Interview: Making It In America With Karmaloop CEO Greg Selkoe

We talk to the Karmaloop founder about the state of streetwear and the future of style.

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Complex Original

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Now in its 12th year of operation, Karmaloop has gone a long way from its first home: Greg Selkoe's family basement. It's a story he tells often, because it's the classic tale of how hustling hard and making the right connections can really take you places.

It's easy to draw parallels with the short-lived HBO series "How to Make It In America," but when talking to him it's apparent that behind the drive, there is also a great mind for business. Among Karmaloop's latest power moves: the launch of premium e-commerce site Boylston Trading Company, a new members-only elite program called MONARK, and most surprising — inking a distribution deal with a Chinese luxury retailer, likely doubling Karmaloop's distribution.

We sat down with the Karmaloop CEO to talk about how they're still nurturing younger brands, how people can break into the business, and the ever-changing face of streetwear and style. Here's our Interview: Making It In America With Greg Selkoe of Karmaloop.

Interview by Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon)

Is it true you started Karmaloop in your parents' basement in 2000?

Yeah. I lived at home during that whole time, until 2004 or something like that. I basically had no money because the site was just a ping-pong table with some clothes on it, but obviously I moved out eventually.

What were some of the brands you carried back then?

Freshjive, Triple 5 Soul, Spiewak, and Caffeine.

And you still carry Spiewak.

Spiewak and Freshjive, which is crazy cause there’s such an amount of turnover in this world.

What initially drew you to those brands at first?

Music and fashion are symbiotic: they just feed off each other.

My boy, who is now the director and designer of Karmaloop. He had a small electronic and hip-hop music magazine, and he wanted me to help him sell ads. So I was just checking out cool clothing companies, hitting them up, and they didn’t have any money because they only had like two boutiques, — like one in LA and maybe 2 in NY that sold their stuff. So it was like: “Shit, we’re doing the wrong thing! These brands are dope. Let’s try to provide a reseller on the Internet for them!”

A lot of these brands already had a high visibility: particularly Triple 5 Soul. Mos Def and pretty much everyone was wearing that Brooklyn sweatshirt. The idea was that people would read about these guys in magazines and see these brands but they couldn’t get them if they didn’t live in a big city, so that was kind of the initial idea.

So the whole street team and rep program… did that evolve from the idea that you were helping out your friends and these brands?

I think one of the things that was awesome was that I didn’t have any money and we were sort of an underdog in the beginning. A lot of Internet-based companies that were starting up got huge funding from venture capitalists and stuff like that, we didn’t take any VC funding until 2008, so the first 8 years we were just going at it alone, and so a lot of people would just volunteer to help out cause they thought it was cool.

The original website was designed by a guy, I think I paid like 500 bucks or something like that. So the rep program just came like, someone would buy from the site I’d be like: “Shit, how did they find out about me?” So I’d call them up, talk to them, they were hyped about the site and whatever, and I’d ask them if they’d help out and promote and they were always super down to do that. From that we kind of formalized it into the rep program today. These people were doing it for free in the beginning, and we worked our way so people could get compensated.

And you guys just hit a milestone with that right? 

Yeah 100,000 reps. It’s crazy.

From its roots, Karmaloop was connected with music, have you guys really nurtured that connection? And how important is it to the brand?

Well, I think its super important. Music and fashion are symbiotic: they just feed off each other. The initial traffic I got on the website was from calling up record labels and saying: “Hey, put me on your website and then we’ll give away a CD in the box.” This is when they still had these things called “CDs,” I don’t know if you remember those.

We were down with Kid Cudi really early. He played a 800-person Karmaloop party for $500. A lot of artists that are young and up and coming, we fuck with them early. I’d like to think we’ve helped with putting people onto Cudi and other artists.

