All photos by Lauren Crew.
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While some retail businesses in Los Angeles were looted and vandalized after uprisings surrounding police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement swept the nation, Union owner Chris Gibbs was more concerned about the impact on his community. “[My wife and I] were like, ‘we see businesses struggling in our backyard, in our block, in our neighborhood,” Gibbs said. “There’s not a singular focus on nonprofit organizations fighting for our rights, there’s also mom and pop stores and small businesses that have been pivotal to the growth of the community that [should] stick around during COVID.”
The result was the “Spread Love” campaign with Jordan, which saw Gibbs and Union partnering with five smaller Black-owned L.A. brands to share profits and support. This follows in a tradition of community-building that’s been endemic to Gibbs’s approach since the beginning; the store has a history of supporting social justice movements over the years, including South L.A. activation Manifest:Justice and the New Georgia Project.
“Community has always been the core of what we do, even in the New York days. Since the beginning of Union, it started as this place almost 30 years ago of a very small boutique and has [since] become globally known,” Gibbs said. “To a certain degree in that evolution, we might have lost our way a little bit in making sure we were thinking locally. With the Jordan launch, we wanted to refocus our energy on not just repping for the community, but giving back.”
Streetwear, originally championed by Los Angeles skaters and urban audiences in the 80s, gained traction as a movement a decade later once the style became widespread on both the East and West Coast — notably through lines Supreme and Stüssy. It has boomed in the past five years, with clear influences on both commercial and high fashion, following the successes of brands like Fear of God and Off-White. Union L.A., frequently called the city’s “best kept secret,” converged high-end designer names with underground streetwear culture. As the shop’s visionary, Gibbs has seamlessly influenced the world of streetwear, arguably as a forebear of the scene itself.
Gibbs, who moved from Canada to New York for college at 20, worked at the flagship Union store in New York City in the 80s under former owner Mary Ann Fusco, who consistently hired a wide-ranging and diverse array of staffers. Gibbs attributes his approach to curation to the license he was given to be himself.
“Never once did Union make me feel like I had to succumb to some whitewashed standard at all. I’ve kind of copied and pasted the business model that I’ve learned from them,” he said. “We’ve grown into a place where we now sell big corporate brands, but I think most people know of us from our independent nature. I’ve been really blessed — that’s basically the job I got when I was going to college and I haven’t left.”
While white brands have historically been easily accessible in retail spaces, the attention they get can inadvertently cripple Black fashion brands, as money spent on those brands leaves the community.
“As streetwear and youth fashion has largely been guided by aspirations or flexing like, ‘I’m gonna buy Gucci and Chanel and whatever, because I’ve made it.’ In doing that, it reminds me of when you read history books and it talks about the Black community being stronger before segregation because all of our money stayed in our community,” Gibbs said. “The residue of integration was that we were allowed to go to these other businesses that weren’t necessarily Black-owned — we’ve gone for that bright shiny thing and stopped supporting the brands of our peers. Now that you have Fear of God or Telfar, we [need to] start supporting them as the aspirational brands.”
His son Solomon’s interest in anime is what sparked the immediately-iconic “Spread Love” commercial for the Jordan drop. “Organically — because of the way we think and the way we work as a business — we were like ‘yo, anime is a Japanese art form, [let’s] search out a Black-owned animation house in Japan to work with,’” Gibbs said. The result of the collaboration with director Reggieknow and Black-owned Tokyo-based animation studio D'ART Shtajio was this stunning four-minute visual tackling societal issues and racial discrimination in the workplace.
What does Gibbs want in return? He asks that consumers return their support of Black-owned retailers, supporting change through their buying power.
“This is a store that I’ve inherited from a person that started it, so I’ve tried to continue that in one silo. In another silo, I’ve tried to make sure that we are unapologetically Black, not only in what we sell, but how we sell it and who we promote ourselves to,” Gibbs said. “Union offers fashion in a way that’s not readily available in the marketplace, whether it’s Black and brown designers or a different take overarchingly. [I’m] unafraid to challenge the status quo of fashion.”
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