Julian Consuegra’s brand continues to march to the beat of its own drum, and there’s no other way he would have it. This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15, which is available now from our online store.
Meeting Julian Consuegra in the back of Scarr’s, the small neighborhood pizzeria nestled in New York’s Chinatown at the very bottom of Orchard Street, is to meet him on his own turf. Behind the register by the entrance of the shop a cashier dons a blue Stray Rats cap, made by the brand that Consuegra started when he was 22 years old. Further back, a bartender in a long-sleeve that Scarr’s made in collaboration with Stray Rats stands in front of a mirror plastered with the brand’s stickers. Past the workers at the parlor, a steady trickle of patrons wearing T-shirts, shorts, hats, and lanyards all made by Stray Rats come in and out of the shop. Almost everyone in Scarr’s, employees and customers alike, greet Consuegra, who is seated in a booth alone with sunglasses on and headphones in, vigorously bobbing his head.
Stray Rats has put together a program for Aaron Bondaroff’s pirate radio station Know Wave which is broadcasting live now, and Consuegra is listening “to make sure that I didn’t fuck anything up,” he says.
Curated by Consuegra himself and frequent collaborator Chris Cadaver, The Stray Rats Variety Hour features an eclectic mix of music, from Virna Lindt’s Swedish synth pop, to Denzel Curry and Lil Ugly Mane’s “Zeltron 6 Billion,” to a song lifted from the soundtrack of the NES game Mr. Gimmick. Both Scarr’s Pizza and The Stray Rats Variety Hour are microcosms of the space that Consuegra has created with his brand. Tight-knit, local, and the product of a seemingly incoherent mix of pop culture references, Stray Rats is the embodiment of the energy with which Consuegra moves.
Over the past seven years, Stray Rats has maintained a slow and steady build, growing from its roots as a cult label worn by those in South Florida’s hardcore punk community into a fully realized brand that has managed to infiltrate international fashion retailers such as Opening Ceremony. Despite its widening audience, the brand has retained the potency it possessed when it was only known to locals in South Florida. Aesthetically, Stray Rats has remained largely consistent throughout its existence. This is not a signifier of lack of growth or innovation (graphically, the brand rarely repeats itself), but rather the result of Consuegra’s aversion to cashing in on short-lived trends.
When it comes to clothes, Consuegra’s nature can be neurotic, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of old band, rap and streetwear tees. The designs he creates mix the context of the full history of modern graphic T-shirts with original touches from his own mind. Stray Rats’ style is grounded in pop culture, hardcore music and multiple generations of streetwear, all filtered through Consuegra’s lens. Drawing from authentic sources and the surrounding cultures Consuegra has immersed himself in, Stray Rats has emerged as one of the most prolific streetwear brands today, while still managing to avoid the spotlight of popularity and hype that has led to the demise of countless other labels.
Although he is now New York-based, Consuegra grew up between Pembroke Pines and Miami Lakes, South Florida, before moving to Miami itself in 2000. The son of two first generation immigrants (his mother from Cuba, his father from Colombia), he turned to his elder brothers, rather than his parents, for cultural influence.
“My one brother, Marcos, was into all kinds of different things,” explains Consuegra. “He spent a lot of time in front of computers designing and recording fake radio shows, making short films and drawing weird, gory Matt Groening-esque comics in his teen years. My other brother Danny was a South Beach drag queen who was obsessed with the entertainment world. Actors and actresses, movies, music, everything. He would always dance and put on a show in the house when I was younger.”
Marcos, who is 10 years older than Consuegra, and Danny, who is 15 years older, have a visible influence on Stray Rats. Through all of its collections, the brand has riffed on computers, video games and comics, and powerful female figures have been featured prominently in graphics since Stray Rats’ earliest days.
Upon entering middle school Consuegra realized that his interests were different from those of his classmates.
“There was barely anybody into the shit that I was into because of what my brothers exposed me to,” he says. He began to experiment with different cultures and went through several identities, searching for what connected the most. “I kind of got a taste of every world, but as you get older, you start streamlining what you’re into and what you relate to the most.”
