In The Studio With Mike Cherman of Chinatown Market

Mike Cherman made his first of many splashes in the design & apparel industries when he created a bootleg Frank Ocean tee to sell at ComplexCon. The shirt pulled in $45,000 in 24 hours of online sales…all of which he had to return after a cease and desist. But, try as they might to squash his game, the seed had been planted. Shortly thereafter, Cherman met with the design directors of Nike, gifted the same shirts, and launched a working relationship. Needless to say, his M.O. of asking-for-forgiveness-rather-than-permission proved to be a pretty damn good business model.

Today, Cherman works out of a 12,000 square foot warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. Chinatown Market is a one-stop shop: the team is able to see something happen (think, “I just saw something crazy!”), draw up plans for merch, and kick off production without leaving their space. But that’s just one portion of what the team spends their time on, and it’s not in any way their bread and butter. For Cherman, it’s done in order to show people “that you can do it too,” and a big reason why Chinatown Market operates the way it does is in the service of demystifying the process itself — so that kids with similar ambitions can get a foot in the door and start creating. If it wasn’t already obvious, Cherman is a man of the people making waves in a generation of streetwear designers and brands jostling for center stage. Get to know the designer more in our studio interview below.

Are you in the studio right now?

Yes, I’m over at the office.

Can you tell me about your space?

Yeah! Of course. I’m in this back room, the space was originally a 1500 square foot loft. Last year, we moved into this 6,000 square foot warehouse, downtown in the Arts District. It’s a cool warehouse. We just took over another warehouse, so we’ll have 12,000 square feet total. We have offices split into three parts, there’s a Chinatown Market machine room, where they do all of our stamping from laser cutting to embroidery, all the way down to digital printing, and anything you’d need to make a sample. The whole idea for us is to start a product at 7 am, have it on line by noon, and shipping by the next morning. Outside of that we have a studio, a photography lab, et cetera. So very much about creating a single loop where we don’t really rely on other people to make something.

That’s crazy. So, now you’re making lots of different stuff, but where did this all start? Take me back.

Yeah. So it was ComplexCon, the trade show — I showed up there with boxes piled high and ended up selling all those units out. One of those shirts happened to say Frank Ocean. It was a total bootleg shirt, but it created this kind of hysteria on the floor of ComplexCon where on the website the next day, in 24 hours, we did over $45,000 in sales. Immediately I was like, “I’m going to buy a car!” All this shit, and then the whole narrative changed. All of a sudden everything came crashing down, and it was a little bit of a wakeup call. From there, basically, we returned all the money. It was kind of a moment where I thought, “How can I do this, but do it legally?” So that’s how we started. It was my moment of discovery, but now it’s constantly trying to use the infrastructure of what I have, all the machinery and the ability to make something so fast and hit the market. We have to react fast.

When did your interest in bootleg start?

I don’t know if it was an interest in making bootlegs so much as the whole idea of making. When I first dropped out of Parsons, I was living in New York and ended up landing a job at the Nike customization store. On the Bowery and Houston, the Bowery Stadium. People could come in and get made something custom, like a varsity jacket or something. I was a kid, fresh out of dropping out of fashion school, where I was in the basement with all these machines — all the machines like I mentioned earlier — and it’s that kind of experience that opened the door. It gave me the feeling of being like a kid in a candy store, and being able to make stuff all day and not be limited by the fact that I can’t make a T-shirt in here right now. That’s where it all came from, in my eyes.

So when you have an idea, and want to jump on it and start making it right away, what does that process look like?

Sitting with the design team, talking about the idea, or even sometimes the marketing guy will say, “I just saw something crazy!” Within hours of something breaking, I’m on the phone trying to initiate a collaboration. Sometimes things get jumbled up in that corporate shit, but we almost made that thing happen where we would have been able to collaborate with Lil Nas X and the shirt was already done the day the song was out. It’s things like that, being able to do it quick. It’s about allowing our ideas to be crazy, while still understanding that there is a bread and butter to the brand that still allows us to pay the bills.

I’m interested in that balance between the stuff that’s really trendy and happening right now and the more timeless stuff that is the foundation of the brand. How do you strike that balance between the two?

