DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - A decade ago, the clothing company Freshjive seemed poised to explode. The Downtown Los Angeles-based streetwear line, which had made its name in T-shirts featuring arresting graphics like Black Panthers logos and bright parodies of corporate touchstones like the orange Tide detergent bulls-eye, raked in $10 million a year in sales. Freshjive products were sought by large retailers, and in 2000 owner-designer Rick Klotz was even profiled, along with his then-best friend, American Apparel CEO Dov Charney, in a 6,000-word New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell titled “The Young Garmentos.” Klotz, according to the article, planned to grow his company threefold in the coming years.
A lot has changed since then.
American Apparel has grown into one of the nation’s most well known clothing companies, with more than 275 stores, $500 million in annual sales and a seemingly never-ending stream of news stories, only a fraction of them for its products. Meanwhile Freshjive, Klotz said during a recent visit to his headquarters on Olive Street at Pico Boulevard, today sells less than half what it did in 2000.
In the past six years Klotz has weathered shrinking sales, personal disillusionment — to the point that he actually quit the business he founded — and family tragedy. When he finally returned, Freshjive’s finances, he said, were like “a jumbo jet about to crash.”
Freshjive is no longer on the brink of disaster, generating about $4 million in annual purchases, but the label lacks the sales punch, visibility and swagger that it once boasted. Now Klotz is working on what, if successful, may be his greatest accomplishment yet — the comeback of Freshjive. Ironically, the crux of the effort involves selling clothes that do not say “Freshjive” anywhere, even on the label.
“This company’s definitely going to have growth in the next two, three years,” said Klotz, though he shrugs off questions about sales predictions. His plan to make over Freshjive, he said, is “definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
Klotz started Freshjive in 1989, when he was a 22-year-old graphic design and illustration major at Otis College of Art and Design (known then as Otis-Parsons). A San Fernando Valley native, his style was a meeting of “a white B-boy and a guy who’s into fashion.”
“I wore the same pants I’m wearing now, oversized 501 Levis,” Klotz recalled. “I had short hair with sideburns, and I wore a snap back baseball cap sitting very high on my head, and a baggy T-shirt.”
Klotz now sports a shaved head, seems to favor thin T-shirts over his jeans and sneakers and speaks in thoughtful, serious tones liberally peppered with obscenities. Upon first meeting, he comes across as supremely confident yet also reserved, almost standoffish. Until, that is, the subject turns to certain Freshjive projects — like an ad campaign featuring some intimate and bizarre snapshots of strangers, purchased at a flea market, or a series of T-shirts skewering pop-punk bands like Blink-182 and Sum 41. Once those topics comes into play Klotz gestures animatedly and warms up. He’ll eagerly describe a photo of a woman’s eagle-themed living room or laugh over his feud with Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker.
Klotz keeps a steady supply of produce on his desk, which appears devoid of personal mementos. During separate interviews, a banana, a small container of blueberries, an apple and a cucumber were there at different times. He prefers light snacks throughout the day to sitting down for full meals.
Klotz’s business philosophy today is not dissimilar from when he started the company two decades ago, though his goals have evolved. He originally conceived Freshjive as a sort of art project that would combine his interests in music, fashion and board sports, among other things. His first T-shirts were mostly bright, bold parodies like the Tide graphic, or one playing off of 7-Eleven’s Big Gulp. Other designs combined skateboarding and surf-inspired gear with hip-hop style, an aesthetic that came to define the casual clothing category known as streetwear. The brand stood out right away for its unique look, and retailers snatched it up.
Bill Hebner was one of Freshjive’s early buyers. Hebner, who like Klotz is now 42, at the time managed the pioneering Newport Beach surf and skate shop Jack’s Surfboards.
“I had, like, my own shop within the shop, because I lived at the beach but I didn’t like the surf lifestyle,” said Hebner, who has stylishly spiky hair and drops a casual “like” or two into most sentences. “I’d go to the beach wearing leather jackets and leopard-print trunks.”
