ICNY – Destroying The Activewear Stigma

Sometimes a brand comes along and every part of it just clicks for you. You understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and ultimately that you want a piece of it. ICNY is that brand for me, and it’s really got me questioning why nobody has done this kinda thing sooner.

Cycling round a city can be bothersome, especially if you have to keep changing kit to suit the occasion. So far, Levi’s and Rapha are the only brands I’ve seen that have married functional cycle wear with garments that you can actually wear to the bar. I don’t want to fuck about getting changed and having to take spare clothes to change into, I want to just wear one outfit and it to work for me. ICNY have done this, creating street and skate inspired garments that utilise reflective vinyl in order to make you visible when cycling, but not making you look like a one of those irritating by-the-book commuters that wear all the neon green they can fit onto their bodies.

I’m really impressed by not only this brand but also owner and creative director Mike Cherman’s positive attitude in general. During our chat he was keen to point out that he wants to break down the stigma that ‘activewear’ has, no longer is it for jogging Dads and cycle-bores, it’s for everyone and it should be inclusive and also stylish.

ICNY have already carved out a very strong niche for themselves and you’d be a fool for thinking other brands hadn’t started to take note and move towards a similar product. Expect to the see the big boys playing in this arena soon, but remember that you saw it here first.

How did ICNY get started?

I used to work for Nike, so when I was working there I got into a pretty devastating bike accident, I was hit by a Suburban [Large Pickup Truck] in Brooklyn, New York while riding home and was run over by a car. I needed something to keep myself safe while riding and running at night so the next day at work I made myself my first pair of ICNY socks which essentially was taking a Nike sock and embellishing 3M Reflective onto it.

That was the first step in establishing this stuff, getting it all going and really the whole brand started by me making products for myself. It never started with me making products for other people so the whole point was that this stuff was main to fit a necessity, not a want. Its the idea that you should want to wear this stuff every day.

What does the business look like now? How many of you are there and whats a typical day like?

The business right now is approximately four people, its me, the designer, sales team, which is one person and then we have a sourcing person out in California and then we have a brand manager who helps everything stay organised on the business side.

Typically every day I’m at the office 8:30/9am and I’m not leaving until 7/8pm at night, but generally I work out of two different spaces – a Manhattan office that I share with some people and I also work out of my Brooklyn print studio which is where we do silkscreen, letter press, art printing as well as apparel printing as well. Thats kind of where it started, the Brooklyn studio, and the Manhattan office is kind of a new step for us in establishing ourselves in Manhattan.

You come from a design background though right?

I dropped out of art school after one year, I was interning for a guy named Chase Infinite who happens to be the manager for A$AP Rocky. So after I got out of school I was interning for him at a small clothing boutique on the lower east side, before Rocky blew up. At the time I needed a job and I decided I wanted to work for Jeff Staple. I put all these posters up – they were the size of walls, huge prints basically saying ‘Jeff – I want to work for you’ and put them up from where he lived to where he worked, everywhere.

Two days later I got a call back from him, but the night I put those up I was arrested. I went to jail for 2 days for putting wheat-paste posters up on his route to work. I actually ended up getting his attention, I didn’t get a job with him but two weeks later Nike hired me for a job at the space I was working at before I got in my accident – The Bowery Stadium. At the Bowery Stadium we did all custom jackets, custom apparel etc.

What was the process of going from a designer to running ICNY full time?

I was working at the Nike space and from there I started working with a bunch of different people. Nike, adidas, A$AP Rocky, Supreme, Alife etc. I was doing freelance with any of these people, and I had a chance to work with these people and learn more, gain knowledge and through that I realised I needed a real gig. I realised ICNY was something I was making for myself and for a few friends of mine as a solution for my everyday so I said hey, why not? I’ll pursue ICNY alongside my freelance, and after that the Nike Store closed. So I was kinda stuck with ICNY and my freelance.

All my freelance money went to ICNY, and I was developing the brand that way. Essentially using all my freelance money to pay for the brand. Anytime I was getting a $1500 cheque from freelance, I would take that and buy a 50 yard roll of reflective material to then make clothes out of. It was constantly this give and go type thing where I was taking the money from one an giving to the other.

Have you had any significant hurdles getting the brand off the ground?

I started off making everything by hand, one by one and it took a long time. Really for me, it was about establishing people I could work with. And that took a long time as well, finding people who cold partner with me, fulfil certain jobs, and realistically I’m a graphic designer, not a business man. So I needed someone help me back the business, and thats what this guy, who’s kinda my backer and brand manager does.

So really the whole hurdle of getting the brand off the ground was establishing myself in the industry, but at the same time, getting a good team, as without a good team, you’re nothing, you know?

Whats the number one piece of advice for someone looking to run a brand? I worry people think it’s easy.

