Jay-Z once said “difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week”, but The Blackmarkers founders Winston Tong and Clement Ng found that impossible takes about eight months. Hailing from Canada’s Greater Vancouver area, Winston Tong was a streetwear aficionado before deciding to become a retailer himself. Seeing that there was no online store catering to Canadian streetwear fans, Tong seized an opportunity. Despite being repeatedly told that what he wanted to do was impossible and going in with virtually no fashion experience, and little support, Winston Tong and Clement Ng put it all on the line and founded The Blackmarkers after eight months of struggle. Stocking only the best in streetwear, The Blackmarkers has grown steadily since its founding in early 2009, serving customers across Canada and around the world. Format sits down with Winston Tong to talk fashion, business, and what opening your own online retailer is like.
â€œBlackmarkers are proud of who they are, they always strive to be the best in whatever they take on, they appreciate the details, they don’t take shortcuts and they know the meaning of hard work.â€
Format: Please introduce yourself and break down what The Blackmarkers is.
Winston Tong: I’m Winston, the co-founder [the other being Clement Ng] of The Blackmarkers. We are an online retailer that carries a filtered selection of streetwear from around the world. Our brand list includes 3sixteen, Staple, FALSE, Qwstion, 10 Deep, In4mation, Mishka, Hellz Bellz and Penfield among others.
Format: What’s the story / meaning behind the name?
Winston Tong: The Blackmarkers represents a certain type of individual. The way this person thinks, how they carry themselves throughout life, etc. makes them a Blackmarker. Breaking it down, a Blackmarker is someone who is passionate about what they do.
Blackmarkers are proud of who they are, they always strive to be the best in whatever they take on, they appreciate the details, they don’t take shortcuts and they know the meaning of hard work. As a store, Blackmarkers is really only speaking to a certain few. Our goods are over the heads of many, and its really for, or understood by a particular group.
Format: You’ve got a diverse stocklist, what’s your general approach to buying.
Winston Tong: Before I started this company, I used to shop online all the time. There weren’t many stores that stocked the brands I wanted to buy. I always had to order from stores outside of Canada, and with that came duties, custom delays, unreasonable shipping costs, etc. I knew there were many others that were in the same situation, but there wasn’t an alternative.
I wanted to be the answer to that problem, so I brought in a range of clothing from skate, streetwear, contemporary and foreign brands. As we get further into it, we plan to focus on the core streetwear brands like Crooks & Castles, 10.Deep, Triumvir, Franco Shade, Frank 151 and Acapulco Gold. And on the other side of things, we want to offer goods with clean lines, high-quality, classic silhouettes, premium materials and an overall mature feeling. Brands like 3sixteen, Penfield, Qwstion and Staple help with this.
Format: Being new to the game and having no formal fashion experience, what obstacles did you encounter in the process of launching?
Winston Tong: When we first got into this, we tried to get some numbers for our business plan. Without the plan, could not secure any investment. We were trying to speak with brands and no one was giving us the time of day. We basically had to set up our company [incorporate, gst / pst registration, bank accounts, register our company name, etc.] before anyone would even talk to us. At this point, we’re doing it, without even knowing if the business is conceivable.
Then we had to try to lock in brands, but without a fully functioning web site, there weren’t many that wanted to work with us. The web development process was long and expensive. We never wanted a cookie cutter store or a store that had the look and feel of what was already out there. In this culture, there’s a lot of importance put on atmosphere and aesthetics of a traditional brick and mortar store. For some reason, all major online stores lacked those same aesthetics. I feel that we achieved something that others weren’t able to do.
So we had no functional web site and no brands. It wasn’t until we went out to Las Vegas for Magic that we made some progress. Meeting the brands face-to-face really showed we were serious. After that, things got a lot easier.
I could go on and on about what we went through, but I’ll end with this. I visited a local streetwear boutique and was told that my idea was impossible. This is coming from a guy who had been to Magic for the last eight years and tried to open his own online store. Our store is really an indication of what persistence, hard work, passion and some luck can do.
Format: Why did you decide to go the exclusively online route instead of a store front, or both?
Winston Tong: It was obvious to my partner and I that an online store had more potential. Plus, we really wanted to be that alternative for all Canadians. We have only been open for a short time, but the online store has already proven it has more potential. We have shipped orders to Dubai, Taiwan, Japan, USA, Australia, Greece, Netherlands, Germany, France, New Zealand, UK among many others.
We would not be able to reach these customers with a traditional store front. At the moment, we are doing very well with our online business and are actually moving into a new warehouse that is three-times larger than our current premises. We just want to concentrate on one thing and achieve a certain level of success with it before we move onto new projects. I would love to open a store front in the future though.
Format: Vancouver seems to have a fairly strong streetwear scene, what do you feel you are bringing to the table?
Winston Tong: We are an online store, so we see ourselves in competition with the other large online stores and not so much with stores in Vancouver. We stock a lot of brands that other web stores can’t and we showcase them the way they should be. We also put a great importance on customer service, which seems to be lacking with some of our competition. We don’t mark up shipping costs, what we pay is what you pay. We process and ship orders the same or next day. And overall, we will always do our best to make sure you have a smooth transaction and great shopping experience. Going back to Vancouver quickly, I actually shop at and support a lot of our local stores. There isn’t that much overlap between what brands we stock, so there are goods I’m still interested in.
Format: You have a newsletter and a blog. How important do you think keeping customers connected to your company is?
Winston Tong: Keeping customers connected to us, while they aren’t even looking to buy at the time is essential. This goes for any business. On a business side of things, itâ€™s important for a customer to think of you first when they are looking to make a purchase. But our blog and newsletter isn’t just about that. It’s just a way for us to share stuff about our life and our culture.
Format: Any favorite items in the repertoire? Anything you’re looking forward to for fall / winter?
Winston Tong: I can’t say I have a favorite, because there are so many great pieces that we are bringing in. I’m really looking forward to picking up some Qwstion bags for day-to-day and travel use – also, a nice fall jacket from Penfield. For the most part, I keep it simple and pick up a lot of denim, t-shirts and fitteds all year round.
Format: Any developments in the near future?
Winston Tong: We have a lot of projects in the works. We will be releasing Fallacy Of Rome denims, which will be exclusive to our store worldwide. For those that don’t know, Fallacy Of Rome is a project between FALSE and Lupe Fiasco. In4mation and I have talked about doing some special projects that will remain top-secret for the moment. Look out for collaborations with Better Off Dead, store exclusives, and some special events. Sign up for our newsletter and keep an eye on our blog for up-to-date news.
Format: And your final words?
Winston Tong: Thanks to Format for the interview and also to Clement, couldn’t have done this without you.
More Info: www.theblackmarkers.com