Brain Dead’s Kyle Ng Is Showing Streetwear Brands How to Properly Respond to Racism

Brain Dead’s Kyle NG discusses BLM initiatives, streetwear's responsibility on racial injustice & how brands can hold themselves accountable.

Brain Dead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Brain Dead

“We are taking this time out to help our community.” That was part of Brain Dead’s message to its roughly 251,000 Instagram followers on June 1. The post came when protests denouncing continuous racial injustice and police brutality, more specifically the murder of Geroge Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, were sweeping the nation. People looted Los Angeles’ famed Fairfax Avenue the night prior along with stores like Flight Club and Round Two. Brain Dead’s founder, Kyle Ng, recalls cleaning the streets with his streetwear community the following morning teary-eyed. But above all else, he knew he wanted to use his platform to amplify the message behind these protests.

Ng asked fellow brands to release charitable product, but was met with hesitation. So he reached out to Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes and within hours, they designed and produced a T-shirt. The message across the back, "If You Love Black Culture, Protect Black Lives," came from actress, and Hynes' girlfriend, Tessa Thompson. After a couple days, that T-shirt raised roughly $500,000 that Brain Dead donated to M4BL and the LGBTQ Fund. Following that he teased another project with ASAP Mob, a charitable cheeseburger by the Burger Lords, and even Fontaine playing cards. All the products raised money for various initiatives aiding the Black Lives Matter movement. While plenty of brands have responded to the current times with messages of solidarity and special T-shirts, Brian Dead’s efforts have gone above and beyond, remained authentic and consistent throughout the past couple of weeks. 

We caught up with Ng to discuss Brain Dead’s recent initiatives, the streetwear community’s overall response or lack thereof to the current climate, how brands can hold themselves accountable, and more. 

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Brain Dead’s received a ton of attention for all its releases these past few weeks. You've been posting the funds you've raised for donations. How much have you raised so far?
We did $500,000 from the Blood Orange tee. We did around $100,000 to $200,000 via the other ACAB shirt, and then we did $92,000 for the Fontaine Cards. We've been doing masks and stuff for this cause. We're about to launch this climbing shoe as well, so I don't have the exact number but the most important thing is that we're also going to try to continue this. This isn't just, ‘Oh, look at what we can do.’ It was more like, ‘Oh, wow, our consumers are so active and just ready to help the community.’ We just want to be the voice for that moving forward as well. 

By showing our numbers, it just ignited the spark in people. Sometimes it feels like when you're buying this shit it's just like, ‘Okay, cool. I just donated, but I don't know where this is going. I don't know what I'm doing.’ I really wanted them to see. That's more important than any press release, empowering the people to not only support you to be a successful brand, but also to support them, to have a voice in a brand. When I posted that thing about Supreme and then us doing the $500,000, it wasn't an attack on Supreme. It was just saying like, ‘These guys, a billion dollar company, their donation was $500,000.’ Why? We're a small company. We can't put up $500,000, but what we can do is empower the people to have a voice in it. 

Did you expect this level of response? 
Not at all. If you do the right things and you empower the people, they're going to support your brands. I don't want to call it marketing, because marketing to me feels like an artificial way of saying, ‘These are the things that we're trying to express. This is in your face and we're taking it and encapsulating it to sell back to you.’ 

This should just inherently be part of what we do in the first place. It makes you really look at it where you're like, ‘Shit. We do what we can, but moving forward we have to even do more.’ People see that and I think care even more about your brand because when we released our main collection, it went crazy the next week. We've never had those numbers.

Brain Dead x Blood Orange

So what is it that initially made you want to do the T-shirt with Dev Hynes from Blood Orange? How did that kind of come about? 
So the riots happened in LA. They took out Fairfax and West Hollywood. I totally promote the protests, and I wouldn't say I promote rioting per se, but I understand rioting, and I understand the need for change. But also I understand that we as people need to help out the community to re-grow it. It's like the phoenix will rise, and we're here to clean up the ashes. I put on Instagram like, ‘Hey, if anyone needs help cleaning up their buildings, I'm here to help.’ Anyways, later that day no one responded because everyone was probably busy or just in shock. So I just rode my motorcycle over there, and I just started cleaning. I started painting Canter's and helping out Bobby's store [The Hundreds] with the community, and scrubbing buildings and stuff and cleaning up trash. I was kind of teary-eyed the whole time. I wasn't sad. I was more like, ‘Wow, people really care for the neighborhood.’

