they want. How do you approach keeping the store exciting?
CG: We stand behind what we sell—by wearing it ourselves, by showing people we love what we do. And the point of mixing it up is this—when you’re 18 and you’re wearing Supreme, you’re already on a certain trajectory. So at 22 you might move on to Neighborhood, in your thirties to visvim, and then on to Marni. And we have it all here. And let’s face it, those 18-year-olds are looking up to guys like you and me, because we’ve already been there, and they can relate. And conversely, some older guys coming in here want to feel connected to youth. So, we’ll have dudes who are hardcore visvim fans coming into the shop and they may want to pick up something by Bianca Chandon. And that connection is what UNION is about.
Now check out UNION Tokyo’s latest collaboration with KAWS.