In 1989, Mary Ann Fusco and James Jebbia, who would go on to found Supreme six years later, opened Union NYC. The 300-square-foot shop—on Spring Street near West Broadway—carried American streetwear brands, workwear, utility pieces, and more. At the time, “there was nothing with this kind of feel,” Fusco said in an interview with the New York Times. Three years later, Union opened a brick and mortar in Los Angeles, right off the corner of W. 1st Street and S. La Brea Avenue. (The New York location was closed in 2009.)
Over the years, Union provided an establishment for those who were into different youth sub-genres in New York. It's introduced generations of customers to new, sometimes rare, brands. Union carried Adidas Originals in 2001, when the brand had just launched, as well as hard-to-find Japanese brands—Bape, Neighborhood, WTaps and, most recently, visvim—and up-and-coming local brands. Many have even credited Union as the place where they learned about streetwear. “Union was a mecca of a location for me,” Jeff Staple, designer of Staple, said during a panel at ComplexCon last year. “It was probably the birthplace for the [streetwear] mentality.”
Not much has changed since then. Thanks to current owner Chris Gibbs, the retailer is still always ahead of the curve. Often carrying rare brands, Union LA, who will be returning to ComplexCon this fall, is a shopping destination for designers like John Elliott, whose brand is sold there, and a breeding ground for great up-and-coming labels.
Gibbs, who grew up in Ottawa, Canada, first caught wind of the shop through his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Beth, after moving to New York in 1994. He was immediately hooked. “I used to be the captain of the basketball team, but I also listened to punk music and liked to skateboard,” he says. “I was all over the fucking place.” Chris found sanctuary in a store that was as eccentric and non-conformist as he was.
By 1996, Gibbs began working at Union NY. He knew he had to be a part of this cultural breeding ground that harvested youthful creativity. “At that time, we were dictating the market completely,” Gibbs says of Union. “Literally anybody could walk into the store on any given day and be like, ‘Hey, I’m a T-shirt designer. Can I show it to you?’ If we liked it, we picked it up right then and there. And if we didn’t: sorry. There was really dope shit coming through. Two, three times a week some kid from [Brooklyn, NY arts university] Pratt or I don’t fucking know, would come in and be like, ‘Hey, I have these T-shirts. You wanna sell ’em?’ And we’d sell ’em.” To Gibbs, brand names didn’t matter. Instead, what he liked were items of clothing that looked cool and represented the culture.
Before long, Gibbs had moved on from shop boy to buyer, picking up obscure brands he personally wanted to wear for Union. In 2004, he moved to L.A. and bought Union from former owner Eddie Cruz, who went on to found Undefeated.
Today, Gibbs continues to look for brands that fall within the same principles that he’s been fostering during his time with Union—dope shit that the youth can fuck with. But how does he do it? Complex hung out with Gibbs for a day—and even tagged along to an appointment with John Elliott at the American designer’s L.A. showroom—to find out.
Want to experience Complex IRL? Check out our second annual ComplexCon, a festival and exhibition taking place in Long Beach, California Nov. 4-5. Host committee members include Murakami, Pharrell, Virgil Abloh, Sarah Andelman, J Balvin and Jaden Smith. For more information on performers, panels, and tickets, visit here.