Chris Gibbs and Beth Birkett: Union Los Angeles

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Beth Birkett and Chris Gibbs. Photo courtesy of Niko Delgado.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis sits down with Union Los Angeles owners Chris Gibbs and his wife, costume designer Beth Birkett, who is also the owner of Bephie’s Beauty Supply. Gibbs tells Mitchell that to survive in the fashion world, especially right now, you have to have a specific point of view. He says that one of his greatest inspirations for Union was the way in which Japanese stores displayed casualwear as though they were on display in a museum. Birkett discusses her work as a costume designer for the film “Native Son” and she talks about her vision for Bephie’s Beauty Supply as a place to celebrate the beauty of women of color.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the Home Edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guests today are two people I'm proud to be talking to. I guess we can say they put the urban in urbane. They're the folks behind Union LA, Chris Gibbs and Beth Birkett. One of the things I think makes this place so interesting, and I'm not going to use the word curated, but I think it's about a sensibility.

Chris Gibbs: Yeah, you could use the word curated. We really just are trying to share our sensibilities and how we've been able to navigate not only the fashion world, but culture, Gen X, the downtown New York scene, and then obviously, for the second half of our lives moving out to LA at a really pivotal time. When we moved out here in 2003, it wasn't what it is today.  I think LA has become quite cosmopolitan. And we've enjoyed being able to navigate that and share and learn, too. We came from the New York version of the store to the LA version of the store. And the way we've been able to grow it in the last 10 years, I don't believe we could have done the same things in New York. So there's definitely an LA sensibility, too.

Beth Birkett: I totally agree. LA has changed so much since we got here. I grew up in California, not in Los Angeles.  Outside of Hollywood, Los Angeles seemed to lack culture, and so I never really loved LA. I always gravitated towards New York, but I feel like since we've moved here, in stores like Union and other streetwear stores have opened up, it's created this whole world that didn't exist here. The art world is here; there's fashion, and it's not the same fashion as New York; it's definitely a more laid back kind of fashion. But still, it's a culture. And obviously, LA has always had culture, right? There's Latinx culture; there's Korean American culture; there's Black culture, of course, but it was always so segregated, and always celebrated in this negative way. And so I feel like LA has changed a lot. 

KCRW: But one of the things that you guys do that I think makes the store a focal point, for, I'm not gonna say fashion, I'm gonna say style on the west coast, that's really become this thing that has blossomed everywhere, is that it's about fusion, which is, to me, really like a Black thing, you know? Finding that you can intersect Thom Browne and Visvim. I come to expect that it's your sensibility there rather than a buyer doing it. And it's also about Black culture as much as anything else, which often feels excluded from stores.

Gibbs: Yeah, it's funny you mentioned that. To be honest, I never thought of it in that way. But you think of Black culture in particular, and we'll take something that's out of context and make it our own. For us in the ‘90s, it would have been we're going to take outdoor wear like The North Face, but now it's going to become this very urban, hip hop thing in a weird way. We've kind of done that with high fashion, and that came through osmosis. It came through us having this boutique and selling really high end Japanese streetwear, which then butted right next to high fashion coming out of Europe. So we started experimenting and bringing in high fashion brands, but doing it in our way. 

KCRW: So often stores are kind of siloed, like until you guys, you really didn't see fashion footwear next to sneakers in that way.  And with Black culture, if you go to church, you see so many different kinds of things in there. In a weird way. I find myself thinking about occasions like that, where you see a Black family: the father and mother and grandparents and kids, and they're all wearing very different things. And with you, Beth, and the movie "Native Son," there's a scene early in the movie where Biggers is with his mom and his sister and her boyfriend, and you can sort of see the entire world of Black culture from Biggers' t-shirt to the boyfriend's attempt at being cool with an athletic top and a polo shirt and the daughter's striped sweater, and the mom's Kente dress, but that's what the store feels like to me.

Gibbs: We didn't do that on purpose, but it's kind of organically coming through. Inevitably, like one of the things I've always said, people think of streetwear as this other part of fashion. There's high fashion; there's men's contemporary; there's luxury, and then there's streetwear. And I'm like, I've never thought of it that way. Streetwear to me comes from: we're just seeing what the youth are wearing and trying to give people an arrow in their quiver to use through what we offer through fashion. We're not creating a new version, a new kind of silo of fashion; we're seeing what the young people are wearing. We're seeing what the streets are wearing. And we're making sure that we're trying to offer something up that can compliment that.

