Avi Gold Interview
Avi Gold has one of the most playful approaches to contemporary street wear I know. Widely known for his former label Bootleg is Better, Gold re-contextualizes popular images and logos to satirize mass culture at large through the lens of a Seinfeld joke. For Toronto’s Nike SNEAKEASY pop-up, he created an old school mom-and-pop athletic store — complete with shrink-wrapped product and loud POS displays — that sticks out amongst the slick displays at the event and in contemporary retailers at large. Furthermore, he’s not afraid of roasting himself. Gold announced the shift in his brand to Better Gift Shop with the “Plagiarism” fleece sweat suits.
Beyond reminding us of the ridiculous excesses of the early ‘90s and Larry David’s genius, Avi Gold is also driven by the notion of added value on the consumer’s end. It’s evident in his role in helping produce SNEEZE Magazine — a large-format, unbounded photo-based publication that folds out into full colour posters. His innumerable experiences in retail led to pop ups, installations and eventually the Better Gift Shop that fill in the gap of increasingly streamlined and ever-conforming retail experiences.
I met up with Avi at his studio as the Better team gears up for a new collaboration with Dover Street Market. The Chinatown-based office buzzes with activity as his team develops and prototypes new designs for products and installations. Over the course of our conversation, it becomes apparent that his unassuming sense of observation and attention to detail is as sharp as any good comedian.
What precipitated the shift from Bootleg is Better to your new project Better Gift Shop?
One day I just had a realization that I’m collaborating or doing business with Dover Street Market, Goodhood and all these unique and interesting stores that I really fuck with, but I’m selling bootlegged t-shirts. This is not something that has any real growth, as opposed to having your own brand. Making your own graphics and referencing things in your unique way — that’s when you can be a real brand. There’s no growth in just stealing logos and bootlegging stuff; it’s an entry-level platform. I’ll take recognition for being one of the people re-appropriating graphics, designs and photos in a unique way, but I want to grow from that and exist as a great brand, not just a trend.
Everybody has a brand now and everybody references and takes logos and images, putting it on big cartel and selling it. That’s cool if that’s your labour of love or if that’s how you make money, but I just don’t want to do shit that way anymore. I just want to be able to grow and to be respected for being original, not respected for stealing logos.
It’s such a hard thing to talk about without sounding like a contradiction, but I want to create a real brand that real people will wear. When you make a shirt that has somebody else’s logo on it, and let’s say LeBron James wears it, you can’t claim that as your own. That’s not really your shirt. It’s your shirt with somebody else’s logo on it. That was the obstacle too with selling to certain shops and doing business with certain people — they don’t want to have that liability or the risk involved. I also didn’t want Sneeze Magazine to be attached to a bootleg brand, which was my personal project at the time. It was starting to become a really bad look. I think it was intimidating because the shirts would go super viral, and for some reason, people would think that he was involved in it.
So what is Better Gift Shop then?
Better Gift Shop is a platform for my brand Better Trademark. All of my t-shirts, hats and fine art objects fall under Better Trademark. I’ve propelled it with hard to find vintage items or something that has nostalgic value because I think sentiment of the two go hand in hand.
Are all Better Trademark items licensed?
We’re not doing licensed products as of yet; however, we make our own graphics and our own logos. I want to do licensed stuff, especially if you work in the world of reggae and rap or work with fine artists. It’s important to be able to pay people, you know. It would be a dream to work with someone like Richard Prince or John Baldessari. It looks way sicker when you actually do licensed product with them, as opposed to stealing their work (laughs).
Better Trademark features a lot of collaborations with different artists and designers, and you also have vintage items on the Gift Shop. How do you curate that?
That stuff is out of pure passion! I just get hyped on things that I remember as a kid or just being a vintage nerd. Land Rover made crewnecks with a collegiate font? And they were on Reverse Weave Champion, and they ripped out the Champion tags and the small C? That’s dope as fuck and I want to sell that! I just want people to be as hyped on the things that I am. That’s the driving force behind the collectibles and the vintage.
I always try to think about why would this person make this item. I don’t understand what would make Sade or her manager want to make a metallic water bottle or a dad hat. A lot of shit is just crazy interesting, even the way the art world works. I’m low-key obsessed with licensing even though I started out doing so many unlicensed products. I find it interesting that Jeff Koons would license out his artwork to become key chains or actual inflatables. These are the types of things that inspire the products I’m making and the things that I sell. It’s just part of the game I guess.
It seems like a lot of your role is taking a curatorial approach in terms of the way you bring different artists to the public’s attention.
I find myself saying this almost a thousand times a day, but I’m just trying to put the experience, the care, the love and energy back into the things I like, but for other people. When you go to the Tate Modern, it has a certain energy. It’s basically free, you walk in and you walk out being like, “Holy shit, that was insane!” Whereas nowadays you go to a store or you go to a gallery, it’s underwhelming. I’m not necessarily trying to make it overwhelming but I’m trying to leave people with a good impression, where they’re like, “Oh shit, that was actually interesting!” and it triggers their memory and makes them feel good about going places or buying things.
