Mike Cherman is the founder of Chinatown Market, a primarily online purveyor of cheeky streetwear with plenty of bootleg themes. In addition to aping high-fashion brands like Dior and Prada, the label also turns its attention to nostalgic pop culture themes like video games, anime, and cartoon characters.
But it also plays on bodega and convenience store culture in its gear, like graphics inspired by bodega shopping bags adorned with roses and just about a hundred ways to say “Thank You.” Cherman’s latest project is a collaboration with Puma Basketball, that strangely doesn’t have a ton to do with the sport save for some hilarious graphics.
We took some time to interview Cherman about this new collab, his relationship with basketball, and why he wanted to do something completely left-field to celebrate the return of Puma’s basketball program.
Let’s talk about Chinatown Market. It seems sort of like a mood board-type thing where you just make stuff that you think is funny, but obviously it resonates on a much larger level, with people who share the sense of humor and get the references.
Absolutely. Yeah, man, it’s been an interesting thing for us, where we kind of parlay and play back and forth on this whole bootleg thing, where you know, I’d say probably 10-20% of our stuff is bootleg or it’s like recreations or flips, and all that kind of nostalgia. And then the other 80% is really our original product and classic graphics like the “Thank you, have a nice day.” We’re doing the whole smiley license for this year.
And also a bit of Chief Keef’s merch.
Yeah, so we just did a whole interesting Chief Keef collab with these guys called WBG. They do a whole animated series. We tied in the merch with that whole collection.
How would you describe what Chinatown Market is?
Can you explain?
It’s the idea that Chinatown Market can have an idea at 7 a.m., it’ll be online at 7 p.m., and it’ll ship out the next day. Everything is done in this office. I have embroidering machines, DTGs, sewing, vinyl cutting, heat presses. The gamut of things that create product so that we can prototype and create a single sample, so we can send that out to a factory and then make mass production.
We’re constantly prototyping, developing new ideas, and trying to push the idea that any designer should never be held back by looking at a computer. They should be able to understand what the physical, actual tangibility of that product is so that they can understand how it translates to the market, not just looking at it on a screen or designing for your own ego.
How does the hand -drawn element of some of the graphics apply to that? It’s not all clean lines that are obviously photoshopped.
Because we want it to feel like it was handmade. You want these shirts to feel like it was a one-off, even though we may make 70 to 100 shirts. We’re able to still have that great feeling of it being made by hand. About 50% of the shirts on the website are also actually pressed within our office.
A lot of these things are happening and being done by the guys who work for us, and in return we’re also trying to put those guys to work for us on by building a whole little T.V. show for them; we’re creating personalities for them, and trying to let them be the brand representatives.
How did you get involved with Puma basketball?
I have a longstanding relationship with Puma from back when I used to have my brand ICNY, and I’ve worked in a bunch of behind the scenes projects. Funny enough, the theme of this whole Puma project was bootlegging Puma. We’ve been approached by like 10 big brands in the past month who are all asking us to literally do the same thing to their brand.
They want us to bastardize it, slap it in the face, change it up. Literally make it look like we just had a field day and invited a bunch of fifth graders to make their logo again. It’s funny, but that’s what makes it feel so authentic and fun.
Well that’s having a moment, right? I mean you look at Gucci, Fendi, and Diesel they’re making bootlegs legit.
Absolutely, man and I mean, you see all the fake Gucci shit that they’re selling legally and fucking charging the same money they charge for everything else. It’s beautiful, you know? The fact that a bootleg shirt can be readapted by a brand and then sold for $800 is fucking insane.
What do you think the appeal is to that sort of aesthetic? Diesel even opened a “Deisel” store.
On Canal Street! They had approached me for a follow up for that. That stuff I don’t get as excited about, because switching a letter for the name isn’t really that exciting, but when you see a brand like Gucci go and misspell their fucking name and put it on an expensive $800 garment, that’s when the juxtaposition makes it great. You’re looking at a luxury item, but it’s something that would be $10 from the bootleg market in Canal Street or Shanghai.
Are you a basketball fan?
Yeah, I played basketball in high school. I actually played until my junior year, I broke my hand and I stopped playing basketball and I started making T-shirts. I thought I was gonna go to a D3 school and play basketball.
I wasn’t great, but I was good enough to be able to figure it out and fucking play some basketball in college and do that whole kind of normal bro thing. But I fucking broke my hand, started smoking weed, making T-shirts and selling them out of the back of my car, and here we are today.
What’s interesting is that the Puma basketball collab it doesn’t have any basketball apparel per se in it. It’s very loosely tied to basketball.
Yeah, that’s one of those things where we wanted to take the classic kind of Chinatown approach, which is literally just making fun prints and simple products. We’re going to be selling actually our smiley basketball there. We haven’t even fully launched this yet. It’s gonna launch at the beginning of July. We developed this collectible smiley basketball.
So, let’s talk about the graphics of the Puma collection. What is happening here?
We wanted to make it seem like Puma was friendly and fun to wear. Would you really want to wear a classic logo t-shirt with Puma that says “NBA Draft” or has a huge basketball on it? We had to take Puma and make this digestible for a basketball consumer who hasn’t really bought something like that from the brand in a long time. No one’s thought of Puma as a basketball brand forever. No one buys Clydes to play basketball in.
So we wanted to take our classic style, the streetwear execution, and the bootlegging apparel kind of approach to basketball. This feels like what an AND1 would be, but without that serious character. It’s like a cartoon, fun, hand-drawn version of an AND1 dunk shirt. We want to make these things approachable and make it feel like a cartoony thing. That kind of jaw thing was actually created by the agency, which we then riffed on added the ball in there. It gave the whole idea of the Puma jaws and the powerfulness of that, and we literally had our illustrator draw it with her left hand.
Yeah, so that’s kind of the funny thing. The idea that some of this stuff can be done purposefully shitty, to look cool. The thing is, and just to be totally transparent, we do these graphics in a day. It was like, we did all this in a day and banged it out. It all just fucking worked, but I can’t say that there was a heavy amount of real design background. I mean, I know I’m doing this for press, so I should probably think of some really cool shit to say, but it was truly us literally just riffing in a day, 24 hours of “How can we bootleg Puma?”
That speaks to the zeitgeist, right? Kanye West is doing a whole run of last-minute albums. He shot his Ye album art literally hours before the album went live. You bootlegged his merch during his listening party. What does that say about the pace of today’s creative process?
That’s kind of the whole thing that I’m trying to build a business on. It’s no longer the idea that you go to a trade show, show a collection, sell it, and then you deliver it either six months or a year later. It’s gotta be now. It’s about taking an idea, executing it, and moving forward.
And I think that’s what we’re really doing as a brand and we’re really trying to be so much more reactionary, where if we have an idea, it happens now. It doesn’t wait. The ideas can’t be reserved, because if you don’t do it now, man, someone’s gonna come out, it’s gonna happen.