Consuegra went through brief phases with rap, metal, post-hardcore, alt-rock, and other musical scenes through middle and high school. One facet of each subculture Consuegra was constantly internalizing and analyzing was the styles and outfits that were used to self-identify members of the tribe.
“I was really interested with how people dressed,” he recalls. “That was the gateway for all the things I got into. It was like, ‘Man, that guy looks fucking cool. What’s he into, what does he connect to?’ And even if they weren’t actually cool, I could still appreciate the kit. I was a very curious kid, and still continue to be just as curious.”
Through all the cultures he experimented with, Consuegra would fully delve in, preoccupied with even the minutest details.
“Sometimes I have to chill,” he admits. “If I’m really obsessed with a movie, I want to know everything about it. Sometimes I’ll leave all the extra stuff off for a later time, so I can come back and find new things to love. I never want the romance to end.”
This obsessiveness has made it so that Consuegra has a vast knowledge of obscure bits of culture, from which he can pull for designs. Occasionally references will be so deep that fans of the brand may go years without knowing where a design they have been wearing originated. This adds a true sense of discovery and reward to eventually making the connection to Consuegra’s source material.
Towards Consuegra’s later years in high school he finally came across a subculture with which he became fully enamored. “After a while I wanted to listen to something faster and more aggressive, because I grew out of what Korn and Mushroomhead had to offer me,” he laughs. “I found hardcore punk music through Poison The Well. My cousin was dating their singer when I was in middle school, and he gave me a Trustkill sampler CD that I would fully listen to later on in high school,” he says. “That was the gateway into the hardcore bands I would get into and it really stuck with me. Then I found that participating at the shows felt a lot more tangible than any other scene I was in.”
The ethos and unsaid rules that Consuegra absorbed in hardcore would later come to inform how he would operate Stray Rats, and in many ways how he would lead his own life.
“I couldn’t connect with the rap shows that were happening in my area, it just wasn’t my world,” he continues. “With hardcore, it was cool because I would idolize these older guys in the bands and they were right there, a part of a scene which I was also participating in. There was no ego or hierarchy. I always felt like a bit of an outcast, and to me the scene was a second home. The bands were always bringing that up, saying ‘this is where we all belong, it’s us versus them.’”
Part of Consuegra’s immediate attraction to hardcore was the straight edge philosophy practiced by some of those involved with the subculture, a mindset that he already carried prior to becoming engrossed in the scene.
“It was a label to have, but it was mainly something I connected with,” he says. “Having other people who felt the same way was really important as a young kid because there are all those pressures to do drugs, to drink, to fuck up your brain as a means to escape—but my escape was music and the scene I was involved in.” These ideas around community, acceptance, and an “us versus them” mentality would come to be the foundation on which Stray Rats was built. Beyond the brand, Consuegra personally remains straight edge to this day and maintains strong ties to hardcore. He currently fronts New York hardcore band Liberty, which consists of Chris X, Hardy Algeria, Chandler Mercer, and Tim Peacock in addition to Consuegra.
Aside from the sense of belonging that Consuegra gained from becoming a part of the hardcore scene in South Florida, there were several extremely practical connections and skills that he developed. Consuegra began to do design for several bands, creating album art, fliers and T-shirts. It was through a mutual adoration for hardcore music that he met Nathaniel Matthews online, who would later assist with lookbooks and design for Stray Rats.
Whereas other young brand owners often initially struggle to figure out the mechanics of producing T-shirts, Consuegra already had that infrastructure in place from his participation in the hardcore community.
“My friend Nick was starting up a new screen printing company in the garage of his house where he would print merch for most of the local bands and businesses,” he says. “He knew I was interested in starting a brand and because he was a friend from the hardcore scene it worked out perfect.”
It was also through hardcore that Consuegra started to notice specific pieces of clothing that stood out to him.
“I would see the older guys in touring bands wearing Nikes and Jordans pieced with band tees and Supreme hats. It was different than what the people were wearing in Miami and I was drawn to it.”