Bad Rabbits is a group where the guys actually work at Karmaloop, so we’ve been putting them on hard. Obviously, Pharrell is the Creative Director of Karmaloop TV. He’s a musician; he’s also into fashion; he’s got his own clothing line. We’re gonna start selling BBC shortly on the site. From Steve Aoki to Gwen Stefani, we’ve had relationships with their clothing lines.


What’s it like working with Pharrell so closely, and what kind of stuff do you guys learn from each other, you being in the fashion business and him being in both music and fashion?

Obviously there’s a lot to learn from Pharrell, he’s a very smart, interesting, multi-faceted guy and I think we have a similar outlook on the world. His new record label is “i am Other,” meaning when people are filling out census forms and the last box under race is “Other.” The idea is that we kind of look at the world from a colorblind perspective. Not looking at background and what country people are from, but what they’re about, and share ideas, and he believes in that too and so do I.

In terms of creatively working with Pharrell in terms of developing content and stuff like that, it’s been great. He’s a super smart guy. Obviously, he’s busy with other projects; I try to give input on other things he’s doing when were talking and catching up and stuff. We did a big party in Vegas on with Pharrell, BBC, and Karmaloop. We’re investors together on Brooklyn Machine Works, which is a bike company. But anything he’s doing, I’m always down to be involved in.

You guys are based in Boston. Is that advantageous to your company? What kind of things have you learned from being based there as opposed to like New York?

There’s always been a certain subculture that is more creative and cares about how they dress. We’re just a continuum.

I’d say it’s been a mixed thing. I would say there are a lot of disadvantages but there are also a lot of advantages. New York is the center of the universe, especially for our world. I come here all the time; we have an office with 60 people in New York now, so I consider New York my second home. 

Some of the advantages to being in Boston though: first of all there’s a huge college population, so we got tons of interns. There’s not a lot of other fashion businesses — there’s a few like Puma, Converse, stuff like that. And the kids coming out of these schools — they’re geniuses, so there’s not as much competition in Boston to get really, really high-level people who are still in college. And I think the other thing too is that in New York we would be one of many. I’d argue we’re the biggest and best for what we do with streetwear online, but in Boston there’s nothing even close to it, so a lot of people get excited about it, people get behind us more: it’s like the hometown thing.

And, I’m from Boston, so it was important to keep it there because I’ve seen so many companies like Facebook start in Boston and just leave. I think if we were in Cleveland it would’ve been difficult, but because of the proximity to New York, it’s so close, I can literally sometimes get here in like 2 hours if I time it right with the shuttle. It would be cool if I could put the two of them an hour apart; that would be even better.

Karmaloop carries not only brands like 10.DEEP and RockSmith, what people would call “streetwear,” but you guys have also branched out into a little bit of Americana with Schott, Pendleton, Naked & Famous, and similar brands.

I have Naked & Famous on. These are like my jeans man.

What kind of factors went into stocking stuff like this in addition to graphic tees, snapbacks, and fitteds?

What I’m happy about is the graphic tee is back, and like the streetwear look is coming back in. I liked the whole preppy thing too, that was good. Everything goes in cycles: if jeans are really tight, you can be sure they’ll be really baggy next. Being in the industry now for 12 years I see how these things go, but the reality is our audience wanted different types of clothing.

They want to mix and match; they want a variety of looks. We don’t consider ourselves necessarily a streetwear site even though we have the largest selection of streetwear, because we don’t want to be pigeonholed. Things evolve and if that term goes away, were still here. It’s a certain mindset; it’s a certain cultural group.

Before there was the word “streetwear” this group existed and they’ll exist afterwards. Even before, in the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, if you were a Beatnik in the 60s or whatever the fuck you were, there’s always been a certain subculture that is more creative, cares about how they dress, and so it’s like, we’re just a continuum of all this throughout history.

As styles change we want to be up on it and plus we want to put people onto stuff that we think is cool so we find a lot of brands that are small. Obviously that’s the case with Kazbah — which is like all up and coming, really small brands. We’re kind of about that.

