In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
When K-Pop sensations BTS hit the stage wearing Amiri clothing, it isn't only a sign that the boys in the band have expensive taste. It's also a full-circle moment for designer Mike Amiri, who, before founding his eponymous label that has fans around the world dressing like "November Rain"-era Axl Rose, spent some time performing as part of a Korean hip-hop group. "That's a fun skeleton in my closet that is now jumping out," says Amiri over the phone from Los Angeles, where he lives and works. "One of my best friends was a rapper and musician. I wrote songs with him. He ended up being considered the founder of the K-pop hip-hop movement. So, now on Wikipedia, I'm credited with him to be one of the co-founders of Korean hip-hop. It's strange, but I'm happy that's a part of my history."
Given the unprecedented success of Amiri, the brand, it's not difficult to understand why co-creating a musical subgenre is but a footnote in the history of Amiri the man. Since the label launched in 2014, it has grown so rapidly that sales are projected to reach $40 million this year, according to a The New York Times story from January. With an emphasis on customization, often done by hand and occasionally by shotgun, individual Amiri pieces — think destroyed T-shirts, boots with bandana buckles and vintage-looking leather jackets — often come with three- and four-figure price tags. Even Amiri's signature super-skinny, distressed jeans can cost as much as $1,770. Extravagant pricing hasn't appeared to be a problem for legions of Amiri fans who want to dress in the über-luxe style of celebrities like the Migos, Gigi Hadid and Justin Bieber (who, in turn, want to dress like decadent '80s and '90s rock gods).
Ahead of the 2018 CFDA Awards, for which the designer is nominated in the emerging talent category, Amiri talks about his early days as a small business owner, his devotion to Los Angeles and his unique production processes — that aforementioned shotgun and all.
Before you launched your line, you were working as a consultant — is that correct?
Yeah, I was a consultant or a hired gun. It ranged from helping with denim startups to handbags lines to womenswear lines. I didn't have enough money to start my own business. I ended up broadening my skills and really learning the ins and outs of how to make things in LA. That stuff ended up being my college.
Did you have a plan to launch your own brand all along?
The brand was super-organic. It started from me deciding that I didn't want to show on a regular schedule or go through some sort of distribution or sales platform. If you look at my first Instagram pictures, it's me posting pictures in my basement of pieces that eventually amounted to a collection on a rack.
I remember one of the captions was, "Just making this for no reason at all. No sales, no editors, no stores in mind. I just want to make something really special." Having that as my base was the first stepping stone to being able to run a business the way that I wanted to run it and build a brand the way that I felt the modern fashion business was ready for. It's about the industry being open to new ideas and new ways of finding talent. You can see the way the major houses are now placing their creative directors — talent is being sourced from the underground. This moment has been lucky for me, as well. It's really opened up doors for me.
But that wasn't necessarily the case when you launched Amiri. What was it that made you decide the time was right to go full steam ahead with the label?
Once I started seeing the collection in its entirety, I started to see the story there. I went to Maxfield, which is one of the only places in the U.S. that carries brands from all over the world: Japan, Asia, Europe. They have obscure, amazing designers. It's an amazing launchpad. My goal was really just getting in that one store.
How did you end up doing it?
You think there's a secret password or all these mystifying things to get to the right person. I literally called up and asked if the buyer was there, and they said, "Sure, come by." They took a chance on me. Now that the brand has been around for a few years and has gained some notoriety, it's easy to understand the brand's DNA.
By the time you were in Maxfield and had customers, did you have a fully formed idea of what Amiri was all about?
I would love to say it was clear as day, but it wasn't. I knew I wanted to keep it authentic to who I am. Having it in one shop allows you to kind of see where people are gravitating and what works for you. It was a bit of analytics and science, also. It turned out that they things that I thought were truest to me were the things that worked the best. I just kept the formula of being honest to myself and to my own perspective and my own unique childhood.
You were well into your 30s when you launched Amiri. Did the stakes feel higher than if you were, say, a 21 year-old who didn't have as much to lose?
Absolutely. I always tell this to young designers: Shoot as many three-pointer jump shots as you can. Don't wait to do things. I was 38 by the time I launched it at Maxfield. There is an energy factor there. How connected to culture are you as you get older? I'm 41 now, but I was lucky enough to grow up in a way where I was still kind of immature. I was a part of streetwear culture, but still part of the old zeitgeist of fashion design, being a huge Rick Owens fan or Raf Simons fan — really just being a fashion geek before there were all these fast-rising streetwear brands. It helped me understand both actual technical design and also artistic-skewing fashion.
What were the early days of Amiri like?
We shipped it from the basement of our two-bedroom apartment in Koreatown in LA. That's when we started hiring employees, so there were seven or eight of us. Most worked in production. I was the only designer in there, figuring out how to run a business at that point. I tried to hear stories about how people made mistakes, how they grew too fast or over-leveraged themselves, how they went into too many categories. You try to avoid those pitfalls to control your growth. Instead of us saying, "We're doing great, let's try to open 40 accounts," which would have collapsed our entire business and our entire revenue stream, we said, "Let's open the best 12 accounts in the world and grow with them as really good partners."
