ComplexLand Brands to Watch: Meet the Crate, the Queens Streetwear Brand Worn by Kanye West, J. Cole, and More

the Crate is a New York City streetwear brand that's been worn by Kanye West, J.Cole, Issa Rae, and more. Here's how Far Rockaway, Queens-based label blew up.

ComplexLand 2022 Brands to Watch The Crate
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ComplexLand 2022 Brands to Watch The Crate

Terrill Kirk and Tyrell Oliver opened the Crate in 2014, one of the first streetwear boutiques in their neighborhood, because they wanted to bring something fresh to Far Rockaway, Queens. For those who don’t know, Far Rock is a distant New York City neighborhood that, Oliver admits, was never really known for its fashion like Harlem. But that’s why opening the Crate was so important for Kirk and Oliver. As two fashion enthusiasts who constantly took long train rides to shop boutiques in Manhattan or department stores like Hirshleifers in Long Island, they wanted to bring a proper stockist to Far Rock. 

“When Rell said, ‘Let’s do a clothing store on this block,’ it made sense to me. Because besides the sneaker store, I never bought clothes in Far Rockaway,” says Kirk. “So for me it was like, ‘Alright. If we could put something here, it would pop.’ There’s no way we could lose if we put a store here.”

But surprisingly, Kirk and Oliver’s customers weren’t interested in what the Crate stocked. Instead, customers kept coming in asking for its in-store merch that was worn by local rappers such as Chinx Drugz of the Coke Boys. It goes without saying that the classic milk crate has always been an endearing symbol since the birth of hip-hop. And when it comes to Far Rock’s contributions to that culture, many point toward Chinx and the late Stack Bundles as the biggest rappers to come out of the neighborhood. The Crate’s name comes from a Stack Bundles’ lyric: “Fresh off the block, I got the print of the crate on me.” And coincidentally, the store’s address, 1021 Beach Street, even reflects Stack Bundles’ birthday, which is Oct. 21.

But while these icons never had the opportunity to reach the masses outside of New York, the Crate did. What started out as a brand that popped off in Far Rockaway now has its T-shirts and sweatsuits worn by everyone from Kanye West to Issa Rae on Saturday Night Live. Therefore, it’s not hard to believe that the spirit of Far Rockaway icons helped pave a way for the Crate’s success.

“You know, Far Rockaway is like a rough area to grow up in and Chinx was asking us if we were sure about the idea [of turning the store into a brand] right before he passed,” says Kirk. “He really saw our vision. Because everywhere he was going, he was wearing the Crate stuff. At that time, we weren’t even making anything with impactful sayings or anything like that. It was just things that said “the Crate” all over them. But people just kept asking for it. Chinx saw the vision, so how am I not going to hold the torch up every time I scream ‘the Crate.’” 

ComplexLand Brands to Watch The Crate

Odds are, nearly every rapper you can think of has worn the Crate’s garments. Rowdy Rebel wore one of the label’s tie-dye hoodies a day after getting out of his long bid upstate. J. Cole wore one of the brand’s tracksuits on the cover of his album The Off-Season and in recent music videos. The brand even got Jadakiss to come down from Yonkers to visit their store. At ComplexLand, the Crate will drop T-shirts and socks covered with the brand’s “Classic C” logo ($20–$75), “Support” T-shirts and hoodies ($100–$200), tie-dyed hoodies ($265), a hoodie with the Crate’s “Old English” logo ($200), windbreaker pants ($120), and two other graphic T-shirts ($80–$100) at the digital event from May 25 to 27. The Crate specializes in making elevated classics: T-shirts, hoodies, and sweatsuits with the brand’s logo and attention-grabbing graphics. For Kirk and Oliver, the Crate is like the new Russell Athletic or Champion.

“I want to recreate Champion on a luxury-line level but give the FUBU, “I’m Black Y’all” feel mixed with, like, that Supreme cult following,” says Kirk. “Because when we were growing up, both the rappers and construction workers wore Champion sweatsuits. The Crate’s not for anybody. It’s for everybody.” 

