City: New York
Founders: James Jebbia and Mary Ann Fusco
Year opened: 1989; Year closed: 2009
James Jebbia was a 29-year-old New York City transplant from England and working at Parachute, a high-end men’s clothing store in SoHo, when he started selling unique objects he curated with his girlfriend at the time, Mary Ann Fusco, at a flea market on Wooster Street. Eventually their table at the flea market got so busy that Jebbia quit his job at Parachute and pulled in another Parachute manager, Eddie Cruz, to work at the flea market full time. In 1989, Jebbia, Fusco, and Cruz took the concept of the flea market and brought it into a brick and mortar storefront on 172 Spring St. that they named Union.
“James always had a vision and he always talked about being successful. When he came to America he only had $1,000 in his pocket. But he always had schemes to make money,” says Jakuan Melendez, a former Parachute employee who became the manager of Union and is the founder of the pioneering art toy company, 360 Toy Group. “But if the trend went this way, James went the other way. Union was really the first streetwear, hip hop shop at the time. I don't know any brick and mortar shops that were like Union in 1989.”
Union was unlike the other neighboring mom and pop boutiques in SoHo at the time. They would blast Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet or display simple graphic T-shirts perfectly folded on a slanted wood board—Melendez says Fusco came up with this. Canvasses painted by Futura, Kostas Seremetis, Russell Karablin of SSUR, and KAWS served as art. And a local DJ named Ken Sport hustled hip hop sample mixtapes out of the shop. Although Union’s outpost on Spring Street wasn’t large enough to hold more than five people inside—employees had to make sure customers wouldn’t fall into the trap door on the ground that lead to Union’s stockroom—it carried a wide array of goods from all over. Boiled wool knit sweaters from Scotland were sold next to freshly printed Pervert T-shirts from Miami and Mackintosh raincoats from England. But Union treated everything, no matter its price point, with reverence.
“I remember touching the T-shirts, organically looking and being interested in seeing what they have, and then someone yelled ‘Yo! Don't touch the T-shirts! Let me know what you need,’" says Union Los Angeles owner Chris Gibbs, who first began working at Union’s New York store in 1996. “It kind of caught me off guard, so it was intimidating. Later on when I started working there, I took a lot of pride in being very gentle about trying to explain to people why they shouldn't touch the T-shirts.”
“James always had a vision and he always talked about being successful. When he came to America he only had $1,000 in his pocket. But he always had schemes to make money.”
-Jakuan Melendez, Former Manager of Union
Within five years of opening Union, Jebbia introduced Stussy’s first brick and mortar store on Prince Street in 1990 and Cruz, who co-founded Undefeated, went out to Los Angeles to open a combination Stussy/Union store in 1991. Jebbia opened Supreme on Lafayette Street in 1994. Artists like The Beastie Boys and Eric Clapton shopped at Union. Gibbs remembers Japanese tourists and local drug dealers frequenting the Spring Street shop. But despite going from a table at a flea market to having stores on both coasts, Union’s MO remained the same: To hustle and stock exclusive products that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
“A large criteria for us would be exclusiveness. Back then, to be carried in our shop was a big deal,” says Melendez. “Union, was like the equivalent of Supreme today. We were able to go to a brand and say ‘Hey, we want to carry you in our shop but you can't sell to anyone else in New York.’”
Union sold pieces from smaller designers like Project Dragon by Futura Stash and Bleu, SSUR, 10 Deep, and Hiroshi Fujiwara’s early brand Electric Cottage along with lines like Duffer of St. George or Maharishi. However, when the sneaker industry began growing in the early 2000’s, Union attempted to pivot towards that market. Gibbs moved to Los Angeles just a year after Cruz opened his sneaker store, Undefeated, in 2002. Although both Union stores became spots to cop limited edition sneakers, it was also the start of the store’s troubles.
“There's a million sneaker shops that you can go to to get all the limited edition sneakers and that really took the industry like crazy,” says Gibbs. “As the sneaker stores started growing, Union, as an apparel-based store, couldn't compete.”
By 2009, Union was struggling to stay afloat. The 2008 recession hit the streetwear industry hard and less shoppers were willing to spend money on streetwear. Cruz ended up selling the Los Angeles store to Gibbs in 2008. Gibbs says he was able to keep the Los Angeles store afloat by pivoting heavily towards Japanese brands like Visvim, WTAPS, and Neighborhood—brands Union had exclusives on in America. But, a year later Union New York shuttered its doors.
“I'm saying this more as kudos to the the founders, Mary Ann Fusco and James Jebbia, they [Union] was the first streetwear store in the world,” says Gibbs “There was no other store like it.”