The Next Torchbearer For NYC's Independent Clothing Labels
is a clothing brand that's leading the next wave of NYC's independent clothing labels with their highly creative and functional garments. We spoke with the founder Aaron about his experience growing up in New York and the influence that had on him to start Brigade in 2014, to now releasing his latest F/W '19 installment and traveling across the country for highly requested popups. In addition, we also spoke with Aaron about Brigade's collaboration with Adam Zafrian earlier this year, the Brigade Book Society, and his plans to continue growing the community as a whole while building the brand into a platform that's accessible to every generation.
Where are you from?
Aaron: I’m from New York. I grew up about an hour and a half north of the city, but on weekends I stayed with my dad down in Washington Heights. All of my family is from East New York, Brooklyn so every Sunday I had family dinner with my mom’s side. I’ve basically been in New York City my whole life, but I experienced suburban lifestyle too, so I got the best of both worlds. When I turned 21 I moved to NYC full time.
When did you start Brigade?
Aaron: September 26th, 2014. We hit five years a few months ago.
How did you come up with the name?
Aaron: I’ll try to summarize it because it’s sort of a long story, but growing up I was into skateboarding, heavy metal and stuff that was kind of against the grain with current culture. I was an outsider in that sense. On top of that, I’m hispanic but I’m white-passing, so growing up I always was made to feel I was too “white” for certain groups and too “hispanic” for others. I never felt like I had my own community where I belonged, so when I decided to start a brand I wanted to create a community for kids who feel like outsiders in their daily life. A great way to say community or group of people is a “brigade.”
What made you want to start a clothing brand?
Aaron: I grew up hanging around New York every weekend, and my dad owned a clothing brand when I was growing up. I guess it was also streetwear but his brand was catered more toward old-school, New York hip hop heads, like 80’s and golden era 90’s. I’ve been in this world since a young age, I started graphic designing when I was in 8th grade. Those were the forum days when Sole Collector and NikeTalk were big and I’d always find myself in the art and graphic design subthreads.
I used to save any money I got to buy & trade sneakers back then on those forums. Eventually I decided to trade, I think, 8-10 pairs of shoes for a really shitty Toshiba laptop. I’d come home every day and do 1-2 Photoshop tutorials for like two years. When I got to high school, I designed a T-shirt based around these AJ1’s that were dropping to impress my Dad. I sent it to him jokingly, and he actually thought it was solid. He said that he would sell the shirts in his store and give me $5 for every one that sold. I actually still see that shirt like once a year in the wild, it’s always trippy.
After they sold out, I had enough money to buy a Macbook from the neighborhood “off the truck” guy. After that I went full force designing every day, mostly for fun, but I started the brand in 2014 which was a year after high school. I got into a really bad car accident that year and came out unharmed. Everyone around me was saying the cliche, “you’re here for a reason” thing so I said fuck it, & started the brand.
Has fashion and art always been big for you?
Aaron: 100 percent. Both of my parents are from Brooklyn and my dad has always been super into the NYC fashion & art scenes. I was exposed to all of this at a young age. I’m super grateful for it but I also feel like an old-head at the same time since I’ve been around this scene since I was little. It’s a weird place to be mentally.
How was your recent trip to Oregon for the popup with Heir Portland?
Aaron: That was honestly pretty surreal. Going to Oregon was crazy. I feel we have a strong internet presence, but as a brand we needed to interact with more people in real life. So that was our first crack at it and it was all love out there. Portland is one of my favorite cities in the states.
What made you want to do a popup across the country with Heir ?
Aaron: One of my top priorities in my personal life and with Brigade is authentic, genuine relationships. Heir is co-owned by my OG homie Kyan, who I met on the internet in high school. He’s come to New York and has even introduced me to people here that have become close friends over the years. When I wanted to go to the other side of the country for a popup he was the first person that I thought of. I randomly texted him saying we should do a Brigade x Heir popup and, thankfully, he was all for it. At the end of the day, authenticity is just so much more beautiful and meaningful to me. Our generation has been raised on the facade of the internet so most brands don’t encourage it anymore.
