It’s almost a cliche now that all the cool stuff happens in Japan first. From Supreme to baggy pants, hip Japanese people seem to possess the perfect combination of killer taste, adventurousness, and obsessive drive to innovate that puts them lightyears ahead of their fellow fashion fans across Asia and in the West. Any savvy designer knows this by now, and would kill to tap into that Japanese market, allowing them to experiment with innovative products that those in the United States may or may not be ready for.
Enter Park Deli, a Brooklyn florist run by the husband-and-wife team of Michael J. Sclafani and Valentine Leung, who organically grew their local shop from skateboard seller to destination flower retailer on into a full-fledged apparel brand that sells most of its coolest stuff exclusively via Japanese retailer Freak’s Store. Not to leave locals hanging, the duo behind Park Deli also stocks a few exclusive items you can only get at their Brooklyn location, and even occasionally keeps a piece or two of its ultra-limited Japan-only product for lucky New Yorkers to snap up.
On the eve of Park Deli’s ninth anniversary and just ahead of its spring drops in Japan and Brooklyn, Highsnobiety got to chat with Sclafani and Leung about the shop’s history, their design process, and slowly growing their label into an internationally-coveted cult line, all while working with acclaimed artists like Mike Perry, and acting as a community hub for its own creative local scene.
You’ve just celebrated your nine-year anniversary. I know you’ve always made cool little things, like caps and tees and sweatshirts here and there, but how did you decided to ramp things up and release a full collection in Japan?
Michael: We both had fashion backgrounds. Valentine worked as a designer and had a collection called Valentine for a long time. And I worked in window display. And when we started Park Deli we really didn’t want to do clothing, but I feel like it was inevitable that it would happen.
So you started as just a florist, with a few odds and ends in the shop?
Valentine: We started as a skate shop, actually. In the beginning, we were more of a skate shop that sold flowers, but within two years we became florist that sold skateboards.
So skateboards first, flowers next, and then when did the clothing come in?
M: Well, I’d say almost from the start we had a little bit of clothing.
V: Well, we did the tie-dyes.
M: Right, the tie-dyes was the original. Valentine started bringing in tie-dyes first.
V: And we were like, “Everybody should be wearing tie-dyes.”…so it just started with that.
And then you basically went six or seven years just slowly building it up?
M: There were bits and pieces of clothing throughout the whole process. I mean, Valentine’s whole collection was all cut-and-sew. There were no screen prints or embroidery or things like that on those clothes. And at the time, we wanted to do hats and we wanted to do stuff, but it was really difficult. It wasn’t like, “We’ll just get some hats made.” Like back then, who the hell’s going to make them for us? So we figured out little ways that we could get stuff made.
So what’s Freak’s Store Japan and how did you link up with them to release a collection over there?
M: Well, a gentleman named Akira Ochiai who works for Freak’s Store came into the original Park Deli location on the super DL tip. And we had a brand going, but we really didn’t have a clothing brand yet. I had this weird habit whereby every time a customer would come in from Japan, I’d try to connect and follow their Instagram. For no real reason, with no plans. Who knew why? So, Akira had been in the store way back when and then when we moved locations, we made the “Windows” t-shirt and we started to attract more people from Japan.
After that I met this advertising agency and restaurant group in Japan—they sort of cross over—called Transit Crew. And I met them here at Park Deli and they invited me to come to Japan and do a pop-up in October 2016. And that’s when we started to build the first real collection. Like, we had multiple T-shirts, we had a sweatshirt, we had hats, we had enough accessories to really get by. The whole package. So when I went to do the pop-up, I invited every single person on Instagram that I knew in Japan that followed the Park Deli account. I went in individually to every single account, one after another, including Akira from Freak’s Store. And I had planned to check out Freak’s Store, but on the Saturday of that pop-up weekend, Akira came to the pop-up and reintroduced himself and then through Transit Crew asked if we would take a meeting with them to discuss the possibility of doing a pop-up with them. For those who don’t know, Freak’s Store is a select shop in Japan that’s been open for 32 years. It started out as an American culture vintage shop, that would come to the United States and buy vintage and resell it. Now they’ve expanded and they have 33 locations across Japan.
