“In my business, it’s really about who can work the hardest and be the flyest at the same time. Who can have that balance … It’s a very fine line in trying to do something like this and having it cross over and transcend. That’s not something that just comes over night and it’s definitely a voice that has been developed over years.”
Introduction & Interview by Theo Constantinou
December 15th, 2011 at 4:40 AM is when my journey into the UNKNWN began. An early train ride from Philadelphia to Baltimore, followed by a short flight to Miami International Airport to cover a story about a very dear friend and the launch of his retail store with LeBron James. With grand illusions of Miami’s representation in popular culture that was spawned from films like Scarface and rap songs like ‘Born N’ Raised,’ my expectations of paradise was nothing less than extravagant. And by no stretch of the imagination, my experience in Miami did not resemble that of a kingpin drug dealer or feel like a hip-hop video. Instead, around 3 PM the day before the grand opening of UNKNWN, I arrived at the store where I re-connected with co-owner Jaron Kanfer, my childhood friend, and met the other owners, Chris Julian, Frankie Walker and Mike Hurley. My initial intention was to write a story about LeBron James, UNKNWN’s launch party and the hype around one of the most impressive retail spaces in America; the next 48 hours completely changed this story line.
Upon my arrival at Aventura Mall, I walked into a 2,200 square foot store that was to open in exactly 18 hours and I thought to myself, how is this all going to get done? The answer to that question unfolded through the night and into the morning. With tensions high, camera crews filming the process and enough merchandise to dress all of Dade county, there was no doubt in my mind that this experience was going to be the first true test of the owners’ business and friendship relationship. Even as things were moving forward, the clock was ticking and it seemed as though for a couple hours the group was taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back. Then, miraculously around 4 AM and after an infusion of over $50 worth of Taco Bell, the group became this cohesive unit. Everyone working in the shop including friends, girlfriends and family came together, and the store slowly began to look like the space it was to become when they opened that morning. About 6 AM the sneaker heads started showing up at the mall, and although the doors to the store were covered, it gave everyone a heightened sense of anxiety and a true realization that the store was opening. Three hours later it was time to open and the group was not ready; there were a few minor details to be finished.
Although the owners of UNKNWN opened an hour behind schedule, it is their attention to detail, bond, and comradery that makes Jaron, Chris, Frankie and Mike so much more than just the guys behind LeBron James’s retail store in Miami. At the present, and in previous jobs, I have worked long nights filled with tension and dealt with people in times when it is easy to snap and blame delirium. These four guys came together, and with the help of their closest friends and family, opened a store that is shifting the paradigm not only in the presentation of clothing and ideas, but also with an originality and integrity that will be copied for years to come.
How do you find your voice, how do you keep it real, and what is edgy positivity?
Chris Julian: In this medium: art, direction, and taste is number one. Those come first, so I work hard every day, no differently than Jordan, LeBron, or the best heart-surgeon in the country doing the best they can. I work every day to see ways to do better, trigger 40 actions with one move. Rather than look 5 steps ahead, I look to move 25-30 steps ahead with the tools I am given and the cards I am dealt. A part of that is developing ones voice by hard-work and attention to detail. In my business, it’s really about who can work the hardest and be the flyest at the same time. Who can have that balance … It’s a very fine line in trying to do something like this, and having it cross over and transcend. That’s not something that just comes over night and it’s definitely a voice that has been developed over years. Making correct decisions based on what I’ve learned from other people, what I’ve seen in the industry, trusting my gut instinct, and again, staying true to myself.
As an artisan, I want everything to be hand-picked, heartfelt and imbued with vision. As a musician does, I want to reach hundreds of thousands of people. I think about ways to leave an imprint on lots of people in an efficient manner. It just takes a strategy and consolidation of resources. That is a result of my being blessed by knowing the right people and growing those relationships. I am committed to my relationships and assisting the people that I affect; I like to think of myself as a vessel in assisting people to find their dreams.
You are very connected to Akron, it is your hometown. Your clothing line Blessed Label is based in Akron, you went to high school with LeBron in Akron and your affiliation to Akron has led to business and friendship relationships. How do you mix the two not only with someone of that stature, but also with family and friends?
Michael Hurley: I am a people person but everyone takes me as a jokester. It is hard to come across as serious when I want to. For example, whenever I reach out to LeBron, he automatically says “Mikey, what’s going on?” When I want to approach him with something that is serious, I have to show him I am ready to do business. And as we’ve gotten older he has started taking me more seriously. And in regards to Akron, it is very important to me. While we are down here in Miami, I am always working for Akron. My family is there, my friends are there, and because I know nowhere else, I am Akron.