The thing is, [the trending stuff] is not for us to just make money. It’s not something that I do, like, “I’m going to go to work and pay my bills.” That is not the right way to do business. It’s meant to go out there in the world, and show people that you can do it too. It started very much with a pair of Converse that we made that had a Nike swoosh on it. We gifted it to Lebron, he ended up wearing it before the NBA finals last year, and it went viral and it was one of those things people were saying Lebron must be living in LA. You couldn’t find those shoes because Converse doesn’t make shoes with Nike on it. We did that to inspire kids, and the result is, if you look through the Internet, there’s all these kids putting Nike swooshes on their Chucks. And you know, we all know the Chuck as the shoe that doesn’t really change. But you can use that to show a kid, you can go make something of your own. When we officially partnered with them last year, around Black Friday, we took over the SoHo store and did more sales than the store normally does on Black Friday in past years.

When you do a stunt like that, and you see kids going out and making their own stuff, do you ever get to talk to any of them or hear more about how you’ve inspired other people?

Yeah, a big thing about how the brand is run is that it’s about pulling back the curtain. A lot of brands and companies are very closed off. When you look at Supreme, nobody knows who’s actually making this stuff, no one knows who drew it. It’s very haughty. But I want to be the opposite where I give a platform or a stage for the kids who come to my office to go and put themselves out there, and to really grow. I think that’s the biggest thing. I want to give people these opportunities to learn, but also to fail, because I think that’s so important. When you fail, you have to learn, you have to fuck up somehow for things to get better.

This might be a bit of a broad question, but if you could give advice to those kids who look up to you or are checking out the brand and want to make their own stuff, what advice would you give?

I’d say, go and hone your skills. Go and learn these things. You don’t need to go and work for some big company to find someone you want to learn from, if you find the right person or company and their business. That’s a big one. I think for me, it’s about this moment for the brand; where I create a moment and now it’s time to shape it. A lot of these brands are not going to be the enemy of me, but they’ll be excited that it happened and they’re going to be supportive. For instance, with that Frank Ocean thing, Frank’s team sent a cease and desist. Nike has never sent me anything, and I ended up giving it to the design directors and actually working together. If I just took your corporate value I would have been so scared, I would have never done that again. But when I took a step back, I realized that it’s about being smart about what you do and how you do it.

A big thing about how the brand is run is that it’s about pulling back the curtain.

Looking back at all the things you’ve made, do you have any favorites or any stand out moments for the brand?

We made a… I wouldn’t call it iconic, but it’s something that became famous — the “Have a Nice Day”. Putting roses on T-shirts, in a funny way. Outside of that, it’s just the smiley face. Now it’s one of our biggest selling products worldwide. The smiley face has kind of transcended culture in a sense. It can lend itself to so many things, from luxury brands all the way to the cheapest tchotchkes.

We have the smiley face basketball in the Milk office.

I love it.

Everyone loves it! So I know you just launched some more atelier stuff, but what’s in the pipeline for the rest of the year?

We have a collaboration with Converse, we have something with Vans, we have something with Puma. We’re working with a lot of different brands, but the way that we look at this is that every new brand is a design challenge and it’s all about doing something different and wacky with each one. That’s kind of the big thing we’re focusing on right now; you need to continue to push this to keep going and have fun with it, and part of that is trying to go bigger and bigger. It is crazy right now, but at the same time, there’s an opportunity and it’s fun to be able to take on a design challenge and see what you can do when you’re in the driver’s seat.

Looking at the bigger picture, how would you describe your design philosophy?

I think it ties back to the kids and making that actual connection. Go out there, take risks. We all have access to the same books, the same Internet, the same shit, and it’s quite easy to get caught up in the Instagram friend game of, “my friend made that, but now I’m going to connect it with that guy who made that.” I’ve had so many people who come up to me saying I copied this style from someone else, but you have to accept that and remember, the smiley face was designed by someone in the ’60s. It’s not something that any of us created. We’re all just trying to find ways to remix fashion icons.

Stay tuned to Milk for more studio visits.

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