Can you describe what they sell at Freaks Store?
M: I always say the stores remind me of Ralph when it was at its height. Like, the best vintage furniture. You know, this really great, eclectic mix of new and old, but with a lot of great American brands too, and some Japanese brands. And almost everything in Freak’s Store is exclusive.
How many collections have you done for them?
M: Well, we did the pop-up with them last fall, and then Freak’s Store got its own version of Spring One, and then they’re releasing our Spring Two collection in April.
Is there anything new for Spring Two?
M: Yeah, there’s a brand new embroidered script tee and then a mock boutonniere T-shirt. You know like tuxedo t-shirts? It’s like that, but it’s just the boutonniere. nd then we have pile of new caps and they get exclusive colorways that no one else gets. Freak’s got a “Windows” tee in coral that no one got. With Val’s background in fashion design, we’ve sort of dipped our toes into cut-and-sew pieces for Park Deli collection, and we’re hoping to do more of that in the coming years.
Do you send skateboards to Freak’s Store? I know you make boards too.
M: We send boards to Japan, but to different shops. We only send boards to skate shops and Freak’s Store is really a clothing store. In Osaka, we sell boards at this really cool shop called Canvas and Co. It has a mini ramp outside the store, and it’s a family run business. They have a little kid and a dog. It’s adorable.
I know you’ve also worked with other artists, like Mike Perry in the past. Do you ever see yourselves adding an artist like that to the Japan-only collection?
V: Well, for fall, we have a Japanese illustrator doing and exclusive for us. Seiji Matsumoto.
M: But funny enough that you ask about Mike Perry, because we do have a Mike Perry x Park Deli exclusive collection that’s going to be a Freak’s Store pop-up in their Open Studio Gallery on July 20. So it’s exclusive for them in Japan, with a bunch of t-shirts and sweatshirts and socks. There’s a board, of course, that goes with it. Open Studio Gallery’s this really cool space attached to the Freak’s Store flagship. You can enter it by itself or through Freak’s Store and we went with this crazy idea of it really being a collaboration between Mike Perry and Park Deli to the extent that we want to transform the inside of the space to make it feel like you’re hanging out in Mike’s studio. For anyone that’s hung out at Mike Perry’s studio, it’s really cozy and chill. We want to bring that feeling and look to this Open Studio Space.
So most of the collection goes to Japan. Do you still stock a small percentage of the Japan-only stuff in the store?
M: Some of it. Most of the Japan stuff we don’t take here in Brooklyn.
V: But then we have other clothing that you can only get at the Park Deli store in Brooklyn.
M: But if Freak’s has a particular color in mind for a shirt, we may take a super-limited number of those, but we don’t always. It’s just a matter of if that special color they wanted fits into what we’re doing at the Park Deli store at the time. That’s how we decide if we’re going to stock any of the Japan stuff here.
But that’s pretty limited? Like you might literally have only one or two of those Freak’s Store shirts at Park Deli Brooklyn?
V: Yeah, it’s very limited.
So then, Park Deli was a skate shop first, then a florist, and now a full fledged brand, but it’s always seemed like a community center here in Brooklyn. Do you see your moving out to Japan with the exclusive clothing as part of expanding your community?
M: Yeah, I think so. Because now we’re planning this Mike Perry thing and part of how I’ve been able to tell Freak’s Store about it and share the idea is that I have my own community and contact list in Tokyo now. I’ve met so many great people and they’re people that I want to work with, who have special talents.So yes, I think community is there. We have friends in Japan that we can call on to create stuff with us and make things happen.
V: Park Deli will always be a community. For everybody who wants to experience it.
M: Together we can do anything.
Shop Park Deli here.