Seeing people out in the world helping out a community was really special and impactful. A lot of those brands weren't there cleaning up their community. They were just watching other people. Other people were just doing it out of their good will. Immediately when I got home, I hit up two brands like, ‘Hey, let's do something for our community.’ The brands I hit up were big collaborations that would make a huge statement. One person gets back to me and was like, ‘Hey, I've got to get to my board and strategize this, but we're going to do our own thing later on, okay?’ And that kind of pissed me off.

Not saying they have to do it with me, but just like this idea of strategizing and figuring out the right message or whatever. I hit up another brand, and they kind of brushed me off. And then I'm just like, ‘You know what? Fuck it. I've got to act.’ That whole thing with cleaning up the city just made me realize that we just have to do it. So I hit up Dev Hynes and he responded immediately. We talked on the phone, and then we got this thing going in like three hours, and the graphic was made. Tessa Thompson wrote the saying on the back of the shirt, and that was it, and we just released it. In the matter of like two days, it was up for sale.

Why Dev Hynes?
We've been acquaintance friends for a while. I didn't have his number at the time, but through Terrible Records and ASAP Nast and all these guys, I've hung out with him. I just think he's a really good dude, and I'm just a big fan of Negro Swan. I think the way he states his messaging is really beautiful and tasteful, and just artistic and impactful. He comes from a punk rock background. I'm not sure if you knew that, but he comes from this band Test Icicles and he had Lightspeed Champion. He was like an old-school punk dude, and I just knew that he's ready to take action, and he did, immediately. That was rad. That's a community, someone who really cares. Dev Hynes is almost at every rally, dude. I saw him at the mayor's house. He's just there, man. I just really respect his humbleness, and I respect what he does for his community and his fan base as well as the art world in itself.

How did you go about determining what you wanted to donate to, what you wanted the proceeds to be benefiting?
So the Movement 4 Black Lives was Dev Hynes' idea as well as the LGBTQ Foundation Fund. I wanted him to choose those because obviously that's a big part of his contribution and he's very educated. For the ACAB T-shirt, we just kept on researching. Actually, we were doing the Zero Foundation. When I posted that everyone was like, ‘Fuck you. They're not doing shit for people.’ I'm like, ‘Oh, cool. Okay, cool. We'll change it.’ I did more research and we found People's City Council. I love that communication and that dialogue. So we're also just listening to people and seeing the ways how people respond to it. If someone has more information than us, we want to definitely change it if it's better.

We're doing a climbing shoe with Evolv Climbing and Ashima Shiraishi. Right now we’re working on trying to figure out the best way to give back to an organization that's helping underprivileged kids climb and get access to climbing. 

From a production standpoint, have there been any challenges?
Totally. It's been hectic. For instance, we got a donation from Los Angeles Apparel for the T-shirts. We posted that, and people were in arms and super pissed off at us because they're like, ‘How are you supporting a known accused sex offender.’ I got a call from my friend telling me that, too. I was like, ‘You know what? Honestly, I totally agree with you guys.’ So we switched our thing and we're like, ‘We're not going to take these T-shirts. We cannot lose track of what's at hand. This is an important thing, but we can't also forget about the other movements that we also support, like the Me Too movement and women's rights.

Our ethics are important. The hardest part about doing these donations is that if you're going to be out there in the public and say shit, you have to step up in all ways and be ready to be on that platform. We're very aware of it, and also very down to have a conversation with our consumer as well as people we're working with, to better understand our faults.

So Los Angeles Apparel offered to donate all these shirts for the cause. You admitted the error publicly almost immediately, and said you were changing. Why was that so important for you to do?
I think the main thing, for me, is to show humanity. Look, we're not perfect. I'm not going to just say that like every other fucking brand statement, but I want to act on it. If you're telling us this is not the right fund, we're going to change it. And if you're saying right now that you don't want to support this T-shirt because it's made by an alleged sex offender, I understand. We understand that we have to do a better job of being ethical, and a lot of people DM'd us after that being like, ‘Hey, man. It's really cool that you guys are just changing your opinion and showing people that you're listening for real.’ Half-assing it is not going to cut it anymore, because that's what leads to bad habits.