If you look at some of the parties we have and certain acts we book, we seamlessly blend, indie rock, hip-hop, house music, techno, electro, dubstep, whatever. Our musical taste and our fashion taste is very eclectic and we don’t wanna be defined by anything. We just thought some of that stuff was cool and would sell.


Speaking of Kazbah , how did that concept come about?

People pitch me on brands all the time, kids were hitting me up all the time, sometimes like 20, 30 people a week. Some of the stuff was really dope and I was like “how do we figure out how to carry this?” If we bring in 10.DEEP, Crooks & Castles, or any of those brands, we bring in huge quantities — millions of dollars of their stuff. It’s almost as much work to bring in 20 T-shirts as it is to bring in 2,000 because you have to go through the whole ordering process.

The marketplace model was out there, when Karmaloop first started I used something similar to a Yahoo store. We wanted to create something like that for our niche, and this year we’re going to expand it big time. Were making Kazbah its own URL; we’re going to add new components to it, so it’s going to be something you can get to from Karmaloop, but you can also just go right to Kazbah as well.

What went into the establishment Boylston Trading Company? What kind of guy is the Karmaloop guy and what kind of guy is the Boylston guy? And how do you differentiate the two when there’s a little bit of overlap in their aesthetic?

The best thing if you’re starting out: make some banging ass T-shirts, get them up on Kazbah, and sell them.

For instance, if you have black chucks on Karmaloop, they can be on Boylston, they can be on Brick Harbor, which is our new skate site. Those are much more universally worn, but then there are other pieces that can only live in that one environment.

The thinking with Boylston was that a lot of people in Karmaloop had tastes that veered towards the higher end. I would say some of it is like boutique-line streetwear — some of it’s just boutique-y stuff, but we didn’t have the money to buy it. We’ve been more successful, and so I think it’s a sort of mix and match thing. I think you can shop at both places, obviously Boylston has a lot of collabs, limited edition, and it’s expensive, but there are certain people who want that stuff.

We had people hit us up about it, and understandably some of the brands were like “we don’t want to be on Karmaloop because we consider ourselves a very expensive high-end brand…we want to be in a very small, different environment,” and we were like “well, these are some brands we want to fuck with so let’s create that environment for them.”

Frank the Butcher runs it. He’s been the homie for a while, and he was leaving his job at Concepts anyways, so we were talking about this idea and we wanted someone to come in and run it, and he was the perfect guy to do it. In a lot of ways it’s his baby. Obviously I have input, the initial concept of doing a higher-end site was my idea but the name Boylston Trading Company, they came up with it. They do everything with a lot of detail and care. We couldn’t afford to do what we do with Boylston with every fucking product because they do an editorial for each one. So it’s the premium. A lot of the collabs we might’ve had on Karmaloop before, we put on Boylston, like a Mitchell & Ness cap. We have Mitchell & Ness on Karmaloop, but we did one special for Boylston because we wanted to put it in that environment.

Do you think the desire for well-edited stores and high-quality products are going to go away? Or do you think that’s where the future is?

Nah, the reason why that cant be the future, 100%, is it’s really expensive. Most people can’t afford that. You either have to be like: “I’m going to spend a lot of my disposable income ‘cause fashion’s really important to me. It speaks to who I am,” or you have to have a lot of money. 

It’s not like Karmaloop is cheap, but were talking boots for $700-$800 dollars a pair. There’s always been a market for higher-end, more premium handmade type stuff. I don’t think it’s going to go away, but I don’t think it’s going to take over either. I think there is a movement for people wanting smaller labels, more handcrafted stuff, made in the USA when they can. I think there’s definitely going to be room for that.

What advice would you have for new brands that want to tap into the Karmaloop market, or the Boylston market? You’re seeing the kinds of products that sell, so what stuff do you see a demand for?

Well, I think that it’s fun to put out cut-and-sew, denim, and stuff like that, and that’s what everyone aspires to do, but you don’t want to put the cart before the horse. The best thing in my opinion, if you’re starting out: make some banging ass T-shirts, get them up on Kazbah, and sell them. 