By narrowing down the volume of product we were shipping, we were able to ship a lot earlier and ship a lot better quality, and build stronger relationships with those stores that had global visibility. By the time we were ready to show internationally and build up, it wasn't like we were asking stores to come look at the brand. Stores were finding our email and asking for appointments.
You mentioned earlier about the intricacies of producing the collection in LA. Did you ever consider moving Amiri somewhere else?
I've watched the luxury community absorb so much stuff from LA and then produce it all in Europe and sell this LA story in Europe. I've watched LA have this big industrial fashion district, struggling and losing most of their business to China and India, having all of these amazing artisanal factories empty. It was important to utilize the things that were in my city, but also to support all of these amazing manufacturing legacies and these artisans in LA. How come nobody is inspired by Los Angeles, making it in Los Angeles and putting it in the context of luxury?
I read in The New York Times that the company is set to hit $40 million this year. That's a big leap from, as you said, starting in your basement. Was there one moment when you felt like this was actually going to be a viable business for you?
As an entrepreneur, you're always fearful. You never think you have a successful business, regardless of how big it's gotten. The first time we showed the collection internationally, in Paris, the buyers were coming from the showrooms of these big European maisons and coming into the small closet-sized showroom, basically pulling the entire collection and being so supportive. Understanding that you're in the context of that, and you have legs? That was really inspiring.
Amiri has a lot of celebrity fans. Do you expend energy on getting celebrities into your clothes?
I grew up in Los Angeles with a huge celebrity culture. You kind of grow up around it and it's part of LA. It doesn't have the same reverence as it does in the Midwest. I would see brands basically giving so many things to celebrities and I would wonder, if they were so special, why would they give them away? If Justin Bieber has 20 pairs of my jeans, it's because he spent $20,000 on jeans and he likes them.
Young brands are so focused on, "If I could just get it on this one celebrity and get it on social media, my brand's going to be special." What happens is, you have a brand that's based on nothing except one person wearing it. Not to say that it hasn't been important to my business, because it has. But, at the end of the day, when I make clothes, my main motivation is to make people feel good.
You have significantly more Instagram followers on your personal account than on the account for Amiri the brand. Did you intentionally set out to be such a consumer-facing presence?
In the beginning, I didn't want the brand to be based on me. My earlier photos, I literally hid in a big hat and sunglasses. I didn't want to be a person first; I wanted to be more of an energy and have the brand have its own world. And then as you start building that identity, you realize they do become intertwined. People want to know what they're wearing and what the perspective is of who they're wearing.
I read a quote from you where you said you never want Amiri to be too vulgar. Where is the line for you?
When you have these vintage inspirations and you like to do novelty treatments and things like that, you also have to be really conscious that if you're going to grow, your vocabulary can't be so narrow. When making clothing that's supposed to be impactful, you have to pick and choose which pieces are for someone who wants to go super far with their style and which ones are for people who have a little bit of risk in them. You need an entry point for them. Sometimes you need to pull back. I don't want the brand ever to feel like it's an unwelcoming world.
To that end, I want to talk about some of the more idiosyncratic points about your production methods. Is it true that you shot some of your clothing with actual shotguns?
Yeah. We still do.
In Joshua Tree, California. I was in the Rose Bowl flea market and I met a guy who was shooting vintage clothing. The way the fabric was distressing was so beautiful. I thought, "What if someone did this to cashmere? What if somebody did this to really fine wool? What if you made something so impeccable and so beautiful, and then you shot it? What does that look like?"
It's hard to duplicate, because no piece would look the same. It would be tattered, but in a way where the garment was still in one piece and wearable. It also provides a great story for the person wearing it. If someone gets complimented on a sweater, they can say, "Yeah, it's from this brand in LA, and they're shooting this shotgun."
Who actually does the shooting?
I don't want to give up my source. We made friends with someone in Joshua Tree who lives up there. We basically fund their surf trips.
And I also want to ask you about the employees in your studio. They wear gloves and lab coats and masks?
Not too many masks, but yeah, they wear lab coats and gloves.
The visual there is very strong.
I traveled so much to see a lot of factories in Italy, and I loved seeing how organized and how clean [they are] and how luxury was handled. I wanted to do that in Los Angeles and create that environment. It's part of my thoughts on luxury itself.
It conjures up images of couture ateliers.
What if that was in Los Angeles? What would that look like? That's what I wanted to go for.
And finally, what does the CFDA nomination mean for you and for the brand?
It's a different kind of recognition. You get recognition through social media from people who are fans of your work, you get recognition from the stores who sell your brand really well, but having any kind of recognition from the industry itself, it really just completes the circle. It takes the level of gratitude I have to a completely other level. I'm very thankful and fortunate for that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.