alife on music, streetwear and keeping it real
We speak with Jesse Villanueva and Manny Sanchez of ALIFE about their new collaboration with Puma.
Nestled in the heart of the Lower East Side, ALIFE was founded at the turn of the millennium and became a cultural touchstone for New York's young creatives. It evolved from a platform to celebrate the cities emerging artists, to a branding agency to a full fledged brand as well as the go-to spot for the elusive sneaker head. Via their legendary ALIFE sessions, the store has played host to the likes of Moby, Drake, Ghostface Killa, A$AP Rocky and more. The sportswear stalwarts recently brought over Queens rap duo Mobb Deep to London to celebrate their collaboration with Puma so we sat down with Jesse Villanueva and Manny Sanchez to discuss the brand's beginnings, musical past and bright future...
Tell us a bit about ALIFE's beginnings as a creative workshop….
Jesse Villanueva: Initially it was kind of founded as a platform for emerging and downtown artists in general. When you think back on 99, the era was the beginning of this whole new subculture. 360 Toy Group was just starting, Future and Cosmic were just coming back out. This whole emerging subculture was just getting another bit of breath breathed back into it. So for us, the store was more of a place and a platform to house and magnify artists that we're into, people that we're friends with, artists that were within the company. Then over the years, it turned into a marketing creative company, and then we started our own brand, and then here we are today. But initially it was just a place to showcase shit that we loved.
What was New York like around 99 time when you were starting the brand?
Manny Sanchez: It was awesome. I lived literally blocks away from the store. There were less hipsters! And there was no streetwear culture at the time. It was just hood.
So that would be the main comparison to now, the vibe from the street has changed into pop culture...
J: It's a whole thing you know, like you go anywhere in the world and it's a whole culture. Whereas none of that shit existed in 99. And it's funny because it was only 15 years ago, but like none of it existed then. Before all that resurgence of the old artists and the new dudes, it was just dead in that sense.
What attracted you to want to work with Puma on a collaboration?
J: We worked with them initially, in 06/07... it was dope. They let us do what wanted and execute the shit the way we wanted, which was amazing. We had the Moby/Q-Tip event in the backyard for it and that was like crazy. It's a heritage brand. A classic brand, a brand you grow up wearing, and then you get to touch that shit it's crazy, it's super humbling. There's a picture of you when you're five wearing Puma, and then flash forward 33 fucking years later and you're like wow, we're working with them. That's crazy!
And how has the internet's addiction to street culture helped or hindered your business...
J: It's a two way street, it's a double-edged sword. It's helped magnify us, a great percentage of our consumers are from out of town and it's a destination, and they wanna see the store and be part of the vibe. But at the same time everyone's attention span now is so fucking short. When you don't do something 6 months, the new kids are literally like 'who are these guys' and it's like dude...fuck you!
M: It kinda takes away from the mystique of it all. Back in the day, you couldn't just Google a store and find where it was, you had to go and find it. There'd be people who'd literally just like walk by the store because there was no branding.
J: Now it's like, I have a credit card, I have the internet, I can get whatever the fuck shoes I want. Before it was like you knew people, it was more of a community back then. But at the same time it's bigger business now, there's more guys in the game. There's a lot of people doing the same thing over and over. And hopefully some of that stuff gets filtered out over the years, because there's like an overwhelming sense of boredom right now with some stuff.
So people are too cool to admit they really love something these day...
J: But that's why you get into this shit. Someone before you was always better than you. And will forever be better than you because they did it before you.You love what you love and you do what you do, but it's because you love some shit and you love some people and you love ideas and you love funny shit and you love creative shit. So much I think 'I already saw that. Someone just did that. I know why you're doing it because it sold for them but it's like let them live.' That's their fucking thing. That was their idea, you don't have to take their idea. And if you do, give them some money or do a project with them; because it's not your shit.
You've brought your ALIFE sessions to London, this isn't the first time that you've brought it to London. How is music integral to the ALIFE way of life?
M: We all love music. The store kinda shifted from being just an art thing and graffiti shit and having all the downtown street dudes, to having a focus on being a gallery, having concerts which is dope for us because this guy loves music, we all love music, we're all fucking music snobs.
J: I love shit that gets me hyped. Like when we first... you know we had [A$AP] Rocky's first show in the backyard, you know we were feeling those dudes. We were like this is rad, this is some new New York shit. You get those crews, Wu Tang, Dipset... A$AP's crew was the next crew...you want to support real fucking movements. When we heard King Krule we were like fuck I love this kid, we need people in the States to know about this kid. Dev Hynes, we were like dude this guy's amazing, this guy's a fucking genius, people need to know about this shit. So for us it's like a marriage of like the classics that we grew up on that make us do what the fuck we do. We quote hip hop artists all the time on shirts and their sayings, the reason you kinda dress the way you dress and walk the way you walk and feel the way you feel is 'cause you listen to certain music growing up. You know we're just fucking music nerds, we're all over the place. Like I wanna have a metal show soon, I want a fucking country singer...
M: I want a chick, I want a singer. I've been fucking on this for like the last couple years. I was super into Twigs a couple years ago, I saw her show at Santos [Party House] in 2010, it was before she was even a thing and I was like yup she's so sick.
J: Or Kelela...
M: Kelela, for sure.
Could you ever see yourselves facilitating a place where people make music?
J: Nah I'd just rather people make awesome shit! We're not those dudes man.
So there's two sides to fashion right now, or it's emerging that way... You have street wear brands, and you have high fashion brands that are kind of influencing, or imitating, sportswear... How will you guys continue to innovate and do what you do?
J: Just do what we. We just keep doing what we do. We're not chasing shit. Yeah you got high end brands that wanna be low end brands, low end brands that wanna be high end brands. And there's that weird dichotomy right now and it's almost like some schizophrenic shit. But like just fucking appreciate where you're from and what you do. The problem with imitating fashion is that that shit changes so fucking fast, that you're putting a shelf life on your product. But if you just continue to be yourself, you can run with that shit forever.
Who else would you like to work with?
J: I grew up loving Rick Howard, Mike Carroll, Tony Ferguson, Tim Gavin…[Sean] Sheffey. And then 15-20 years later you're working with them, like what I said about Puma, you were wearing this shit when you were little. Anything you were into and you've been into, it's always dope to be able to work with them. I can't name anyone or anything off the top of my head, but anything that you've been into...
M: Stevie Wonder.
J: Oh my god, if we could ever touch any guy, fuuuck. Stevie Wonder, oh if we could just do a show with him!
M: Black Sabbath
J: Oh I'd love to do something with Black Sabbath. You know just like people and companies that we love. We're not fucking, we're not that rad. There are people who were way more awesome 30 years before we were doing anything. Like that's the shit, it's cool. I'd love to work with... like the world didn't start in 2000. Anything that we love, anything that we grew up loving. That's what we got into this for.
Last question - is there anything notable you're working on in the future that you want people to know about?
J: We got a group of sessions coming this summer [in New York] that we're planning that are gonna be crazier than anything we've done before. I want to take it a step further so we're gonna be doing bigger shows this summer. Like Melody Maker and NME magazines in the mid 90s, there'd be like Suede on the cover, then there'd be like Mobb Deep on the cover, then there'd be Wu Tang on the cover, then there'd be Stereolab on the cover, and there's always been a back and forth between British and American artists. That's why we feel like London is the best place to kick off international sessions. But you know we want to keep doing them, take them to other countries, other places, and continue to work with people that we like.
PUMA X Alife collaboration is available now at Size?
Text Lynette Nylander