Nate Brown is perched on a glass railing at the multi-level Samsung event building in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. His eyes are zeroed in on the bottom floor, one story below—to him, it's a blank canvas. In a few days, he'll transform the venue into something entirely different. Surrounding him is a group of his friends and creative partners, including Kith designer Ronnie Fieg, stylist Eugene Tong, and casting director Kevin Amato, all of whom are here to run through the logistics for Kith’s first runway show, titled “Kithland,” days before it debuts at New York Fashion Week on Sept. 13. Tall and lean in a heather grey T-shirt, black jeans, and sneakers, Brown was enlisted by Fieg to creative-direct the fashion show. “Ronnie was like, ‘I want to create a celebration of what I’ve been doing for the past five years and what I’m going to be doing over the next year—and do it in a way that hasn’t been done before,’” Brown says.
A few days later, Fieg staged “Kithland” at the Samsung space. The show, which took about four months of planning, was a spectacle, a mega event. There were live performances by Fabolous, The Lox, and Ma$e. Ja Rule, Victor Cruz, Bella Hadid, Iman Shumpert, and Teyana Taylor sat front row, and the runway featured 90 looks. "We like taking a show and turning it into something bigger," Brown says.
“Kithland” is just one of the many projects Brown has worked on under the banner of Institute, the full-service creative studio he founded in 2013. Institute is behind stage visuals for Drake’s Would You Like a Tour?, show dynamics for Beyoncé’s Formation tour, runway shows for John Elliott and Alexander Wang, a Calvin Klein rave in Brooklyn and hotel takeover in Palm Springs, California, and Nike’s newly renovated invite-only gym/media space in Manhattan, 45 Grand. In three short years, Institute has become the go-to for big-name artists and brands looking to execute products and experiences in unprecedented ways.
Institute is headed by Brown and executive producer Antonella, a slender Argentine with sharp features and dirty blonde hair who declines to provide her last name. Although Antonella is easy to find on Google, a trademark quality of Institute is its insistence on elusiveness; a Complex profile on Nate Brown published last year was the first time he had told his own story, despite executing plenty of high-profile gigs with Kanye West and Jay Z. “The work speaks for itself,” says Antonella of their secretive approach.
Brown and Antonella met in 2013 at Industrial Color, a New York creative studio where they were both previously employed, while working on stage visuals for Jay Z’s Magna Carter tour. Paired together, Brown, 28, is the creative; Antonella, 29, is the logistics-minded person who geeks out over budgets. “It’s interesting to play with numbers,” she says, chuckling. “It’s a mental game.”
In the early stages of Institute, Brown and Antonella often worked from the rooftop of the Manhattan building Brown lived in. Eventually, they moved into an office on Gansevoort Street that was the size of a tiny New York studio apartment. “It was one big room,” Antonella recalls. “We put up a wall and put down floors we wanted.”
As the creative studio grew, Brown and Antonella relocated to a bigger space and hired a team they hand-selected for their talents in design and production. Institute’s current headquarters in Lower Manhattan's Hudson Square neighborhood looks like the type of perfectly curated room you might find on Tumblr: white walls, wooden floors, a marble table, and plants and flowers peppered throughout. Most of the work is done in-house by Institute’s staff of six, which also includes Justin, Daniel, Ana, and Haris. Once again, in typically elusive Institute fashion, they only reveal their first names; they are all in their 20s and early 30s, and perfectly in sync.
“They’re like a quiet machine,” Amato says, laughing. “It’s almost like they communicate without speaking. They just look up and down at themselves and their computers. Nate just communicates a clear vision and works with people that get the vision and bring new ideas to help.”
But occasionally, Brown will outsource talent, sometimes to his friends, like Off-White designer Virgil Abloh (who helped curate the Calvin Klein hotel takeover in Palm Springs), random artists whose work he encounters, or his idols. Last year, out of the blue, Brown emailed light and conceptual designer Tobias Rylander, who has creative directed Jamie xx’s shows, to see if he’d collaborate on the Calvin Klein rave they threw in Brooklyn. He also sent John Elliott, whose namesake menswear label Brown now co-creative directs, a message on Instagram before they met. “He hit me up like, ‘I love your clothes. I would love to figure out a way to work with you,’” recalls Elliott.
“Every project is like pleading with people to work with me,” Brown jokes.
He explains that Institute takes a uniform approach with each of their endeavors, whether it's in the realm of fashion or music. “A large part of our contact list is musicians, so we try to infuse something like that in everything we do,” Brown explains. “Stage design is one of my favorite things ever. If we’re doing a hotel or a gym, it’s gonna have a stage design mentality to it. It’s all shared references.”
At the core of every piece of Institute’s work is a focus on function and experience over design. “You can always create something beautiful, and that’s great, but there’s a time and place for that,” says Brown. “We try to create things for people that can help them expand their boundaries or give them something more.”
Institute collaborated with Boiler Room, the global online music broadcasting platform, and producer/recording artist Lee Bannon to produce a soundtrack live at John Elliott’s Spring/Summer 2017 show. At Alexander Wang’s 10-year anniversary runway show, they created a retrospective video installment that was projected onto a 150-foot long custom projection screen. “That was wild,” recalls Antonella. “It was very much an ‘Oh, shit!’ moment.”
The brilliance of Institute lies in Brown’s versatility, says Elliott. Since meeting in 2013, Brown and Elliott have worked together on lookbooks, runway shows, and both volumes of Elliott’s print magazine, Research Document. “Nate is multi-disciplined in the sense that he can work with lighting, he understands print, font, space, and he’s well versed in fashion,” Elliott explains. “He’s deeply entrenched in hip-hop, but he also produces electronic music. He has so many different references and can speak intelligently on just about anything. I have more confidence in him and Institute than anyone else I’ve ever met.”
“I can’t tell you what Nate does,” adds Amato, who’s worked with Brown on various projects since 2012. “He’s just always doing something new and different. He’s an idea maker and creative director in the truest sense.”
Brown says he doesn’t look to other companies for inspiration. “They just want to make money,” he says with a laugh. Instead, he’s inspired by business magnate/inventor/engineer/investor Elon Musk—or any random kid who’s creating something ingenious. Institute’s goal, Brown says, is simply to innovate. “We want to deliver an experience that gives people something deeper, where the takeaway is more thoughtful."
Brown and Antonella’s team is fresh off a hectic fashion week—with projects for Kith, Heron Preston, CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist Morgan Lane, and Kylie and Kendall Jenner—but this is just the beginning of the work they aspire to create. Antonella says there are internal passion projects they’d also like to explore in the future, including interior design and video game development. “Creative studios shouldn’t just focus on one thing,” she says, matter of factly. “If clients come to us to execute something they’ve never done before, that’s exciting!”
“I want Institute to be a place where people come for ideas they wouldn’t get anywhere else,” adds Brown, leaning in for emphasis. “We’re small, but powerful.”