Zoo York

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The construction of The Zoo York Institute is like Voltron: the Zoo York skate team as its legs, Harold Hunter as its heart, OG founders Rodney Smith, Eli Morgan Gessner and Adam Schatz as its spirit, and Kimou Meyer (and the rest of the design team) as its creative brain.

Meyer, a 33-year-old man, born in Geneva, Switzerland (a city that is a hub for organizations like the World Trade Organization) and moved to New York City roughly seven years ago, after finishing art school in Brussels, Belgium. Meyer’s first job was with Base Design, a design firm with offices in Brussels and New York City. After Base, Kimou began working at Ecko Unlimited before finding a home at Zoo York where he is the senior design director. His countless hours of work takes Meyer into the depths of New York City’s fashion community and skateboarding community, ultimately transferring pieces of each communities’ elements into designs that are inspired by the city that never sleeps.

Alife, Mass Appeal and Stussy are three of several clients that Meyer, who uses the moniker, Grotesk (a typeface from Switzerland, Grotesk Haas, which became Helvetica) for many of his projects. Currently, Meyer is creating the 2008 Zoo York line and on April 12, 2007 Meyer’s art will be on display in True Believers, an exhibition at Riviera Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Format: How did your working relationship with Zoo York materialize?
Grotesk: I was working for Ecko Unlimited, a more hip-hop company, and basically, I was getting burned out over there. I was tired of it. As a background, I was involved with street art, street culture and skateboarding. I skateboarded for ten years when I was a teenager, and it was a natural transition from Ecko to Zoo York, because I’m a lot more passionate about [Zoo York] and more on the same page, as far as culture. That’s how I started to work over there. And, knowing common friends that were already there, like Mark Nardelli, the brand director, makes me want to work with Zoo York.

Format: Please explain your transition from Europe to America.
Grotesk: I went to art school after college. In Europe it’s a five year program and you get an equivalent of a master’s, at the end. I studied communication, graphic design and typography. In the last year, when you do your final diploma, there is a panel, like a jury, that comes from all around Europe and looks at your work. They give students accreditation for your diploma. One guy, he was the owner of a company called Base Design that is based in Brussels. Basically, he offered me a position in New York to work in Base’s New York studio. It was a great opportunity for me, because I always wanted to work in New York. He judged my art project and then invited me to work for him, that’s how I landed up in New York. On the side, I was doing a lot of illustration, graphic design for T-shirt companies and, eventually, Marc Ecko saw my work Online, on my website, and offered me a job at Ecko. That’s how it all started. From Ecko I went to Zoo York – it was a better fit.

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Format: You’ve designed the Zoo York 2007 fall line and you’re designing 2008’s lines, how do you determine style trends for the future?
Grotesk: There is not an exact science. I approach the trend forecast as a cycle. I think you can get caught up on what’s going on right now and that can be a big mistake. Part of it is conversations with peers in the industry, from other companies and having a good circle of friends in the same business. You can speak to them and tell them you’re doing this or that and your friend is like, ‘Oh that’s funny, I thought of the same thing!’ Eventually, the word of mouth thing between friends ends up being a central trend and that’s how everybody follows trends. Another thing, if you think about it, streetwear is inspired a lot by the hip-hop esthetic and also the punk rock esthetic. It’s a cycle of about five years. For two seasons everyone went crazy bright and neon signage, which is the case right now, you kind of know that the street – when I say street I’m talking more for New York – like when everybody looks like they’re wearing the little streetwear pajamas, at some point, a kid will be like, ‘I’m tired of it, I want to look hard.’ Boom, everyone is going to start rocking black for a couple of seasons. After that, kids will be like, ‘Oh, I’m tired of that boring look, I need color.’ At the end, it’s a natural cycle and you have to position yourself on what is successful for your brand, and follow your gut. As far as trends, I believe in doing good stuff that looks good. You can’t go wrong with a good piece of art on a T-shirt, whether or not you follow trends. If it is a good piece of art it will be inspiring for other people.

Format: You use several outlets for your art, do you have to be in a different mind frame when you’re creating a design for Zoo York, opposed to a personal project?
Grotesk: When you design for a brand you design towards a brand DNA. At Zoo York it is obviously inspired by New York, the music, the neighborhoods, the cultures that surrounds it. When I do an illustration, if it is a personal illustration, it’s more of a mind frame of how I feel at the moment. It’s more personal. If you illustrated for magazines, often, they tell you, ‘I need an illustration of Method Man,’ or ‘I need an illustration that represents basketball.’ When we do illustrations for Zoo York we are adding a piece to the brand DNA, basically.

Format: Do you have a responsibility for the pieces that you create?
Grotesk: I definitely have a responsibility to always be creative. I think as a creative person, when you set the level to a certain point, you don’t want to create wack stuff. You always want to push yourself to the next level and deliver every season, stronger – a better one. Sometimes ideas are dry and you have to be smart by working with talented freelancers that may bring you a new point of view on the brand. As far as a responsibility, that is where mine is, always giving 100 per cent, whether it is from myself or using amazing talent from outside to always raise the bar higher.