They became friends, and Hebner joined Freshjive as business manager the year it started. He used his retail connections to get the fledgling company’s designs into small skate and surf shops. Sales were so strong that Klotz dropped out of school to work on Freshjive full-time.
Klotz and Hebner partnered with Klotz’s father, Jorge, who ran a small garment contracting company out of the squat, unmarked, 10,000-square-foot building at 1317 S. Olive St. that now houses Freshjive. Jorge gave his son space to work in and helped manage the company’s finances.
By 1993, Freshjive was entering its heyday. Shops devoted to streetwear were flourishing, Hebner said, and Freshjive was at the forefront of the trend, creating T-shirts, baggy pants, hooded sweatshirts, caps and shoes, among other gear. The clothes were transitioning by then into simpler, more streamlined designs, though Freshjive continued to put out eye-catching graphics, often featuring the company name in unusual lettering. The brand made it into big surf- and skate-wear chain stores such as Pacific Sunwear and The Buckle. At its height, Freshjive recorded close to $14 million in annual sales.
Even at its apex, however, Freshjive’s staff was never much larger than the approximately 15 employees it has today. Despite its few big accounts and expansion into the international market, the label’s bread and butter remained mom and pop sports shops. Klotz also controlled every creative aspect of Freshjive and its various sub-labels.
“Our goal was always to be in the coolest shops, no matter what other distribution maneuvers we made,” said Hebner. To that end, he said, at trade shows catering to retail buyers, where most clothing companies occupied booths, Klotz would conceal his wares inside a black box with a door.
“If someone came to the booth and said, ‘Hey, do you know where Freshjive is,’ if we weren’t interested in them we would say no, we don’t know where it is,” said Hebner. “We were always conscious of not selling out.”
Klotz admits that he might not have seen the big picture back then.
“I just thought the good times would never end,” he said. “I don’t think at times I had the savviest knowledge to do things at the appropriate time and would just do it my way. We were offered a lot of money for the company in the mid-90s and we didn’t take it.”
Klotz was born in Hollywood and grew up in Van Nuys and Northridge. While his father ran the clothing business, his mother took care of the family and the home. Klotz has a younger sister, Diane.
He began to think of fashion as a form of rebellion in his first years of high school, when he was an avid skateboarder enraptured with the local punk scene. By his late teens, Klotz had hustled his way into work designing flyers and painting murals for L.A. nightclubs.
His various obsessions, from skateboarding and surfing in the early days to punk rock, hip hop, vinyl records, photography, books and cultural rebels have always inspired Klotz’s designs more than a passion for clothing itself.
Today, he lives alone in West Hollywood (though a cousin from Costa Rica is staying with him temporarily to study design). Outside of work, he said, “I don’t associate too much with other people in the clothing business. It’s boring.”
Ask Klotz how he spends his spare time and he’ll describe an impromptu visit he took this year to the Devil’s Rope barbed wire museum in McLean, Texas. He went after becoming fascinated by a book on the subject, and plans to incorporate barbed wire-inspired designs into next season’s graphics.
“I’m kind of a vagabond,” said Klotz. “I like to discover new things in the world and I’m always looking for something different. And if I can turn it into something work-related, I do.”
That sense of the creative and the eclectic is evidenced in Klotz’s office, a cluttered ground-floor room with one large, opaque window and a couch strewn with clothes and magazines. A skateboard leans in one corner; shelves hold a mix of records and literature, from The Vietnam Experience book series to a plastic-encased edition of the smutty but politically minded 1960s weekly magazine Screw.
Klotz recently tracked down Screw founder Al Goldstein (“he’s kind of down and out,” Klotz said) and obtained permission to create a series of T-shirts based on the magazine’s illustrations. The shirts debuted this year.
The Freshjive brand also spills into facets beyond clothes, reflecting Klotz’s scattered interests: The company website has a radio feature and a blog focused on social and political issues called The World’s Got Problems; there was a 2004 book, The Freshjive Propagandist, featuring a mishmash of writing and art. Klotz also owns Reserve, a 3-year-old store on Fairfax Avenue, which carries vintage books in addition to his clothes.