He began to apply his obsessive temperament to streetwear, learning its history, going through the earliest brands’ archives, and figuring out how he could acquire pieces. He quickly realized that streetwear was flourishing in other cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, but in his hometown there was a void. He cites Miami’s PERVERT as a particular influence, the brand founded in the early ’90s by Don Busweiler that was on the verge of widespread success prior to Busweiler joining a cult and disappearing from the public eye.
“There wasn’t a brand I felt I could connect to in my own city,” he says. “I loved Supreme and what they stood for, but I had a lot of hometown pride. I wanted my friends to wear something from Miami that they could all relate to.”
That sense of loyalty and pride is an intrinsic and constant component in Stray Rats’ character. Before the brand was even an idea, Consuegra had a support system and backbone in his hometown.
“Miami made me,” he says. “The friends, the people, all of that is super crucial to the construction of the brand. Miami is home, and it was important to make sure I represented that with the brand because the city is so much of what and who I am today.”
To this day, many of those involved behind the scenes of Stray Rats are individuals Julian met early on in Miami, from his screen printer Nick Barry to photographer Devin Christopher who has shot photos for Stray Rats throughout the brand’s existence.
For Consuegra, running a brand goes far beyond the act of simply producing garments. Stray Rats is intended to be a community, a space where those that feel otherwise alienated can come together. In 2014, that aspect of the brand manifested itself in the form of a show at Art Basel in Miami, where Consuegra was running a Stray Rats pop-up shop. Wanting to expose those at Basel to a world they might otherwise not be aware of, Consuegra put together a lineup that included Trash Talk and Denzel Curry, who were set to perform in the same space as his pop-up. The turnout was massive, consisting of a mix of fans of Stray Rats and the musicians as well as random passerby from Art Basel, and the show was shut down by the police before either act could perform. Consuegra conferred with Lee Spielman of Trash Talk, and the show was relocated the next day to a nearby cement lot owned by one of Spielman’s friends.
“It was an all ages free show, so there were kids everywhere,” says Consuegra. “All different types of people from the street wandering in, it was crazy. I thought we were definitely going to get shut down again, but we pulled it off.”
The show was a way to introduce fans of the brand to two different cultures, hip-hop and hardcore, and demonstrate that the energy was the same despite the musical and cultural differences.
“That show was really special because I got to grab people who might have no association to either of those worlds,” says Consuegra. “And I think all those people took something away from it. Not just gear but an experience, and that’s the shit that I really like to do.”
The most immediately striking characteristic of the Stray Rats brand is its name, which concisely captures brand’s essence.
“I went through a ton of names,” recalls Consuegra. “I had Post-Its all over my wall trying to see what stuck. I wanted it to connect to some sort of ‘underdog’ or something from the punk and hardcore scene. And the punk and hardcore scene had many references to rats, like the Rat Music for Rat People compilation, Subhumans’ RATS EP, Rat Cage Records in New York, and even more recently to my era, the cover of No Warning’s album ILL BLOOD had rats drawn all over it. I connected with rats and felt the brand should reflect that.”
Aaron Bondaroff, the legendarily shadowy figure operating behind the scenes of countless creative ventures in street culture, would help Consuegra get the brand off the ground with early advice. The two met when Bondaroff opened the OHWOW gallery in Miami. “OHWOW was also operating a bar downtown, and artists like Neckface would deck the whole space out,” says Consuegra. “One month it would be FREEGUMS, and then the next month it would be Cody Hudson or Weirdo Dave, and that was sick for Miami. I’d run into Aaron there and I would show him new designs and ideas and he would always tell me, ‘Yo start the brand already—if not, I will. Hurry up.’ He gave me great guidance and put me on to a lot of different things.”
In April 2010, the Rodenticide tee—a flip of the warning signs adorning the walls of New York subway stations that have been baited with rat poison—would be Stray Rats’ first release. Consuegra began selling the label out of his trunk, at hardcore shows and at OHWOW’s Miami bar.
“Most of the people in the scene were familiar with me and were my friends from just being around all the time,” says Consuegra. “All my close friends would show up wearing the tees and people started to grow curious as to what Stray Rats was.”
