Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Cornelius Suen and Jenkin Au
Photography by Jenkin Au
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Please tell us about yourselves.
Harry: My name is Harry. I’ve been in the business for 11 years – I started when I was 23. Before that, I was like every other kid – I was passionate about the culture, art, and hip-hop, obviously. By age 22, I just had to do something for myself. At that point, I was in a different kind of business, one which I didn’t like too much. So, I decided to get into the clothing business and this is where I am today.
Angelo: My name is Angelo and I joined Harry when I was 18, probably about six months after he opened the first shop. I’ve been there since about 2000.
Off The Hook is definitely more than just a business. From all the community events that you do, to the soccer tournaments, to even the scratching sessions you have, Off The Hook is definitely about the relationships that you guys form. Can you tell us about this mindset and how it translates to the way that Off The Hook does business?
H: What’s cool is we started when we were super young. When you’re young, you’re not really thinking that much about income and you’re doing it for the right reasons at that point. As you’re doing it, you develop other interests in other fields. Because we started so young, we were already involved in the community. We were bringing in whatever we liked into the space that we had and we tried to make it work with the concept in our minds. In the beginning, it wasn’t exactly what we have today.
A: It’s a progression.
H: Yes, it’s constantly progressing. Back in ‘99, we were doing underground hip-hop shows in the venue that we had.
A: We had freestyle battles, breakdancing…
H: We had many different groups and artists, like A-Trak, Eminem, Raekwaon, and many more. That was what we were feeling at the point, and as the music progressed and as we progressed, the store progressed.
A: That all reflected the kind of clothing that we carried as well. Even though we were a hip-hop store, we had different labels that other shops and stores in the province didn’t have, such as Triple 5 Soul, Royal, Rocawear and more. We had a different flavour for sure.
H: The reason why we’re still so involved with so many independent and community events is because that’s who we are and that feeds the whole clothing aspect of it too. We get inspired to buy a certain way because the culture is going a certain way.
Speaking of how you’ve done this for so long, many brands might find their way into stores based on their success. It’s different for Off The Hook to an extent because you have grown alongside these brands. Tell us what it is like to be part of this movement.
A: It feels good. I can name a few brands that we’ve known for 10 years now and that we saw grow from a small office to a large warehouse, such as LRG and WeSC.
H: I was fortunate enough to meet Jonas and his design crew, Jeremy and the rest of the guys. They came down to Montreal just for a trip and it’s funny because we started at the same time and had the same growing pains. It’s great to be developing those relationships still, the same way we were developing them back in ’99, because sometimes, when they are too old, it’s much harder to connect.
A: It also has to do with the person too – if you become bitter and start hating on everything, you’re going nowhere. You have to have an open mind or else you don’t progress and you fall off.
As with all brands and different entities, strong forces have to join together in order to bring it to the next level. There will always be that time when Off The Hook was straight underground, but it is definitely more mainstream now. Who were some of the people that really took Off The Hook from that underground state to where you are now?
H: It started with me, and I had a partner named Ricky D and this other gentleman named Shaw. Ang came along six or seven months later. I did not have a falling out with Ricky D and Shaw, but we just began to work separately and move in different directions. By then, Ang and I were just working the store by ourselves and then we hired this girl named Kelly, who was a client from the very beginning – she was too young at that time to work – and she stuck with us all the way until November of last year (2009). That was close to eight years. Us three, plus a few other good employees –
A: For example, Vince – he used to shop at our store when he was 13 and then worked with us when he was 18, for four years.
H: Our staff helped us stay straight and allowed us to do what we wanted to do. There were a lot of people in the industry that helped us out but in the end, it was our staff: Vince, Kelly, and Karl. Now, it’s a totally new generation but they are still doing the same thing. There are loads of people that are hovering around us and are definitely still helping us – we did not do this alone. It was a huge conglomerate that worked with us and they helped us when they were big. For example, there was this artist called Clay from out west, and he was a pretty big artist. We did his art show once with a collective of other people. We were looking for a design for our logo that we wanted to use for an event and he turned around designed the logo you see today. He did the t-shirt and we loved it and wanted to adopt it for our logo. We asked him how much he wanted for it and he said that he did that because he wanted to and because he thought we were dope; he did it for fun. It’s really hard to name all the people, but there are tons of people that helped us.
A: Clay works at Nike now… he would be expensive today.
A: Jeremy helped us out a lot too. Jeremy is our designer and he’s also going over to Nike. He did all our Ringleaders logo and he’s just a great guy.
Throughout the years, Off The Hook has definitely developed a strong reputation for carrying some of the best and most influential brands of the scene. At the same time, you have also worked locally with many Montreal based brands, such as Bruxe Design. Canadian brands are still rather small compared to the international scene – what are your views on the scene and how does Off The Hook play a role in developing this scene?
