Interview: The Cosmic Utility of Brain Dead
Global collective Brain Dead are far, far from creatively catatonic. Recently connecting with Reebok for the interstellar Zig Kinetica II, Brain Dead’s effervescent energy has seen them launch the Chuck 70, Beatnik, Pump, Classic Leather, a Clog, and even a climbing shoe – all in the last 12 months! We hooked-up with creative director and co-founder Kyle Ng to chat about sneaker functionality, the social responsibility of a brand, and the fever-dream futurism of Reebok in the 1990s.
Strap in: It’s time to head to the stars.
Congratulations on launching the Brain Dead store in Harajuku, Japan! How does a place like that inform the Brain Dead aesthetic?
You know what’s funny? I would say I used to be really inspired by Japanese design and streetwear (which I love), but now I’m more inspired by Californian design. Like Gotcha, and vintage workwear and outdoor wear.
Do your sneaker collaborations follow a similar Californian look?
Well, the Reebok Zig Kinetica II was inspired by Japanese kaiju. So there’s definitely a lot of Japanese influence there obviously. But a lot of our other sneakers are very outdoor and performance-inspired – things that are nostalgic to me in some way. I’ll often look at sneakers from the 1990s and activities I do for fun.
You love climbing, right? It must’ve been a nice moment to collaborate on shoes designed specifically for that activity.
To be honest, I love clothing. I love working within it, but at the end of the day, I think I’m less interested in apparel at the moment because of COVID-19. What I really love is activity. So, when I can make something practical that assists my hobbies, that’s when I’m happiest. Whether it’s paintball, rollerblading, skateboarding, rock climbing, or even frisbee golf.
What’s your view on functionality in the sneaker space?
It’s funny, because I was wondering: ‘Why do people love sneakers so much?’ I’m not a person who boxes sneakers really, or takes really good care of mine. Back in the day with the ,New Balance, I skated them, all the early ones. I wasn’t collecting to collect – I really believe in this idea of using them.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the Brain Dead x Reebok Zig Kinetica II
I was talking to Reebok about old shoes I wear like the Zig Kinetica and the ATV sneakers. They showed me the new Zig Kinetica II and I was really into it. Initially, I was inspired by looking at my Japanese kaiju toys. I’ve always loved the airbrushing of them, and then I saw the side panelling of the Zig II and figured, ‘what if the colourway of the shoe was inspired by the kaiju airbrushing?’ We developed the whole campaign movie around the Japanese kaiju concept.
You’ve been working with Reebok for quite some time now...
I’ve always loved Reebok’s weird progressiveness. They’ve been this low-key brand with crazy designs like the Pump, Mobius and Shaqnosis. From the super progressive shoes to the Club C, they’ve got everything I need. I always end up wearing Reebok more than any other brand.
Is that what initially sparked your interest in Reebok? The experimental nature of models like the Pump and Shaqnosis?
Yeah, they’re just so futuristic. I really love the Pump because it’s so wild. I’ve never been a ‘hype shoe’ guy, but when you wore the Pump it was like, ‘Oh, dude. The Pump? That shoe’s insane.’ Growing up, finding the shoe was like discovering a whole new technology.
Did you find it easy to marry Reebok’s futuristic spirit with Brain Dead’s psychedelic aesthetic?
It’s the perfect pairing. I love it. You know, it’s funny, a sneaker like the Brain Dead x Reebok Club C or Beatnik will sell-out completely. But something like the Brain Dead x Reebok Pump Court is harder to sell and more progressive – it’s all about how you push the future.
How did you build the Brain Dead storytelling around the Reebok Beatnik?
The Beatnik has this futuristic folk element that I really love. The stained cow-hide was really inspired by my dog Suzy, but I love the combination of the synthetic and organic, the futuristic and alien. We had this primitive idea of the Beatnik fused with a futuristic perspective.
Brain Dead released the hiking clog last year. Why do you think clogs are having such a moment in the sun?
Well, I’ve been wearing clogs everywhere. I was wearing a lot of wooden clogs that I’m really into. I had a brand called AXS Folk Technology, so I’ve always been into this idea of, ‘What if we take something like wood, which is sculpted, and then mix it with Vibram soles to create a hyper modern upper.’ Honestly, I didn’t know if it was going to work. I was like, ‘Who’s going to buy these?’ Two years ago, if you’d have asked me if I’d do something like the clogs or climbing shoes, I would’ve told you it wouldn’t have worked. But then I realised, if I love all these things, then why wouldn’t it work within Brain Dead? Our brand is like an individual. A person can wear clogs or Reebok or ASICS or Vans. Once you realise that, a brand can be anything.
Can you talk about your relationship with the Converse Chuck 70? How did you alter the perspective on such an iconic silhouette?