I think right now, the strongest thing we can do as a community and as an industry is listen to our customers, respond, and continue the dialogue with them where it is constantly evolving. Nothing should stay stagnant or should feel definite. 

What are your thoughts about the streetwear community's response to everything?
Intellectualizing this stuff is the most important thing at the moment. Not just looking at what people are doing on the surface level of like, are they donating? Are they just posting some black square? End of the day, if it's performative or not, do some shit, because you're reaching out to your audience. So that's square one. But if you're some big ass business that has basically built your business off Black lives and Black culture, you need to do more. If you have no diversity in your company, you have to do more. If you're a streetwear brand, you immediately have to look at why people are looting these businesses, and what are you doing to change that? I commented on Virgil and what he said about Sean Wotherspoon.

His whole thing was like, ‘Hey, this culture we built.’ And the thing I wrote, which a lot of my friends came after me and kind of criticized me about was, ‘Hey, man. You're trying to bring down a Black man.’ I'm like, ‘No, dude. I'm criticizing the idea of him calling streetwear a culture when he’s talking about consumerism.’ Standing in line to me is not a culture. The culture is the lifestyle of skateboarding, the lifestyle of music, the lifestyle of this stuff. You are just a checkout stand of that culture.

Calling something “the culture” that is just consumerism is the scariest shit to me because this is why these people are looting. It is because they only look at this as a token of ways to better their lives through money. I think that's the most dangerous thing to teach kids. Now kids think they're like mini stock brokers in a resale market. They're all like Gordon Gekko when they should just be going outside skating, going to the outdoors, climbing, making music, whatever it is, and not giving a shit about buying shit all the time. The buying should be things that you want to help build your own personal style and your lifestyle, and we hopefully create products that they can relate to. But it's definitely not going to buy a Brain Dead x North Face jacket at a resale store. 

Speaking on that note about street culture, my biggest concern is Japanese streetwear right now, and Asian streetwear. That's considered like grail shit. Bape, Human Made, Visvim, all this stuff. [Brain Dead] has a really big fanbase in Japan, and that's my second home pretty much. I'm Chinese, but that's my second home, and I haven't seen shit from these guys. It's very concerning. I've talked to a lot of these companies. Their whole thing is that Japanese culture is very different. They feel like they're still learning and they don't want to speak up about things that they might not know all the information about. 

My whole thing about it now is that if they are trying to enter the Western market, they need to act appropriately. If I take off my shoes in an Asian household, I'm doing that out of respect for them. I understand that. If you're not going to speak up, but are directly influenced by Black culture like Nigo, and wearing a chain and saying you're Pharrell’s best friend, if you do not understand that this is an issue that not only affects America but affects the global market as a whole, there's an issue. You're so down to benefit off Black lives, but not actually support it when they need it. No one needs to look cool right now. No one needs to have the best statement. You just need to fucking be human.

Wacko Maria, for instance, posted Bob Marley shirts recently, which is so fucking insane to me. How are you not going to say one thing about this shit when you just literally released a Bob Marley collection? I get it. It's different over there. They might not know what's happening over there, but there are protests in Japan, and in Shibuya, and in areas where they're around.

I'm pledging that I'm going to go there in the next six months, and I'm going to do an exhibit about this, about the civil rights movement, what happened to the Asian-American culture here, and why it relates back to the Black power movement and civil rights movement. I'm just kind of sick of complaining about them and criticizing them. If you're not educated, I'm going to come there and educate you guys.

All the cool brands before, like Shawn Stussy, he was powerful because he brought cultures like reggae, skateboarding, and surfing to New York, and vice-versa. He met Jules Gayton. He met Michael Kopelman. Hiroshi Fujiwara, he brought that to Japan. These are people who are not just bringing clothes. They're bringing messages of lifestyle, and pioneering culture as a whole.

It's a difficult subject, and I was thinking about it right before this. I was not even sure if I even wanted to continue the brand anymore. And then when this hit, I saw that the power of our brand could really shine light on a lot of different topics, and that's where I felt like I needed to call out people that could affect my money. Like companies that we do collaborate with that could easily be like, "Kyle, I don't like what you're saying," and cancel our projects. I wanted to show to myself that money wasn't something that defines my relationship to someone. It's about doing the right thing.

