Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Sam Alive
Produced by: Dan Hwang
In 1999, a group of like-minded creatives set out to form Alife, a collective that brought the art, music, style, and grit of New York to life. In the time since its inception, they rose to become one of the most respected brands to represent street culture. Alife curated shows featuring the works of artists such as CAP, ESPO, REAS, Ryan McGinness, OBEY, IRAK, and KR to name a few. A backyard concert series, Alife Sessions, featured performances by a 2010 iteration of Drake, the introduction of Ghostface Killah and Canadian Jazz group BADBADNOTGOOD (a pairing which led to an album coming soon), Nas, Schoolboy Q, Afrojack, Pusha T, Q-Tip, and more. A newly-minted Alife Studio series just presented three days of acts like Redman, Raekwon, and newcomer Da$h in collaboration with Puma.
The brand is still alive and kicking, a testament to the moxie and hustle of one of its founders, Rob Cristofaro. To chart the ups and downs of this classic brand is to effectively chart the flux of the culture itself. Alife has also become an archetype for contemporary American commerce: the DIY upstart brand makes waves, then locks horns with the big dogs who want to keep the market share. Through it all, Alife still stands and delivers fresh art, product, and shows like it was the boom of the early 2000s in street culture. Redman, during an interview with the brand for the recent Alife Studio session said that “They tend to [support] the music. They tend to [support] the culture. They ain't just out here pumpin’ new brands of sneakers and t-shirts. They’re supporting the culture of hip-hop.”
With 16 years of experience, Alife’s logo spread across the globe from the LES to Bristol to Tokyo and beyond. Alife partnered with Adidas (2002), Levis (2004), Reebok (2005), Saucony (2008), New Balance (2008), Asics (2007), Fila (2009), and Nike (2009) + Nike (2009) years before other boutiques reached out to those brands. Today, it seems as if there are new collaborations with those companies every week, but years ago, there was a more curated novelty to the co-branding projects from Rob and company. To illustrate the brand’s long-standing impact, the iconic tennis ball Reebok Court Victory “Ball Out” Pump was just re-released with a few variations at the end of last year.
In our conversation with Rob, we discuss the history of the brand and his early involvement in Mass Appeal magazine and the exacting, painstaking quality needed to publish a successful magazine by hand. With so many miles logged in the game from the analog to the digital age, he also charts the brand’s shift from an exclusive New York shop to a shaky partnership to its reemergence. As we see here at Freshness through the subjects have covered over the span of our 12 years, trends come and go. But when you type “Alife” into our search bar, there are 20+ pages that go back to 2006. Not many other brands have given our culture that much to sift through. Click through to read our interview with Rob and take notes--you’re getting an education in this chat.
FRESHNESS: Can you tell us about your involvement with graffiti and the New York art scene and how you eventually founded Alife?
Rob: I grew up writing graffiti. Graffiti was a big part of my life; it is the same thought process of branding and advertising. Today, mega-brands are doing the same thing we used to do—taking spots and putting up visual communications. A large amount of outdoor media locations were birthed from a graffiti artist finding a spot that demanded attention.
So your involvement in graffiti helped you in the advertising world before Alife?
I mean to me it’s all the same shit. Before Alife, I worked within the publishing business, specifically in the art department of a magazine before the use of computers, so it was really a hand-made craft at the time. It was a whole different era. People, such as yourself, actually wrote editorial. There was a lot that went into making sure the editorial was proper. People were not only writing the story, but then there were others who were proofing the work.
Writing back then was amazing compared to today with the blogs that don’t even proofread. It was a serious profession then, and I've lost a lot of respect for the blogs today because of the lack of effort that goes into one’s post. For example, if I submit a totally full-of-shit story to somebody, they’ll put it up with absolutely no fact-checking. It's amazing to me that one blog will take it right off another blog like…
Cut and paste.
Right. That quality of professionalism? is the school where I learned my craft. I started as an intern in an art department for a fashion publication where I worked under a French creative director who took great pride in his work. His aesthetic was classic and minimal imagery focused on beautiful photography and typography. We used all film, all images cut out by hand with an Exacto knife, all type laid out by hand. He was a teacher of mine for years and years. His assistant was a creative who went on to do a lot of work with Nike and Wieden-Kennedy. These guys were early teachers of mine.
If a picture needed retouching, you used to bring the print to a re-toucher, the guy would sit there with paint brushes and re-touch the photo. All that disappeared with the age of computers, which is cool, but at the same time, there is a lack of knowledge regarding basic design and esthetics that came from working with your hands.
That aesthetic learning is very exact, very precise, and time-consuming. Did some of that precision make its way into some of the early Alife designs?
Yeah, all of that is kind of what shaped my aesthetic in regards to the stuff that you would see with Alife, which was really well-photographed and shot by professionals. We were very clean in regards to anything that we put out, whether it was product, co-branded goods or advertising.
