If street cred is a language high fashion seeks to understand, Brian Procell could be called a translator. Ralph Lauren hired Procell when he started selling vintage streetwear from the ’80s and ’90s: think Wu-Tang Clan tour merchandise and Biggie Smalls t-shirts from before he was assassinated. Drake, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna have all worn his vintage sportswear pieces. We chatted with Procell about consulting for Marc Jacobs, why most artists don’t have time to pay attention to style, and how he revived the snap back hat before it ever became popular in rap songs (and was the only swaggy head gear Justin Bieber would be caught driving drunk in).
Did you ever expect couture people would approach you?
I didn’t. It was kind of interesting when I started selling sportswear to the masses on a professional level, I felt like a bit of an innovator, I had no competition. I was catering to youth, and it wasn’t necessarily something that high fashion was paying attention to five or six years ago, and all of a sudden runway starts referencing sportswear just when I thought I was kind of over the idea and the novelty had gotten lost. I like getting to something in its time and in its infancy when everyone latches on the idea. I wanted to get out of the game, but I almost felt like they needed my guidance. So I said, “let me help them out by consulting and supplying.” They gave me a whole new sense of relevance because this was something I understood, and now behind the scenes, I can work with designers who want a sportswear aesthetic. I started with design houses. They were designing and needed reference pieces that they were essentially trying to knock off. I just tried to take it even further, and said, “allow me to study this for you, give me key words for your idea, and I’ll give you everything that you need and save you all the time and money in the world.”
How do you define subculture and what’s the attraction for you?
Movements of passionate, like-minded people. They go out of their way to perfect a style, and they’re anal about detail. I have a love of the history, and the authenticity of subculture in the street. The story’s so rich. It’s so badass. I like the independence. It’s a grittier attraction than sex drugs and rock and roll. It’s passion and art. It’s not boring.
What gets lost when something from the subculture is adopted?
Things eventually become extremely watered down because everyone wants to capitalize on them. Then it becomes mundane garbage. It’s like Andy Warhol’s whole “oh you think it was so special? Let me replicate it 10,000 times. Like so you think this image of Marilyn Monroe’s is so precious? Well, how precious is she now?”
What’s a contribution of your own that you saw had a ripple effect?
I was the first one to sell adjustable hats, the snapback sports hat, and this was in 2006. There was no other store in New York that offered a variety of men’s adjustable hats and the most fascinating thing that would happen was that people would come pick up these hats, and say “how much is this fitted hat?” — not understanding what it was. There was no terminology because it was something so new. Now you walk down the street and in the subways in New York and it’s everywhere. People are always rapping about snapbacks, now Justin Bieber only wears snapbacks [laughs]. Even my little brother in high school can understand. Now I don’t care about snapbacks because it’s so common, that goes back to the idea of what gets lost.
What can you tell me about the history of the interplay between the street and high fashion?
It’s funny. When I was younger, sportswear was affiliated with status. When I think of brands like Polo, Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger that all fall into that era, their whole M.O., all their advertising was all about status. The reason why I’m so attracted to this is that in the ’90s there were these gangs, and they’d usually congregate in areas in head-to-toe Polo, and they’d be stealing Polo clothes flash mob-style at department stores. In the ’80s it was the Ralphies Kids, and then eventually time went on, and they became the Lo-Lifes, which meant you’re a scumbag.
What surprised you about how designers reacted to who was embracing the logos as status symbols?
A lot of people won’t take the time to consider that a brand like Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Sport are extremely aware of how their brand is being adapted and they’re capitalizing on that. But they’re savvy to protect their brand with things like diffusion lines. They can decide how to write their own history. They’ll act as if it were the big bang evolution of the line and say “sorry we had no control,” but no fucking way! Nothing ever just happens that way. There are some Polo pieces that are fucking hideous. You learn you use your discretion.
Do the musicians who wear your stuff dress themselves?
You only have so many hours to practice your craft when you’re a musician so your focus is on music and not so much the aesthetics. You might have an appreciation, but it’s not a priority in their lives. When I’ve worked with recording artists in the past, they aren’t necessarily the most stylish people. They know what they like, but they kind of have to be guided because they’re spending all their time and energy perfecting their craft.
What’s interesting to you about hip-hop fashion now in 2014?