The idea to turn their Black-owned streetwear boutique into a full-fledged brand that’s now stocked in the upscale department store Hirshleifers came out of necessity and demand from locals. When the Crate was a boutique, it stocked labels like Ksubi, Pink Dolphin, and Mr. Completely. Originally, local customers weren’t interested in purchasing other brands, especially when they could buy the pieces for a discounted price online. But when Tyrell noticed how customers were invested in their in-house merch, it gave him an idea.

“I just felt that I would rather better myself because I felt like whatever we purchased to resell to customers from these brands, we could have done it for ourselves,” says Oliver. “If I have to get a customer to buy something, I’d rather it be something I created so I could stand behind it. I used to tell Terrill, ‘If you want to sit here and negotiate with pricing and things like this, with these people, at least let it be something that you created.’”

ComplexLand 2022 Brands To Watch The Crate

“That moment was crazy because Kanye in particular is the fashion god. What are you going to tell me now? This is 2017 and I’ve gotten so much more aggressive with this stuff,” remembers Kirk, who was working a second job as a steamfitter for a high-rise in Manhattan to keep the brand alive. “I was still figuring this stuff out. Now, if I think of somebody, I’m going to put them in a shirt.”

Although the Crate has received some hefty celebrity endorsements for a brand that isn’t even a decade old, Oliver emphasizes that the love they’ve received from Queens is what built the brand’s foundation. The Crate still sponsors local events for their community; provides mentorship for young, local designers; and highlights Far Rockaway residents in their lookbooks.

“I think what made it catch like wildfire is that people from Far Rockaway, and other parts of Queens, want something to be a part of and they want something to call their own,” says Oliver. “People would always call me telling me stories about how they were wearing their Crate hoodie and had folks immediately asking if they were from Queens, New York.”

Aside from collaborating with the late Stack Bundles’ estate, the Crate has also worked with Queens hip-hop legends like Nas and the Lost Boyz on merch. And in 2020, the brand released a collaboration with the OG ’90s Queens streetwear label School of Hard Knocks. The Crate is known for its sweats, but much of the label’s apparel also features politically charged graphics that aren’t afraid to say exactly what’s on the founder’s mind.

“They’re conversation pieces, and this is just my art,” says Kirk, who has produced fake Jan. 6 Insurrection “World Tour” merch hoodies that read “Crackers Gonna Crack” and T-shirts that boldly say “Stop Actin’ Like You Support Black People” as a response to virtue signaling plays by major brands. “In 2020, with George Floyd and everything happening, all those brands were like, ‘Yo, we for Black people.’ But where are those people right now? It was all talk to keep the Black ballot. So it’s like, ‘Yo, stop acting like you support Black people.’ Nah, you don’t hear me. So let me put it on some clothes now.”

Despite how popular the Crate’s become within the past eight years, Kirk admits that it wasn’t an easy path to get the brand to where it is. Like many other young designers, he learned through costly errors. The Crate still has its sole flagship in Far Rockaway. But Kirk dreams of opening stores in Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Japan. While Hirshleifers is the Crate’s only stockist, he’s looking to expand and is open to pulling in an investor if it makes sense. But despite being broke at times, Kirk’s believed in the label so much that he ended up quitting his six-figure gig as a steamfitter in 2018 to run the Crate full-time. 

His decision to leave that job inspired a recent commercial for the brand, in which they captured Kirk sleeping until the last stop on the A train in a steamfitter’s uniform while dreaming of everyone in New York City wearing his clothes. 

“I used to be coming home every day, falling asleep on the train, and the only thing I’d be thinking about was really like, ‘Alright, I’m doing this for money, but I do this stuff for the Crate because I enjoy what I do,’” says Kirk. “It’s like, ‘Yo, just follow your dreams.’ We going to the last stop and that’s Far Rockaway. The Crate, here we are.”

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