Interview: Jesse from ALIFE on London vs. New York and how ALIFE has survived

Interview Jesse ALIFE London New York how ALIFE survived The Daily Street 01

Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

While the ALIFE boys were in town for the PUMA x ALIFE Sessions party last week, we sat down with ALIFE Creative Director, Jesse Villanueva, to discuss the journey of the brand and that special relationship between London and New York City.

Having known about ALIFE for as long as I can remember, it was something a bit special to be sitting with some of the key players behind one of the worlds oldest streetwear brands and sneaker stores. Jesse and Manny were both as New York City as you could get, from the way that they spoke to the way that they dressed and held themselves. It instantly brought up memories of chilling in NYC last Summer. For some reason I build up an idea in my head that super cool OGs of the game such as these guys will be very hard to talk to, but again I was pleasantly surprised as we fell head first into conversation, instantly starting to chat about British sub-cultures and how we’ve recently re-found our love for our own shit rather than hanging on the coat tails of American culture. It suddenly dawned on me that we had accidentally started the interview and I’d better hit record and try to regain control of the conversation before our time runs our and we’ve had an in-depth, off-record chat rather than done an interview or anything close to it.

I tried to keep elements of that pre-conversation in the interview, offering steering it back in that direction, as we’d hit on some really interesting topics. It became clear towards the end of the interview that the ALIFE guys weren’t just in London because someone over here had said “We want to do the party in London”, they really like this city and everything it’s about. It’s nice to hear, especially coming from New Yorkers, considering how home-proud they are (another similarity between New Yorkers and Londoners).

The journey of ALIFE isn’t a clean one and Jesse was refreshingly open about that, as was Manny, chiming in every now and then to back up or expand on what Jesse would say. It’s been a trial and error affair, as is usually the case with pioneers, but in a world where most brands portray an image of inhuman perfection in everything they do, I really enjoyed how honest the ALIFE guys were about simply winging it at times.

Hopefully, the following interview will be of use to those setting up or running their own brand in its early stages. That was what I wanted to achieve when I went into this and in some shape or form I think it’s there. Also, for those not looking to try and dominate the world through clothing, it should prove an interesting perspective from the other side of the pond. Either way, I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Interview Jesse ALIFE London New York how ALIFE survived The Daily Street 02

I read that you guys started as a creative workshop rather than a brand. Tell us more about that foundation…

Yeah, initially we opened in ’99 as a way to focus and magnify on artists, downtown culture, street culture, that whole era. You look at that ’99 ’98 sort of time – it was the beginning of another resurgence of art and culture and shit like that. Before that, there were certain artists that we’re amazing in the ‘80s and then they were back to bike couriers because there was no sense of art and shit being put back out there. There was nobody really focusing on that shit. There was nobody focusing on the dope little guys who should be big guys but they weren’t because the world fucking forgot, so the world needed to remember and it was just a matter of putting it back out there. Over the years, brands would ask for help releasing certain products and using us as kinda like a marketing vehicle. We kinda started the whole collaboration, co-branded thing through all that. It was just a way to project and be involved in the shit you loved, and grew up loving, and working with the people you shouldn’t be able to fucking work with, but were super hyped to work with.

And how does that foundation apply to the brand today?

Same shit. We still really look forward to working with the people we love and we look forward to working with the brands that we love, the brands that we grew up loving. It was just a matter of knowing who you are and what it is that made you psyched going up, or what it is that gets you psyched now, and having the ability to work with that or work with them or work with whatever.

You mentioned that working with the little guys was a big part of ALIFE early on. Is that still a core value?

Yeah. We’re still taking chances with new musicians. We hear something and we’re like “Fuck! This dude is the shit!” or “This lady is the shit!” or “This group is the shit!” or “This artist is the shit! People should know about this because we love it”. There’s still a sense of wanting to usher things in and at the same time working with the classics that you grew up loving, that kind of made you get into whatever it is you get into.

So after such a dominant start as a brand, you guys went pretty quiet for a while. ALIFE has recently come back into the limelight… What happened?

