A prestigious mist of ambiguity hides the invisible crown that New York-centric retail king, Alife, wears with confidence and with two years short of a decade invested in high-end retail, there is no doubt that Alife runs the streets of New York. But Alife does not limit itself to the retail game. Mass Appeal Magazine and Rockstar Games are two giants that, at one point, relied on Alifeâ€™s creative support to establish brand identity, a mission thatâ€™s as common to Alifeâ€™s creative team as placing fork-to-mouth and swallowing. Collaborations with New Era, Reebok and Levis are the tip of the fashion brew-ha-ha that launches innovation into a, sometimes, stale and congested world of ultimate consumerism. Alifeâ€™s Chris Chambers steps away from a high-fashion haze to explain the workings of Alifeâ€™s internal structuring and the key to their longevity.
Format: Can you explain what Alife is?
Chris Chambers: It started as retail space and it simultaneously acted as a creative agency, a workspace, a retail space and a place to exhibit artistsâ€™ work. And, it started around 1998. In 1999, there was store on Orchard Street. That was the first Alife location. The retail space was an office space for the creative agency and it also acted as place to show artistsâ€™ work.
Format: Where do Alifeâ€™s fresh designs come from?
CC: The majority of our designs are done by two guys, one of them is named Rob Cristofaro and the other guyâ€™s name is Arnaud Delecolle. Those are two of the founders of Alife and two of the guys that are main contributors responsible for the majority, if not all of the Alife creative.
Format: Recently, Alife and New Era dropped a Halloween themed line, why did Alife choose Halloween?
CC: It started with Rob. Basically, he had a series of six monster T-shirts that he had designed. There were other ones that were never released or shown to public. There was a Bela Lugosi, Dracula, one. If you notice, theyâ€™re old monster movie type images of these iconic monsters. The Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Dracula character, I think there was a Werewolf character, too. Thereâ€™s no real science to why or how it came up, he must have had a dream or vision that monsters were somehow cool. And, I guess they are.
Everyone has experienced Halloween or seen a monster movie or knows about a character like Frankenstein or Dracula. To me itâ€™s a metaphor of monsterinâ€™ on the competition. The all-over print was a popular medium. Everyone had an all over-print of some sort. For me to see an all over T-shirt graphic of a big monster face is refreshing in a gruesome kind of way. Itâ€™s definitely a scary image to a lot of people, but to me itâ€™s just original. It didnâ€™t follow any trends itâ€™s just a curveball, once again from Alife, that hit the zone.
Format: Can you explain Alifeâ€™s music series?
CC: We recently started a series called Alife Sessions. Thatâ€™s basically music that we put on in the courtyard in the back of our store and we have maybe a 5000 square-foot courtyard. The first one we did, it was Just Blaze, who is a DJ [and producer], that has worked with everybody from Jay-Z, to Kanye West, to Common and he spun live breaks. And, John Mayer, who is a multi-platinum selling artist, who sings and plays guitar, and heâ€™s kind of the heart throb for every teenage girl across the country, but he makes great music. He played live guitar while Just Blaze spun live breaks. That was all recorded live and now weâ€™re going to be packaging that live recording with some other stuff, and offering that to the public at some point.
The second one we did was the Clipse, who are a group from Virginia that Pharrell is affiliated with, and that one we combined with Biz Markie and Doug E Fresh. Alife Sessions, weâ€™ve done two events so far and we definitely plan on doing others. The Just Blaze and John Mayer event was definitely something that was groundbreaking and unprecedented. To combine those two artists that shared a common interest with sneaker culture and rare and exclusive kicks, and to put them in the same arena before having met each other and then to see was came out of that experiment was dope.
Format: Can you explain Alifeâ€™s Wu-Tang Clan affiliation?
CC: In many respects, Alife is New York-centric. Almost everything we do is inspired in some way, shape or form by New York, and Wu Tang Clan is a classic example of New York. Weâ€™re fans of the music, but we have a relationship with the RZA, the GZA, Raekwon and with a guy named Dready Crouger. Definitely over a year ago, probably about a year and a half ago, in the beginning of 2005, we did a project with them. It was with Wu Tang Clan and Frank 151 Magazine. It was a pack were several members of the Wu Tang Clan, the RZA included, basically did a mixtape for us, remixes, unreleased Wu Tang Clan songs, and they actually emceed on top of it. The RZA was the host of the tape. We basically packaged a CD, a Frank Magazine that we had curetted, and a T-shirt and a blunt. That all came sealed in a Plexiglas case and the idea was to stimulate all your senses. You could read and look at the book, you could listen to the music while wearing the T-shirt and perhaps even smoking the cigar.