To start off on Boylston, with those being higher cost and a lot of cut-and-sew, you’d have to raise some money to do that. I don’t see a lot of brands from Kazbah going to Boylston, they’re not those kinds of brands. Boylston is going to be very selective, so I think you have to make a name for yourself first. But yeah, I think for Karmaloop we’ve moved over a lot of brands like IMKING, started off as Kazbah brands. 


Do you think the “How to Make It In America” notion that going from making to selvedge jeans is still a reality? Or do you think the demand of the market has changed from that?

A lot of brands do the same fucking thing over and over again. Unless you’re the first, you’re generally not going to be known for it.

Everything’s a reality. There’s not a lot of Karmaloops either. We had a lot of competition in the beginning, but they went out of business so… most people aren’t going to be successful. It’s just the nature, 90% of businesses go out of business in the first year, so can some people do that still? Of course, I’m sure there will be many examples of that. Are there other ways to do it? Definitely. There are people like Flud Watches for instance — he just wanted to make watches, so he focused on that.

That doesn’t mean you have to start with T-shirts, it just means if you have no money it’s the best way to do it because it’s the easiest thing to make yourself. But if you can raise money, you can start a denim line. I think there’s lots of stories like the “Crisp” story,” brands like Mishka started just a couple of kids in Brooklyn making T-shirts and then they developed it into something. So yeah, I think that’s just the nature of any business. You have to start at the bottom. And its all about raising awareness, whether you’re making T-shirts, having the best parties, or you got some celebrity to wear your hat with your logo on it. Those are the things you need to get started.

In terms of building a good brand, do you think the story or the product is more important, and how do you balance the two out?

A lot of brands do the same fucking thing over and over again. Unless you’re the first one to do something, you’re generally not going to be known for it. A lot of brands do a knock off of the “Polo” look — not really a knock off, more like homage, and that’s cool, that’s something that’s classic, but you’re just following.

So many Kazbah brands that hit me with stuff and it’s like: “that looks like this, this, this, and this brand.” The brands that gain traction are the ones that do something different and new. You change the game a little bit, even if it’s just a little bit.

Can you give us a recent example of something that blew your mind?

I’ll give you a not recent example. When Bape came out they did stuff that was very different, a lot of the all over stuff that was popular in 2005, 2006. They originated a lot of things that a lot of brands emulate. That’s a good example of how a brand shocked people by how it was so different.  Price points were different; everything they did was different. It made it unique.

And there’s a lot of examples nowadays, BLVCK SCVLE for instance. They’ve brought the graphic tee in a new direction. The black with white print on it, symbols, screenprinting on different parts of the shirt — they’ve really created a kind of genre. 

Karmaloop is in its 12th year of business. In that time, you’ve seen a lot of new trends, and you’ve seen where a lot of the money is going. Where do you see the future of style as it is?

Even in Karmaloop there’s many different subgenres. I think the modern world that we live in allows people to find exactly what they want which is a cool thing. Every freaky pervert can find the porn that they need, and so with clothes you’re going to find more people.

The music industry’s been kind of changed completely because anyone with Serato can make good music now. Music is cheap in one sense that it doesn’t cost a lot to do, but in the other sense its kind of democratized, a lot more people can do it. And I think your going to see that with clothing. 

As more robots are building clothing, there are less human hands, and there will be the backlash where people will make more handmade stuff, which is cool too. But we’ll get to a point someday in 20-25 years where you can almost design your whole wardrobe yourself; it’ll just come out of a printer or something like that. You’ve seen those material printers, but that stuff is so primitive right now compared to where it’s going to go. 

You’re going to have machines that can make cloth, and change the molecular structure of cloth, so it’s like: they can take a base and make it into cotton. At some point you’ll be able to say: “I want a shirt that feels like this,” and you’ll be able to make it. It’s going to be a long time, but probably in our lifetime.

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