Mikey Trapstar’s 8 Secrets To Starting A Successful Streetwear Brand

In 2011, Mikey Trapstar, Lee, and Will—founders of British streetwear brand Trapstar—were asked by Roc Nation's Jay Brown and Ty Ty to stop by a studio in Lon..

Mikey Trapstar 2015
Complex Original

Mikey Trapstar 2015

Mikey Trapstar 2015

In 2011, Mikey Trapstar, Lee, and Will—founders of British streetwear brand Trapstar—were asked by Roc Nation’s Jay Brown and Ty Ty to stop by a studio in London. Brown and Ty Ty had just seen Omar Grant, an A&R executive at Roc Nation, wearing a Trapstar hoodie and wanted to know what all the hype was about. “[Brown and Ty Ty] were like, ‘Why is everyone wearing this hoodie? Where is this? Who is this?’” recalls Mikey. 

What Mikey didn’t know was that that initial meeting would change his life. “When we got to the studio, they were like, ‘You know why we brought you here. We want to invest,’” he says. 

But Mikey is quick to admit he didn’t initially believe Roc Nation really wanted to invest in the brand. “Straight away I was like, ‘Do you know about the brand?’ I knew [Roc Nation] was big and I knew what could happen, but I still had this slight chip on my shoulder,” he says. So he sat with Brown and Ty Ty and gave them a rundown of the brand, showing them YouTube videos of their pop-ups, which they called “Invasions,” and explained all the relevant imagery they used. Roc Nation and Trapstar kept the conversation going for two years, meeting whenever Brown and Ty Ty were in London. 

Now Mikey, who’s sitting across from me in Trapstar’s NYC studio on the 39th floor of the Roc Nation offices in Manhattan, says those meetings with Jay Brown and Ty Ty and the early co-signs from Rihanna and Rita Ora were crucial in getting Jay Z’s blessing. “We literally got vetted right there,” he says. Jay Z, who Mikey, Will, and Lee met later, would go on to tell them that he thought they were “fresh” and that he liked their energy. 

But don’t get it twisted: Mikey, Will, and Lee had been putting in work long before they were signed to Jay Z’s team.

Back in London, Mikey made T-shirts with a photo he took with his Nokia phone of a painting he bought for his house. The tees, which he gave to his friends and refused to sell, became so popular that people were asking how much money he was making off of them. One of his friends even threatened to copy the shirt if Mikey didn’t start selling it. “That twisted my arm,” says Mikey. “We’ve been bitten for so many things.” 

But what really convinced him to start Trapstar was a comment made by Lee’s step father. “We came from a rough area; we kind of had bad reps sometimes. [Lee’s step dad] was like, ‘You all think you’re some sort of fly boys but you’re just trapped... Let’s see you make something of yourselves,’” says Mikey, who responded with: “We may be trapped, but there’s a star trapped in everybody.”

“That drove me,” he adds. “I guess he knew how to push my buttons.”

In the early stages, around 2005/2006, Mikey says no one wanted to stock Trapstar. “They thought we were going to be here today, gone tomorrow.” But what started as an obstacle played out to their advantage. “They just made us go back to our same roots, keep it a little bit more close knit for people who understand who you are and what your brand is about,” he says. Customers needed to contact them via MySpace to place orders. Items were hand-delivered in pizza and detergent boxes (“We always wanted to disguise packaging,” says Mikey). “We sort of had this seen everywhere, found nowhere mentality.”

Trapstar would eventually be stocked at Supra on Portobello Road in London, where they now have a flagship store. “It was like we got signed to a label,” says Mikey. By then, the brand had its own buzz and built its own fanbase. Pop-up shops and in-store events, which they called “Invasions,” in London, Birmingham, Bristol, and Manchester followed. In 2009, Trapstar became one of 12 brands hand-selected to participate in the “Reset” event—a market place where brands sold exclusive, limited edition, and dead stock items—at Nike’s 948 store in Shoreditch, London. “That was the first time we ever got a stampede and it was in front of 11 other brands,” says Mikey. “It was the same day the Yeezys was coming out. There were two queues, so to be second from him and to know how desired those kicks were… We had no marketing budget, no virals, no media showing us love, and we sold out. That’s on YouTube now and I still watch it every now and again.”

All the hard work has since paid off. In the last couple of years, Trapstar has released several collections; designed Rihanna and Eminem’s “Monster” tour merch; made an exclusive collection for London retailer Selfridges, where the brand is now sold; launched its Red Line label; designed a collection with the Hitman video game series; and presented its collaboration with New York artist Haculla during London’s Fashion Week. Not to mention all the co-signs from big name celebrities, such as Future, Fabolous, Chris Brown, Jay Z (of course), Cara Delevingne, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, A$AP Rocky, model Jourdan Dunn, Young Jeezy, Victor Cruz, OG Maco, Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen, and Meek Mill. The list goes on. 