Birkett: I know I've always been inspired by street fashion, even traveling. I'm half-Jamaican and whenever I would go to Jamaica, New York, I was always so inspired by what the people were wearing. I've always been more inspired by that than even fashion. Streetwear used to be such a bad name, like everyone hated that name, and now I was watching a Maison Margiela documentary, and someone referenced how, Margiela was one of the first streetwear designers, and I was like, Oh, you guys want to claim it now?

KCRW: What we're talking about is nuance, because there's so much about the ambiance of the store that's about coming in and finding your own way in rather than trying to force it on you.

Gibbs: We've always thought of the store as, unlike other places, we want you to dress yourself. We're not interested in dressing you. You're not going to go into Union and be sold: oh, that looks great. We also like to have a personal relationship with the people that come in, "Yo, you've never rocked that out before. That's not really your style. Like if you want to change, cool, but it's not what I'm used to seeing from you," would often be something we say if it's not something that's fitting someone. 

Birkett: I know one of the reasons why I started working for James Jebbia when he owned Stussy was because I knew I could work there in retail and not have to be nice to the customer.  Like, you could be like, don't touch the racks, and people loved it because it was authentic; it was real. It's like going into the record store in "High Fidelity" and they're just like, "Oh, are you gonna buy that record?” You know, it was like that for fashion. 

Gibbs: It's important to note, James Jebbia and Mary Ann Fusco were the original originators of Union. We purchased the store about 12 years ago from them.

KCRW: All these things we're talking about here, which is about the myriad ways that Black culture impacts the mainstream and often doesn't get its due is a thing I've always come to expect from the store.

Birkett: Well, I think part of that too, is the fact that it represents so many other cultures, not just Black cultures. So that's part of what's made it different from urban fashion, and even urban music. It's kind of like pop music; it's more accepting of everyone because at least in the beginning of streetwear, everybody that was in it was so different and diverse. It was what New York City is, but it was a melting pot of Black, Asian, skater. It was a lot like the punk scene, except more diverse, where people were attracted to it, because it's outliers. 

Gibbs: A lot of the influence on how we actually run the store, truth be told, comes from Japan, where, early on, we were able to afford the opportunity to travel out there. And we saw these beautiful boutiques selling urban hoodies, and they were presenting it like it was in a museum. And I was like, wow, this is incredible, because I'm not used to our product being appreciated in this way. And we brought that sensibility back--there's the word again--and really tried to offer our products in a way that you're not used to. 

KCRW: Beth, I want to get back talking about "Native Son" in the way that Black culture can be its own thing and can also really be treated like art in another culture.  What you brought to Rashid Johnson's "Native Son" was that thing where you get to see all these aspects of Black culture, and you came up with an aesthetic to match what Rashid was trying to do, to make Bigger stand out, to feel like he was part of that place but also separate from it.

Birkett: I really related to his character, just being kind of like a weirdo Black person, wanting to just be your own self, but struggling to be able to do that because of where you live, your friends, your circumstance. I just really related to all the characters, even Nick Robinson. His character was super hipster liberal, kind of hippie, super woke white male, thinking he's down with the culture.

Gibbs: Sorry to interject, but I feel like because we're seeing these people every day at the store, you were able to really personalize it.

Birkett: Yeah, I feel like I really knew these people. And that's why, like I said, Nick Robinson's character, I put him in a lot of Carhart. And I wanted him to actually be more streetwear, and Rashid was like, okay, slow it down. But, even Bigger Thomas: I wanted him to dress punk rock because his character and he himself is punk rock, which is like rebelling against what you've grown up and been taught you should be.

 I really enjoy doing that, especially with Black characters, because again, you rarely see our complexity, and we tend to all be the same. Even down to Sanaa's character, I really wanted her in the morning to have a head wrap on. I really wanted to show how Black women wake up in the morning, because it's so inspiring, because you feel seen. I feel like the first time I even saw a Black woman wearing a scarf on her head was in Donald Glover's "Atlanta," and I cried because I was like, Oh, my God, I felt so seen. Like, most people don't even know that that's how Black women sleep. 

