In July 2015, Noisey ran an article about a controversial T-shirt and hat by Pleasures, a Los Angeles streetwear brand. The hat was printed with “RIP Morrissey,” while the tee featured Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. “Is there some deep and complex meaning at play that we are just missing every single time, or are they tasteless shitbags?” the writer wrote.
“Legally, it was all good,” Pleasures co-founder Alex James says now. “This is a public document and it’s still a mystery—did Kurt write it? People say it’s not his handwriting. So if I want to express my opinion on what I think this is, I can do that.”
The shock value worked. Both the tee and hat from Pleasures’ Fall 2015 offering, only its second collection at the time, sold out. Since then, the brand has been gaining traction. It’s currently stocked at retailers across the world, including Bodega in Boston and L.A., Commonwealth in Washington and Virginia Beach, United Arrows in Japan, and Luisa via Roma in Italy. Wiz Khalifa, Kylie Jenner, The Weeknd, Playboi Carti, Miguel, and even former Louis Vuitton men’s artistic director Kim Jones have all worn the punk-inspired apparel. According to a source close to the brand, Pleasures is raking in millions in sales. (James declined to reveal the brand’s revenue, but he says: “We’re on a trajectory to get there. We’re doing really really well.”)
James, a New Jersey native, wasn’t always in fashion. He worked as an IT technician at a real estate company in L.A., and later landed a job at a data center. “I fucking hated it,” he says now. But in 2007, his friend, Michael Huynh, approached him to start a shoe brand called Thorocraft. “I was always interested in fashion but I never had formal training,” James says. “That’s when I started to learn about the industry.”
In 2009, James and Huynh wound up partnering again, this time to launch a men’s apparel brand called Publish. Publish personified the “cozy boy” movement and was widely credited as one of the brands, along with Kith, that birthed the jogger pant and popularized the trend. (In 2010, Publish even copyrighted the term “jogger pants.”) But after six years as Publish’s creative director, James was ready to start his own imprint.
With encouragement from his longtime friend and current business partner, Vlad Elkin, James launched Pleasures in the summer of 2015. Pleasures, James hoped, would be different from Publish, and other streetwear labels. “I was always into streetwear, but it was all guns, blood, naked women, and all this stuff that didn’t really speak to me,” he says. Instead, he wanted to take inspiration from the hardcore punk world he grew up in. “New Brunswick, New Jersey, was a hub for punk rock and I got to see a lot of shows,” he says. “I lived about 30 minutes outside of Manhattan, so I would take the train to Tramps, Wetlands, and all these venues. I was into The Smiths, Gorilla Biscuits, Sick of It All, H2O, and Bad Brains. I also had a big metal phase, like Slayer, Cannibal Corpse. I lived this shit, you know?”
The first piece James designed was the “R.I.P. Morrissey” T-shirt, which featured a photo of the former The Smiths singer lying on the floor, seemingly lifeless, on the front and the words “In Loving Memory Morrissey 1995-2015” on the back. The tee was criticized by some for being insensitive and distasteful; Morrissey had just opened up about his cancer diagnosis in a recent interview with Larry King. “People took it negatively and were like, ‘He’s got cancer but you said he’s going to die,’” recalls James. “But that wasn’t it. We were just saying the dude’s heart wasn’t in it anymore. People were saying he didn’t care about his music anymore and his career was over. But now he’s back, he’s cancer free, and he’s rocking again. He’s one of my favorite artists of all time. I’m happy it worked out.”
The “R.I.P. Morrissey” tee turned heads, and sold out. But it was Pleasures’ “A Girl Is A Gun” T-shirt that James says brought the brand into a “different lane.” The tee, which was emblazoned with the words “A Girl Is A Gun” in bold red font, was made for an all female art show in collaboration with women’s magazine, By Way Of Us. “We wanted to make a statement like, ‘Hey, single females can make statements and be as powerful as anyone,’” James says. Not long after the release, Playboi Carti, one of the early supporters of Pleasures, wore the tee in the “Magnolia” music video. “It was crazy from there,” says James. (James admits that the T-shirt is a “bit weird” now given the controversy surrounding guns and gun laws in America. “A lot of kids are wearing it at school and they’re being sent home,” he says. “I have to write emails to principals and be like, ‘It’s not about that.’”)