The Chuck is always really hard because it’s such a classic shoe, and you don’t want to change too much. I thought immediately of cross-hatching, because I just love those lines. Obviously the cow thing is something I got really excited about. But with the Chuck, I’m a bit of a purist, and like keeping it simple.
Brain Dead have such a strong voice in the social justice space. How important is it for the brand to throw support behind movements like Black Lives Matter?
At the end of the day, having a brand is like having an identity and a persona. It should have some identity. And that’s what people probably like about a strong brand: a strong sense of authenticity and identity. Whether it’s in politics, interests, or tastes in music or food. You have to build this picture of the character, almost like it’s a movie. At this point, if I’m not speaking up for the people that support me, then what the fuck is my brand about?
I understand that we live in a capitalist society, but we have to really look at what happens if society is just focused on making money. There are a lot of things that irk me about what’s happening right now, and then COVID just hit me hard. I just want to focus 100 per cent on what I believe in, and I don’t really care if people don’t like it. If it has a strong sense of identity, and my partners and brand really believe in the same thing, then we’re just like, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it.’ I think it just made us inherently bigger and better.
Product to me is merchandise for a lifestyle. It’s about building real stories and having people relate to it, and understanding that to be a good person, you need to be well-rounded. Make sure to love everyone. Make sure to take care of things. Make sure you open your mind to film and art and culture and music, and make sure you’re not just buying things for the sake of it.
Do you find it hard to reconcile having these ideas while working in fashion? Given that fashion has long lived in a kind of ‘bubble’ of late capitalism, and is sometimes impervious to outside noise.
Again, I don’t feel guilty about making product. We’re making TV shows, animations, and music. The product is merchandise for those ideas. I’m definitely less interested in the fashion world or fitting into it, if that makes sense.
We’re working with a non-profit organisation called ‘All Rise’ with Ashima Shiraishi. The idea is to make climbing and outdoor activities more accessible to marginalised communities. We built walls inside a climbing gym where kids can go and climb for free. It’s built just for them. We realised we could do anything. We need to change the way private companies look at helping and engaging with marginalised communities and build within their system.
No matter what, if you help the community, you’ll reap the rewards of that.
I think there’s an expectation now that brands should do more than just sell gear.
Moving forward, it’s like, ‘What’s the point of a brand? What’s the point of consuming? What’s the point of all this shit?’ We’re not for everyone, and that’s not elitism at all. It’s just that we’re not trying to do things just to sell you something. Brands have to realise that people aren’t just consumers. People want to learn. If you’re a good designer and a good storyteller, you’ve got to challenge yourself, and actually really give back to the things you love. It’s not just about: ‘Oh, this is cool, and I’m cool. So this validates my coolness.’
We’ve got to take chances as designers and creatives. And yeah, sometimes you fail, but these social contexts and ideas really matter to me. If we don’t take chances, then we’re just fucking monotonous.
Do you think the fashion industry is becoming more aware of their responsibility now?
I do think so. A lot of people talk shit because you’re doing virtue whatever, virtue signalling like the bigger brands. But at the end of the day, they have to start somewhere. And it’s awkward – we’re baby giraffes right now. It’s awkward and it’s weird, but at the end stage, we’re all in this together to do the right thing. I think it’ll just be the status quo.
Setting up these concrete, communal spaces is obviously incredibly important to your brand.
Right now, one of my favourite movie theatres closed down, which is the biggest one in L.A. I was pretty distraught because that’s where I go with my girlfriend every week, and it was a place that’s for a culture. I thought, ‘How do we show movies without worrying about ticket sales? What if we just opened stores in the theatre, and worked with movie companies to make exclusive merch that you can only fit at these theatres?’ For the most part, people are just watching Netflix or HBO or Hulu or whatever, and they’re not really getting out there and expanding their knowledge of different films. So we’re really looking at physical spaces. We need to give back, because that’s what our brand is built on.
It takes a lot of guts to open a cinema during a pandemic...
I feel like if you just push the energy, it’s going to work in the end. If we just opened Brain Dead retail stores, I’m not sure how successful that would be, to be honest. How about a store with a climbing gym? Or one with a movie theatre. Or a skate park! Inherently, people love these things because it’s literally built right into their hobbies and interests. I think that’s important, and it’s going to be very relevant moving forward. If every store you open has the same stupid shit, then people are going to get sick of it pretty quickly. You don’t need to come in and shop at Brain Dead at all. You can come in and watch a movie. Or eat lunch. The point of our physical spaces is not just to sell you a product.
What’s coming up for you guys?
We’re about to open a store inside the climbing gym that will carry all the All Rise stuff, but we’ll also have branded gear that’s more climbing focused. That’s really exciting. Obviously, the movie theatre and restaurant are opening. There’s another store that we’re opening in L.A. that’s themed, so I can’t really say yet, but it’s going to be insane. Then we have some stuff in London, and probably Canada and China, by the end of this year that are crazy concepts. Physical spaces that are not just retail is the most important thing.
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