KCRW: There was this barrage of constant sneaker drops and when that happened, it was basically a signal that there was about to be a shift in the world. But now streetwear feels like product rather than invention, doesn't it?

Gibbs: Yeah, for sure. That's something that I think streetwear as a movement is gonna have to try and figure out. We actually had to have a little bit of an awakening in the last year or so: we kind of lost our way. We got swooned by Paris Fashion Week and traveling to Japan. So we've actually really tried to make a concerted effort in the last six months or so to make sure that we are really focusing on up and coming independent designers, particularly people of color, and making sure that they have a say in our store. Even the great Union, we kind of lost our way, too, in that commodification of streetwear. And I'd like to hope we're gonna find the balance; we're trying.

KCRW: We're at kind of a crisis point, where, what fashion is, has been dictated by circumstance more than any other time in our history. There was a time you used fashion to break out of your circumstances, but now, so many of us are in our places, and we don't go out. And there's certainly been a movement towards this in casual wear, but that aside, it feels like we're kind of free floating. And I wonder how you guys are responding to that both in your home and in the world you have to be in through Union. 

Gibbs: From a business point of view, it's become a little bit of feast or famine, and we see really strong designs and pieces doing well. We see really casual stuff doing really well. But a regular dungaree that doesn't have a particular point of view and isn't necessarily something you're going to wear to be comfortable around your home, things like that are suffering a little bit.

Birkett: Yeah, I actually look at it from a positive point of view. I think what it's doing, it's just reshaping how we shop, what we're inspired by. I'm actually really excited that a lot of small businesses have actually been doing well, especially in retail, having access to Instagram and having easier access to a consumer. The bigger the company, the harder it is for them to get back up. But the small companies like ours, we've been able to move faster, because we don't have all these people that work for us, and we can just make a decision, make a call, and then it happens. Whereas I find fashion and businesses that are more on calendar that are bigger, it's been harder for them to make faster transitions, and I think we live in a world now where people just want things, and things are going to just change faster. Even seasons. Like China: even now I'm working on collaborating with a couple brands and some of the bigger brands, they're showing me their spring collection. And I'm like, you can't even predict that far out anymore. Things like COVID, which are keeping us in our house more, obviously, they're shifting how we shop and why we shop. And I still think people are going to shop because they want to look good, and they want to feel good.

Gibbs: It makes me think of the recession that we went through in 2008 or 2009; it forced people to really pay more attention to what they were buying. And in actuality, our pivot to a more high fashion point of view actually came during that time in a really weird way where, before that, we were largely a jeans and t-shirt, sneaker store. Those became throwaway items around that time, and people were like, well, if I'm going to spend money on fashion, I want it to be something that lasts. I'm not just gonna buy a t-shirt anymore. So that moment really helped us grow into what we came to be, and I think it's happening again. People are taking time to think about what they're going to purchase, and I think it's forcing the brands to take time to think about who and what they are and what they're gonna offer. You have to have a point of view if you're going to survive.

KCRW: What we're talking about, again, is bringing a sensibility because when people respond to is a point of view, either to agree with it or to argue with it, but whatever the response is, they do want to react. And that's what keeps you guys going, isn't it?

Gibbs: We learned really early on, we would do some pretty experimental s--t. And we'd be worried that it would take hold, and sometimes it would work. Sometimes it wouldn't. But even when it didn't work, it got a reaction, and we saw that it got people involved. So it's something we've always tried to lean into: making sure that there's a point of view. 

Birkett: Yeah, that's why I started a brand recently called Bephie's Beauty Supply. I really wanted to tell the story of Black women and people of color that I've been inspired by. It's always been a thing about women in streetwear. We know that they exist; we know that they buy sneakers, we know that they buy clothes, but it's mainly men's sneakers and clothes. And it's been very difficult for women-run streetwear brands to exist, not that they don't, but it's been a lot harder. So I wanted to challenge myself and start my lifestyle, which is basically a take on a beauty supply store and what are things that represent beauty to me. I'm always changing my hair, as a lot of other Black women and women of color do, and so I wanted to create this place where I can buy my clothing and some beauty. The kind of beauty that I'm into is different than a typical beauty brand. When you put women of color into it, the whole narrative of beauty changes.

Credits

Host:
Elvis Mitchell

Producer:
Rebecca Mooney