Bobby Kim, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of The Hundreds, is not the highest paid employee at the company he co-founded in 2003.
“Sometimes (partner) Ben and I don’t even pay ourselves,” he says. “It’s an approach to “doing business,” that puts the brand and its core values first. Mind over money, but not over matter.
“I like making work that I’m proud of,” he tells us from the red leather chair inside The Hundreds office in Vernon, CA. The shelves are full of trinkets and glittering The Hundreds signs. The mood board is covered in magazine clippings and tear outs ranging from photos of Angelina Jolie and Liv Tyler, to drawings from his kids, postcards of the ocean and surfers waiting on waves, and a MOMA VIP ticket. Bobby dressed in a black “Flag” The Hundreds t-shirt (check out the Wildfire video he just released featuring the shirt) and old black The Hundreds tennis shoes is unfussy AF. As noted by multiple publications, Bobby doesn’t put much stock in “things,” wearing items until they fall apart. “Money,” he tells us later in the conversation, “just gives people more reasons to be unhappy. When I’m out on my board,” he says, referring to his surfing habit, “those fish, they don’t care… everything else is ancillary.”
At this moment in our conversation we’re talking about work. “I think,” he says, referring to creating work he’s proud of, “that’s the most important issue I’ve tried to drill into my staff this year.”
Currently that staff consists mainly of men with few women company-wide. Of approximately 60 Hundreds’ employees, about ten are female. Bobby acknowledges, “definitely not enough,” but not many women apply because streetwear is not the most open community. “A lot of women feel like they’re not welcome in streetwear,” he says.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman and I can’t speak for women, but it’s hard enough for a dude on Fairfax,” he says of the infamous LA strip highly concentrated with streetwear brands. “Dudes get sweated. So for a woman? First of all, in most of those dude’s heads it’s ‘what’s a girl even doing here?’ ”
He mentions the company’s yearly summer open call for interns. “Hundreds of people showed up, the line was down the parking lot,” he says. “And the ratio was about the same. Out of a hundred people, probably ten were women.”
When The Hundreds launched there were (and still are) formidable women in the game: Leah McSweeney, founder and CEO of Married to the MOB, Lanie Alabanza-Barcena, founder and Creative Director of Hellz Bellz, Lauren Marie and Ashley Jones, co-founders of Dime Piece, and Melody Ehsani, founder of Melody Ehsani. “I assumed that in their wake there would be another wave of women streetwear designers,” he says, “but there wasn’t.”
In the early 2000s, the wholesale market for female streetwear wasn’t sustainable and many retailers didn’t know how to position the product. Now with the decline of retail, he explains, the wholesale model is being rethought. “As more brands start to decide on a direct-to-consumer approach,” Bobby says, “you don’t need to play by the rules. You can be a women’s streetwear brand and you can make it work now.”
The market isn’t the only issue. Feminism, female empowerment, and streetwear aren’t seen as roads that lead into each other. “I don’t think we’re generally warm to women,” he agrees. “It’s a boys club, and when boys get together their psychology and perspective on what they think is equal is so skewed. It’s crazy some of the conversations I’ve had with my own staff and within the industry.” And yet it’s a conversation he is committed to having.
Moreover Bobby is not one for playing by the rules.
When Ben and Bobby started, it was imperative to have a blog element as a means of discourse. Listening and sharing is a through-line of Bobby’s professional and personal trajectory.
Let’s rewind about 20 years.
Before The Hundreds Bobby was a writer and an activist. “I was freelancing a lot, I was the editor at a magazine and when Blogspot launched in 1999, I had a blog and quickly realized the power of the Internet.” As a teenager in the punk community, he photographed police brutality at shows. He protested at Black Panther rallies, Food Not Bomb rallies, and was a member of the National Lawyers Guild, having focussed on human rights issues during law school.
So when he launched The Hundreds he wanted, “people to understand who I was as human.”
“I love making money and running a business, supporting my family and friends,” he says, “but I’ve always wanted to figure out how to engage. Open up communication and draw people together. I’m a sharer. I want people to talk.”
He explains however, that back then streetwear and its community had a complete opposite approach. “If you had a secret, you shut up. You didn’t put it on blast.”
“Streetwear is structured on rules,” he comments, then making clear, “I don’t believe in boundaries. So when Ben and I entered the fray, we never played by the rules.” His approach to both business and politics has made him “a lot of friends,” he says, “but even more enemies.” He doesn’t mind.
“Because I came in and impacted the game in a way that I thought was beneficial…a lot of people took and take issue with that.” He remains focussed on doing “whatever I can to get the right information out to my audience.” That audience is the fan base and traffic drawn to The Hundreds blog as well as the clothing line. On Instagram the brand reach is about 350k people. Bobby’s own IG clocks in at a little over 160k. The Hundreds also recently started a highly produced Facebook Live “talk show,” shot from inside Bobby’s office.
