In the last two years, the streetwear scene has exploded in popularity, inspiring a new generation of creative entrepreneurs trying their luck at the apparel biz. Countless T-shirt-based, independent labels have come up and cashed in. 3sixteen is a brand that has managed to stand above the crowd by developing a unique aesthetic combining pop-culture references and dark medieval themes. The spring and summer 2007 collection of 3sixteenâ€™s sub-brand, NHTVSN, features the Dr. Seuss inspired T-shirt titled Hip-Hop Went Pop, a design that has made noise on blogs and message boards everywhere.
3sixteen has built a strong following by connecting with fans through its popular blog (www.3sixteen.com) and more recently, the NHTVSN video project. The brand has matured to the point where it has developed sophisticated cut and sew pieces like the Roxanne jacket that features tough canvas constructions, pinstripe detailing and denim accents. In a scene where hype, rainbow color schemes and endless all-over prints reign, 3sixteen has crafted an identity based on detailing, understating and lasting apparel. Andrew Chen, 3sixteenâ€™s founder, discusses the concepts and challenges behind the scenes of a competitive apparel industry, and what consumers can look forward to in the coming months.
â€œI encourage people to think about it and make sure theyâ€™re not just surrounding themselves with back patters and hand holders and people who are going to tell them theyâ€™re doing a good job just because they want a free T-shirt.â€
Format: Please introduce the 3sixteen crew, whereâ€™s everyone located and what unique challenges or advantages does crew location present?
Andrew: 3sixteen is a NY-based apparel brand that was started in 2003. My partner, Johan, resides in L.A. and manages our cut and sew development amongst lots of other things. Our lead graphic designer, Jeff, is in Vancouver – he is responsible for the visual identity of the company. I’m Andrew and I work out of the NY office.
Johan went to USC and has been working with us since we started the company. Heâ€™s one of the first people I approached. Jeff is in Vancouver and he used to do illustration work for EA Sports. Now, heâ€™s been working for us pretty much doing the graphic identity of our brand on a shirt, or marketing material. Pretty much anything you see of a graphic nature is from him.
Being spread out is good because weâ€™re in different markets. New York is New York, L.A. is L.A., and Vancouver is just a hotbed for the industry right now. Everything is popping up over there, some say more quickly than the market might be able to handle. Challenges, sometimes it really would be easier to work out of one office â€“ to sit in one office and bounce ideas off of each other. We recognize that and whenever we get together, about twice a year, we get opportunities to do something very productive.
Format: You, Johan and the brand, in general, have a very strong online presence. Whether itâ€™s giving fans a glimpse into the brands production through your blog or answering questions on message boards. Why do you feel this is important?
Andrew: Itâ€™s important because weâ€™re an independent company and itâ€™s one of the advantages we have. Clearly, finances arenâ€™t an advantage for us but to be able to be in close touch with our customers and to let them know the personalities and influences behind each member of our team. Thatâ€™s something we really enjoy. I think there is a business side and the side where we want to make lasting apparel. But in addition to all those things, itâ€™s really nice to let people know what we are about and allow people to identify with our movement and what we really want to do. Thatâ€™s possible through the Internet, no one can deny that websites, blogs and forums are a double-edged sword, but we certainly see the benefits to it. To be able to hear what people are thinking, to be able to communicate and answer questions about technical aspects of production all the way to where graphics came from. You donâ€™t really have that opportunity with bigger brands. Our supporters are so important to us â€“ itâ€™s kind just a natural extension of what we do.
Format: What goals did you have setting out with the NHTVSN (Nightvision) project, and what do you think of the results so far.
Andrew: NHTVSN has been a lot of fun. Maybe two years ago, Johan and I were talking about creating a zine in the most traditional Xerox copy sense. Just to keep our writing sharp and to let it serve as a tool to educate and provide some shine to people who we met through the industry, [people] who were doing really creative and innovative things. Somehow along the way it got translated to a video project. Jeff is a film major and itâ€™s right up his alley of what he loves to do. We were chatting about it and it was actually not so long ago that we decided to do it, put our first couple segments together, and posted it up not really knowing whether it would get a reaction or not. Whether it would or wouldnâ€™t, I think we all felt really good about the ability to speak to some of the newer consumers in our industry and to be able to show them that all these people have a passion, a history and diverse influences. A lot of things you may not be able to communicate through your work, we wanted to communicate it in an audio and visual way. With the fast growth of the industry a lot of the education gets left behind.
Format: There seems to be a duality of themes with 3sixteen. On one hand thereâ€™s a lot of music and pop culture references, and on the other, there is a dark refined medieval aesthetic. Can you explain why you chose this direction?
Andrew: There are brands that do a very good job of bringing diverse influences and interests into their line. Independent brands are supposed to a reflection of their designers, so there are brands that pull from a wide variety of influences and each shirt looks very different. For us, weâ€™re still working on this, but itâ€™s important that we establish a consistent look and feel for each piece. Not to say that weâ€™re trying to become predictable in any sense, but I do want a consistent level of quality for the apparel, as well as a consistent aesthetic that people can refer to and hopefully easily identify. I think we focus a lot on that and to a lot of people itâ€™s apparent.