We were very clean in regards to anything that we put out, whether it was product, co-branded goods or advertising.
At Alife's inception, it was something new and fresh in regards to the art and culture in New York. At the beginning when we had the space on Orchard street, we basically called together a meeting of writers from all the boroughs. The shop was located in the Lower East Side, which was a good place to meet and a place where everybody didn't really mind coming. About 40 people showed up who were all different ages, ethnicities, and from all walks of life. Graffiti art is based on your output solely; it does not discriminate, so I reached out to people who were kind of doing things within the graffiti community such as ESPO, REAS, KR, Jose Parla, etc... We decided that Alife would be a platform for the young, contemporary, and previously unknown to the general public. It was a space to introduce new products, art, or ideas. It was a workshop, a creative hub, and a springboard for numerous brands eventually.
Alife was Tony, Arnaud, Tammy, and I. We worked together prior to Alife doing agency work, from logos to publishing to ads. We found a space. We didn't have retail experience. We had experience in doing creative work, so up above the store was the studio, which allowed Alife to survive. We used to do Mass Appeal magazine. Mass Appeal was a graffiti magazine from years ago that was stapled together and really made for writers by guys that wrote themselves. When we got involved, we brought the knowledge and aesthetic that we learned from our previous lives in publishing. We introduced writers, photographers, and great content. ?Mass Appeal slowly went from a stapled-together zine to a real-deal magazine; the content was pretty raw. We always tried to be more documentarian instead of some other make-believe shit. We've always focused on documenting our surroundings and our people rather than making up fashion shit that doesn't have any relevance to anything.
We decided that Alife would be a platform for the young, contemporary, and previously unknown to the general public. It was a space to introduce new products, art, or ideas. It was a workshop, a creative hub, and a springboard for numerous brands eventually.
The content that we put into that magazine was way before the blogs and all these sites today. That magazine was our blog or newsletter back then. If you look at the early issues that we did, we had IRAK and other crews. The magazine exposed certain a community that you really do not know about unless you are part of it: the pop culture community of lower Manhattan at that specific point in time. It was really a good vehicle in regards to putting shit out there to the rest of the world outside of NYC.
Since 1999, Alife has seen a number of ups and downs. Can you put the company and it’s successes and difficulties into scope for us?
As an independent company, Alife, was funded by the four partners and the work we did to keep all this going. We had multiple stores; we had? apparel being produced, and we also had footwear production, which was another monster. Back then, not many people were dabbling in both footwear and apparel. Tee shirts are one thing to produce, but when you get to footwear, you are in another ballpark monetarily.
In the early days of Alife, we got into a lawsuit with a major footwear manufacturer right off the bat. We were a brand new company. We made boat shoes, slip-on shoes, which is like a very generic shoe you that anyone could make. We were like holy shit, man, is this for real? After the initial scare from it, we were like “fuck this shit” and we decided to fight. Two and a half years later they dropped the lawsuit. For the future of our brand, they could not interfere with our footwear business.
We ended up doing everything that we were initially doing prior to the lawsuit anyway. It was a very real introduction to business. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, 110%.
That was just an early smack in the face to show us that companies do not want to see a competitive brand grow in the same market. That has happened over and over, where we've seen big brands kind of try to hold the little brand down. It was an eye-opener. It was such an economic strain on everybody at Alife that eventually we got into partnerships. The partners that we got involved with were people we thought were a good match for us, because it wasn't like some huge corporate entity such as one of these big companies that owns a hundred fashion brands. We believed that since these guys don't have any other partnerships, it would be a learning experience for both of us, and we would take it slow and grow together organically.
We got into business, and from the day we got into business with them, they really changed their whole MO in regards to quality and goods being made locally, which is why we worked with them in the first place. As soon as we partnered up with them, They changed their entire manufacturing program from domestically made, quality goods to internationally made trash. These guys fucked up the whole flow of things. Eventually, they thought that they didn't really need us because they had the brand name and the brand name would be strong enough for them to to continue successfully with that alone, with no marketing or brand identity to back up the brand. Long story short, they had proven to be incompetent in our arena.
You mean they actually thought they would not need the artistic division and direction that made the brand what it was, right?
Right. Simply put, we shut off all social media and marketing, and we turned everything off. The brand went to sleep quietly.
At a certain point, I remember feeling proud to cop items from the store because they were unique and hard to get. Once the shirt or hat was sold, it was gone. But then I was confused later on because I would see those items or similar items on Karma Loop. How did that happen?
The partners had possession of the Intellectual Property, but they had nothing other than that, they also had no idea how to do anything meaningful, which is kind of a big deal in this game. Your brand should stand for something, and Alife always had some kind of authentic story going on around it. Our partners finally felt the heat from no marketing, no social media, and no significant press covering the brand. Nobody cared about the brand, as they were doing absolutely nothing of interest to anyone.