H: It doesn’t matter what city a brand comes from – we’ve never really looked at what city it came from. If it’s nice and if it fits, we’ll buy it. It can come from outer space or the corner street, but as long as it makes sense with what we’re doing and it’s actual, then we’ll buy it.
A: At the same time, it’s inspiring to see a Canadian or Montreal brand. It’s more rewarding to help someone from our own city.
H: Everyone wants to see something from our own city, province, or country. Like the guys from Lifetime, they are doing amazing stuff. Everyone is trying to get into cut and sew today, but they’ve been doing it for the last five years.
A: You can be selling a brand from God knows where and it’s doing great. Then you meet the guy and he’s totally cold and it’s like, “Wow, I’ve been supporting a guy and he doesn’t even shake my hand.” It’s about respect too, not just money.
While working with some giant brands, carrying their products is great for both the store and the customer, but at the same time, you might be supporting brands who do not even know you exist. Can you tell us about some of your experiences with brands that might have been like this or might not have been like this.
H: You have to work every brand differently.
A: DC is a good example.
H: DC is a huge example. They have developed a product called DC Life and it wasn’t going into any of the skate shops – it wasn’t designed for skate shops, it was designed for something like Off The Hook. They didn’t complicate things with their thousands of rules of doing business – they simply asked, “How do you want us to do business with you?” The sales rep was good and he knew the product that he was selling. He designed the business model to fit the store. There are other brands that are huge and you want them in, but they don’t even know you at all. You deal with them for a year or two and then you ask yourself if this is really who you want to do business with. Then you wait a little while until it’s hot and then you don’t have any hard feelings about dumping them. A couple times, you just work a little harder to push the smaller brands. The sales rep has to have the pull and the passion to work with you.
When you compare the small shops to the big guys, the small guys only order about 1% of what the big guys order from these big brands, and the sales rep will treat the small guys differently because of that. Obviously, those brands don’t last long in stores like ours. Brands are designing products that are designed for our stores and these bigger stores are walking into our stores. Once they stop seeing the product in smaller shops, they stop placing those orders. The big guys are looking at the small guys and the small guys are looking at the big guys. That’s just the way it goes – once you reach a Nike level, you have nowhere else to look but down. What are those guys doing? They need to get in touch with them.
Tell us about the history and decision making process of the placement of this store on St. Catherine’s street.
H: Well, it’s very simple: if streetwear was making a shit load of money, it would be ground level on St. Catherine’s street. Unfortunately, you can be anywhere in the world but still don’t make enough money to be on the main level street. You have to work around it and that’s why every store is on the side street – it’s because they don’t make the money. They call it a destination or something cool, but it’s a rent factor and it’s a reality. For us, it was about being as close as possible to the high traffic without paying that high rent. All your expenses are for the masses but your product is for a niche, so it doesn’t make sense. How do we go against that to make it work? The second floor location was the only way to make it work. Today, I think we can make it work on the ground level but since we’ve spent all the time, energy, and resources in building our name, it’s profitable to be on the second level. We have that traffic volume but we don’t have that high rent. The product still reaches the masses.
A: Being on the second level, it filters the browsers.
H: It definitely filters browsers. On a boutique level, you’re locking one four out of 10, if you’re lucky. In our store, you’re locking seven out of 10. We have less traffic, but whatever traffic we get, they buy. They come up because they heard something or they want something. We don’t need the extra security tags and systems and staff.
What else is down the line?
H: That’s for you to see. There are some big plans in the next two years but that is all in the works.
A: We are always working on lots of things at the same time.
H: You will have to follow the scene and the music, and you have to stay relevant.
A: We have it all in the works, but it has to stay relevant by the time it comes out.
H: Right now, we have some amazing events that are coming up and we’re just fully booked. They are all original and fresh, and all these projects have been in the works for six or seven months. People have to just keep an eye out to catch what’s happening.
How do you foresee the street culture scene progressing down the road?
A: I think it’s just getting stronger and stronger.
H: It is better than the year before and the year before is better than the year before it. We are still wearing the clothing, we are still enjoying it and we are still having fun. We’re still feeling it so it is evolving well. There are no real negative things about it. The only thing is that the internet has to slow down a bit and stop posting about things that are being released in like 2014.
What is HYPE?
A: HYPE is a rush and it is what keeps me excited and motivated. That is what HYPE is.
H: HYPE is rush. You rush and you build it up and everything is rushing. Then you rush in to buy a whole bunch of clothes that you probably don’t need or won’t even wear. It is the same thing with the HYPE surrounding shows. Sometimes, we’re selling 30 shows and kids are all HYPEd around that show. They don’t even know the latest CD of the group performing but they just need to satisfy that rush. HYPE puts the rush into you.