“There’s a real education issue and a real compassion issue,” he says. So what can he do as a father, a businessman, and a community leader, we ask, specifically in regards to gender issues.
“What can I do? With my children, I can have really deep, meaningful conversations about being conscious and empathetic to other people.” He has two sons, turning four and seven, with whom he is committed to engaging in conversation. “When my sons ask me why I’m wearing pink because pink is for girls, that warrants a longer conversation.”
“We have an entire generation of boys right now whose favorite film is Frozen. Their favorite characters are Elsa and Anna. Those are their superheroes. Is it weird that my kids are into watching Frozen or they think princesses are cool? No. Why is that weird at all? They’re also going to grow up in a world where we will have a woman president.”
He’s emphatic about this. “My boys are going to grow up with a woman in charge of this country and they have never known a white president. That’s powerful and also incredibly normal for them.”
But what about the front-lines of streetwear? “With streetwear what can I do?” he asks. “With streetwear I have a platform that’s not just t-shirts. It’s content and it’s my presence as a personality and a voice in this world. Not a lot of people in streetwear and fashion are speaking out about a lot of injustices.”
“I think the odds are against me because I work and exist in a primarily male-dominated space that’s not really open to listening to women right now, but that’s a huge opportunity. Let’s champion women and level the playing field, but that means men have to be a part of the conversation.”
It’s an opportunity he’s seizing– not, we should note, for profit, but because the constant through-line of his career is again, opening the convo, getting people to talk.
“I’m starting a separate side project that’s going to be launching this fall/winter,” he reveals. “I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that girls and women are open and accepting of the idea of wearing men’s clothes. But why isn’t it OK for men to do the same with women’s clothes?”
“You’re starting to see a little of it,” he says, “but there’s a lot of resistance still.”
So he’s getting in front of it with “Jennifer,” the tentatively named brand, entirely separate from The Hundreds, that’s primed to change the game.
“It’s going to be a very subtle transition,” he explains. “I want to create the first brand that is for, targeted, and designed for women, but men will want it and wear it, and it won’t be weird. I want to break down the walls of ‘that’s for men,’ and ‘that’s for women.’”
In regards to his fall launch, he hopes there isn’t backlash, but won’t be surprised. “I think people might say it’s a marketing gimmick– that’ll probably be the convo first and foremost.”
“‘Ohhh, Bobby supports women now? When he used to put naked girls on t-shirts and still kind of does…’” We chat about one specific shirt The Hundreds released in 2011, with a woman’s body divided into sections a la vintage Mexican posters from butcher shops. It received a fair amount of hate— understandably. Woman-as-meat, not the most progressive message, though Bobby says the point was that we shouldn’t treat women as such. “I would never make that shirt again,” he admits. “Luckily, I’m surrounded by some very generous, patient women who take the time to explain little things to me. But that’s part of the problem, there’s not enough awareness in our space.”
His is an axiomatic approach to learning. “I want to be engaged in life,” he says. “I always say that life isn’t short but the chapters are and I really read every paragraph.”
The world of streetwear has to be willing to engage in that convo, and not use feminism or other such messaging as a marketing tool. “I don’t have anything to gain from the other brand, I make my money, I’m good. I’m not balling out of control. I don’t have a yacht. But when it comes to any type of injustice, I want to flatten it out because it doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re a logical person, you shouldn’t be able to live in a world that’s illogical.”
He believes artists and designers are looking at the world thinking, ‘It’s not pretty enough, I know how to make it better.” That’s the way he approaches injustice of any kind, from police brutality to racism, ageism, gender issues, and beyond.
At this juncture he says he doesn’t know enough to be able to claim “feminist.”
“That term is so nuanced now. I don’t know enough. I’m here to learn. That’s the way to grow and progress, be willing to learn and listen.”
“I learn so much from women, and I wish more men would listen, but they won’t because they think certain content ‘is for girls.’”
As to whether or not the community is ready for “Jennifer,” he’s split. Despite the boys club of it all, he says, “I think a guy who is drawn to streetwear is actually pretty advanced; there is a sense of snobbery sure, it’s a very high-fashion approach to casual, basic attire. But it also draws in the kind of person who wants to be better, know more, and wants to be ahead of what everyone else is doing.”
“What could be more advanced and more ahead than supporting human rights issues and women’s issues or listening to the black community?” he asks. “If you don’t get on the female empowerment train, you’re going to lose. You’re not just going to lose in life, you’re going to lose in business.”
We bring up a novel we just read, “All New People,” where the father tells his daughter to always be herself because in one hundred years, it’s “all new people.” Bobby nods, agrees, and then switches it up. “I’d go so far to say, every day it’s all new people.”
“I can reinvent myself every single day. I can add something new to the conversation. I always say new conversations, new opinions. It frustrates my team because every quarter I come in and change my mind, but get with it. It’s 2016 and this is the way the world works. Every day is different.”
Arianna Schioldager is editorial director at Create & Cultivate. She never gets to profile men.
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