“He’s not in it for the business,” said Sam Arellano, head of the brand strategy firm Graphite. Arellano has known Klotz for years and ran Freshjive’s now-defunct Santa Monica flagship store in the mid-90s.
“He’s in it for the creative expression,” Arellano added. “A lot of people look at it from the outside and don’t necessarily understand it.”
Still, Klotz has demonstrated an uncanny knack for marketing, and in its boom days Freshjive acquired an aura of rebellion that resulted in buzz and sales.
In the mid-1990s, for example, Klotz created a stir by casting an adult film star in a small print ad. It came about, he said, after the magazine running the ad suggested he add a woman to the spread.
“It had nothing to do with the clothes,” Klotz said, “but my God, it got so much response. So we said, let’s keep it going.”
On the flipside, Klotz’s impulsiveness and refusal to follow trends has also been his occasional undoing. The company’s sales tumbled briefly in the late 1990s, when Klotz suddenly decided to blend his signature looks with a more stylish, fashion-forward approach.
“After we got really popular, we got bored of the styling,” said Hebner. “Rick was like, OK, we’re going to make our line more fashionable. We had a leather pullover hoodie at the time. Most people didn’t buy it.”
After recovering from that blip, Freshjive was on an upswing. But by 2003, Klotz found himself questioning everything he had done professionally.
“I was this kid at 22 who got a lot of fame fast because of the business,” he said. “That was cool, but I’m real analytical about life and your place in the world. I started thinking…
“On the one hand, I like being creative and making stuff, but on the other, I’m contributing to this notion that you should wear our clothes if you really want to be somebody in the world. That really started getting to me, because that’s not right, and I’m not that way. I don’t buy clothes for the name brand or my status.”
So six years ago, Klotz quit Freshjive. He put the company in the hands of his father and Hebner and spent his time traveling and surfing. He went to Costa Rica, Cuba and Mexico, among other locales.
The change in Freshjive’s products was obvious immediately, said Dominick DeLuca, owner of the skateboard and streetwear shop Brooklyn Projects and a friend of Klotz’s.
“He was the face of Freshjive,” said DeLuca. “Once he stopped doing it, it just became like every other brand. Freshjive used to come up with its own unique pieces and designs, but then it was just doing what was going on in the marketplace.”
With Klotz away, Freshjive’s sales plummeted. In 2004, Klotz took a break from his travels to return to Los Angeles. While in town, his father suddenly seemed sick.
“He wasn’t feeling well and I picked him up from his visit to the hospital and that was it,” Klotz said. “I dropped him off at my mom’s house, had dinner, left and got the call in the middle of the night.”
Jorge had died of a heart attack. He was 67.
It became a time of decision for Klotz. He had left the business with no plans to return. But he soon realized that, even if he wanted to, Freshjive was in no shape to sell off.
“I couldn’t go bankrupt; that wasn’t a choice for me,” he said. “So I just had to put the work in.”
He hired his sister, Diane, who had worked under their father for a few years, to take over the finances, and he buckled down. Almost immediately, Klotz generated a fresh wave of attention when he created T-shirts parodying the graffiti-style logo of streetwear giant Stussy and got sued for copyright infringement. The legal tangle was settled in 2005. Though he lost, the fight seemed to invigorate Klotz and set the tone for the controversial, message-oriented graphics he has focused on in recent years, from an image of Jesus with one arm around a choirboy to a shirt picturing Palestinian child soldiers.
“I had the best time defending myself, even though I lost $100,000,” he said of the Stussy affair. “Here they are suing me, and it was like, an obvious example of what I’m criticizing in this business: Everybody’s got their little different style and smoke and mirrors, but it’s basically saying to me that all those brands, it’s really all the same [stuff].”
Mark Wiesmayr, a gangly, affable Australian with thinning blond hair, pulled on a grayish blue, crushed nylon windbreaker-style jacket and snapped it shut.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s going to be hilarious!”
The jacket is a sample piece for Warriors of Radness, an upscale, surf-inspired clothing line. It is also part of the anticipated comeback — Klotz is preparing four labels for spring 2010.