So how exactly did a streetwear brand from London catch the attention of Jay Brown and Ty Ty—and Jay Z? We sat down with Mikey and asked him about his journey trying to make it in the fashion industry, and what advice he has for up-and-coming brands and designers. Take notes. 

As told to Karizza Sanchez

All photos by Andy Hur

Mikey Trapstar 2015

Learn about fabrics and materials.

“For a long time, we didn’t know [about fabrics]; we’ve made mistakes but we just didn’t put them out. But someone does know; the fabric store knows. The first thing we would ask is, ‘Can you make this out of it? What is this for?’ Someone, somewhere will know, even down to when you’ve made the product and you try to give it to the store, the store is going to say, ‘Yo, I’m not buying it because if I sold it, this will happen.’ If you choose to carry on selling it, if you want to give that impression to the whole world after experts told you that this isn’t that great, then that’s your thing. But if you know [it’s not good quality] and keep pushing it out on the Internet until you get your money back, you have to understand that customers aren’t going to return.”

Don’t follow trends.

“People shouldn’t be focused on trends, especially if you’re just starting off. I don’t think you can build a new brand off a trend. If people look at that they’ll be like, ‘That’s from something else.’ That brand that’s the ‘something else’ doesn’t even have to take down the new guy. So how do you get someone to actually like a brand? You have a mission statement that that person fucks with. People buy into the brand, the logo; people are like, ‘I’ll pay more to have that same thing from you rather than you. I don’t care if you’re doing it cheaper.’ We get that all the time on Instagram, people @ us like, ‘What the fuck are they doing? Why are they tryna copy you guys?’ Basically, if you are half heartedly trying to follow a trend, you’ll fall off it too and you will have wasted your time.”

Perfect your craft before worrying about networking.

“I have this conversation with a lot of people. That word ‘networking’ is almost like using, and you can’t network without anything behind you. I’ve seen people say, ‘I’m going to go to this dope ass big event,’ but if you ain’t got your shit, you ain’t got no product, there is no networking that is going to save you. Let’s just say [Rihanna], who is the one person you want wearing your brand, has a concert and you finagle yourself a backstage pass but you don’t even have a name for your brand, you ain’t got no idea or a product. What you gonna do when you get backstage and meet her? ‘Hey look out for me in 6 months?’ So, therefore it’s not really networking first; stay in the lab and master your craft. I’m not saying you have to have a whole big ass collection but be proud of what you got first and have something to give someone if you’re trying to connect with them. Don’t be afraid to stay in and fix your brand while everybody is out​ ‘cause that opportunity will come. And first impressions are valuable. Mastering your craft always outdoes people being out and talking to people just for the sake of it. The networking will come because good shit gets spoken about.”

Have your structure in place.

“If you are in it to be a success then the first thing you’re gonna need is a team and a structure to handle that success. That’s more important than the success because you can’t have real success without structure, and that’s what a lot of people now are going wrong about. You’re screaming but you’re not worrying about the logistics, your business plan, trademarking. Business does come into it if you’re tryna get there. If everyone knew [the brand] but it didn’t materialize into a company, is that a success? I don’t think so.”

Stand for something and have a foundation.

“[Jay Z and Rihanna] propelled the brand to the 39th floor, but if there wasn’t any backing before you would never get in the room with them. Like, what are you when you strip that away? If you strip someone else liking the shit away, do you have some sort of foundation? People think you can just do product placement and make a brand blow up, but you’ve got to have your own backlog, like your own stance, you can’t just come through on someone else’s name and style and expect to be recognized and respected. Those people aren’t wearing you because they are told to or anything, it’s a choice.”

Appeal to your cult and be authentic to your cult.

“Don’t be preaching something and get caught slipping on some other shit after the ‘gram. If you really believe in it it ain’t gonna be forced. That’s false prophecy ain’t it? There ain’t no brand in the world that doesn’t have people who are enthusiastic about it. Your direct community is always going to be a good tester to see if you can raise heads. That’s why I didn’t want to stock in Selfridges right way; that’s the same reason why we haven’t just stocked in the high-end boutiques. We want to know who is our U.S. community, and rise with them. It is much more fulfilling and organic that way.”

Be mentally strong or tap out.

“In between the deal, we had vultures coming at us. There was a thing where someone thought we never had the trademark and they tried to take it even though we had it from 2005. When you rise, everyone wants a piece of you. There are things that come everyday, man, and if you ain’t strong then you need to tap out, that’s the truth. It goes back to believing in yourself; you just gotta remember the highs and remember why you’re here.”

Believe in your product.

“Honestly, our first ever tees weren’t too hot, we just thought they were. You don’t want to cringe at your own shit. We really believed in [our product], and positivity and enthusiasm is infectious. Basically, if I don’t believe, why should you?”


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