Lying in the street, cold, bloodied and alone, Mike Cherman had the inkling of an idea. Insert a roll of reflective material and he had the concept for a brand. Born out of necessity, ICNY is Mike’s retort to the self-posited question “how could I have avoided being hit by that car?” An avid commuter cyclist, Mike’s premise for ICNY was to create stylish and functional clothing that would keep him visible when riding at night. His visibility is on the rise. Following a successful concept collection, Mike recently released his spring/summer lookbook and continues to add retail accounts seemingly daily. We recently caught up with the 23-year-old creative director at his literally frigid Brooklyn studio to discuss design dreams and why he dropped out of art school. Read on for the interview and check out ICNY online.
An Introduction to Mike Cherman and ICNY
“The solution wasn’t about creating something to sell to other people, the solution was about creating something to keep myself safe while riding at night.”
Can you introduce yourself and your role at ICNY?
I’m Mike Cherman, 23 from Brooklyn, NY. I’m the creative director of ICNY.
Can you give us an overview of ICNY – how long you’ve been at it, what the typical day looks like…etc.?
It started off as a side project. I got hit by a car when I was on my bike about two and a half years ago and my bike got ran over. I was lying in the street, bleeding, thinking to myself “what the hell could I have done to keep myself safer?” Side note: I was wearing all black.
It started, for me, working at the Nike Bowery Stadium; I was a designer and had access to a whole bunch of machines. I was able to test product, use laser machines, use embroidery machines, different heat transfer applications, and I began making socks and moved on to making jackets and hats. For me ICNY began as a solution for myself. The solution wasn’t about creating something to sell to other people, the solution was about creating something to keep myself safe while riding at night. From there, Bowery Stadium closed and I moved into LQQK Studios in Brooklyn, which is a full-scale print studio, and yeah I just started testing and making product. It started with a line of five shirts and a pair of socks.
Are you doing ICNY full-time?
I’m doing it full-time; I’m the creative director and essentially designing everything. Basically from product design, to testing, to production, everything starts here. It goes from testing phases in our studio where we’re making it by hand and actually wearing the stuff day in and day out, riding to work in it and giving it a thorough test to then bringing it to different factories where the process is finalized.
Do you have other people working with you?
We have myself and our brand manager, Jarah Emerson who handles all the sales. And other than that we’ve just got our one intern Ariel Ricard – and yeah it’s just the three of us running the day-to-day.
Developing as a Designer
“Working with Danny Brown and a few other people helped to jump-start things for me. When there’s some notoriety of who you’re working with it builds up your name and I ended up getting a job at Nike Stadium.”
So for those that don’t know, you have a background in design. Can you talk about how you got your start as a designer?
So I started off like anyone else, I tried going to art school, but I ended up dropping out of Parsons after my freshman year. I was working at Prohibit in the Lower East Side. I was working for Chase Johnson, better known as Chase Infinite who is the manager of A$AP and just over time, being around him, being able to be immersed in the hip-hop culture I was able to work with different people in the industry. I did some covers for Smoke DZA and just being around all of those people and being in the community kind of helped to launch my career. Working with Danny Brown and a few other people helped to jump-start things for me. When there’s some notoriety of who you’re working with, it builds up your name and I ended up getting a job at Nike Stadium.
Actually, I got arrested trying to get a job with Jeff Staple. I did this whole poster campaign in the Lower East Side. I put up posters everywhere on the route from where he lived to where he worked with my name, my design credentials and it basically said – Jeff I want to work for you. I ended up getting arrested that night for wheat-pasting and went to The Tombs for two nights and two weeks later I got an email from Nike who noticed the campaign and they were like, we want you to come in for an interview. From there I got a job and that job led to everything else. I was able to learn about all of the machines, applications and every day I was making things. It was like being in a mini Nike kitchen. I really got to learn everything about making clothes, deconstructing jackets, sewing them together, using patches and embroidery, all these things led to me understanding the process and what it meant to make apparel.
So did Jeff end up offering you a job?
He did, he brought me in, had a bunch of great things to say, and offered me an internship and we’re actually doing a collaboration together for Holiday 2014.
Was there a tipping point when you knew you wanted to take ICNY from a passion project to a business?
