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Dismantling Cool

By February 13, 2022February 15th, 2023Uncategorized
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Interview

Sonya Yu

Photography

Ja Tecson

Photo Coordination

Drew Tucker

Brain Dead’s Kyle Ng Is

Dismantling

Cool

With its disruptive, graphic-led approach, Brain Dead takes its cues from post punk, underground comics, and the spirit of subculture as a whole. Read more as co-founder Kyle Ng, jack-of-all-trades, talks about how he sees no limits to what his brand, or any brand, can be.

Brain Dead’s Kyle Ng Is

Dismantling

Cool

Interview

Sonya Yu

Photography

Ike Edeani

BTS Photography

Ja Tecson

With its disruptive, graphic-led approach, Brain Dead takes its cues from post punk, underground comics, and the spirit of subculture as a whole. Read more as co-founder Kyle Ng, jack-of-all-trades, talks about how he sees no limits to what his brand, or any brand, can be.

U p until recently, brands were fairly easy to describe. Then came L.A.’s Brain Dead, founded by Kyle Ng & Ed Davis. Drive by their shop in Silverlake, and you’ll find that it’s a Dickies partnership focused on work wear and hardware. Stop by their Fairfax location, and you’ll discover a retail store doubling as a movie theater Brain Dead Studios and a restaurant caf Slammers . The crowds are laid back, diverse, and stylish some there to shop, others to hang.

How did we get to a place where brands actually reflect the multi-hyphenates they serve? The answer resides in Kyle’s very-much-alive brain, full of copious cultural references and a deep love for his home state of California. Yes, he can wax poetic about the power of graphic tees, Brain Dead’s early bread and butter, but he can also talk about gardening, rock climbing, roller blading, and pitching his ideas to big brands.

Kyle’s frustration with those brands led to the creation of Brain Dead’s spontaneous format. Every decision is made with a “why not” attitude that embraces the full scope of culture. Why be a brand that makes sneakers when you can create hiking clogs, climbing shoes, and roller blades, too? Why stop at donations to non-profits when you can create your own that funds a free climbing gym? Why make T-shirts when you can also make TV shows, music, ceramics, and rugs?

The list goes on. Of course, Brain Dead is doing some of what worked for brands before them, like releasing collaborations except they produce a lot more of them and have more fun . They’ve released pasta with Jon Vinnys, deodorant with Salt Stone, candy with Kolsvart, and surfboards with Gotcha just to name a few.

If you ask us, Brain Dead is a movement celebrating movement. It puts action and activity over traditional sports. It purposely defies what’s been considered “cool” and has social good built into its model. It brings people and worlds together, never dictated by what’s been done before. It’s the now, and it’s forever. Here, Kyle shares the road map.

SONYA YU Let’s start at the beginning. How did Brain Dead get off the ground?

KYLE NG Brain Dead started about eight years ago with my friend, Ed Davis. We wanted to create a brand that represents the culture and communities we love. I come from more of the mentoring world, and he comes from more of the graphic world and book publishing. We realized there was a cultural void in the community, and the product we liked was missing, too.

I’ve always cared more about the underrepresented cultural side of style rather than menswear or fashion. There’s been a very singular perspective on what’s cool or accepted, as if

you can only be sophisticated or into ratchet shit. Ed and I have so many interests across high and low-brow art, and we wanted to show that it’s about blending cultures. It’s about real diversity.

SY Where were you in your life when you guys decided to start Brain Dead officially?

KN I was the Special Projects Manager at Urban Outfitters, and we did some cool projects with people like Craig Green, Wood Wood, Kazuki Kuraishi, and Mark McNairy. I was looking at it from a more cultural perspective, like why people wear Doc Martens, not just the perspective of making diffusion stuff.

I remember looking at UO’s graphic T-shirts at the time, and the assortment just had cats with laser beam eyes or sriracha. I brought up how the product UO should be selling the most is T-shirts and that T-shirts represent culture. Young kids wear T-shirts based on their favorite musicians or other cultural connections.

The Internet created a new, open-sourced way of seeing and making things. It’s similar to the zine and self-publishing culture we come from. You could just have an idea and make something. At the time, bootleg T-shirts were popular, so I pitched an idea to UO for an open-source exhibit. The CEO gave me all this money to do it, and then the owner’s wife killed the idea.

SY Wow, so that was the context for doing your own thing?

KN It’s funny because Brain Dead was supposed to be for Urban Outfitters. It began as a project between a few other designers and us. Cali DeWitt and other artists did graphics for it. I had to push the destruction button. At the same time, I was selling to high-end retailers like Mohawk and Beams. I was like, “Fuck this. I want to take what I’m doing and bring it to high-end retailers where no one carries graphic T-shirts.” There wasn’t a crossover of Engineered Garments and graphic tees back then. I positioned it like,

“Hey, we’re not a streetwear brand. We’re a brand that’s all about culture and community. We’re selling T-shirts as a representation of our culture.” It made sense to a few stores back then. Some stores didn’t fully get it, even though they buy from us now. 

Now, we’ve gotten to a place where we’re more focused on programming our passions beyond product into experiences like theater, climbing, and skating. We’re also making content, movies, and hard goods like climbing shoes.

SY What have you seen change in the way people consume—from a cultural perspective?

