Union, One of the Most Influential Boutiques in the World, Is Finally Launching a Clothing Line

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You read that right! We over here at Union are looking to take our next step within the fashion world, and we’re now proud to present the first looks at our private label. The good folks over at GQ.com got the early scoop, and spoke with Chris about it all. Check out the interview and photos down below.

For years, Union has attracted stylish kids from around the world to its small South La Brea shop. It’s rare for a multi-brand boutique to turn into a true destination store, but Union’s point of view—which straddles streetwear and high fashion with ease—has always been one step ahead of the rest of the market. Now, Union owner Chris Gibbs is launching an in-house clothing line, and it’s the best reason yet to make the pilgrimage to LA.

Union was opened in 1989 in New York by James Jebbia, who would go on to found Supreme six years later. Union Los Angeles opened in 1991, and Gibbs got a job at Union New York in the mid-’90s. By 2004 he had worked his way up from folding T-shirts for Jebbia to buying the LA store outright from then-owner Eddie Cruz. After taking over Gibbs got to work fast, introducing America to largely unknown contemporary Japanese streetwear brands like Bape, Visvim, WTAPS, and Neighborhood. (Union NY closed in 2009, leaving the Union name with Gibbs in LA.) Union still has the best selection of Japanese fashion on either coast, and takes chances on relatively unheard of brands like Paa, Online Ceramics, and No.One, which sit alongside established high fashion labels like Thom Browne, Raf Simons, and Off-White. Whether Union is their first stockist, or the brand has a Paris Fashion Week slot, Union’s buy always reflects Gibbs’s eye for the most unique, timely, and wearable pieces in any collection.

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Below is your first look at Union’s debut release, which will be available starting November 16 in LA and at Union Tokyo when it opens in March. The 10-piece collection both fills certain gaps Gibbs sees in the market, and gives his customers an uncut distillation of the Union aesthetic. In fact, the initial offering of tapered pants, clean sweatshirts, and washed-down, boxy chore jackets draws heavily on Gibbs’s personal uniform—items from his own closet were used as starting points. For the long-awaited launch, Gibbs commissioned a painted lookbook—featuring his friend Jesse Williams, model Alton Mason, his two children, and himself—by artist Delfin Finlay, and threw a party with the Union family last night in LA. Below, we talked to Gibbs about what took so long to launch the line, and just how big he sees the Union brand getting.

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GQ Style: You’ve been running Union, and have had your finger on the pulse of the streetwear and fashion market, for over a decade. Why wait till 2017 to introduce your own line?
Chris Gibbs: The boring version of that answer is just the capital. I took everything I had to buy the store [in 2004], and for the first 5-6 years of owning the store every penny went back into it. And not a lot of stores have successfully made the shift from just doing wholesale to their own brand. Do you want to go buy a Barney’s branded jacket? Maybe you do, but you’re not really going to commit to the brand. So it was also about figuring out the right way to navigate something that nobody has really done successfully, which is a multi-brand store doing their own brand. And the more interesting answer is, quite frankly, my wife Beth was just like, You’re an idiot why aren’t you doing this? She literally pulled five things out of my closet that I wear every day as my uniform and was like, You make your version of these.

How do you make that shift and get customers to commit to or make an emotional investment in the brand?

CG: We haven’t launched yet, so we don’t really know [laughs]. My big thing since taking over here has been usually when I fall in love with something in here, 9 times out of 10 the fabric is what gets me. I’m a sucker for good fabric. So the really important thing to me was to try to get really good fabric. Outside of fabric it’s the fit. If you look at the difference between high fashion and men’s contemporary, at least historically, high fashion’s got those silhouettes just dialed in.

So you’re incorporating knowledge from brands you’ve bought over the years into the line?
CG: I did take cues from the stuff we’ve got here. Like really dope fabrics, I learned that mainly from the Japanese guys and Visvim. Silhouettes I learned that from the high fashion brands. The other thing is we found there was a void in the marketplace for subtle products with a twist. Everybody’s trying to get noticed these days, but you’ll see that less in our store. The clothes definitely have a little bit of our personality. And I feel like Japan has just been one of the best kept secrets in fashion—their fabrics are insane. This first collection, everything is made in Japan. I don’t care about price, whatever, we’ll figure out the rest. I’m not a classically trained designer—I need to know that when I’m sending an idea it’s going to get interpreted properly. And in Japan it will. And at the end of the day from our point of view, we’re definitely a little rougher, a little bit more tough. Our store and our industry is steeped in counter culture kind, revolutionary DIY kind of shit. It needs that kind of roughness. And it’s harder to get that from Europe. Europe is very delicate and fine and refined, which is beautiful, but it’s not what we’re trying to sell, and it’s not what I’m trying to wear. But for Spring-Summer 2018 we’re using Japanese fabric and making it in America. Making in Japan is expensive, I’ll just be really honest with you. I want the value. We could be selling jackets for $600, but I just don’t want to. And Spring-Summer 2018 will be maybe three times the size.

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Streetwear has changed a lot since you joined Union—now it really thrives on social media. Have you thought about how Union the brand will negotiate that?

CG: Quite frankly, I was just going to make good product and put it out and hope somebody bought it. Which sounds really naïve and stupid, and it was actually my wife Beth who was like, What are you doing? Those days are over. She’s the one who came up with getting [the lookbook] painted

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What’s the story behind the artist you commissioned the paintings from?

CG: The artist Delfin Finley is young, 23 or something, and he’s been shopping here his whole life. Delfin’s style is very much like taking street shots of people, particularly young streetwear kids, and painting them in this photosurreal way, so it’s kids wearing denim and sneakers and T-shirts, which is exactly what we made. And then we had to figure out what models we wanted to use, and we ended up landing on using friends of the store. Delfin does self-portraits too, so we used him, as much as it’s weird for me we used me, we used our kids for a shot, we used Jesse Williams who is a friend of the store and friend of ours, and we used Alton [Mason] who got his modeling break here. I don’t know if we can do paintings every season [laughs], it took about four months to paint everything, but we’re super excited.

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So what’s the end-game? Do you see the Union brand rivaling the store itself for your attention? Could you see it taking over the store one day?

CG: Truth be told, it might not be happening today, but the market trajectory seems to be moving against the traditional wholesale model. So I would say we’re hedging our bets, because the market isn’t working toward a place where wholesale will work. Raf makes something dope, we buy it, we sell it. But Raf can do his own website and you can buy it straight from him and skip the middleman. But there’s an argument against that, too, because we’re bringing a certain point of view that maybe Raf doesn’t have to a different customer. And we’ve been very blessed that people want to come get it from us. Plus, we have a provenance and people trust our taste. So it’s still working, but it’s definitely trending away from that a little bit. We want to stay true to what we’ve been as long as we can, as long as the market allows us to, but inevitably we’d like to have a section of Union stuff in here all the time. I don’t want you to come in here in 5 years and we don’t carry anybody else’s brand. I always wanted it to be a mix. We’re just trying to create things that we don’t see in the marketplace.