Around the time that the brand officially started, online message boards were still an important place where those with niche common interests could connect; Consuegra, who had been active on various forums, began pushing the brand on HYPEBEAST and the Bridge Nine message board. While the brand’s initial customer base was from Consuegra’s circle in South Florida hardcore, it was the forums that provided the brand a further national reach. Through the HYPEBEAST forums, Consuegra connected with Lucas Vercetti and Julian Berman.
At the time, Berman was frequently photographing a teenage Tyler, The Creator in Los Angeles, who had just released his debut mixtape Bastard. Berman introduced Tyler to Stray Rats, and the brand immediately connected.
“When Odd Future started kicking off I was like, ‘This is the exact kind of energy that I love.’ It was dark and fucked up but also funny and colorful, and that made sense to me.”
“It was this tie-dye tee. He had STRAY, where the nipples were, the big rat in the middle where your abs are, and right on your belly button it said RATS. It was one of my favorite shirts ever, I fucking loved it,” says Tyler over the phone. “That was the start of me really noticing how amazing this man designs T-shirts. I still think he has the best T-shirts of anyone right now.” In the background of the call, Consuegra’s cackling laughter is audible.
The energy at early Odd Future concerts was more comparable to that of a hardcore punk show than a typical hip-hop performance.
“When Odd Future started kicking off I was like, ‘This is the exact kind of energy that I love,’” says Consuegra. “It was dark and fucked up but also funny and colorful, and that made sense to me. Tyler’s energy and style was what I thought the ideal Stray Rats kid was. It all tied together so well.”
Throughout its history, Stray Rats has managed to connect to an extremely diverse array of artistic scenes. While its roots are in hardcore, Consuegra has made a concerted effort to ensure that the brand never becomes overly pigeonholed, so he doesn’t define it explicitly as a “hardcore” brand. Despite the wide pool of sources that Consuegra draws from, there is a coherency and consistency that he manages to find in each of the scenes that inspires him.
“You can just feel it. When that energy is right and it doesn’t feel like they’re out for your blood. It has all that same kind of weird, raw punk vibe about it. I’ve always found that those things strangely connect, all from very different worlds but you can find the same feeling, the same love and passion” he says.
The brands Odd Future sported early on were quickly catapulted into the spotlight, a type of exposure that can prove destructive to a younger brand. Consuegra, however, understood that Odd Future backing Stray Rats was a sign of shared philosophy, rather than a relationship that could be used.
“I’ve seen a lot of brands where those things happen and they start changing their whole identity, but Odd Future only made the Stray Rats identity more apparent,” he says. “It made sense to me, because Odd Future were the outsiders, and I felt that Stray Rats was the outsider compared to other brands.”
Many celebrity endorsements in streetwear are extremely superficial, stemming from trends and the pursuit of quick popularity. Over the years, however, Consuegra would continue to build his relationship with Odd Future, eventually partnering creatively with the group in several ways. Recently, he assisted Tyler with the execution of his GOLF clothing line, had input and a cameo on Tyler’s Flower Boy album, and helped design the stage for Frank Ocean’s festival run.
“I’ve always respected him as an artist and a designer. He asked me to help with the GOLF brand, because he knows that I’m crazy, and that I could help him shape the brand in a way that challenges and compliments his ideas and world,” he says. The longstanding bond Consuegra shares with Tyler has afforded him a level of trust that allows Consuegra to push Tyler outside of his comfort zone.
“All the new GOLF shit, this nigga forced me to go in my notebook and use all these little drawings that I hate,” admits Tyler. “He gave them a home. And if it wasn’t for him, a lot of this shit wouldn’t have been made because I see it in such a negative, very childish way. Julian brought it to a place where I could appreciate it and throw it on a T-shirt or a hoodie and it works really well. It opened my eyes to look at shit way differently.”
Tyler, The Creator
“All the new GOLF shit, this nigga forced me to go in my notebook and use all these little drawings that I hate… Julian brought it to a place where I could appreciate it and throw it on a T-shirt or a hoodie and it works really well. It opened my eyes to look at shit way differently.”