I mean, dude, look at it, the whole industry was just a bunch of kids that started companies and wanted to do shit that they love. Unfortunately or fortunately, however you want to look at it, we were the beginning of it. You make mistakes because you’re the first wave of people to do shit, you’re gonna make mistakes and you’re gonna figure it out. None of us are business men, none of us went to school for business, none of us are number guys [laughs], we just fucking knew what we loved and knew what we liked and unfortunately or fortunately we were at the beginning of it so we had to make mistakes. You make mistakes and the next generation learn from those mistakes and they typically fill the gap while you’re figuring shit out and unfortunately with the way the internet is set up and the way kids have the shortest attention span ever, they sometimes will be like “Who are these guys?” and it’s like “We’ve fucking been here the whole time dude!”. We just had to work through. Sometimes you gotta step back and be like “Oh my god, fuck! I can’t believe we did that! I can’t believe we were so ambitious with this when we probably shouldn’t have been so ambitious with this”. It’s just a bunch of kids who wanted to do some things. Fucking make some mistakes and figure it out.

In terms of those mistake you made, what were the biggest lesson you learnt in that time?

Sometimes don’t bite off more than you can chew. Sometimes don’t trust certain fucking people [laughs]. Sometimes don’t take people’s word at face value. Sometimes you need to step back and make sure that everything is a good fit, everyone’s a good fit, people are who they say they are [laughs]. It’s such a learning process man! There are a lot of people now in the game who look at it from a strictly numbers and business perspective and we’re never gonna be those dudes, we’re never gonna chase some shit because this worked. Fucking reaction bullshit. It’s just a matter of making mistakes and figuring things out along the way.

Well it’s the best way to learn, so they say. Slow, but…

It sucks! [laughs] Also, the economy took a fucking shit turn in the States for a second and if you really look at the landscape of what was going on in New York before that, there were a lot of fucking stores, there were a lot of brands, there were a lot of people and a lot of people are gone now, a lot of people aren’t still here, a lot of shops closed. We kept it moving. We’re still here. The landscape definitely changed, a lot of people disappeared because the economy got so fucked up and again, some people were at the front of the movement and they made mistake that they couldn’t really get back from, they couldn’t really fix and somehow we figured out a way to keep it going. It’s like the skate industry, you look at some of the earlier brands like a Powell Peralta for instance, where they couldn’t do anything wrong and then all of a sudden they did a whole bunch of things wrong. Can you name three dudes on their team now? I can’t! IT’s just a matter of things changing, adjusting, figuring it out and learning. Like anything else, we just kinda had to do that because none of us are business dudes.

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Moving forwards with the brand, is this new ALIFE a comeback or is this a rebirth?

I mean, it’s all the same people. Same shit, same store, same vibe, same city. It was just a matter of getting everything handled again, being able to fund the shit. It’s not easy funding shit! Conceptualising, production, all that shit requires capital. You start off doing amazing small little things and as you grow the things get bigger and the numbers get bigger, it’s a matter of figuring it out and finding the right people to partner with and the right people to work with. It’s still the same shit, it was just a matter of taking a step back and looking at things for what they are and figuring out “OK cool, this is where we fucked up, this is where we’re not gonna fuck up again, this is what it is, let’s go”.

You touched earlier on the internet generation having a short attention span and not really knowing the heritage. Do you struggle to connect with that new consumer or feel a need to re-educate them?

I mean, I wish we could. You really can’t. If you do re-educate them it’s almost forced. We’ve been here the whole fucking time. We were the beginning of the co-branding. We opened the first sneaker boutique in the fucking world. It’s funny sometimes, people will be like “Who’s this brand? I don’t fuck with them, I fuck with these dudes” and it’s like “Yeah, those guys were later. We’ve been here the whole time” and then the other thing is that very often we’re not chasing and we’re not super on-trend. It’s easier to make a short-term impact when you’re super on-trend and you’re chasing, but that sort of shit also comes with a shelf life. You can’t expect to be around long-term if you’re just doing what somebody else has already done because that’s their lane, they already got that.

Let’s talk about the parties. It’s your second Sessions party in London… Why London? What is it that’s drawing your attention to over here and making you want to establish a presence in London?

Dude, London’s the shit! There’s always been a back and forth between American music and British music from day one. You go back to the Sabbaths, you go back to Jimmy Page, you go back to those artists, they were all influenced by American Blues musicians and then they took it a step further and made it weird and then we took it and ran our way. There’s always been a back and forth. You pick up a Melody Maker magazine in ’96 or ’95 and Suede would be on the cover one month and Wu-Tang would be on the cover the next month and The Charlatans would be on the cover the next month and Mobb Deep would be on the cover the next month, so it was always a back and forth with the UK and with America. Core popular music has always been a back and forth between us and you guys.

On a smaller scale as well, people often compare London and New York. What do you think is the special relationship there?