I want to make products that leave a long lasting impression, like my friend Ari (Saal Forman). In the early 2000s, he made a pair of shoes that were themed after Newport Menthols. People forget how genius those shoes were — the hidden message, the packaging and the products that came with it. That had such an everlasting impression on me. Same with the artist Tom Sachs — even though those (Craft Mars Yard) shoes came out a few years ago and nobody bought them, now it’s like the shoe to have. The effort that he put into those was remarkable. Nobody wants to wear those shoes because they’re made by a sick artist, but the box says that if you don’t wear them, you’re a poser. That to me is dope as fuck because to me there’s not much sense of rebellion anymore in kids.
And for him to call out his consumer for what they are…
Which is epic! I see both sides. I think it’s cool that you admire product so much that you don’t want to wear it but then it’s way sicker when you actually do. I’m trying to make product that people will really appreciate but also want to wear, juxtaposing the fact that it’s fine art with the fact that it has function.
You touch on memory and nostalgia a few times, and the idea that you want your brand to have a lasting impression is like thinking about nostalgia for the future. What exactly is it that you’re nostalgic for? Does it matter to you if your customers share that nostalgia too?
No, I mean it obviously helps if people share the nostalgic factor but when we put our heart and soul into making great product, people will remember that anyways. Sometimes my nostalgic interests are way too niche and maybe five people appreciate it. I’m a nerd, so I’ll take the blame for being nostalgic or appreciating vintage things. I just want to be in the same realm when L.L. Bean used to make pants. They were made to last. They weren’t made to end up in a landfill. That’s what I hope the people who buy our products understand. That’s why we choose to make fleece in Canada, that’s why we’re trying to figure out a way to print on really amazing blank t-shirts and not just run-of-the-mill Gildan. (Shout out to Gildan!)
The references on the stuff that we make is about nostalgia, but it’s also just about making things that lasts and that will be cool in five years, and maybe cool in ten years if we’re lucky. Like why do you buy a Kirby Puckett t-shirt? Because he was a sick baseball player and the shirt was designed well. That’s the sense of nostalgia we’re trying to do. I’m trying to make things that don’t end up in a landfill. I’m using the nostalgia factor as an inspiration to put some real energy into what I do.
It’s that sentiment that you want to carry over physically in those products.
Everyone loves the old Reverse Weave Champion stuff because it was good quality and it looked dope. It had a great design aesthetic.
What do you think of a lot of products that are out now then?
I like a lot of stuff, I just don’t think a lot of it is going to last or mean anything. We’re in a really weird parallel universe and we laugh about it all the time, but everyone has a brand now and people just shop to take photos of their outfit and put it on Instagram. When I was young, maybe when I was 20 – 21, there weren’t many brands. There were just brands that were made to last. With the Internet, there’s just an overflow of options. But you can’t hate; it’s all business!
I might not get rich off of this shit, but I’m trying to make good stuff that provide people with that sense of nostalgia and, more importantly, that everlasting quality. It’s important to put a strong emphasis on genuine care into what you do, and a lot of people don’t do that. It seems like Japanese brands and the occasional like-minded individuals are actually doing it right. I like brands like Nepenthes, Camber and Stone Island — yeah it’s a business, but they are actually passionate about what they do.
So how does the notion of accessibility drive your business? You sell very common things that people can easily buy and wear, so you’re giving the artists and designers that you work with a platform that everyone can access.
It’s about putting my modern twist on it, like using a candle as a canvas, or — it sounds so corny — a t-shirt. A lot of times things just go way over people’s heads. People are like, “I don’t understand why you made a candle that’s a tombstone with some weird message on it.” Or, “why did you make t-shirts that say ‘Plagiarism’?” Well, I’ve been plagiarizing for the past two or three years. To the untrained eye, they might not understand that but if you get it, you get it.
And not only do you get your friends and artists that you know out in the public with Sneeze Mag, but also the format that Sneeze Mag has — you can put it on the walls and hang it up if you can’t afford to buy art.
It’s so funny; I remember that in the early days of Sneeze, nobody understood why the magazine was so big. But it was made this big so that if you’re a college kid and you don’t have the finances or money to buy art, you can hang each poster on your wall. There’s functionality behind it, and that’s interesting as a platform. I have that same approach in what I do. Like my friend Jason makes art, I’m going to use his art to make an object. Or my other friend takes photos; I want to use one of his photos for a t-shirt. I re-appropriate what my friends do into what I’m trying to do to create a unique platform.