ICNY was just a thing for myself for quite a while, maybe six months. Then Nike closed the Bowery Stadium and I actually ended up buying some of the machines from them from their space. So from buying the machines, I was able to move into a studio, LQQK Studios in Brooklyn and I began full-time freelancing. It got really real, really quick. I had to pay rent, so I was just doing any kind of design work I could get, but it got to the point where I needed something tangible. When you design for other people, you’re always under their influence and their choice and their opinion. At the end of the day, you could believe in something that you’ve designed for someone else, but they could think it’s a piece of crap. It makes it tough. I needed something that I could feel good about and do on my own.
Materials and Retailers
“Before that, people liked the concept and the idea but it kind of takes one person to start dancing to get everyone else to start dancing. It’s like the street kids’ Outlier.”
Looking back at that moment when you were laying in the street bleeding, was that the point when you decided 3M was going to be a focal point of the brand?
You know, I was carrying my bike home because it wouldn’t roll and I was like “what the fuck?” The next day at work, we had a roll of reflective to work with and I was just messing around, did the polka dots on the socks and took em out that night. It was a no-brainer. It became a solution.
What’s been the most difficult part about working with the material?
The hardest thing is that reflective is made of millions of glass beads. It’s a very heavy, very tough, very stiff material. The stuff that we use on the socks is the highest visibility material that you can use on apparel. It’s the highest safety rated but you will see distressing over time. Just like a band T-shirt or a good pair of jeans, you’re going to see wear and tear. You’ll see some of the reflective cracking, but that’s not a bad thing – it still functions, washes and performs. To me communicating that is the biggest thing. Reflective is not going to disintegrate; it will function irrespective of any new kind of technology, that’s why I think it’s so great.
Other than the name, how has New York lent influence to the brand?
You know (laughs), being in the city, moving all the time, never knowing when you’re going to be hustling around jumping on the bike, going to skate I always have it as a piece of my wardrobe. Whether it’s socks, a hat, shirt – I’m always wearing it.
How beneficial was it to have an ingrained network of freelance clients in securing retailers for ICNY?
Our first retailer was colette – that really blew up. People really noticed that and it helped legitimized things. Before that, people liked the concept and the idea but it kind of takes one person to start dancing to get everyone else to start dancing. It’s interesting that way, I really didn’t do much seeding. I went the route of working with people that actually workout, run and ride, and our goal was to get involved organically. It was less about celebrities, I wanted to have people aspire to wear it because they’re active and the lifestyle piece of picking it up, because it was cool is an added bonus.
Brand and Marketing
“What I like to say, is it’s the intersection between style and function. It is inspired by street, but it’s not streetwear.”
How do you decide what’s going to hit retailers and what you’re going to sell on your own e-commerce site?
It’s really tough because reflective is not cheap. We’re going into a store called Without Walls with Urban Outfitters this spring. It’s going to be 28 locations across the U.S. and that’s going to be a big step for us, going into a larger retailer. They’re going to have slightly lower price-point apparel and they’re going to cater to a slightly different market.
At the same time, we’re also working on an entirely handmade line which is going to be all made by me, here in Brooklyn. I’m still trying to find the balance between retail and e-commerce. Making things by hand takes time, which factors into the cost. It’s tough because I would love to make everything by hand, but it’s not realistic if you want to run a business. Sometimes people think these small brands doing cool things are making tons of money, but there is definitely an element of survival.
I want to cater to all markets because I feel that reflective is meant for everyone. It’s not supposed to be a trend. People always ask me, “Is this going to die off in a year?” And I’m like this isn’t something that’s a want, it’s a need. It’s always going to get dark and you’re always going to need to be safe. It may not be all reflective everything, it may be trims and accents, but I believe it’s going to be in apparel for many years to come.
Where do you see ICNY fitting in the apparel/active wear landscape?
What I like to say is it’s the intersection between style and function. It is inspired by street, but it’s not streetwear. It’s like the street kids’ Outlier. I wanted something where a kid could jump on his bike, sweat a little bit, and go hang out with his friends and not feel like he’s wearing something that’s heavy, wet and grimy. You want your apparel to move with you and work with you. At the end of the day, I want to ride my bike to work and not have to change my clothes when I get there. I think form and function are the most important things.