It's like people thought it was dead, right?
Yes. After a couple of years of that, these guys ended up getting out of the deal. It took us three or four years to get it to the point that we’re at now, which can become the biggest opportunity that Alife has had to date if all party's work in unison.
Can you tell our readers about Rob Projects?
ROB PROJECTS™ I It is an creative agency / Talent representation business that was formed in 2013. My clientele is very random but all revolving around youth culture, arts, and fashion. The company choses it’s clients based on relevance in respective fields. My clients are brands or individuals that I believe in 100% for bringing something new into the scene which I believe is lacking. A curation on talent, same as I have been doing for the majority of my life.[/column]
We’ve also noticed that sneakers and streetwear took a dive in popularity for a while.
Oh yeah, all that was dead. I mean people didn't want sneakers. People wanted that Americana style.
That was it. That was outdoorsy, but the problem is with following trends is that trend is very short-lived most of the time, and if you base your business off a trend, that's really not a smart move. We've always been authentic in regards to what we do. We were always true to the message about what we do. It's always been based around art. It's always been based around pop culture.
More recently, we've been doing the Alife sessions. The Alife sessions have kind of turned into a venue in New York that people want to play, similar to CBGB's back in the day. Talent has been approaching more and more in terms of the venue that they want to play when in NYC.
We've always been authentic in regards to what we do. We were always true to the message about what we do. It's always been based around art. It's always been based around pop culture.
It's almost a form of validation. Some of the more recent ones I have seen had people like Drake, NAS, and Pusha-T.
Yeah. I mean it's been it's been big performers coming to the shows. Alife always approached it from the perspective of exposure. We won’t tell you that this artist is the shit. We're just going to introduce something to you, and if the artist has the skills to get it popping from our platform that's great. That's on them.
You give them the shot.
Right. The music has really been another step in the creative realm, rather than introducing visual arts, we are setting a stage that is very personal to the artist performing who is on the same playing field as the audience, like being in a house party. The performances are usually very unique as sometimes these big artists are not used to playing alongside the fans.
Yeah, I mean for everybody from Cypress Hill to NAS, the shows that the audience gets are really different than how it would be at a big concert.
Do you think that vibe hits them in a way that they get into it from feeling everybody's energy around them?
They love it, dude. They love it. I haven't seen one performance there where the talent didn't like it. It's risky, but at the same time, they're performers and this is what they do. They make it happen, and it's great to see.
You guys are way ahead of the curve on something that we see a lot and cover a lot on our site now, and that's the essence of collaboration. You've already mentioned it a few times, but you guys were the first that I remember to really get it going with Reebok, Saucony, Puma, New Balance, and ASICS.
At the time we were doing it, there really wasn't much of it going on. Alife sparked a concept for retail that became the distribution channel for a lot of these brands in our niche before Zoomiez, Pac Sun, and Urban Outfitters were in the picture. If you had a clothing brand, you had to sell into these little boutique stores that were owned by independents.
Years ago, being limited was generated cache for a brand, and it gave the brand validity. This seems like a paradoxical thing, because you're selling fewer items, but then you're getting validated by only selling less. Where are you now as far as your approach to this puzzle? Everybody used to want to put out a limited edition, so where are you guys with that now?
I mean a lot of our stuff is still limited where you need to be attending an event, etc. On the large scale, Alife is still distributed on a pretty small level.
You can't do only limited items?
That model is a whole different thing nowadays. Brands are created, then right off the bat, it's sold directly into a big box retailer or large online retailer.
Talk about how family affects the grind.
My daughter is my real boss. My work isn't really a job to me, I love what I do and get enjoyment from producing product, content, or imagery that is seen all over the world dependent on what it is. I am lucky that I am able to survive off work that comes relatively natural to me. I think I received my technical skills from my father and creativity from my mother. Now, my daughter is soaking everything that she is surrounded by, and I am already astounded at her level of creativity at 7 years old.
My daughter's mother, Leah McSweeney and I have worked out of the same studio for the past couple of years, and our daughter is our lives. We are consumed with our work, and our daughter experiences this on the daily; it's a beautiful thing and also a very real industry to be involved in.
We started this discussion with your involvement in graffiti in the late '80s when you were getting into the art scene in one way or another.
Okay, we've progressed pretty far now, right? That's over 20 years in the game, almost 25. Over 25, right?
What do you see as the next phase in the development? You've seen plenty of shifts, trends, and pendulum swings in those 25 years, so what do you see that is up next for the future?
Each year I learn something new or am introduced to a new medium or tool that is available. My mindset and mission statement is pretty much the same as it ever was. It's about life experience. I'm not trying to push bullshit on people. I try to document reality in a glossy, sometimes comedic, polished execution. One of my talents is putting the right people in the right predicament to come up with the best end result. That's kind of my specialty I think: curating talent to achieve excitement and quality experience.