In February in an office in the Financial District of Manhattan, Matthew Williams, one of the three members of Been Trill, is bouncing his three-and-a-half-month-old daughter Alyx Aläia Lynn Peekaboo Williams on his knee. He’s wearing a black leather bucket cap and a Hood by Air shirt that says “VIOLENCE” across the back.
I’m here to talk to him about PacSun, which is trying to reinvent itself as a physical destination for clothing brands that are popular online, like Been Trill, merchandise from the “Yeezus Tour,” Neff, Diamond Supply, HUF, and Nike SB. Something like Karmaloop, maybe, but at the mall.
PacSun isn’t incidentally a mall store—the company’s innovation in retail is that it was the first surf shop to move indoors for the winter, into the mall, all the way back in 1980. So if there’s any store that can be both authentic (whatever that means) and a store in the mall, it’s PacSun. But 34 years after moving into the mall, PacSun is in an uncomfortable spot—painfully aware that a lot of shoppers have fond memories of PacSun from circa 1999, but no memories since.
Been Trill is PacSun’s most visible new brand, but the fact that it’s sold there raises an inevitable question: Is Been Trill worried about losing its cachet because it’s sold at PacSun?
“Been Trill was only supposed to last a year anyway. If it ends tomorrow, cool. We’re not planning it. We’re trying to be punks and do the things everyone says you’re not supposed to do when you’re building a brand,” he says.
But he also points out that Been Trill’s collaboration with PacSun actually came before much of the rest of Been Trill: “Gary, the CEO, took a chance on us before we were even selling T-shirts, before we were ever even in the market for something like this. He said, ‘I see potential in you guys as people.’ I really vibe with him, and that’s how I like to do business.”
Somehow, I got on Kanye’s list of people he would want to know.
-Gary Schoenfeld, PacSun CEO
A few weeks before our conversation, I’m standing in the parking lot of PacSun’s corporate headquarters, a featureless suburban office building in Anaheim, California, about a fifteen-minute drive from Disneyland. Across the street are two enormous manmade lakes that only have a little water in them, at the bottom, like little pools. I think they fill the lakes up in the summer. Surrounding PacSun headquarters are an auto auction, a chemical plant, and a bunch of truck repair shops. If you drive ten minutes in any direction, you hit valleys of strip malls and fast food restaurants. The area seems bleak. When I told people I was coming to Anaheim, they said, “Anaheim? Ew. Why?”
“When I got here in 2009, PacSun was really quite broken,” PacSun’s CEO Gary Schoenfeld told me. Even while sitting in his office, the 48-year-old Mr. Schoenfeld looks like a cool dad. The walls of his office are decorated with a guitar signed by the members of Weezer (“To Gary, you rock”), and large, bright aerial photographs of music festivals and close-ups of sweaty, screaming kids at music festivals. On the floor next to his chair is a pile of Christmas gifts, mostly bottles of wine that he hasn’t had time to open. He has a lot of work to do.
People at PacSun, especially Mr. Schoenfeld, are eager to admit that PacSun was extraordinarily lame for quite a while.
“Just before I started, but after I’d been hired, I went to a lot of our stores and I sort of gulped. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” People at PacSun, especially Mr. Schoenfeld, are eager to admit that PacSun was extraordinarily lame for quite a while. “When I got here, it was just board shorts and beaches,” said Greg Crawford, the senior creative director, before rubbing his eyes, taking a breath, and launching into a genuinely excited description of the company’s new regional branding campaign. (The company’s self-flagellation reminded me of some of the steps in a twelve-step program: “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” “Admit the exact nature of our wrongs,” “Be entirely ready to remove all these defects of character.”)
Mr. Schoenfeld used to be the CEO of Vans, where he turned the company around, something PacSun hopes he can repeat. “In 1993, they approached me to step in to become the President of Vans. That was right after Rodney King—California wasn’t seen the way it is today, and there was a mass exodus away from California to places like Washington and Oregon. Vans, as an exporter of Southern California culture, had become irrelevant… When I got to Vans, the idea that we would be collaborating with Supreme was like the idea that Vans would be putting a man on Mars. We were in Kohl’s and Mervyn’s!”