Wiesmayr, 47, who has worked at Levi’s and headed the denim company Tsubi, joined Freshjive last month to help create next spring’s looks. He has known Klotz for 15 years and is the first outside designer to work at Freshjive since the early ’90s.
On a recent afternoon inside his paper- and fabric-strewn workspace in the Olive Street building, Wiesmayr picked up a stack of faded GQ magazines from the 1970s and ’80s, tabbed with neon green Post-Its. A young Kurt Russell graced a cover near the top of the pile.
“For Warriors, these are my bibles,” said Wiesmayr. He opened one and flipped through the pages, pausing to point out a large, partly mesh T-shirt.
“Horrible!” he said gleefully, “but we’ll make it contemporary.”
Wiesmayr and Klotz are also collaborating on Gonz, a “fun, ironic surf label,” Wiesmayr said, envisioned as a lower-priced, more casual counterpart to Warriors. The line will be sold at Urban Outfitters (among other outlets), new territory for Klotz.
The third label in the works, RMK, is a 1950s-influenced collection that includes bomber jackets, classically fitted jeans with visible seams and collared, button-down shirts with clean lines. All of the RMK denim pieces and T-shirts will be manufactured at the Freshjive factory, while most of the other clothes are made overseas in countries including China, said Hebner.
The most significant project is a new incarnation of the Freshjive label itself. Klotz’s signature brand, he said, will look completely different come next spring. Wiesmayr has been key to the push to break Freshjive out of the streetwear box.
“I’m introducing him to a lot of new thinking,” Wiesmayr said.
Gone will be streetwear hallmarks like square pockets and boxy, baggy shapes. Freshjive 2010 will be fused with more contemporary men’s fashion, morphing into fitted styles and refined fabrics.
The evolution fits, Wiesmayr said, not only with Klotz’s personal preferences, but a larger shift in the marketplace: The kind of streetwear popular in the ’90s, he and other fashion insiders said, is dead.
The biggest change consumers will see in Freshjive has nothing to do with fit.
Along with the redesigned look, Freshjive items will no longer bear any logos or other markers identifying the brand. Not on the outside of the garments, not on the interior labels, and not even on the Freshjive website.
The move is unprecedented for a label that pioneered streetwear, a genre built around branding.
“The risk is losing everything; that people don’t care,” Hebner said. “But it’s time. Are we going to do a rehash of our old graphics, which is standard in the industry, try to relive what we started, or do the next?”
Going label-free, while risky, could become its own form of marketing and push Freshjive back into the spotlight, some observers say.
Arellano of Graphite, who consulted with Klotz on the no-logo concept, pointed out that Absolut Vodka is currently testing label-free bottles.
“It’s not something that necessarily hasn’t been done,” he said, “the subversive branding and pushback of labeling. I know there’s people in their early to mid-30s that don’t want branding anywhere on their clothes.”
Freshjive has seen a rash of publicity since announcing the move. It has also garnered new interest from retailers, including at the large Agenda Trade Show in Huntington Beach in July.
“Talking to some stores, the brand they were talking about was Freshjive,” said DeLuca. “It made people look at Freshjive that wouldn’t have two, three seasons ago, and they bought it.”
Klotz acknowledges the commercial possibilities of removing Freshjive’s logos. But like the 22-year-old college student who, almost accidentally, founded a booming streetwear company, he seems more excited by its creative potential.
“It’s kind of an anti-marketing thing as a form of marketing, yes,” he said, pausing, a serious look on his face. “But I think not having a brand name on it anymore gives us almost a clean slate as far as where we can go with the direction of the company. Take the name off, and nobody knows where you came from.”
Contact Anna Scott at email@example.com.
page 1, 11/2/2009
©Los Angeles Downtown News. Reprinting items retrieved from the archives are for personal use only. They may not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission of the Los Angeles Downtown News. If you would like to re-distribute anything from the Los Angeles Downtown News Archives, please call our permissions department at (213) 481-1448.