It’s almost the same city; it’s way too expensive, everyone’s super cool, you don’t know how the fuck you’re doing it, I don’t know how the fuck we’re doing it [laughs], but there’s always been that back and forth and there’s always been that similar vibe and there’s always been that appreciation of real creativity. If you really think about it, how many amazing Portuguese bands are there that you can name? How many amazing Italian bands? There’s always been a steady influx of great music from the UK and great music from America. An appreciation back and forth, it sort of eggs each other on. There’s just always been a good back and forth. Similar vibe, similar shit. Even with the Palace thing, there’s another brand in New York that’s very similar and it’s a sense of ownership “This is what we are, this is who we are” and that’s what the fuck it is. I don’t see any other places really being able to do that with such an impact.

And do you think that’s possible now more the case than ever? Like we were chatting about earlier in regards to British culture reminding its pride lately. Would you say that relationship is stronger now?

There’s waves, there’s always waves. There’s always cycles of that short of shit. I don’t know. I just feel that as the world becomes more globalised, everyone becomes a homogenised version of what it is that’s popping, but I feel that there’s a great sense of identity where we’re at and a great sense of identity here in London.

Couldn’t agree more!

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Let’s move on to your relationship with PUMA. When did that begin?

2007 was our first round. We did the party with Q-Tip and Moby in the back yard. Back even before then in 2005 we had the release of a PUMA Clyde and Clyde came to the store. The reason you open a sneaker boutique is because you grew up loving sneakers, you grew up loving heritage brands, you grew up searching, hunting, knowing what it is that you fuck with and then trying to find the shit. For us to work with heritage brands that you grow up wearing and that you grow up wanting, it’s the whole reason you get into this shit. We wanted to open a store with special footwear because we love the shit, we love the heritage shit, and then to be able to make special footwear… it’s really fan culture. If you look at it from that perspective, it’s fan culture. You’re never gonna be better than someone that did something twenty years before you, you’re never gonna be better than someone that did shit thirty years before you, all you can do is love and interpret and keep it moving and keep that heritage in tact. It’s just a matter of being a fan and loving it and being able to work with people and artists and do shit that’s super humbling. Like in August when we had Rae [Raekwon] here… Dude, when I was in High School and ‘Only Built For Cuban Links’ came out, if someone was like “Yeah, you’re gonna work with that dude later. You’re gonna call him and he’s gonna come through” I’d be like “Fuck you dude. No way. That guy’s amazing!” Next thing you know you’re with him eating dinner [laughs] and you’re like “This is crazy”.

There’s a weird sense of arrogance now, where people are just on their shit, on their own dicks, these people were doing things way before you were doing anything, respect that shit, love that shit! That’s why you’re doing what you’re doing, because you love that shit.

That’s cool that that kinda stuff is still getting to you guys, because you guys have been in the game for a long time now.

Fifteen years man! That was the point of this project with PUMA, to really focus on it. Fifteen years is a long time! To be able to focus on what was special over the last fifteen years; parts of the store, parts of the culture, parts of the neighbourhood, parts of the people involved. That was what this is all about; being able to focus on what and why everything is special for us.

While we’re talking about the original store, what was the thinking behind the ALIFE Rivington Club?

Worlds first sneaker boutique with sort of Saville Row sensibility. Loving something so much that you want to elevate it. Instead of it being some sort of bullshit grid wall or some sort of bullshit slat wall with sneakers on it, let’s present this shit like the amazing pieces that they are. Presenting people’s special product. Presenting things that like minded dudes will get hyped about. We still get hyped over all this shit, we still find something and it’s like “Shit, this is amazing!”. It’s just about presenting something that you love from an elevated perspective because you love it so much.

And once you do something like that, something that changes the way things are done, because there’s now at least one sneaker boutique like that in every decent city, do you find it hard to change the game again?

Every city. And big dudes are now boutique-ie!

I don’t think we ever really have to change shit, as long as we remain who we are then you have a longer shelf life. You can last, like Independent Trucks! They never change their fucking format and they will be around forever because it’s a staple. I feel like sometimes, when you feel the need to change because of outside forces, you’re gonna add a shelf life to your shit, you’re gonna chase some shit and that shit’s not you anymore. Just keep it 100 from day one… from day dot! [laughs] We just learnt that from our dude. We’ve never heard that, we heard that last night for the first time! Do you say that?

[Laughs] Yeah, but to be honest I hadn’t even thought if that was a British thing or not.

It definitely is! Our boy said it last night and I was just like “What did you just say? Did you just say day dot? I’m taking that!” And that’s what it is! It’s a back and forth. I love that.