ORIGINALITY IS THE MARK OF ANY ARTIST, with the word creare (Latin for “create”) linked to the divine process. Our entire creative community subscribes to this, fashion designers included. In this spirit, the worst thing is to be labelled as a copycat. Twenty-eight year-old designer Mike Cherman is the anomaly. His streetwear label, Chinatown Market, has made a name as a counter-intuitive offering: Bootleg-inspired merchandise.
Basketball pro LeBron James famously sported a pair of Cherman’s signature sneakers — Converse Chuck Taylors embellished with a Nike Swoosh on one shoe, and a smiley face on the other.
Another of Cherman’s indorsements is created with an industrial printing gun. With the trusty device, Cherman transforms your sneaker into a “Prada“, or customises a Rimowa suitcase with your name. Just leave it in his hands.
The brand Chinatown Market name and designs themselves draw reference from New York’s mecca of fakes, Canal Street. In 2016, the brand debuted t-shirts with classic Canal Street bootleg slogans.
“While it might be scary, and we sometimes might have issues, many of these corporate brands want this energy,” notes Cherman. “It’s an energy that is unafraid to try new things.”
“It’s a different perspective and not everyone is going to understand it. I don’t expect everyone to understand it”
Keyyes caught up with Cherman in Singapore at a promotional event by Seek, the multi-label streetwear store. The defiant, daredevil designer speaks on breaking the law, and breaking the creative code to inspire the next generation of creatives.
What’s the story behind your brand’s name, Chinatown Market?
I’m not trying to take from Chinese culture. I’m not here to put up red lanterns and disrespect culture.I had a friend come to my office and start making different T-shirt designs based off classic Canal Street bootleg slogans such as I love New York, Fuck You Fuckin Fuck. We set up a booth in ComplexCon, and sold out. Literally within 24 hours, the brand was born.
Why does bootleg culture feature so heavily in your apparel?
For me, the whole idea of creating bootleg is about creating excitement to give you something that you can’t have, to inspire you, yourself, to go D-I-Y. We made 1,000 Converse (and overhauled to look like) Nikes to give out. Now look at the Internet, there are tonnes of kids who make their own “Converse” and “Nike” shoes. That’s the stuff we want to inspire. Let kids know that they can have their own ideas, and realise them on their own.
What’s to stop others from making copies of Chinatown Market designs?
Nothing, and I encourage it. If you want to go bootleg Chinatown Market, go do it. It’s happening right now, there’s a store in Shanghai that sells our fake basketballs, sells our fake shoes. There’s stuff on Taobao, Alibaba. It’s not a big deal to me. We are going to introduce a new product tomorrow. I’m not sitting here trying to sell the same shirt for the next one, two years. I will introduce an idea so rapidly that you are not able to keep up.
When Chinatown Market first launched in 2016, it received a legal notice but you remained unfazed. What was your thought process?
I like to say that we ask for forgiveness, we don’t ask for permission. In showing these companies what we can do, instead of asking them for permission, we actually ended up making partnerships.
The best example is the Smiley Face. The UK-based Smiley Company owns the global licence for the smiley face design. But we went ahead and printed it on merchandise and sold it to Urban Outfitters America. We got a Cease and Desist Order about two weeks into launching the brand. We were brand new.
I made a decision is to license from the brand, instead of trying to fight them. We came together and made a real, good partnership. The smiley face has since become one of the most iconic images for our brand.
How do you inspire the next generation of creatives?
We have a crew in my office of all different ethnicities, coming from different types of backgrounds. They came from regular, retail jobs, Or they worked at a taco shop. I call them the ‘Lost Boys of Streetwear’. I give these kids a platform where they can try, learn and fail. Many kids these days are afraid to put themselves out there. I think every kid needs to have that opportunity to at least try, fail and understand that it’s okay.
In school, you were nicknamed ‘Mikey Merchandise’. Tell us more.
When I first moved from New York to California, I had no friends. I had a computer, some heat transfer paper for T-shirts. I liked making products.
I made shirts printed with a friend’s image. There was a whole fight over the school for them. They sold out. It became a hysteria. I ended up getting suspended from school, as it was considered to be selling and distributing on campus. I was the drug dealer of T-shirts at high school.
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