KN People have realized that there’s so much product, but at the same time, kids have more access to it. People want to feel authentically connected to a lifestyle, and they can access that now. The mall look is dead. Brands have to think about what they stand for if they want to stick around. Look at the merch sold in eSports or the people who want to get in on Louis Vuitton now.

SY Speaking of authenticity, how would you define it in today’s terms?

KN It feels like authenticity hasn’t really been talked about since the Americana or heritage movement, where people wanted things made in the U.S. or that were handmade and naturally dyed. Authenticity is this idea of taking back culture from mass capitalistic consumption. We’re swimming out of our matrix hole. We woke up. I always say you should enjoy the things you do in your life and then wear the clothes you want to wear. Those clothes could be fashionable, or they could come from a scene. I love the aesthetic of someone middle-aged who wears a lot of pins in their hats or things they don’t even know look cool; it represents them. I love nice clothing, but most of the time I wear a T-shirt and pants that are fucked up because I’m skating or getting dirty. I often describe my style as “sloppy” because of that. I like baggy or slouchy stuff when I skate because it feels airy. I wear a utility vest when I need to hold my shit.

Sometimes, authenticity means being part of a culture that’s never had fashion or clothing connected to it, like rollerblading. It’s a real subculture and an underserved community.

SY How does Brain Dead approach making product for and serving these subcultures?

KN In the beginning, it seemed like Brain Dead was just graphic T-shirts, but then we were like, “Fuck, this could be anything.” Then we made climbing shoes, niche equipment, and everything else we’ve done.

“Cool” is a manufactured idea that comes from a very mono cultural perspective.

At this point in our company, we want to explore ideas that interest us and see how far we can spread the subcultures themselves. We don’t want to make product just for people who do the activities. How do you engage someone who’s never rollerbladed, played Magic: The Gathering, or listened to hardcore? Maybe someone saw Kanye wear our sweatpants, and then they came to our movie theaters and played Magic there. There are girls who feel it’s a safe place to just learn Magic by themselves, and that’s fucking cool. There might be dudes who never felt comfortable at the game shop who now have a place for themselves and a brand that speaks to them.

It’s funny because at literally any moment, if there’s something that interests us, we do it immediately. If we’re really into it, we embrace it fully. It’s easy to see that rollerblading is cool, so we go beyond making the T-shirt to make a cool video, make skates, make wheels, market them in a cool way, and identify people who would go super hard in them. We double down. It’s not like, “Maybe this will sell, maybe it won’t.” It’s just like, fuck it. Go for it.

SY Brain Dead has become known for translating that passion into not just products but experiences. How has expanding into these different areas affected your creative process?

KN Our process serves all parts of someone’s life, including areas we’re obsessive about, like food. When we work with Mei Lin, we make chili oil because that’s what we want. It’s the same with a mole sauce or dry rub. We just need those things. We got to a point in our assortment where it’s like, “Let’s make a wooden clock.” Clocks became one of our best-selling products. Then we thought, if people like our products this much, why don’t we just make a film or have a movie theater to show the films we like? We curated a few showings at a theater, and it sold out, so we kept going. It might look like a selfish act, but sometimes it’s a hammer or a bucket—things I want and need in my life. I love making sweaters because they’re timeless and connect to historical folk cultures. Everyone needs these things in some way. That’s where design becomes very simple. The lifestyle comes from our sense of self.

SY How has Brain Dead changed the way you think about what it means to be a brand?

KN Brands don’t need to be focused on just one idea, nor do they have to be singular. It’s more interesting when they keep evolving and constantly show that people are

dynamic. People want a voice, and a lot of brands are scared to show that they have more than one voice.

I’m into Magic, nerd shit, War Hammer, and Disneyland. But I’m also into fine art, ceramics, mountain biking, skateboarding, and rollerblading. I like gardening and fishing. Why would I stop talking about all that stuff? What’s the point of trying to look cool in one area and focusing on that persona instead of just dismantling the idea of persona and feeling real diverse?

SY Was there a moment when this shift in brands became more prominent?

KN Well, I think some of it happened during the summer of 2020 when there was social unrest, and people started to look at the real meanings of justice and diversity. Additionally, during quarantine, many people had their work setups affected. Maybe they were too cool for certain things, but they needed to get out of the house and do some activities. People got bored seeing the same shit fed from algorithms and decided to open their minds to different ideas, to go outside. People got into baking, biking, skating, whatever it was. They opened their eyes. Fashion is still behind the ball on a lot of things. They’re still doing runway shows and trying to fit into a traditional box that people have already been dismantling. Everyone else has already embraced going seasonless, doing stuff with video games, or celebrating other types of activities.

SY Given that sneaker and streetwear culture have become integrated into the zeitgeist, including luxury fashion brands, what do you predict for its future?

KN Exactly, none of this is a subculture anymore, which is so interesting. How do you make mainstream culture more interesting and cool? If we’re making films or TV shows, how do we make those good? People will ask us to do shows about apparel or fashion. I’m like, “There’s nothing to really talk about.” We have to show why something is cool or the people behind it.

SY How has being based in LA informed the trajectory of Brain Dead?

KN LA is more like an abstract idea than a physical location. It’s a perfect foundation because the weather makes it so conducive to culture and lifestyle. This is the hub of style and culture because people here skate,

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