Should we expect to see more Brigade popups in the near future?
Aaron: Yeah, definitely. After the Adam Zafrian collab, we’ve began building a small team of friends who really care about Brigade and Portland was our first trip as a unit testing our synergy and how we work together. That was one of the reasons the Portland trip was surreal because it really felt like a brand. I dreamed of this in middle school and high school so it’s amazing that we’re really doing it now. Portland was dipping our toes in to see what we can do with a small budget, and now we feel more comfortable moving forward.
Where do you draw inspiration from in general?
Aaron: Movies are the best, they’re the pinnacle of art in my opinion. They have fashion styling, creative writing, music, photography, etc. I pull the majority of my inspiration from movies, books, & music. Right now I’m reading "Mushroom at the End of the World" by Anna Tsing.
Talk about your F/W '19 drop 1 that recently released. What was the inspiration behind those pieces?
Aaron: When I designed the collection, I was obsessed with capitalism, consumerism and environmentalism. It made me realize that as a brand we have two lanes we can go down that are going to determine who’s going to be around in the future. You can either be producing a ton, or you can be creating things with a purpose and a function. It’s hard to explain but we’re trying to fall into the latter. We want to make real clothes with real functionality and longevity. The pants that turn into shorts have nothing hype about them. There’s barely any branding on them but they’re so functional and can be worn year round. I wore them every day for almost six months and even wore them hiking for a week in Colorado. They still look new. Something like that is such a better place to put your money as a consumer, it’s a staple piece. We also want to show people that we can still do “hype” while maintaining that functional, long-lasting mentality which is the design approach we took with the jacket. It’s an all-over print with a volcano erupting on it symbolizing mother nature’s anger that's caused by us and our acceleration of climate change. You can wear it as a vest in the spring and as a jacket in the fall, and it’s also water resistant. It was supposed to drop in the spring but it just wasn’t right, we sampled it four times and decided to shelf it. Sometimes you have to take a step back to go two steps forward.
What does your creative process look like when creating a new garment?
Aaron: For Brigade I try to design what I think my friends & I would like to wear in daily life. If it’s not that, it’ll come from something I see on the subway or walking and observing the world around me. With Brigade we always try to keep the mentality that simplicity is key. Our graphics aren’t in your face, they're tasteful in a sense. Our pants were very minimalistic and are a reflection of who I think I am as a person.
I love “rabbit holes” and that’s kind of the whole idea behind our design approach. If you look deeper into everything we do (our collections, lookbooks, tags, etc.) you’ll notice that we try to design specifically for individuals like me who love following the breadcrumbs. We leave them everywhere for kids to see and pursue in hopes they’ll end up down the same rabbit holes that inspired the collection, & help them connect with it even more.
Are you planning on doing a drop 2 for F/W '19?
Aaron: Drop 1 was inspired by mother nature, and drop 2 has a totally different inspiration. We try to keep an easy flow between the collections. We can’t give any details on our winter delivery but it’ll be a similar concept that continues the conversation in a forward-looking manner.
Where did you get the idea for the lookbook for your collection from this past summer?
Aaron: For that lookbook we wanted to build a photo studio outside in Brooklyn. If you get the sun in the right position you can fake studio lighting, so we wanted to do that while also getting urban life in the background of the frame. It was so hot and the backdrop kept falling over so Elijah, Orrin, & I ended up sneaking into a warehouse in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. We didn’t have much lighting to work with other than the camera flash, so I was bouncing that off the walls and set up a studio backdrop in a random stairwell in the warehouse where we didn’t think anyone would walk by. We shot the whole thing in 15 minutes in en effort to not get caught. It was a similar concept with pipes and industrial architecture as a juxtoposition behind the backdrop but the lighting was terrible.