When working with others, Consuegra explains his creative process as placing his own personal filter over the direction that they have already established. This is exemplified in his work with Drake, for whom Consuegra designed the ‘Summer Sixteen Tour’ merchandise and later the cover art for More Life. Consuegra’s friend Tommy Campos, who works for OVO, asked Consuegra to send some potential designs for Drake. Consuegra looked to components of his own personal experience that had crossover with Drake’s style.
“Someone sent me a photo of Drake wearing a design that was identical to one of the tees we did, of the college arc design,” says Consuegra. “I’m sure he had no idea, but what I ended up doing was a rip of the rip he wore. At the time he had that diss track, ‘Summer Sixteen’ where he says ‘Looking for revenge’ on the hook, and that really stuck out to me. I wanted to encompass that same energy in the song in my own way. Nothing dramatic, but like what I would envision a hardcore band to do if they made that song.”
The design was an immediate success, with Drake launching a series of pop-up shops carrying the merchandise and eventually using a massive version of the “Revenge” graphic as the backdrop for his set on tour. Consuegra’s work with Drake managed to use hardcore elements without compromising their integrity, as is often the case when popular artists attempt to draw from niche subcultures and communities. This is a testament to Consuegra’s personal authenticity and connection to hardcore, a bond that has been developed through a lifetime of involvement.
As Stray Rats grew, Consuegra realized that personally handling every facet of the brand’s operations was no longer feasible. He started using his screen printer to process and ship orders, moving the operation that had once existed entirely in the living room of his apartment to a warehouse in South Florida.
He also became aware that he had hit a ceiling of sorts in Miami, and that to continue to grow the brand he would have to move elsewhere. Although the decision was difficult on a personal level, Consuegra understood that by expanding the brand, he was also exposing the values and Miami culture inherently embedded in Stray Rats to a wider audience. “I love Miami, but more than anything I wanted to learn more,” says Consuegra. “And I liked what New York was offering.”
Consuegra moved to New York in 2014 along with his friend J.R. Ewing, now the only true employee at Stray Rats. At 37, Ewing exudes age beyond his years. He does not come across as old, but rather as someone who has witnessed a great deal. Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1980, his parents moved him to Federal Way, Washington, a rough surrounding suburb of Seattle. At 14, J.R. left a broken home and immersed himself in the subcultures that would come to birth streetwear: graffiti, skate and various music scenes.
Ewing has an acute sense of modern street fashion gleaned from growing up through its genesis, but it would not be until later in his life that he would become involved with the branding side of things.
“In 1994 we didn’t have eBay, sneaker exchanges or social media to come up on,” says Ewing. “Back then, with no parental guidance or financial backing, you had to get out in the shit and hustle to make a name for yourself. “Streetwear at the time was appealing to me, but hustling made much more money than I would have ever made doing a brand. Then at the 10-year mark in 2003 I saw a lot of friends and street family having problems with the stuff I had been involved in: people died, people went to prison and the pitfalls of that life just became apparent.” In an attempt to make a change, Ewing invested in a printing business and then a storefront in Seattle. The shop, called Winner’s Circle, carried several brands including IRAK and HOUSE33.
In 2007 while under a lengthy house arrest sentence, Ewing reached out to FUCT and let them know that his shop’s order had to be delivered to his home rather than the storefront. The brand’s founder and owner Erik Brunetti found this predicament particularly amusing, and from there the two struck up a friendship. In 2011 Brunetti was looking to revive FUCT’s presence in the United States on the street level, and brought Ewing in as creative director and to largely be the face of the American branch of the brand. After he felt that his work with FUCT was complete, Ewing looked to take what he had learned and apply it to a younger venture with which he could grow.