Find a team. As I said before, everyone tries to do it themselves and build a brand themselves and try to do everything with one person, but you don’t need to do that. As long as you have people that you trust and have grown around and trust their opinions and ideas then you’re fine. Too many people do it themselves and expect it all to happen immediately.

How do you balance design time and actually running the business?

Essentially my job is to design and run the business, so at all hours I’m doing anything from designing to making sure that a project is happening to making sure that a shipment is getting somewhere, whatever. Right now, because the team is so small I have to do a lot of different jobs. There isn’t a way to balance it, you just gotta do it all. Thats the beauty of being small.

I feel like you really hit a sweet spot between street and functional wear, do you think the niche has always been there or is it only now the industry is developing this way?

I think we’ve really found this niche in this market where people want something street but they want it to be performance. A few companies are starting to pick this up; Undefeated just did a really good performance line and there’s a few other brands doing a great job but for me, when this happened about 3 years ago you didn’t see any reflective on the market, let alone socks which is a whole new big thing. You just couldn’t find reflective apparel on the market, outside one or two pieces in someones collection.

What you’re going to notice this year is that Nike has an entire holiday collection filled with reflective. I definitely think we’ve found a niche and I definitely think we’ve caught the attention of a few of the big companies in this market. At the same time I think we’re going to keep forging forward on this idea of, not trend, but necessity pieces in life and how to incorporate reflective into everyday wear – so it feels wearable not as an afterthought. Thats the idea with this brand, to not only be all over reflective, not to be in your face, but for this stuff to function and for you to feel good wearing it.

How hard is 3M to work with, does it create limitations within design?

Absolutely, not only cost but also flexibility of the fabric  as far as stretch etc and to be honest, the more feature the fabric has the more expensive it gets. That’s really what it comes down to with reflective is that when you’re paying more money for a reflective piece it’s for a reason – that shit costs a lot of money.

It causes a lot of design problems because a lot of factories don’t work with it, it’s a very new thing for them to incorporate into clothing because generally it’s done on a small scale or done by specialty people. Now its got to the point where we’re trying to do it on a lot of different things, which makes it very hard but at the same time its coming together and we’re getting factories to start learning and getting better with it.

Similarly, does working with 3M create any new possibilities that you feel haven’t been explored yet?

Working with 3M Reflective has kinda opened up the possibility to understand the abilities to what stuff they can do. Outside of that it hasn’t rally opened up any new possibilities, but by us doing this speciality thing it’s opened up the awareness to other companies. There’s some big companies right now that we’re in talks with about collaborations and getting together on so potentially that actual niche trend that we’re latched onto and helped jumpstart has helped us get the attention of some bigger brands.

Have you consciously not done many collaborations, and is this something you’d be looking to do more of?

We haven’t been doing that many collaborations but we have been working with people we believe in, whether they’re in our circle, in the industry we want to be in, or they ride a bike or they run. At the end of the day it’s just about active people. We don’t want to come out with a product just to come out with a product, most of the time its about having a reason and a story. We’re taking it one step at a time and trying to establish the brand identity before working with a bunch of other people.

With retailers, where does ICNY sit? Streetwear stores or bike stores – or is the ideal a mixture of the two?

We see ourselves as fitting into many different types of retail. From boutique to large retail, for instance Urban Outfitters. We’re working with Urban outfitters in the US with an actual store inside a store called ‘Without Walls’, it’s all cycling and running gear. That’s one of our first bigger box style stores and the way I see it is you can sell in a big box stores and you can sell in a boutique and you can sell in a sports store. No three of those accounts care because one guy who’s shopping at the big box store is not shopping at the boutique, and the guy shopping at the boutique isn’t shopping elsewhere else.

I see the socks as a necessity piece, it’s something that people should have every day, so I don’t see it as an exclusive ’25 pieces made’ type shit. This is something everyone should be able to have every day. The apparel will definitely be a lot more limited but as far as stuff goes for socks and everything, its going to be readily available.

We might do special projects, limited releases to keep it cool, but at the end of the day, I believe the stuff should be available to anyone.

Do you think ‘active wear’ gets a bad rep, usually down to the stores its in and the broad appeal imagery that they use for promo etc?

The first thing I think of when you say ‘activewear’ is a dude posted up on the corner in New York smoking a cigarette wearing a full running kit, it’s like, what the fuck are you doing? ‘Active Lifestyle’ is what it’s turned into. I will say that activewear is very much what we do, and the idea of sportswear and activewear, but obviously its got bastardised over the years. We’re trying to make products that you can just jump on your bike and ride to work, and not feel like your’e bogged down with a sweaty piece of clothing on, you gotta have your clothes work for you, both on the bike and off the bike.

Whats next for you guys?

We’re just going to continue try and push the limits. More technical apparel, more technical fabrics, more trims are reflective, more piping, different experiments, mesh overlays, there’s a whole bunch of fun stuff. Spring ’15 is looking really good and we’re just going to sampling now so we shall see!

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