Mike Cherman is Democratising Streetwear One DIY Release at a Time10 July 2019
Ahead of the PUMA x Chinatown Market drop, END. heads to NYC to shoot some hoops with Mike Cherman and talk collaboration, learning to fail, and why he's calling time on the streetwear boy's club.
It's late June and temperatures are rising across Manhattan. Steam shoots in thick clouds from the pavements, belying the hidden access points to the second city of subway tunnels beneath. The tarmac turns sticky as it begins to melt underfoot and the kaleidoscopic sprawl of skyscrapers and storefronts are bleached by the baking glare of the summer sun. It's a perfect day to play some basketball on one of the many streetball courts that litter the lower-east side. It's also a perfect day to explore the looming PUMA x Chinatown Market collaboration with founder and designer, Mike Cherman.
We arrange to meet Mike for breakfast at his favourite spot, Dimes on Canal Street. Having just flown in from running the Chinatown Market showroom in Paris, Mike is no stranger to the strange fog of jetlag, spending the majority of his time travelling from one place to another and then back to his current base in LA which houses the dream factory which brings his vision to life.
Mike lives and breathes his hustle, single-minded in his pursuit of a rare form of pure, unadulterated creativity that knows no bounds and bows to no bureaucracy. Inspired by the frenetic energy and visual tapestry of market life, Mike has become streetwear's DIY hero: forging a vibrant aesthetic that connects cultures and causes a stir. Lauded for his fearless approach to business and no-holes-barred design ethos, he has transformed Chinatown Market from fledgling streetwear brand into something perhaps better described as a movement. Streetwear's very own Willy Wonka, Mike possesses a tireless thirst for new ideas and fresh expressions, and has used this passion to build a tightly-knit team of like-minded streetwear enthusiasts around him; fostering a culture where creativity is king and nothing is impossible.
Over the course of a morning in Manhattan, we set out to put the upcoming PUMA x Chinatown Market collection through its paces; heading from breakfast to shoot some hoops on the Stanton Street courts and to learn more about the man behind one of streetwear's most exciting young outfits.
END.: You grew up between New York and California – east and west coast – how do you think that blend has influenced your design identity?
Mike Cherman: Initially I grew up out in the suburbs where I wasn’t really around a ton of different types of people. When I was young skateboarding wasn’t really a huge thing where I lived either. When I moved to San Diego for high school it was this huge culture shock. It was the first time I really saw people dressing for themselves and wearing something outwith the norm. Just going to California it made me want to see the world; to get out there and see how people dress and express themselves in different places. I think that realisation influenced me more than a blend of the two.
END.: I think of you almost like the Willy Wonka of streetwear with the way Chinatown Market is set up. You encourage complete creativity within the team and you guys handle everything in house. What does having that level of control over the design process mean to you?
Mike Cherman: It’s such a big thing. For me as a designer it’s about being able to have a thought and see it through. To actualise it in front of you. The biggest disadvantage as a graphic designer or as any kind of maker is sitting behind a computer and never seeing the real product. It’s so great that we can have this space to be creative, but are also able to touch it with our hands. I want all the kids in our office to have a platform to learn, to fail, to experiment and constantly get better. We’re always encouraging this mentality to try new things; to test the limits and to question what’s even possible with streetwear.
We’re always encouraging this mentality to try new things; to test the limits and to question what’s even possible with streetwear.
END.: You’re essentially self-taught – you attended Parsons for a year but decided to drop out – why did doing it your own way matter to you? What advice would you have to others who want to pursue a career in design but maybe don’t have the mindset or the resources to go to school?
Mike Cherman: I was sitting in classes where I knew more about the graphic design software than my teacher did. I was essentially teaching my teacher how to use the programme in a more progressive way. I don’t mean that I knew more than my teacher in terms of art history or anything like that, but I couldn’t stop questioning why I was paying money to be in an environment where I didn’t feel like I was truly learning and taking away more and more knowledge all the time. I always want to surround myself with people who are so much smarter than me so that I had no choice to get better and challenge myself. I think nowadays kids go to college so they can party or live their own life for a few years. I think I had more of a focus on the end goal than that. In terms of advice on how you do it? You've just got to get out there and do it. You can’t be afraid to fail and you can’t be afraid of what other people think of you. No one is going to believe in you until you believe in yourself. You have to fail otherwise how are you ever going to learn?
END.: You’ve been outspoken in the past about the pitfalls of the streetwear ‘Boy’s Club’ and how you don’t think there should be any tolerance for discrimination or exclusion within the community – why is that so important to you?
Mike Cherman: You know man, I remember growing up going to certain stores and feeling like an outsider; like I could never be part of this crew. Even as I’ve come up, I’ve seen resistance from people I respected. It’s not that I expected them just to welcome me to the table without any questions, but I figured that if I could be creative then I could be a part of this community. It was a steep learning curve realising that not everyone wants to let new people in, and I learned that I kind of had to build my own table. That was the biggest takeaway from the start of my career. But once I got started it kind of became clear to me that a lot of these big brands I grew up loving just want you to buy their stuff and that's that: there’s no deeper engagement with their audience. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to really connect with the people who bought into my brand and to inspire them. We have brands that we grew up surrounded by, the brands we all loved as kids. Those names are ingrained in us. But with new brands, if we’re all vying for attention it’s our job to make sure we're offering a memorable experience to everyone who wants to interact with the brand. I think there’s still some ways to go to get rid of this 'boy’s club' culture, especially with getting more women involved with streetwear, but I think it is getting better.
END.: You’ve said previously that your mantra has been ‘ask for forgiveness, don’t ask for permission.’ Now that we’re living in these times where the internet is on tenterhooks just waiting to call people out, do you still follow that mantra, or have you had to adapt and be more strategic in the era of ‘cancel culture’?
Mike Cherman: I think it’s all about how you go about it. As long as you’re not being malicious or stealing from smaller artists. It’s just about shaking it up. If we didn’t go out there and be experimental and make some noise, a lot of these big brands that we’ve had the opportunity to work with wouldn’t have come to us first. We did bootleg SpongeBob shirts at one point and the end result was that we did an official collaboration with Viacom to do a SpongeBob capsule. Sometimes you have to take risks to get the rewards. You should never be afraid to explore your creativity.
END.: Customising has always been a big part of your design DNA. With most brands making big sustainability changes, do you think we need more customising of older pieces to create new from old and cut down on waste?
Mike Cherman: Absolutely. Customisation is at the core of Chinatown Market. It means that we can produce exactly the number of products that we sell and we don’t really have any unnecessary waste. I also think customisation is almost the democratisation of streetwear because anyone can do it. That's what I love to see: I love to see our customers taking pieces and working through a process to figure out how to turn them into something new. I love seeing new creativity breaking through.
Sometimes you have to take risks to get the rewards. You should never be afraid to explore your creativity.
END.: What's it been like partnering with PUMA?
Mike Cherman: PUMA has been amazing to work with. They’ve opened up the possibility for us to experiment to try things that I don’t think a lot of brands would have let us. They’ve really given us a platform to explore ideas and have worked with us to create some big moments. I've got nothing but respect for their team and everything they've done for us.
END.: If you had to describe in a sentence who Chinatown Market is designing for, what would it be?
Mike Cherman: We’re for the young DIY streetwear consumer who wants to see things done differently; the next generation of designers and creatives. That’s who Chinatown Market is for.
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