In Singapore as part of the ICNY Custom Labs Asia Tour, ICNY founder Mike Cherman tells us why he chooses function over form and dispenses some practical advice on the pursuit of brand self-ownership.
By Daniel Loy
Photos by Mellowedhigh
If the purpose of starting ICNY (I See New York) four years ago was to be seen, then Mike Cherman has surely accomplished his goal. The first retailer to stock the high-visibility clothing label was Colette, and soon a string of brands came courting collaborations. Despite the success, Cherman believes that the only way to keep the wheels in motion, is to keep moving forward.
It was literally an accident that inspired the birth of ICNY. What exactly happened that day?
I was riding home and basically going full speed, wearing all black. A guy ran out between two cars and I ended up hitting him and landing face first into the ground. I scraped the whole side of my body, with the inside of my leg cut open, and I almost got run over by a car. My bike got damaged and I had to carry it home. That was one of the worst experiences ever, and after that I asked myself “what can I do to keep myself safe?” I was working at Nike at the time and I had all these different machines that had various types of applications, so I bought some socks, took a reflective sheet and cut some polka dots out. Put them on the socks and that’s kinda where it all started.
No pun intended, but the initial product development period must have been a bumpy ride.
Because we’re continuously trying to innovate with reflective materials, we’ve gone through our fare share of mistakes. Socks from our first season had issues where the material was peeling off and cracking. After putting extra time into the research and development of our sock, it doesn’t have these issues anymore.
Comparisons have been made between ICNY and other streetwear labels. Give us your thoughts on that.
I always say that ICNY has more purpose than any of the other fashion brands that are coming out these days because it has function. Many people see it as a streetwear or biking brand, but the goal overall is really to push it as a sportswear brand. As a runner and a cyclist, I focus most on performance and least about the graphics on my t-shirt. Besides trying not to get pigeonholed, our biggest challenge is to elevate the quality, the function and the actual performance of the clothing.
Many labels have hopped on-board the athleisure trend. How does it feel to be one of the early adopters?
It was a natural occurrence for ICNY. For me, as a cyclist, I’d ride to work, get all sweaty, and have to change my clothes. I wanted to have clothing that I could wear no matter what weather it was, no matter how hot, or cold, or sweaty I was getting. That was really the biggest goal and ICNY achieved it. Athleisure wasn’t really a trend three to four years ago, and obviously everyone’s trying to do it now, which is natural, but we try to own it. We try to be the brand for whoever is looking for reflective wear.
On that note, what are some brands out there that inspire you?
I get inspired by brands like ISAORA, Outlier Clothing, The North Face, Patagonia and Arc’teryx. These are all brands that inherently build functional products, and that’s something that I aspire to everyday.
Last year’s collaboration with PUMA was a milestone for you. Who got the ball rolling on the partnership?
They approached us during our first year of operations. PUMA saw the purpose and function of our brand, similar to how Colette saw our potential and became our first retailer. The ICNY x PUMA collection and the multiple releases we did were very successful, and we have a few more coming out this year.
Do you think that there are way too many collaborations in the consumer market today?
These days, a lot of collaborations are meaningless. We have a lot of people who ask to collaborate with us, but I usually turn them down. That’s not to say that if somebody comes up to me and has a quality idea or business, I’m definitely going to work with them. If I’m going to collaborate with someone, they have to be doing something I don’t. We have to come together to make a great product. Collaborations should never be wasted.
Given that you’re a young brand owner and your brand is relatively new to the market compared to other sportswear labels, have people expressed skepticism toward ICNY’s potential?
I was already skeptical of myself in terms of growth potential. But we’ve done a good job to learn and get better and it only takes time. We are also trying to win back those customers that we may have lost earlier on, when we didn’t have everything together.
Before starting ICNY, you worked for Staple Design, Kith and Nike. What was the biggest lesson you learned so far?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s earned, not given. A lot of kids these days think it’s very easy to just come into this industry and do what you wanna do. It takes hard work, it takes finding a mentor — someone who’s willing to invest in you like you’re willing to invest in them. I worked with Ronnie Fieg, owner of Kith, on Kith’s logo, branding and a lot of sneaker projects, and the one thing I learned from him is that you can’t get pushed around in this business. You have to be aggressive. Some people don’t like Ronnie because he is a businessman, but he runs a tight business and a really good one. He’s smart, so I think first and foremost it’s always about protecting yourself and your ideas. Try to execute and offer your customers something of the highest level possible.
Has this Asia Tour inspired you in ways that Brooklyn hasn’t?
Of course, I think that traveling is the most important thing that anyone can do in their life. If you don’t travel, then you don’t see the world – you’re ignorant. You’re really only going to know what’s around you. Obviously there’s Instagram so you can see everyone’s feeds from around the world, but without leaving where you’re from, you’re never going to know what’s out there. So traveling to Asia has opened my eyes and given me a new perspective. I love coming out here.
Do you ever see yourself moving into a management role eventually, or is staying close to the ground the preferred option?
I hope that I always get my hands dirty. That’s probably the most fun part of the job. I can’t sit behind a desk all day, that sucks. Of course I would love to be in a higher position, somewhere I could play the puppets rather than be the puppet, but it’s about finding that balance and it’s not gonna happen overnight. Right now I’m just focused on building the brand.
You run a pretty tight ship at the moment, with three other colleagues forming the core team. Should you choose to expand, what qualities would you look for in future employees?
It’s always about having creative people in the team, people who are willing to grow ideas and at the same time, it’s also about finding people who are willing to experiment, innovate and aren’t afraid to be different. People who aren’t afraid to take feedback and grow from there. You know, I think a lot of people have a hard time taking feedback, myself included, but if you can master that, you can work in any team.
With so many young people aspiring to become creators of their own and perhaps even the next Mike Cherman, what’s the best advice you can give to them?
They’ve got to pursue their dreams relentlessly. Set a path and never waver from it. It’s important to know what you want and go for it.
Lastly, what else is on the cards for you?
I think one day I’d like to get into food and restaurants. It’s probably one of the hardest businesses, but I am very interested in creating an environment where I can feed people. That’s probably the most primal thing in the world and it’s something that’s so special. You can come together over a meal. But all in due time. I still need to master this business before I jump into something else.
Mike Cherman will be making custom 3M prints on ICNY and Flexfit products at Seek (ION Orchard), on May 7th and 8th, 2pm to 6pm. As part of the ICNY Custom Labs Asia Tour, there will be an after-party at Zouk. We’re giving out free tickets here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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