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Format: Zoo York is a skateboard-centric brand, do you follow a model of what Zoo York is or are you breaking the mold?
Grotesk: I think skateboarding, as old as it is, is a really young culture. The heritage of skateboarding is only 40-years-old and other art movements or cultural movements have existed for centuries – there is nothing we follow. We always try to stay close to our roots, our heritage, that gritty New York underground scene and that’s what has inspired us. We’re definitely aware that Zoo York shines in other countries, where they may be less New York-centric and that’s why we work with people that have an esthetic that is outside of Zoo York’s esthetic. It is also our responsibility to create a universal thing. It’s kind of like, from New York to wherever you are. We try to please people in Europe that may have a passion for the New York-centric and skateboard-centric heritage. New York people are like, ‘It has to be hot in New York to like it,’ but from outside the city, New York is more like a fantasy and we try to add imagery to that fantasy.

Format: What are some challenges that you face at Zoo York?
Grotesk: There are two main challenges. The creative one is the easiest, because I am surrounded by an amazingly talented crew of people. From designer to skater, to marketing, we share the same type of lifestyle and that is the easy part. The challenge, every season, are deadlines. Zoo York is a line that has about 100 T-shirts and 200 other pieces, the bottoms, the swimwear and even the footwear, to a certain extent – we hope to grow in that business, as well – and if you miss your deadlines, you’re going to miss your sample, you’re going to miss your market and you’re going to miss your business. It’s a big challenge that you always need to keep in your mind. A deadline is a deadline. If at the end, you’re working for two or three weeks until 3:00 a.m. every night, then that means you didn’t follow your roadmap.

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Format: Since you’ve started working for Zoo York, do you have time to create personal art?
Grotesk: Definitely, I think it is a synergy. My personal work is really an extension of my work at Zoo York, meaning everyone I work at Zoo York has side projects. It’s kind of a luxury thing and really fresh. We have a creative job on a daily basis that pays the bills, and gives us good vibes. And when I do side projects I don’t have to worry about money, I’m just doing it for the love of it and I can pick and choose what I want to do. It’s a time management thing, but you always find time to do something exciting. It’s really important for me to do side projects, because that’s how I meet a lot of people that I can, eventually, bring back to Zoo York to do collaborations. Like my friend, Greg Lamarche, SP.ONE, we did a nice skateboard and T-shirt project with. Both of them are totally related.

Format: Who are some designers that have influenced you?
Grotesk: As far as influence, I’m really inspired by Barry McGee, ESPO and some of the early street artists, basically, people that were starting as graffiti artists and ended up being fine artists. What I really respect about them is that they push their esthetic really far, but they carry a message and are smart people. It’s not only about their esthetic. First and foremost, they’re really smart people. I’m inspired by people with ideas, in general.

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Format: What is your position on the term streetwear?
Grotesk: I think the streetwear term is a pigeonholing thing. It’s like rock and roll. If you say to a band, ‘So you rock and roll?’ they’re going to look at you and say they do screamo, emo, punk, garage, whatever. There are so many sub-categories that I think for the masses it is fair enough to call it streetwear. If you ask an expert they may say Zoo York is not steetwear, because we’re known, but for me it’s more about being inspired by the energy of a city. If streetwear means being inspired by where you live, I’ll tell you straight that Zoo York is streetwear, but I’m not an expert in the subtle fashion language. I don’t care, as long as the stuff looks good, you can do streetwear and live in a little village with five farms, it’s going to be streetwear if you represent your farm.

Format: It is not uncommon for designers to be taken advantage of in the fashion industry, how can designers protect themselves from large companies capitalizing on designers’ creativity?
Grotesk: That’s tough, because it’s an industry that is kind of like the music industry. The T-shirt business I compare that to hip-hop music, because people sample stuff, but it’s how you sample, how to be smart or not. Some producers sample an old funk song and nobody knows the original and they do a great hit with it. Then someone like Puffy will just sample a song and it sounds like a knock off. I have the same thought process for the fashion industry. It’s an industry where there are a lot of rip offs or inspiration, but it’s like a game. To me, the most important thing is to step up your game. If you do something that a company knocks off, you can be bitter and a hater – I understand that, because it happened to my personal work – but at the end you can be a hater and just keep talking shit about it or you can come up with new stuff that’s going to blow them away. Be a trendsetter. As far as compensation, if you work with a company and they don’t pay you well, then you’re your own enemy, because you have to talk money up front. If you work for free and then start to whine about money than it’s your fault. Trends are trends and you have to make your own spin on it, unfortunately, sometimes you get knocked off, but you move on.

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More Info: http://www.zooyork.com

Jordan Chalifoux

Latest posts by Jordan Chalifoux (see all)

8 comments

  1. Really hyped on this story. Very cool inside look at Zoo, and it’s rad to see they have some serious players with deep roots in the art scene making it all happen…

  2. the t’s have been done well.
    i’m not a skate poser or nothing but it would hard not to cop a few of the garments. hell maybe even a board…

    easy.

    j.

  3. I’m a first time reader of the Format and this is one of the coolest magazines I’ve ever read

  4. Hi my name is G147, a longtime reader and first time commenter. My question is for Jordan Chalifoux. Why do you have so much swagger?

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