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Russ Karablin of SSUR: Beyond the GUTTERS
For Russ Karablin, SSUR was always a vehicle for art – an easily communicable canvas for his provocative and often subversive visual messages. Not that an audience was always there — despite the current success of COMME des FUCKDOWN, for instance, the design was in fact conceived eight years ago and only recently found a “louder stage” of relevance due in part to celebrity endorsements and the present popularity of high fashion parodies. Through the ups and downs, however, it is Karablin’s unwavering dedication to art and quality — along with a developing business savvy — that has been a large reason for the OG label’s success and longevity. We recently sat down with the SSUR founder and seminal streetwear personality for a discussion of the label’s evolution through the years, the relationship between streetwear and high fashion, as well as the genesis of GUTTER STORE, an exclusive pop-up store conceived with CLOT in Hong Kong.
Shop 11,18-20, Woodhouse, 36-44 Nathan Road,
Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon,
About the brand, how it’s changed & creating designs …
“It’s a different type of energy. When I was young it was a raw design, ‘don’t give a fuck’ energy just to make art. As I got older and had a kid, I realized I had to take it a little more seriously and there was a great opportunity.”
The brand’s had a pretty longstanding history and arguably one of the more recognizable amongst OGs. How would you say the brand has changed in recent times? Would you say there’s a greater energy?
It’s a different type of energy. When I was young it was a raw design, ‘don’t give a fuck’ energy just to make art. Not paying attention to the business opportunity side of it. As I got older and had a kid, I realized to take it a little more seriously and there was a great opportunity.
How do you think the designs and how you go about creating is the same or different now?
It definitely has the same essence; I have a library full of stuff. For instance, COMME des FUCKDOWN is probably a design I did eight years ago. I said it in the past and people weren’t listening, so you pick a time to say it now and it seems to resonate.
About COMME des FUCKDOWN, Chanel & why people are listening now…
How did you create the original COMME des FUCKDOWN concept eight years ago?
The idea was obviously COMME des GARCONS, a play on the high-end label, but still something the younger generation could relate to. Under SSUR, I do The Cut, I do that with Jamie Story and he liked it so he put it out on paper and that’s pretty much the general story.
Has COMME ever mentioned anything?
Recently a mutual friend introduced me to somebody from COMME and he said he never really had an issue with it. He seemed pretty cool with it and it was a subtle blessing. Maybe it was, maybe not.
What about Chanel?
Chanel might not be too happy [chuckles].
Why do you think people are listening now?
When I did it eight years ago, I did it as a little capsule and it was pretty relevant then. But I was thinking limited, very rare and all that other stuff. The reason it’s more pertinent now is that it’s on a louder stage. For instance Rocky put it on and that helped snowball it. It’s a great design to begin with.
About success, approaching new clientele & changes in approach to work…
How would you define everything that’s gone down in the last year in terms of the success?
I’ve definitely had my ups and downs and successes. I’ve always looked to make quality stuff and for awhile it plateaued. And about two or three years ago, it began to revive. How would I describe it? Shit, it’s exciting as fuck. The younger audience finally latched onto what I‘m saying and doing.
You’ve been around for quite awhile, how do you approach the new clientele when many people weren’t around several years ago?
People want to know a bit of the history so we’re definitely going to provide them a bit of history. At the same time, I’m not dwelling on it. I have a library of older stuff so I definitely want to get it out there.
Personally, do you find how you approach your work now is more considered and less organic? It’s just about business as it is the creative aspect.
It’s different from when I started. It cuts to the business and the chase and a quicker way of seeing if I can make it or fall by the wayside. You realize it’s difficult work. I’m not saying everything that I did graphically was planned as a visual assault, but the business end wasn’t my top priority.
Canvas vs. T-shirt & high fashion vs. streetwear…
So as an artist, T-shirts have become one of the easiest and most visible mediums, so how do you differ a canvas vs. a T-shirt?
It’s not the same shit, but the visual message through T-shirts is just an easy way of getting out there. It’s different than say something hanging in somebody’s living room. It’s a better way of getting it out there commercially.
The relationship of high fashion and streetwear has always been visible but lately it has been much stronger. Is there a deeper message behind it?
It’s definitely a “fuck you” to high fashion. High fashion has always been around street culture. Most kids can’t afford it but it dates back to the days of Dapper Dan, including sewing Louis Vuitton onto jackets. They’re pushing it more these days and pushing it more into the high-brow.
How the GUTTER pop-up shop came up, the future of SSUR & LA vs. NYC…
How did the GUTTER pop-up shop opportunity come up?
Edison, Kevin and I have been friends for some time, almost 10 years. I met them in Hong Kong at an art show I was in. Three years ago I moved to LA and I started linking with Edison and that was the start of it.
You’ve brought a team with you to Hong Kong, who do they include?
I brought Jerry Meng who helps with logistics and structuring, Vlad helps production matters and office dailies, and Joseph is a friend of Jerry who I recently made acquaintances with and he has a good style that has been vibing it up.
Where do you see SSUR going? How far will the commercialization go?
I definitely like to push the brakes a little and figure out a good system and make the things I really want to make and keep the commercial stuff that feeds the stuff I want to make. I see more flagship stores, less quantity and better quality.
“When I started, the internet wasn’t what it was today. We just put cool images on T-shirts and it wasn’t consumer-based. Brands like The Hundreds definitely captured the audience and making a living off what you do.”
In terms of streetwear itself as an entity, has it moved to a better place? You mentioned it has entered a more commercial state…
When I started, the internet wasn’t what it was today. We just put cool images on T-shirts and it wasn’t consumer-based. Brands like The Hundreds definitely captured the audience and making a living off what you do. It’s not a bad thing, but it also makes everybody lean towards the same thing and lose individuality.
Having moved to LA and spending a lot of your years in NYC, how would you define the two in terms of creativity? It seems many are moving across the country to NYC.
As of late for sure. There’s definitely a little art movement in LA. I moved based on family decisions. I still have my New York store but I have more time to focus on art with less distractions.