Chris Gibbs is the current owner and operator of UNION Los Angeles, purveyor of streetwear, sub rosa Japanese labels, and all around dope shit — like its in-house line that doesn’t shy away from referencing his and his wife Bephie’s black heritage. UNION isn’t just a small business, it’s a family business — and it’s black-owned.
Given the current state of America and social unrest over the unjust killings of people like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Gibbs gets real about how he feels as the father of two black teenage boys (1:50). In the wake of protests and uprisings across the country, he also empathizes with the righteous indignation of many protesters.
In some ways, bringing streetwear back to its roots of community and culture might be the salve it needs. Hear his thoughts on how it’s become commodified (11:08), and ways current events have reinforced his desire to give back to his community (22:19), even if it’s something as simple as donating proceeds from a sneaker drop.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Jian DeLeon: Hey Chris, what’s up?
Chris Gibbs: I’m splintered and conflicted. There’s a lot going on, starting with Covid-19, managing the business in this tough climate, and dealing with the emotions of everybody as they kind of digest it has been challenging. But for the most part I’ve been up for it. I feel like my mental health is strong. First and foremost on my mind is my sadness, frustration, anger around yet another innocent black person being killed at the hands of police.
That’s really frustrating and it’s been hard for me to digest as this continues. Taking a step further, I’m the father of two teenage black boys. So I can’t help but worry and wonder what the future holds for them. We’re a black family, so my wife and myself, how we’re processing everything that’s going on, it’s been very hard. And maybe I haven’t been as vocal as others because I’m having a tough time.
JD: As the protests go on and all over the world, people always want to talk about looting and destruction. But as you pointed out on your Instagram, that distracts us from the real issues of systemic racism as it applies to police brutality.
CG: It’s a complete distraction from what’s really important to be talked about, which is how we change the systematic racism and abuse in this country. The looting is nothing in comparison to that being the problem. So what I’ve been trying to do, and what that Instagram post tried to do, is reverse that.
The looting is prevalent and seemingly what everybody wants to talk about. Okay, so let’s have that conversation and let me steer it back to police brutality, systemic racism and inequality in this country. That’s what I want to talk about. I really appreciate the heartfelt outreach out that we’ve gotten from friends all over the world, my community. I know it’s honest and earnest, and I appreciate it. I’m not trying to belittle that. What I’m trying to do is say: “I’m okay, but I’m not going to be okay if police brutality continues.”
JD: It’s a new conversation. Not only is streetwear built on black culture, the reason why UNION exists is because fashion world didn’t speak to this audience and didn’t include them. The whole reason why streetwear exists is because it was creating clothes for an underserved audience that fashion didn’t give a fuck about.
CG: Yes, and now we do have a voice. We’ve worked for the last 30 years to build that, but now what are we going to use that voice for? I think our culture — if you want to call it streetwear — has been better than most from the fashion lens at using that voice for good. But we can always be better. We can always strive to get even better and do more. And I think right now is a chance for us to do that.
I always think about how you can’t have good without evil. They just don’t exist without each other. Right now there’s some bad going on, but I’m also seeing these young people exercising their voices. Maybe we don’t like what all of they are saying or doing, but I appreciate the power that we’re seeing, even through the lens of this thing that we deem to be negative, which is the looting. That’s happening because we have a voice, we’re trying to express it, and the people in power aren’t listening. So we’re acting out.
JD: In a way, this whole community was never just about clothes. It was about what are the conditions, ideas, and values that inform how we dress ourselves. Hopefully that’s what kids pick up on.
CG: This movement has always been about expression. For the longest time we didn’t have a way to express ourselves or our individuality. Streetwear gave us that canvas through the lens of fashion, then it moved on to music and art, and now it’s a full-blown cultural explosion. So I do agree.
Unfortunately as streetwear has evolved, it’s become commodified, and maybe that commodification is taking over from the culture. I hope we can first and foremost talk about justice, but also maybe take some steps back to making streetwear more about the culture and less about the commodification.
JD: This week we also saw that social media blackout with people posting tiles. In a sense it was performative, but I feel people gotta realize this should be the beginning. This is a lifelong thing that you’ve got to commit to.
CG: I get that some people are going to use that to be like: “I did my blackout post. I’m done. I’ve contributed. It’s over.” For others I hope it’s just one of the many things in the quiver that they’re using. We chose to do that today and I told my staff not to come in today. My hope is that my staff is going to use that extra time to get involved in the movement.
JD: What other ways is UNION now getting more involved in the local community?
CG: I want long-lasting effective change. The things I’m looking into and want to commit to are bigger. Yes, we’re probably going to do a T-shirt or two, but that’s only part of the solution. I got on a call with about six or seven business owners that were affected by what’s happening in LA right now — most of them had their stores looted — and I’m proud to say that the conversation was not about the looting at all.
It was more about — whether we wanted to or not, we’ve been injected into this conversation. We’ve been entered into this conversation, so what are we going to do about it? Are we going to sit here and bitch and moan about getting looted? I’m not. You put me into this? All right. I’m going to be a part of the solution. In the coming days, you’re going to see programs that UNION has started — not just for the next month or two, but for as long as we exist.
We have a big release coming at the end of the year for our next Jordan collection, actually pre-dating the protest, we already started talking about trying to take some of the revenue we’re making and really invest in our community. Admittedly, it was largely through the lens of Covid-19, and now we’re going to expand it. I really believe doing that is going to affect real, long term change.
Stay tuned for new episodes of Vibe Check every Tuesday and Thursday.