His work at Vans is what drew Kanye West to Mr. Schoenfeld, which eventually drew others to PacSun. “Somehow, I got on Kanye’s list of people he would want to know. He called me about a year and a half ago because he knew what I’d done at Vans—he’s deeply passionate about apparel.”
Mr. Schoenfeld’s friendship with Kanye led to PacSun selling the Yeezus tour merchandise. “Kanye brought up Been Trill as well,” says Mr. Schoenfeld. “They’ve been a great brand to work with—they really understand the mindset of the guy in his 20s who takes his inspiration from street lifestyle.”
Alfred Chang, the 36-year-old senior vice president of men’s merchandising and design, leads me around the mostly-empty floors of PacSun headquarters. Chang tells me the office seems empty because the entire women’s division “went to market” for the day, meaning they’re shopping for a season’s worth of clothes to sell, but I get the feeling the office might still seem a little empty because PacSun has had to lay off a lot of employees in the last few years. The company is so focused on its new brand theme, “Golden State of Mind,” that even though it’s gotten a new logo, no one has been able to update the logo on the side of the headquarters building because the company’s been putting its money elsewhere. This is sort of sad, if a national retail chain falling on hard times can be sad in the way that a pigeon with a broken wing can be sad. Mostly, it’s endearing.
The people left in the office are twenty- and thirty-somethings who seem like they would never work at a corporate office: big headphones, asymmetrical haircuts, tattoos. Someone has an OVOXO desktop background. Employees speak earnestly about trying to reinvent the company. And so it’s hard not to root for them, like an underdog team; On Black Friday, the corporate employees have to work shifts in the retail stores; Schoenfeld’s teenage children work in the stores even though he makes more than a million dollars a year. The company even washes employees’ cars for free because birds crap on them in the parking lot. “A whole squadron will fly in and take some cars out,” says Chang, as we walk past a conference room where Heron Preston and Matthew Williams of Been Trill are bouncing ideas about an upcoming collection off of PacSun executives.
In headquarters’ basement is the mock store, which serves as the model for the brand’s shops nationwide. Everything in the store moves around a lot. “The customer comes in at least once a month, sometimes once a week, and if they keep seeing the same thing, they stop checking it out,” says Chang.
A few floors up are PacSun’s “brand rooms”—rooms full of objects and pictures that exemplify each of the company’s brands. The brand room for On The Byas, a label that’s something like the apparel incarnation of Tumblr, is like an anthropology museum exhibit documenting the habits and behaviors of the 17-year-old Californian boy c. 1995-present. There’s a skateboard and a guitar on the ground, an aging MacBook, an SNES, a cinderblock holding up a mini-fridge, some funky socks strewn over an old trunk. The room would be complete if there was a tape recording playing a loop of a frustrated mom screaming, “I’m not telling you again!”
Neil Wright, the director of in-store experience at PacSun, takes me on a drive to a real store: the PacSun flagship store at a mall about ten minutes away from headquarters. He wears high-top Supreme Vans and has a rockabilly haircut and the words “WORD” and “BOND” tattooed on his knuckles.
The store is in the lower level of the mall, near a revolving sushi bar, a recruiting center for an online college, and the Apple Store. Its design was inspired by the pop-up shop that PacSun ran in SoHo last summer and, although I haven’t been to any other PacSun stores in the last decade so I have none to compare it to, it might be sort of a Potemkin Village. Either way, it’s nice: wooden floors, wooden shelves, and gentle lighting make it feel like a surf lodge seen through an Instagram filter, or at least a temporary respite from the plasticky rest of the mall.