I was absolutely losing my mind working on the edits for 3-4 days. After the third or fourth day in Lightroom I ended up distorting the photo and bringing the shadowpoint all the way up on the tone curve out of frustration. If you have any experience with Lightroom you know that destroys everything. I was feeling really defeated but staring at it I realized it looked interesting. Thankfully I shot it on a backdrop because I was able to take Orrin out, replicate the backdrop so that it looked like it was shot in a full studio, save it and overlay it on the destroyed photo. I changed the hue of the destruction to purple and saved it the day before it was supposed to be posted.
We have a saying here at the Brigade headquarters that everything we do is “by the skin of our teeth.” No matter how hard we prepare for something shit usually hits the fan. We definitely work well under pressure.
What appeals to you about coming up with something creative and unique for your lookbooks?
Aaron: We believe it gives us the opportunity to express ourselves as a brand further than with just the clothes. We do things that we believe are important and when we have something to say, we say it. We feel it gives us an outlet to drive our message deeper.
Where did you get the idea for the 500 piece puzzle you released with Adam Zafrian earlier this year?
Aaron: Originally we were going to do a rug, jacket, and a T-shirt, but all the rug manufacturers said no to our idea and thought we were insane so we had to figure something else out. Adam and I were driving upstate to meet up with Angelo Estrada to film a teaser video for the drop. During the drive we were spitballing ideas since we felt the accessory had to be something no one else had done in our respective communities. We originally threw the idea around about making an affordable print but I started thinking of the letter fridge magnets that kids play with, and that led to the thought of using your hands to put things together. Following that, I got the idea to put together a print with your hands. I told him we should make a puzzle and his jaw dropped. We really wanted to make affordable artwork for people who wanted an Adam Zafrian piece but didn’t have the $500-2000 to spend on it.
Are there any other accessories, mediums, or garments you want to experiment with in the future?
Aaron: We have a really nice accessory for drop 2 that I’m excited about. It’s made in the USA and I’ve had the sample for like two months now so it’s killing me. It was made by people who are doing things for some of the biggest brands in the world right now so it’s been humbling working with them. Besides that, we love to do weird accessories like the puzzle we did. We’re growing but it’s hard to be risky as an independent brand. We’re also working with some interesting fabrics for future collections. Hopefully I can wrap my head around them & execute in time.
Are there any other designers, artists, or brands you want to work with?
Aaron: I want to work with all my friends. I’m really into the idea of collaborating with artists that aren’t necessarily “brands” in a sense. I really love to work with people who inspire me that aren’t doing clothing and being able to translate their ideas, beliefs, and aesthetics into clothing. Exactly what we did with Adam, we turned one of our favorite pieces of his into a work jacket. We want to help kids understand new things through a medium we know best, clothing.
What should we expect to see next from Brigade?
Aaron: We’re really just trying to go out of 2019 with a bang and we want to see where we’re at after drop 2 mentally and financially and then go from there. We want to continue doing in-person events too. We want to get Brigade to the point next year where we can focus more on the Book Society as well. We started a blog about books which is awesome, but we would love to do in-person fundraisers through the sub brand and things of that nature next year.
What is the Brigade Book Society?
Aaron: Two years ago my personal page wasn’t on private and I was more active, and on my story I challenged myself to read a book a week for a year. I was using the story as social pressure to hold me accountable, and every week I dropped a weird book review on the story. It got to the point where I would post something and kids would be asking where the book review was for that week. It definitely held me accountable and I ended up reading more than a book a week that year which was life changing. Brigade Book Society became its own little community since then & we keep up with it on the blog via book reviews by other writers.
What do you want Brigade to become?
Aaron: I think the goal is to make Brigade a platform and a subculture in its own right. We want it to live beyond us, for it to be way bigger than a single person or a group of people. We want it to continue to influence things and really just be a strong platform for kids who feel the way we felt growing up, even adults.
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