Ewing brings a palpable sense of authenticity to Stray Rats. While Consuegra possesses a thorough understanding of graphics and apparel, Ewing has lived the lifestyle that many streetwear brands attempt to emulate in their product. “Pre the internet you had to participate to be part of what this culture is,” says Ewing. “To be part of skateboarding you had to skate. To know what was up with graffiti you had to take part in it. To be in streetwear you had to be in the streets. Nowadays it’s completely different. Where there once was respect instilled by paying dues and earning stripes, there’s a lot more respect being given out just on pure visual presence and people’s knowledge of preexisting trends. It’s hard for me to have respect for somebody using something as a costume, because what is the costume without having some sort of substance underneath it? It’s just air covered by a balloon that can get popped.”
Paying dues and earning stripes are the keys to garnering the respect of both Ewing and Consuegra. Stray Rats has only had a handful of collaborations, none of which have been with another streetwear brand. The most recent, with Scarr’s Pizza, is illustrative of the values under which Stray Rats is run.
Ewing and Scarr Pimentel, the pizzeria’s owner, both eat breakfast at Dimes, a small restaurant around the corner from Scarr’s. It was there that they met, and realized that Pimentel attended the same high school as Consuegra for a year in Miami. He was struck by the fact that Consuegra had made it out of his hometown.
“My little brothers grew up out there,” says Pimentel. “They went to the same high school as Julian, which is a school where no one ever makes anything out of themselves.”
Consuegra and Pimentel bonded over their mutual past, and from there began to learn about each other’s craft. Scarr’s is an important neighborhood hangout, with a cast of regulars who form a community. Mainly, however, Scarr’s is known for making a product that is good. Pimentel’s approach to pizza was earned through a lifetime of working at staple New York pizzerias, including Joe’s, Artichoke and Lombardi’s. Beyond his proficiency when it comes to making pizza, Scarr Pimentel runs the shop with the understanding that too much hype can be fatal to a place where the community is central.
“We’re not posting corny food photos on our Instagram; we don’t put arugula on the pizza,” says Pimentel “It’s just the stuff that I grew up eating, shit that I relate to. And it’s the same thing with Julian’s brand. They keep it simple; they don’t over promote it. People have to figure it out by themselves. I use the best ingredients in the world, but I don’t promote it. People think I’m crazy, but I want this place to grow organically. You have to build a foundation.”
The collaboration, which consists of a long-sleeve T-shirt in black and white, is a modernization of the preexisting Scarr’s logo. Pimentel trusted Consuegra to execute a design representative of the pizzeria. Similarly, Consuegra understood Scarr’s values to be in line with those of Stray Rats, and therein felt working together to be appropriate as one of the few collaborations Stray Rats has ever participated in.
“Scarr’s has that feeling of just wanting to make a good product, and not trying to force it down anyone’s throat,” says Consuegra. “And it’s a good environment where people can come together and feel connected to something. It truly is like a second home to me. Aesthetically and logically, working together makes sense.”
Stray Rats’ growth has remained calculated and measured throughout the brand’s lifespan. Despite high-profile celebrity endorsements and its close proximity to several movements surrounded by incredible amounts of hype, Stray Rats has managed to skirt the pitfalls that sink many streetwear brands once they are thrust into the limelight. Consuegra maneuvers based on a set of steadfast values which were instilled in him through real life experience, rather than an image he adopted online. The lessons he learned from his hometown of Miami and the hardcore community he grew up in have transferred into the brand, and given Stray Rats a true sense of integrity.
Despite the brand’s rising popularity, it is clear that Consuegra has no interest in maximizing profits by letting investors in or making Stray Rats overly visible by selling to a large number of wholesalers. Rather, he is concerned with longevity and continuing to ensure that the community that has grown around the brand remains connected and participative. While maintaining such a tight grip over the brand means more work for Consuegra, the fact that he truly believes in what he is doing and has no ulterior motives outside of creating the best product possible makes the work part of the reward.
“There are people who are like, ‘One day I’m going to win the lotto and my whole life is gonna change.’ And I’m just like, are you fucking crazy? Do you really want it that way? Are you going to be happy?” he says. “I love putting in this amount of work and having it be the way I want it to be. Nobody can control or shift Stray Rats in a direction I don’t want,” says Consuegra.
This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15, which is available now from our online store, as well as at fine retailers worldwide.
- Photography: Nick Sethi
- Illustrations: Julian Consuegra