In the front of the store are the brands that PacSun wants to be associated with in the future: Been Trill, Diamond Supply, Odd Future, Crooks & Castles, Beats by Dre. (Later in the day, Matthew Williams will peel out of the PacSun parking lot in his Prius with Heron Preston and Alfred Chang, on their way to this store, so Been Trill can see how its clothing is placed in its natural retail setting.) Deeper into the store, towards the back, are brands that PacSun is already strongly associated with, like Volcom and Hurley.
“I wouldn’t say Volcom and Hurley are worried about the streetwear brands, but they definitely notice them,” he says. The way PacSun sees it, if you want Volcom or Hurley, you’re coming to PacSun already—they don’t need to keep reeling you in.
The people they do need to reel in are guys like Shaun Neff. “In the clothing game, distribution is something you need to consider to maintain credibility, so it’s important that you pick the right retailers at the right time,” said Mr. Neff over the phone a few days later. “Over the last couple of years, PacSun has started carrying dope brands, which attracted me. It’s really about who you’re sitting next to.” Neff was getting ready for the Winter Olympics, for which he’d prepared a capsule collection because roughly half of the United States snowboarding team is sponsored by Neff. “Maybe that’s something I should sell to PacSun?” he said quietly, thinking out loud.
Last year, Neff brought RiFF RAFF into PacSun’s fold to sell some RiFF RaFF x Neff gear. RiFF RaFF wound up doing an in-store signing at the SoHo popup shop. “[My in-store meet-and-greet] was packed i love doing things like this it gives me a chance to talk to people who vibe with my music and in a nice ENViRONMENT and they get to see my new line of shirts in person !,” he explained via email.
Other prominent PacSun affiliates include A$AP Rocky, who performed at a PacSun event in December, Pusha-T, who modeled for them in November, 2 Chainz, who did an in-store signing at the SoHo pop-up shop for his Neff collection last summer, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner, who have an exclusive line at PacSun that captures the brand’s new aesthetic.
“As California natives, we are very attracted to looks that are thoughtful, but still casual and seemingly effortless,” says Kylie, on a break from modeling her spring PacSun collection at a motel in Sun Valley, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. “The warm weather and laid-back feel of the West Coast has always been a key inspiration for the line, but as our own personal styles evolves with age, so does the collection. I look at social media, on Tumblr and Instagram, and collect images that inspire me.”
Back at the flagship store, Neil Wright, the director of in-store experience, explained strategy as censored versions of popular rap songs played quietly over the loudspeaker. “We’ve talked and thought about using censored and uncensored versions in different markets, but we want to provide a consistent brand experience throughout all of our stores,” he said. He paused for a second to think and looked slightly apologetic. “We get complaints from customers and parents in more conservative markets.”
Indeed, last month, a Utah mother took her 18-year-old son shopping at PacSun and was so scandalized by the “indecent” shirts they were selling from a line called “VISUAL by Van Styles” (it features photographs nearly naked ladies) that she bought the store out of the shirts. She promised that if the store gets another shipment of the shirts, she would buy those too. (Her son must have been very embarrassed.)
You shouldn’t need to live in a major city to get Been Trill—some of the greatest things happening in the world involve kids in small towns.
Stuff like this seems great for PacSun—is there anything cooler than scandalizing conservative parents? Like a tree falling in the forest and no one being around to hear it, if you put the word “FUCK” or a picture of a nearly naked woman on a t-shirt and no one is offended, what’s the point? By having stores all over the country, including in ultraconservative Utah, PacSun might be slyly doing a lot to push the boundaries of expression and acceptability in places where kids need it most.
Back in Manhattan with Matthew Williams, he sums it up neatly: “PacSun is an avenue to have the movement of Been Trill touch the most people—not everyone can afford a $100 T-shirt,” he continues. “Been Trill is about having fun with your friends, and no one should be excluded from that. You shouldn’t need to live in a major city to get Been Trill—some of the greatest things happening in the world involve kids in small towns.”
Note: An earlier version stated that PacSun's new theme is "California Stae of Mind." The new theme is actually titled "Golden State of Mind."