So Miami is an extension of Akron for you and you are giving Akron to a global audience?
Michael Hurley: Yes, exactly. When we came here there were questions about what is going to happen to Blessed Label? Shit, I’ll be back, I’m still from Akron and Blessed Label is always Akron. That won’t change. It just happens that we have a bigger stage in Miami and I like to say that I love to travel but I love coming home. We will be back, and are working on a store in Akron.
How do you re-invent yourself while always staying true to who you are?
Michael Hurley: That is exactly what we are trying to do here and why I am into fashion. It constantly changes and one can play with it. The way I wear my shirt is not the same way you wear your shirt, and I do that for a reason. We have our own language in the way we walk and talk, literally. The motto that I live by is, blend out rather than blend in.
Here is a quote I found by Albert Einstein, “The difference between what the most and the least learned people know is inexpressibly trivial in relation to that which is unknown.” … What does the word unknown mean to you?
Jaron Kanfer: UNKNWN to me is more than a job. It is a lifestyle. We are selling things that I use, wear, and are a part of my life so it is more than a boutique. It is the same to Miami. It is a new retail store to everyone. Once they come in and see who we are, it will be a game changer. It is a new beginning. A lot of people frowned upon us being in a mall and we are trying to break that mold with what’s cool.
But the idea of the unknown, that single thought even in your own life, what does tomorrow bring?
Jaron Kanfer: Well, that’s exactly it. It is unknown and that is why we create for ourselves. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring unless we put one foot forward and take the leap of faith by creating something new of which people want to be a part of.
There are a lot of creative people co-habituating the internet. Do you believe that, because the internet is so saturated with ‘ideas’ of creativity, that it has almost lost its originality?
Chris Julian: We are a catalyst in that we are going to be the first to bring creativity in a retail space at this level. And how sacred this culture is, and how protective people are about the subculture and this market, is to be able to present it to a mass market is only, a reflection of what is happening today. This is what is going to be happening in the future. I’ve been very blessed to organically grow my way into leading things and that is due to hard work, and I think that is kind of what you are alluding to. Relying on technology and substituting that for hard work didn’t happen for me. I’m definitely a manifestation of a lot of other people’s help and trust. So I want that to resonate, that sincerity and integrity; staying true to me is the imprint that will be left with all of the brands I work with.
Have you thought about your purpose? I have read a lot of books about purpose and finding oneself through the journey of life. Do you believe now that you have found the essence of your purpose in UNKNWN? I am reading Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces and just recently finished reading Demian by Herman Hesse, books that speak on the journey that is life.
Chris Julian: That is a part of the logo and the thought process of the logo. The logo is our path and that is the unknown path. I mean as far as purpose is concerned, absolutely.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” What are your thoughts?
Frankie Walker: I think the struggle that we have in front of us is an unfamiliar territory. The long nights and hard work of the opening of our first retail shop is something we have never done before. Suffering in this sense is something we would prefer. We’ve experienced the struggles of what we are used to for long enough and we are really excited to try something different even if it means new struggles.
Michael Hurley: To succeed you have to step outside of your comfort zone, if you are too comfortable then you are not growing and you are always going to remain what you are. And to make a change, you have to change. Back to us talking about Akron, I love Akron, so for me coming here it was this bittersweet moment, but I knew it was what I had to do.
Chris Julian: I think that the unknown does have a negative connotation to the masses. Referring to the paradigm shift we discussed earlier, and finding a way to bridge those two, to make it be positive and more meaningful. Ultimately, that is life in general, this is only a metaphor, and only a reflection of what life is especially for me. Clothes are just a bridge to connecting with peoples’ sensibilities, and hopefully enriching their lives and making them feel better; all of those philanthropic things that come with clothing. These exterior layers that help you, and so yeah that is a great quote, but I do feel that times are changing and the people with whom I am affiliated are in decision making positions and are looking to do more with their influence. In my perspective, influence is really about changing lives and connecting people. That is what all this is about to me and that is why it has grown. For me, it started with 900 square feet in Las Vegas in 2005. I remember it like yesterday, and now its 2,200 square feet in one of the largest malls in America. I’m a living testament to speaking my world into fruition and the power of words. The power of thinking and the power of thought, its real, it is absolutely real.