Is that something that you struggle with when you do these big projects, or just in general as the owner of a brand that sells products? 
We're not trying to be an ethically-based brand like Patagonia where everything is about sending that message. But it's like, why can't a brand just be culturally-minded, right? I want to show people that they can have core values and not just feel they have to be singular, but they could be multi-dimensional people, and we should be a multi-dimensional brand.

Streetwear is rooted heavily in Black culture. What do you feel is the streetwear community's responsibility moving forward to kind of keep this issue relevant? 
The thing that streetwear has to first start with is actually building culture back into it. That's the main goal, which will then inherently develop a sense of community within people—underprivileged kids, people of color, and the Black community. The idea of just being bought out by a multi-billion dollar conglomerate...goals of these brands are so skewed with the idea of being legitimized by big business. 

‘Oh my God, LVMH loves us. Oh, fuck yeah. They can buy it.’ It's like, dude, we've built this ourselves. The whole point of this whole thing was that it's people on the streets, or in these cultures and these subcultures, to do what they're doing. It got really skewed when people started selling to Zumiez and all those brands, and just trying to capture as much money as possible. And then their product didn't really mean anything because they're just seeing crazy dollar bills.

I think going back to the core values of what it means to be part of this community is most important. The goal isn't capital. It's helping, like I think streetwear has always been about social capital. It's always been about having support from a demographic that supports you in an authentic way. I'm not saying everyone has to be going out in the communities, cleaning up South Central or whatever. But I think if they can change the narrative, stop worrying about legitimizing money as the only token, or the only thing to reach, it will literally help out the community as a whole on the grass roots side.

Brain Dead ended up actually dropping a new collection this week. What was the response? Also, was there any hesitancy on your part to move forward with the launch?
I mean, the idea of posting products for me was really cringeworthy, like scary. Like, why would you sell stuff in this time? But at the same time, my whole team worked super hard on it. The more our company can survive during this time, the more we can be socially responsible to help out the community at hand as well. I think a lot of people really understand that now, from our side. We had more support this collection. This collection probably did 200,000% more business than we've ever done on one of these larger drops.

You challenged a lot of the big collaborators, Reebok, The North Face, brands that you've done projects with. As a smaller brand, was there hesitation there? 
I definitely got a lot of call to action from brands, which is great. They called me immediately and they're like, ‘We're doing this,’ or, ‘Let's work on our projects.’ There's a lot of things that are going to come out in the next couple months that we want to work on, and into the next year. We want to continue this, not just get stuck. Some of them are just kind of silent too, and you're just like, ‘Wow, okay. I see you.’ I think there was no hesitation for me. The relationships that we've created is not a safety net for them to not have any action. A lot of people right now are scared to speak up in their own companies, because they're afraid of their money. A lot of companies are afraid to say stuff.

All we can do is show that we're not afraid of any of this. We've got to stand for what we stand for, and hopefully empower people to stand out. A lot of people have been DM’ing me saying like, ‘Hey, you gave us the inspiration to speak up to our bosses’ or whatever. I'm like, ‘That's fucking amazing.’ That's what we really want to lead by example with. 

Is that something that you're going to factor in to who you pick as your collaborative partners moving forward?
Definitely.  Moving forward, we're definitely trying to figure it out a lot deeper, and just investigate the practices of companies and understand what we are doing with them.

What will Brain Dead be specifically doing moving forward to continue the support of the Black community?
We've always kind of done things for the community as far as benefits or live shows or whatever. But moving forward it's about how these big projects, like with the climbing shoe, how can we help the climbing community? How do we get people of color or underprivileged kids climbing? 

We did something with Reebok with marionette puppets. Now, they're having me be on the board of the people of color committee to help figure out what to do, a plan of action for educating kids by puppets. So I mean, there's just things like that with every project we're doing like, ‘How can I incorporate ways to help out and give back and build upon what's happening?’

The people have now empowered us, and they buy a lot of shit from us, anyways. We don't need collaborations to make money a lot of times, so let's just benefit people who do need money and support. A lot of that collaboration could be used for that, so I think that's really cool.

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