Would you ever want to mint an ICNY brick and mortar store?
Absolutely, we’ve got a lot of plans to hopefully open up a store within New York in the next year. Don’t want to foreshadow too heavily there.
So have you approached any big box retailers?
Yeah, we’re trying to figure it out and figure out how to tier things. You’re not going to see the same sock at colette that you’d see at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
What have you done to market the brand?
You know, that’s the tough thing because I’m the dude that’s handling the social media and I’m also designing everything. We just do our best to project an image of something for kids to aspire to. I think organically, we’ve worked with running crews that have become worldwide and are supporting the reflective movement. They’re actually out running in the streets every day, taking pictures and sharing authentically. It’s not about sitting in your house taking a picture with the socks and your new sneakers. I love the sneakerhead customer and I think they’re cool but I think the people who are going to use the product long term are the ones who actually use it functionally every day. I want to worry about the kids that are shopping at Dick’s Sporting Goods and Back Country, people that understand that this is something functional that they can use every day. It doesn’t need to be ankle bracelets and safety decals, it can be something cooler.
Speaking of product tiers, what’s your take on engineered exclusivity and how do you balance increasing exposure with remaining covetable?
It’s doesn’t become about making two brands, because at one point we were thinking, okay we’re going to make a sport brand and a high-end brand but basically it’s going to be the brand and that’s it. You’re going to be able to get certain things at certain places. Some things are going to be exclusively online but the wide range of products – the simpler things like socks, the hats, the simpler T-shirts – are going to be available anywhere. The more bespoke stuff like tape jackets and the pants are not going to be available everywhere. I get that not every retailer is going to want to carry the $160 pant that we’re going to have – and that’s okay.
The Future of ICNY
“It’s not necessarily that you can take a class and then do that in the real world; for me, it took three years to get a job I wanted because I had go through all the bullshit I didn’t want to do to get there.”
So how does the time balance work for you in terms of the stuff you love, designing and testing product with managing the business, fulfilling orders, securing retailers, etc…?
At first it was really tough. I’m learning as I go. If anyone tells you that they’re a pro at this shit and they’re under 30, I’d be skeptical. For me, I left school early to go the work route and try to learn everything on the job. A lot of my time is spent designing and then trying to figure out the back end of the business because I do need help there. That’s the stuff where it’s great to have the support of Jarah who’s the brand manager and salesperson. She’s really taken a lot of the weight off me in terms of handling the functions of the brand, invoicing, sales, chasing people for money.
Going through your first season, you realize how fucking hard it is to communicate to someone overseas exactly what you want. To go back and forth with someone so many times is really tough. That’s why I had to fly to Korea to finalize our product so the shit could be really good and it wouldn’t be a 75% product. We had to go there, talk to the people, be in the factory, and interact and I think that’s what sometimes is hard because I feel like at times, people think you can just go to China and get a cheap product and that’s not always the case. You really need to work hard and you’re paying 17% duties to bring something in, people think China is synonymous with cheap but that’s just not always true. It can be just as expensive to do it there as here.
So we’ve heard inklings of upcoming collaborations, can you shed any light on upcoming products?
Really not anything I can get into yet. We’re working on a bunch of stuff but it’s about developing the brand to a level that we know when we work with someone, we can come out with the highest quality product. We are working with a cycling journalist, Emiliano Granado who runs ManualForSpeed.com. He documents a lot of the cycling pro tour and he, to me, is really the pinnacle of what it means to document a sport. To me, it’s nice to work with someone like that who’s truly ingrained in the sport. We’re trying to work with people in the true spirit of collaboration, someone who is down with us and what we’re doing and vice versa.
Wrapping up, do you have any advice for someone looking to light out on the entrepreneurial path?
I think so many kids expect for it to happen. Like go to art school and have a job and I think that’s the biggest falsehood in the world. It’s not necessarily that you can take a class and then do that in the real world; for me, it took three years to get a job I wanted because I had go through all the bullshit I didn’t want to do to get there. It’s really about how much time you put into it. It’s earned not given out there, so go fucking take that shit: Motivation 101.