We’re seeing a lot of hybrids of old genres together. There are some really interesting mixes. Slowly they will become their own. The last 50 years after the civil rights movement, it was about everyone becoming their own thing. We haven’t had a moment where you’ve had such a mashup of different influences. Before it was very general. You had the 2000s doing the ’60s, and the 2000s referencing the ’90s, but now you have the 2000s referencing the ’90s referencing the ’60s.
What do you remember about being a graffiti artist?
It was definitely something I was extremely influenced by. I threw myself into that world. A lot of people aren’t aware of the connections the graffiti scene has to the creative world. Many of the creative directors of big fashion houses and fine artists and designers, at some point, through some small degree, come in contact with graffiti. That’s how it was in the late ’90s and the early 2000s. It’s an amazing network. To this day, a lot of professionals that I run into are people I knew from then.
How would you describe your graffiti style?
I did pretty rudimentary hand styles and what you would call “conventional” New York graffiti. I was just doing my own thing. Usually you can kind of tell what part of the country a graffiti writer is from or you know what era they’re from. I stepped away from a lot of that. I was creating my own language and thoughts. It was something that just came naturally from being somebody that was exposed to the New York scene and dove into it nose first. It was a way for me to put my own spin on it. Now in hindsight, it was just that I was surrounded by it, so I thought, let me just participate instead of being a spectator. It’s part of the youth culture in New York. I wasn’t a career graffiti writer, and the most important thing was I never treated myself as one. I never said, “I’m the big bad wolf, I’m the writer.” That’s when everyone starts shitting on you.
What misconceptions are out there about buying rock or rap vintage?
A lot of people have this interesting preconceived notion of what t-shirts at vintage store should be. They think they’re going to find the Rolling Stones shirt with the lips with the tongue sticking out, and that’s cliché. It’s just become a uniform idea. One thing that is really funny is that I showcase the ’90s hip-hop shirts. There was no one shop that had that, and that is my contemporary innovation. A lot of people will follow suit because the demand is so strong. You can find 10,000 Rolling Stones shirts. Shit gets outdated a lot of time.
And if a retro kid looks like he just walked out of Do The Right Thing?
That’s corny as fuck. Look at models on their own time. Yeah, they might model for Givenchy, but they say “let me throw on this awesome t-shirt or throw on this hat and jeans or whatever and maybe a $20,000 purse.”
What does an artist wearing something rare?
Things get harder and harder to find. If you want the Wu Tang jersey that Drake purchased form the store, it gets harder and harder and more expensive to acquire that one jersey. In Wu-Tang Clan’s “Can It All Be So Simple,” Raekwon wore that Ralph Lauren pullover that said “SNOW BEACH.” That jacket has been referred to as the Raekwon jacket — it came out in the early ’90s. Whenever it’s on eBay, automatically it goes upwards of $5,000.
What do you like about Instagram?
I stayed away from Twitter for so long. That was always just because I feel I suck at writing. I didn’t have an academic background. I’m too poor to have a ghostwriter. That’s the amazing thing about Instagram. Those inhibitions are lost. Instagram’s my life. I finally found the perfect outlet for social media to be able to be self-expressed. If I didn’t, my grammar would have been fucked up. People don’t really understand me the first time I’m around them. My biggest complex is that I’m judged right away.
How do you think you’re misjudged?
People might say “who is this, hoodlum?” but it’s “why does he consider himself an authority?” You know, “who do you think you are? You’re from Elizabeth, New Jersey.” If I were mute, things would be a lot shittier, everyone could quantify me.
What was your pop culture diet like when you first found your style?
I was never the guy fascinated with Times Square and the attractions I feel are synonymous with New York. I was more of a kid that was really into mom and pop record stores, and at that time, they were all over the city. Growing up, I paid a lot of attention to fashion. I was forced into it. If you want to survive you have to stay up on the trends and look cool and play the part. What left a huge impression on me was not having any money. I became a very savvy shopper, and I paid attention to clothing all my life. When I went into the city, I would be obsessed with curated stores and shops.
Because you didn’t design the clothes, how do you put your mark on them?
People always want to walk away with something. Basically something to say they’ve been there. That’s going to lead me to make some kind of separate souvenir that can be really anything. I’ve collected so much shit that I can actually reference objects and articles this season and say, “this is what I’m going to offer this season.”