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Change Agents Vol. 3

Originally posted 9/01/14

TRUE Values :: An Interview with Michael Brown

When one thinks of San Francisco streetwear, you think of TRUE. Going on it's 18th year on Haight Street, and having expanded to multiple locations including Walnut Creek, it has remained an icon in the industry as well as an important jumping off point for many brands, including Adapt (TRUE was one of Adapt's first retailers). We are proud to have been welcomed by them in the SF scene and have had the opportunity to do 7 collaborative projects with them to date. We chatted with TRUE owner and all around string-puller Michael Brown, to try and delve into the origins of TRUE, it's current state, and where he sees things headed.

Evan: Can you give me a little bit of info about your background. Where you grew up, schooling, etc.

Michael Brown: Born & raised in San Francisco in the Haight Ashbury district, went to the SF public school system & attended SFSU for a hot minute. No degree, minimal units.

E: You were involved in the DJ scene in the bay area which I believe contributed to the opening of the store (if this is wrong please correct me). Was that a conscious effort to feed what you felt was a void (urban/hip hop-inspired clothing in SF), or was it more that you just liked clothing and wanted to open a store?

M: A little bit of both. In the 90's I was a promoter in the SF club scene, worked with a lot of the big parties & clubs going on in that era & eventually became part of a crew known as the Pirate DJ's. We threw a party called Cream of Beat, a big monthly hip hop event. Around the same time I was one of four individuals who formed a clothing line called King Size Pro DJ Gear. We catered to the DJ's & the emerging DJ culture. That evolved into a partnership that opened a clothing store named Grand in San Francisco's North Beach district that carried mostly local clothing lines. An opportunity came up from relationships created through Grand to open my own store on Haight street in SF. At that time the Haight, while being a busy shopping district, was completely devoid of any apparel related to Hip Hop. With the Haight having no representation on the apparel side of Hip Hop it seemed like a no brainer to me. Hip Hop music was my muse all though this journey & I knew I wanted to keep my connection to Hip Hop strong. The apparel side of it was a natural fit for me given my journey to that point.

E: What was the inspiration behind naming the store TRUE (not sure you can have a better name than that)

M: I had a list of names that I liked for possible business ventures & TRUE was at the top of it. The purity of the word, low syllable count, broad definition all are reasons why that name speaks to me. I actually presented it as the name for Grand but was out voted by my partners.

E: Describe the landscape of 'Urban' clothing in San Francisco during the early years of TRUE.

M: The word Urban wasn't being used at that time as a description, it was simply known as Hip Hop gear. It was a time of transition from adopted brands like Helly Hansen & Hilfiger to actual brands created by & for the music. Phat Farm was the clear leader for my peers while brands like Ecko, PNB Nation & Mecca were just getting off the ground. 10Deep was one of those brands getting off the ground at that time. Ecko wore the crown as the coolest, eventually handing the title to 555 Soul, who passed it on to LRG in time.

E: One of the best qualities of TRUE has always been it's ability to harbor and grow the development of younger brands, as well as have it's ear to the ground with regards to burgeoning labels. In my particular experience, it was one of the first local places to carry Alphanumeric, Triple 5 Soul, Freshjive, and other similar brands at the time. In 2014, with so many labels popping up, how do you continue to keep up with what is going on?

M: We do what we always have done, stay in touch with our customer & follow their direction. It's really the Bay Area, their taste & style which leads our path.

E: TRUE has been around long enough to see a few transitions in 'urban' fashion, from the co-opting of brands like Polo and Helly Hanson, to truly urban-directed brands such as Phat Farm, FUBU, Karl Kani, etc. to the more recent mashing up of cultures to create modern streetwear. Any thoughts on what particular era spoke to you the most, and were the most fruitful years for TRUE?

M: My personal favorites were early Ecko, 555 Soul & the first delivery in the first year of Enyce. But I would have to say for me Alphanumeric was the best. The Ecko, 555 Soul & LRG eras were all great times for sales, we couldn't get enough of that stuff in.

E: When it comes to merchandising a store, there is always a push and pull relationship with buying items that you think will sell in your store versus buying items that you and your staff like personally or feel strongly about. These decisions can be very important for a retailer's bottom line. How do you make these decisions?

M: Customer requests & input, sales trends & history in the shop, employee feedback & historical perspective all play a part in the decision making process. It's not easy & usually someone gets their feelings hurt.

E: The internet over the past 15 years or so has really changed the streetwear industry. You have been along for the ride before and during. What are your thoughts on how it has changed it for better or worse?

M: Random thoughts: The internet enables anyone with browser capabilities to get information anytime, almost anywhere. This gives brands access directly to customers which is a good thing. The lifespans of clothing brands are now shorter than they were prior to the internet which is a bad thing. Certain online retailers sell all of their streetwear at a discounted price all of the time which has the effect of the brick & mortar establishments appearing to be overcharging. Bad thing for the brick & mortars. I think there are still changes to come with the internet as it relates to streetwear. The more internet savvy businesses will survive.

E: Many boutiques in recent years have focused heavily on self-branding and the expansion of their in-house labels. TRUE is a well known brand, however to my knowledge it is not sold outside of it's own retail outlets. Can you go into the reasoning behind this?

M: The boutique business becomes more challenging over time as expenses grow at a greater pace than the gross income does. Many boutiques find that the self-branding & in-house labels help with the bottom line. We offer the in-house brand to our customers only in our retail outlets to give them another reason to come visit the stores. The expertise needed to successfully execute a wholesale brand can't be the focus of a staff running retail stores, two different animals.

E: TRUE has a flagship, outlet space / shoe store, and Walnut Creek location. Do you have intentions to expand beyond these locations?

M: Intentions yes, plans ready to go, no.

E: Your father is former SF mayor and well known public figure Willie Brown. Have you ever had thoughts of entering the political arena in SF?

M: Absolutely not. While I think the world of my father & have the utmost respect for all he has done for the have-nots in his political career and all that he has achieved in his life I have very low opinions of the capabilities and sincerity of many elected officials based on my experiences with them. Half these muthafuckas would stab their mother in the neck if it bought them a vote in their next election & the other half are so incompetent they wouldn't last a day folding tee shirts at True. Willie Brown comes from a different era of politics where he was so superior to his competition that they actually passed a law called term limits just to get him out of office. They were so desperate that many of them ended their own careers just to get him out of there. What reason would I have to subject myself to that kind of shit? While I know how the system works I also know there is no fixing it. If you want to know how politics really works watch the movie Bullworth & pay close attention to any speech Warren Beatty makes in it, all true shit believe it or not. I got stories to tell...

E: By my count Adapt and TRUE have 7 collaborative tees together. Is this a record?

M: I haven't kept count but yes, I believe you hold the record. Let's make it eight.

E: If you had never started TRUE, what would you be doing today?

M: If I followed my other muse I would be in special event production, most likely a lighting designer if I had my choice.

E: What's in the works for the future of TRUE?

M: Keep doing what we do & try to get better at it every day.