The medieval tip is going along with our whole New Royaltycampaign. Historically, new royalty was introduced either through birthright or through military gain when one army conquers another and just took all their land. Land owners were the ones with power and if you werenâ€™t a land owner you would have to get used to the whole concept of being a serf. Having to work for your place that resonated with us, because we still see some of that in our society today, but the layout or terms are different. Especially, as an independent company the limitations that we face are not far off. Thereâ€™s still a struggle between the haves and have-nots. Itâ€™s just all a matter of context. The whole concept of the new royalty was to identify with people who may not have the resources or the power, but do have the creativity and a good work ethic. Thatâ€™s what we try to exemplify and hopefully that resonates with people who appreciate our design work, too.
Format: In an increasingly overcrowded streetwear market, what advice would you have for brands attempting to differentiate them from the pack?
Andrew: Iâ€™ve heard people say here and there that now is not a good time and just sit this one out. I would disagree with that and I think anyone who feels that they can bring something new to the table should, and we should let the market decide whether or not it has relevance, whether it has a place or not. I think it keeps everyone on their toes. A breath of fresh air is always nice. Some people say I only design for myself and I donâ€™t pay attention to whatâ€™s going on. I do. I read blogs, Iâ€™m not ashamed to admit that. I stay in pretty decent touch with things that are coming out and I find nothing more refreshing than seeing a new brand that is doing something creative or interesting. If someone has a passion for it, absolutely they should try their hand at it. Just make sure that it has a level of quality to it. Thatâ€™s something a lot of young brands seem to neglect.
Find people who are going to give you honest criticism. One thing that not only plagues our industry, but America as a whole, is the American Idol phenomenon. People go auditions for stuff and theyâ€™ve been told their whole lives that theyâ€™re really good at something and they get the harsh awakening that â€˜Wow, youâ€™re really not as good as you think you are.â€™ Iâ€™m not trying to say this in a condescending way at all, Iâ€™m just being honest and I think people are good at different things. Sometimes, someone is told theyâ€™re good at something when they really arenâ€™t. That ends up with people having entitlement complexes and thinking that just because you donâ€™t like it, that youâ€™re a hater. Thatâ€™s a really poor attitude to take, especially when trying to break into not just this creative industry, but any creative industry. I think everybody can agree that within ours, the apparel industry, there has to be a level of professionalism and quality to it and that gets left behind a lot. Without honest critique and without people who are just going to give you real talk, itâ€™s just going to be hard. I encourage people to think about it and make sure theyâ€™re not just surrounding themselves with back patters and hand holders, and people who are going to tell them theyâ€™re doing a good job, because they want a free T-shirt.
Format: What were some of the growing pains when it came to transitioning the look of your brand from mainly T-shirts to a whole range of clothing: cut and set jackets, hoods, crewnecks, etcetera?
Andrew: One major challenge we had was to make something that would be worth owning and worth wearing for a long time. Hopefully, when people get the chance to checkout our cut and sew, and try it on, they would agree that we put the time into it. We came into our cut and sew just a little bit after this whole all-over craze happened. After that phase, no disrespect meant, but there were a lot of hoodies made that people will never wear again. I think there are people that bought it and it was interesting and innovative at the time, but it really careened out of control. I understand that no one wears the same shirts forever but we can try and provide an innovative cut and design that people are going to want to wear a year later. Then I think weâ€™ve done our job. It hasnâ€™t been easy, but weâ€™re trying to be very mindful that the cut is on point and we let the detail of each piece shine through. I think that when people are able to take a look at our stuff theyâ€™ll be very impressed with it.
Format: How was it challenging sourcing the cut and sew stuff and getting it done right?
Andrew: We just had to find the right partner to work with. Itâ€™s been in the works for a while and the people we finally worked with, we were really happy with. I think we mentioned it before, but our hoodies are our own custom silhouette and theyâ€™re specâ€™d out specifically for us. We had the honor of someone whoâ€™s an O.G. in the streetwear game design the silhouette for us. It was hard, because we wanted to have all these details and some factories donâ€™t want to mess with that â€“ theyâ€™re just looking for the next big buck. That is really the challenge that smaller, independent companies face. They donâ€™t have the dollars and they may not want to open their distribution up to the type of numbers that these sore of factories get excited about. As weâ€™re tight with our distribution it really took some work to find the right people willing to work with us and build it up the right way. Anybody whoâ€™s made the jump to cut and sew has done a really impressive thing, especially for all of us who never went to fashion school and gained any sourcing connects. It can be a pretty daunting task and looking back Iâ€™m glad we, as a company, made a push to do it because thatâ€™s seems to be what a lot of brands are trying to do to differentiate themselves as a real line as opposed to a T-shirt company.
Format: Would you agree with the following statement that most streetwear brands still see T-shirts as their bread and butter?
Andrew: Absolutely. Like it or not, T-shirts are more flexible and they are the staple to everyoneâ€™s wardrobe. T-shirts are never out of season, theyâ€™re easy to work with and they are the pieces that you can take the biggest chances on design-wise.
Format: What should fans of 3sixteen look forward to in the coming seasons, surprises, collaborations, etcetera?
Andrew: We have one or two projects that weâ€™re working on. Not really trying to hype them up, because hopefully when they drop people will respect the work that went into it and thatâ€™s that. Collaborations are few and far between for us are because the people that we work with are our friends and we want to make sure that itâ€™s a meaningful collaboration that isnâ€™t just done for the sake of it but that a certain goal is trying to be accomplished or a message is being communicated. We do have a few things in the works but itâ€™s nothing extensive. I like for our work to speak for itself honestly and for our work to stand on its own two feet.