That was the first thing we did with them and form there it grew to the point where it is today. We now offer limited edition apparel items; we done fitted hats with New Era and Wu Tang Clan. We just released one of our shoes, Alife Everybody High, a classic, we did a Wu Tang edition that just released, so itâ€™s a great relationship for us and it just stems from being fans of the music and wanting toâ€“again, it goes with Alifeâ€™s quality standard of only wanting to collaborate with absolute best people in their respective field. To us Wu Tang Clan is the top echelon of hip-hop. Those are the only types of artists or brands, you can look at Wu Tang Clan as a brand in itself, those are the types of people that weâ€™re willing to collaborate with.
Format: How do you brand yourself?
CC: A lot of it has been naturally. We achieve a lot of editorials, PR, media coverage for two reasons, one is the build out of our retail spaces have been very noteworthy. By any stretch of the imagination they are elaborate build outs, definitely high-end retail spaces that invoke reaction to the people who walk in. The other thing is that the products we make are usually interesting. We did a wool fedora hat with Kangol that came with 14-kart gold hatpins in a bunch of different shapes â€“ there was a batwing and an ice pick. That came in a leather bound box and those sold for about $1400, I think Derek Jeter bought one [and] Tego Calderon was given a hat. There are things like that, that happen all of the time and weâ€™re fortunate that people on media think that those projects are as interesting as we do.
As far as branding ourselves, we try to be very original with the concepts we come up with and selective with the people we work with and we work hard to come out with a product that will be talked about for a long time. Itâ€™s part of our goal to have people take notice and then to react. I think a lot of it was built when Alife was doing its art shows.
Format: How does Alife stay competitive?
CC: With all due respect for any of the other brands out there, whether theyâ€™re old or new, Alife knows a lot of those people, but to be honest with you we donâ€™t look at them as competition. From the point of view of a longevity standpoint, weâ€™ve been around a lot longer than some of those guys and we look at ourselves as true pioneers in this game, whatever you want to refer to it as, even if itâ€™s streetwear or whatever, a lot of people have glanced at our formula and are now doing similar things.
The Rivington Club was one of the first, if not the first sneaker boutique of its kind that ever existed, so for us the fact that weâ€™ve done big art installations and openings for artists friends of ours as well as other companies, the fact that weâ€™ve done collaborations with brands like Adidas or Wu Tang Clan at a point when collaborating with companies, other brands or artists or other brands wasnâ€™t commonplace as it is today. In 2003, we did three shoes for Adidas and that was, to my knowledge, one of the first sneaker collaborations that was ever done. Iâ€™m sure there was one or two before that, but there was a time when it wasnâ€™t commonplace. We had our footwear in Barneyâ€™s for several years now, which is one of the highest-end designer department stores in the United States. For all those reasons, the fact that weâ€™ve done art shows, the fact that weâ€™ve pioneered collaboration projects, or the fact that even within streetwear trends we were doing it at a point when it wasnâ€™t as popular as it is today.
We kind of distance ourselves from any other brand. We feel like weâ€™re always able to keep a fashion element that some of these newer brands donâ€™t have and donâ€™t necessarily know how to begin to achieve. And weâ€™re fortunate enough to be able to say that, the fact that we did those art shows and show people a formula regarding retail/ art spaces, a lot of people are doing similar things now. In a nutshell, regarding newer T-shirt brands and streetwear brands, we donâ€™t even look at them as competition, because we see ourselves as a multi-faceted company. Like I said, we do creative agency work for people like Rock Star Games and Levis. We bottle ink, we manufacture and produce and bottle our own custom ink, it comes in black and silver, itâ€™s for KR, itâ€™s called Krink. We sell that in the store. Thereâ€™s a long list of things that we have done that we are involved in now. When you glance at the competitive field a lot of people are either newer or just offering T-shirts and hoodies to the market. Weâ€™ve done pillows with Medicom, we make jewelry, we make pin sets, the Levis thing, we did Montana paint cans and Zippo lighters and T-shirt range. We always ask ourselves how can we trump ourselves, whatâ€™s the next big idea, how can we add on to this idea to make it bigger than it might have been.
Format: Does Alife have any new lines for the winter?
CC: We have a holiday jacket, itâ€™s called the Expedition Jacket and we designed with for a company called Canada Goose, which is a very well known and established outer wear company, obviously from Canada. We did a jacket for them, itâ€™s their Expedition Jacket and weâ€™re releasing it for the Holidays.
More Info: http://www.alifenyc.com