Soon, Kylie Jenner was photographed by paparazzi in a Pleasures tee. Miguel was rocking a vibrant red hawaiian shirt. Wiz Khalifa was sporting plaid trousers and track pants. Wiz even approached James to collaborate with him and Los Angeles retailer/brand 424 on Fairfax on a capsule collection to be unveiled during the rapper’s and Taylor Gang’s music showcase at Made LA, the two-day event of emerging designer shows. “We did this whole presentation and it was really big,” says James. “We were like like, ‘Woah. This isn’t just a T-shirt brand anymore. This is really something else.’” (James left Publish roughly a year ago to focus on Pleasures because “it got to a point where I could support myself and my family.”)
The celebrity co-signs helped Pleasures grow but James says it’s not the basis of the brand. “It’s cool and it looks good for when I’m trying to pitch a corporate project to people, but at the end of the day these people are wearing our stuff because they like it,” he says. “I don’t know these [celebrities]. Wiz, sure, but I’ve never met the rest of these people. And a lot of the kids who wear our stuff could care less about a celebrity figure.”
Pleasures’ success, if you ask James, is more a result of good marketing and meaningful designs. “We were just speaking to people in a different way,” he says. “People connect with the name, the graphic language, the political statements we were making. We were making statements about female empowerment and all these things that other people weren’t talking about. So people were like, ‘Oh shit. These guys are different. These guys are here for the people and not just to cash out. They’re actually trying to put some ideas out.’”
Oliver Mak, co-owner of Bodega, agrees. “Pleasures is in their own lane of identity with its unabashed adoration of certain musical icons and the aesthetic that naturally followed,” he says. “The only other brand I can think of that can span the Cure, Grateful Dead, and Kurt Cobain in a couple seasons would be Undercover.”
“They definitely have their own point of view,” adds Omar Quiambao, founder of D.C. retailer Commonwealth. “Their graphics are also very unique. You really can’t tell what the references are as easily. You have to know.”
It also helps that Pleasure’s pieces are relatively affordable. T-shirts start at $36, hoodies are $80, and sweatpants cost $120—all reasonable when you consider the luxury streetwear brands dominating the market today. “Our brand is for people who can’t afford Gucci, Off-White, or Heron Preston,” James says. “There’s kids that hit us up like, ‘Yo, I just got my check from McDonald’s and I’m able to buy a shirt or two.’ Vlad and I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so it’s rewarding that we can reach these kids.”
In two short years, James has built Pleasures into a brand consumers are clearly paying attention to. According to Mak, Pleasures has sold well at Bodega since the retailer began carrying the label in 2016. He adds that Pleasures hit its stride with its recent Grateful Dead capsule collection and subsequent products, which sold out completely within the first week. “Currently, it’s our best selling U.S./graphic-based brand,” says Mak. Over at Commonwealth, Quiambao notes that Pleasures is one of the “more popular brands” at the shop.
But Pleasures has also grown into a global brand. It currently has a larger presence in Asia than in the U.S., according to James. “I think the culture [in Asia] is different out there,” he says. “It’s a little more fast-paced and progressive. Japanese fashion has always been on the forefront of trend forecasting.” The brand’s top market right now is Europe, especially in a country like Italy, mainly because of Italy’s obsession with streetwear and its crossover into high-fashion
“Sometimes I don’t really sit back and be like, ‘Wow. We’re doing a lot of business around the world,” James says. “But it’s a blessing.” There are those moments, however, when it does hit him, like when he travels abroad and sees someone wearing Pleasures. Or when he sees a bootleg version of his designs. He knows it can hurt business, but he also realizes people only imitate what’s selling. “I was shopping in Korea one time and Pleasures was in a bootleg store next to Off-White, Supreme, and all these other things.” He pauses and then lets out a chuckle. “I was like, ‘I guess I kind of made it huh?’”