It’s all about bringing two different worlds together and giving people unique options. I don’t think a magazine like Sneeze will make or break a career, but it’s still a nice platform for people to get recognition. The problem with magazines now compared to those when I was young is that they’re two different things. When I used to buy magazines as a kid, it meant a lot to be in a magazine, it was a really big deal. It was like huge! If so-and-so were on the cover of The Source, I’d have to buy that! Now it’s hard to get people to commit to being in magazines. Everybody thinks that they’re way bigger than they actually are, so like some rapper isn’t shit can be like, “Oh I don’t want to be on the cover. I’ve got a million followers. It doesn’t mean anything.”
What is your take on the retail experience? This is something that you’ve really been pushing at.
Everything kind of changed for me when I went to Japan and I started to have a real outlook on what the game’s missing. I’ve nitpicked every experience I’ve had in retail and used that to leverage how I would want to do it. You go to Kuumba in Japan and you can smell the store from a mile away because there’s millions of incense being burnt outside. That’s a vibe! Or when you go to Union in LA: you might not like shopping there even though it’s a cool store, but the guy that works there doesn’t let people take photos because he wants to contain the experience of it. You can’t see what they’re selling; you don’t know how it’s merchandised; you don’t know how they’ve presented it. Those are things that I idolize, the unique experience attached to shopping. That used to be a big thing growing up when you’d go to stores.
Well, there was never any online shopping back in the day.
Yeah, the most unique experience I’ve had buying shit online recently was with RSVP Gallery. It’s a pampering experience and you feel good about buying something there. The line of communication, the follow through, even the way they package their products is really unique. It comes in a box and it has gift-wrap; these are things that might not mean shit to some people but it helps! You feel like a part of it. I want people to feel a part of something, and I want it to be real. It’s the same way that I was talking about my friend Ari earlier with the Menthol sneakers. It’s the excitement of, “Oh shit the box is a pack of Newport and when I open the top, there’s tinfoil just like a cigarette pack. I’m gonna lift that up and there’s the shoe, this is incredible!” There’s no excitement anymore. Your packaging game has to be 100. Even though it might seem like it creates more waste for the environment, it’s just more exciting when it’s a special product with special packaging that’s not meant to be thrown away. Why is everyone so hyped on Christmas or Hanukkah? Well first they get a gift, but it’s also wrapped.
It could also lend to a smarter consumer too because shopping now is so easy. When it comes in such ordinary packaging, people who buy it just throw things in the garbage without even think about it.
It sounds weird — and I’m not a hoarder — but when certain people used to make really cool Ziploc bags, you would keep those. These are things that are missing. If you look at the board company Fucking Awesome, the reason why they make the best board is, well look at how they’re made. There are certain boards that use old-school stamp techniques or have holographic images on it — that’s something you can touch and feel and it’s special! We’re missing a lot of unique experiences in retail world and there are very few retailers that are still doing real exciting things. We’re very lucky to be able to work with a lot of them!
So there has to be an experience somewhere along the way.
Everything has to be elevated on whatever level or platform you have. Those are the things that excite me.
With SNEAKEASY and with Dover Street Market, it sounds like you’re looking at making unique, physical retail experiences.
Yah, that’s kind of my whole thing. Honestly the first time I went to Dover Street Market, I was blown away. At the time that I went, I had no idea what it was. I just heard about it through its affiliations to Comme Des Garcons and was like, “What is this shit? Is this a gallery? They have t-shirts folded and merchandised on a furnace. How do you come up with these ideas? That’s what triggered my excitement when I pitched an idea to them to do an installation. I want to do something so weird and out of the box that they’re going to be stoked and that’s exactly what happened. We’re on the same level in terms of ideas and experiences.
I always say that when I open my shop I want everybody to be able to buy something, not just one person. I want to make products and that’s what I want to do for them (DSM). I want to make unique items that are available for everybody.
So what are your plans for a physical retail space?
I want to create something fun for the city, a physical gift shop that’s unique. It’ll have product for everybody. It might not be this aesthetically pristine shop with the most expensive furniture, or the most modern furniture or crazy builds outs. I always say this, but my whole shit is functionality. I want to build a space that provides people with the experience that I constantly preach about. I don’t want to confuse the consumer. I don’t want to go too overboard, I just want to offer great products in a way where there’s an experience. Juxtaposing fine art and a cheap lighter.
Where’s the space going to be?
Dundas and Spadina.
Chinatown is one of the last real parts of Toronto. Everything outside of here is Hollywood shit. Queen East is dope but it’s way out for some people. You’d have to be a destination shop. For what I’m trying to do, I’m not trying to compete with anybody. Just provide unique products that everybody can buy and why not put it in Chinatown? Stussy’s up the block, Sam James is up the block. It’s like trend forecasting but it’s also the last real part of the city where it’s still kind of gritty and raw and it hasn’t been super-gentrified. I’m not the one to try to jumpstart the block but I’d rather be in a space where not everybody’s here. And it falls hand-in hand with the way Chinatown is because there’s already a lot of gift shops and weird stores.
Interview Vicky Wong
Photography Jefford Lam