Interview: Mike Cherman of Chinatown Market

A tribute to Canal Street in New York City, once famed for its buffet of contraband goods, Chinatown Market is the second brainchild of Mike Cherman. Sporting a close shave and tattooed arms, the 27-year-old has an uncanny ability to keep his finger on the pulse of pop culture and streetwear then combining both into a sellable product. Putting the ghost of ICNY, his former brand, behind him and with a renewed purpose, he’s poised to take over the world.

So Mike, it’s been two and a half years since your last trip to Singapore. What has changed?
A lot, man. I was doing very specialized technical sportswear with ICNY, thinking I was going to do that for life. I even had the logo tattooed on my arm. I went through a crazy fail period: my investor essentially took over the whole company and decided to liquidate everything. The big thing I took away was that I could do the whole thing again. If I wanted to try something new or explore a new brand, I could do it. I just had to roll my sleeves up and get busy. All of that was a huge learning curve for me to then start Chinatown Market.

In streetwear lots of people fail and can’t pick themselves up. For people who’ve failed, what kind of advice would you give them?
That’s kinda fucked up man but it’s pretty black and white — just keep on going. Many people fail to get through that. I know the feeling. I fell on my face and felt I was embarrassed in front of my friends and people in the industry. When you take a step back, no one actually cares. Everyone has their own lives and problems. Sure, they’ll spend five minutes like, oh shit Mike lost his own company. But I can’t think I’m that important. The reality for me is to pick myself up and do it again.

Do you think social media makes people forget faster?
It also makes people forget what it takes to get there. No one sees what it takes for someone to become a famous artist, creator or singer. All you see is them winning and you don’t see the hard work. You don’t see them in the gym or any of it. Those young kids in the industry who are trying to get in don’t have perspective of the work it takes.

How did you come up with Chinatown Market?
It all happened really naturally. A friend called me up one night and wanted to make a classic shirt that said “Fuck you, you fucking fuck”. Very vulgar but it was very funny. He came to my office and we started making that and I was like, why don’t we make a “Thank you and have a nice day” shirt? We just started making graphics and all of a sudden, we had a whole collection. I got a booth at ComplexCon, showed up with five boxes and sold out. That was kinda my fire to be like, maybe this could be a thing. Outside of that, the first bootleg we made was with the Frank Ocean and Nike swoosh (shown on photo above). We launched a website after ComplexCon called swooshfrankocean.com and we did $50,000 sales in less than 24 hours. I had to give all the money back. I couldn’t keep any of it. The takeaway for me was taking things from pop culture and smashing them together. Giving people what they want and not letting the status quo tell you what you can or cannot do. I ask for forgiveness instead of asking for permission because I find that if I can show someone what I can do, they’re going come knocking on my door even if they didn’t want it at first.

Did moving from New York to Los Angeles help?
I find that it helped a lot. There’re a lot more options in terms of production. I know it’s hard for people in Singapore. For instance, Tell Your Children were doing a T-shirt but it cost them S$25 to make. If I make that same shirt in LA right now, it’d cost me US$5.

Was the move purely for production purposes or was it for a fresh start?
I wanted to start anew and get out of the place I’d been in for the past 10 years. When I lost ICNY, I found not many people had freelance jobs to offer. I went to LA after that and had more work in those two weeks I went on the trip than I ever had in New York. For me, that signified that was where I should be.

The context happened after you moved to LA?
That was probably six months after I moved to LA.

What’s next for Chinatown Market?
That’s the beauty of it — Chinatown Market is ever changing. It’s not just one thing like ICNY, where I was stuck with making reflective sportswear. Back then, if I made a regular T- shirt, kids will be like, well I’m not going to buy that from you, I’m going to get it from someone else. To me, Chinatown can always change and evolve as we go. We just made a $700 goose down puffer jacket. I’m having fun now making products that I love without the constraints of doing one thing. We also run a creative agency at the back of Chinatown Market that services massive corporate brands sourcing production and design. The whole thing for us is about staying creative and trying new things. Never do one thing. It makes you stagnant.

ICNY grew really big and went international. Would you want that for Chinatown Market?
Yeah, I think so. The difference is that we’re taking a lot more control of the marketplace. In ICNY, we were very much a slave to all the wholesalers whereas for Chinatown, our online store is more powerful than anything else.

Looking back, what would you do differently now?
Not let people run my business for me. Now I’m more involved in every step of the process that if I wanted to work or experiment, I’m spending my own money and if it fails, I’m the one who failed. It’s not someone else who paid for it. I don’t have anyone else to answer to and can only hold myself accountable for all the things that we try.

Does this mean Chinatown Market is 100% you?
It’s 100% me, no investors. I literally built the brand up with a credit card. I had a $10,000 limit on a credit card and bought all my first shirts with that. At ComplexCon we sold out, I paid off part of it. It was a gamble. I was fucking broke and was $20,000 in debt. I didn’t have anything and lived in my homie’s second bedroom. Now that friend of mine is the owner of
Pleasures (the rock-inspired label famously known for putting Kurt Cobain’s suicide note on a T-shirt) and I’m designing stuff for them. We’re on the same playing field and it’s fun being able to do collaborations.

How did this laser gun come about?
I saw a video on Youtube about year and a half a year ago. It was of a construction worker printing on a pipe, ceiling and floor with a printing gun. I was like, T-shirts! Immediately, I knew I had to get one. When I found out it was $6,000 each, I wanted one and inks in blue, red and yellow. They told me a single gun is one colour and if you want to change the colour you’ve got to get more guns. We’ve been slowly building amassing an army of them and now we have over 15 printing guns in our office. We do events for global companies and also Chinatown Market.

Any copycats doing the same?
Of course! Yesterday Kim Jones from Dior was doing it in Japan for a launch. That’s the beauty of it, man. We’re able to inspire these big brands to do something.

You take imitation as a compliment?
I take it as a good thing. At the end of the day, I’m not here to say we invented this. I’m sure there are other people who’ve done this before. There’s an artist called Eric Elms who had the printing gun but he never posted or talked about it. He’s not someone who’s here for business as much. When we first came out he was offended. He came to me and was like, dude you want to fucking ruin this? Sure, I might have ruined this for him but he didn’t look at it the same way as I did. I didn’t know he had it before I got it. I came into this whole-heartedly and very true to do my own experiment to put my own twist on something that everyone else has been doing.

Do you think streetwear should move towards the luxury brand market?
It’s already happening. Look at Virgil Abloh who went from streetwear to Pyrex Vision to being the artistic director of Louis Vuitton. It’s insane.

Would you do it?
Of course. If you put me as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton, I’ll do it man.

Do you think moving into luxury is the only way to make it in streetwear now?
No at all, Chinatown Market is not luxury. You can buy my T-shirts for $40. At the same time, I’m making a $300-$400 puffer jacket, a $100 rug and a ping pong table. I still do production all over the place in China, Pakistan and Korea but a lot of stuff is still handmade in my office. We try to look at it from all angles. To do business in one way is not smart.

You prefer to do business in multiple ways?
Yes, if I do it in one way I’ll become stagnant. I’m going to get used to doing the same thing over and over, eventually turning obsolete and irrelevant.

Special thanks to SEEK Official for the interview and CHINATOWN MARKET collection is currently made available (selling fast) in SEEK SINGAPORE, ORCHARD TURN, #B4-23/24 SINGAPORE 238801

Text by : Yawen

Photos and interview by : Chooee