pleasures interview, alex james
[Photo by: Rick Rodney]

Formed in 2015 by Alex James and Vlad Elkin, Los Angeles-based streetwear brand Pleasures makes clothes and accessories heavily influenced by its creators’ deep love and respect for the music they grew up listening to. And, as an extension of that, the artists, scenes and styles which that music revolved around. 

Their work is consistently thoughtful, regularly controversial and, perhaps above all else, always imbued with a sense of fun. Of course, that’s not to say that what they do isn’t important to them—it is, of course: James became a first-time father last year, and Pleasures is his full-time occupation. No, what that means in practice is that the brand—in terms of the clothes it makes and the way it sells them—benefits from a particularly rare gift within the fashion industry: the gift of self-awareness. 

Read more: METALHEADS hair dye celebrates alternative culture with all-star cast

With a new collaboration alongside the iconic British new-wave band New Order released in July, we caught up with James to discuss his East Coast roots, Pleasures’ punk values and the dream of creating a streetwear brand that’s about more than sex and drugs. But which, crucially, never forgets its roots.

How did you first come to streetwear personally?

It’s basically what I grew up with—how I learned about different types of Nikes and stuff: through hardcore music and the East Coast. 

That’s how I came to a lot of it as well, you know? Being a fan of bands like Glassjaw. Daryl Palumbo obviously knows his sneakers.

There’s a Glassjaw Nike [collab] floating around out there in the world. They only made like 30 pairs or something, but it’s out there. For me, the intersection of music and clothing has just always been there, so in my brand, it always made sense that we continue that language.

Was it always in your mind, even when you first started the brand, that there’d be a definitive musical connection there? 

Yeah. For me, my uniform is always band merch. And then I started to see brands collaborating with bands and artists and musicians, but it wasn’t really any of the stuff that I was listening to. I felt like there was a gap, like, “What about me and my friends and our scene and our audience?”

We actually did a project with Glassjaw; we did their album listening party in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving night 2018. We made a collaborative T-shirt, gave everybody free weed and alcohol and we sat around listening to the album and talking about it. It was amazing.

That sounds incredible.

It was just like a vibe, you know? They do out-of-the-box stuff, and that’s why we identify with them and with other bands. Because that’s the way that we are, too.

And you knew there was a built-in audience for you because, at the very least, it was what you and your friends wanted, right?

Yeah, pretty much. Streetwear was very much focused on guns, violence, sex, nudity, drugs. Stuff like that. But I was like, “Hey, we’re into different types of things. Sure, we like sex and drugs. But, you know, we don’t need to wear it.” 

You can do that on your own time, right?

Exactly. It was very much about touching on different subcultures and stuff that I was exposed to at a very young age. Same thing with my business partner: I grew up in New York, [and] he grew up in L.A. He was very much in the rave scene and the nü-metal scene and all that, and I was more on the hardcore and punk-rock side. We’re in our 30s now, and when you put on a certain song, it really takes you back to a certain time and a certain place, and you’re like, “Damn,” and it really starts you thinking. For both of us, that’s what we’re about. 

Was there a moment you can think of when the whole thing came together for you as a definitive idea? 

I would say the definitive moment, or the turning point of the brand, was when we had an opportunity to do this hybrid concert and runway show in 2017. Some of our friends were involved, and they invited us to be a part of it. It was with Wiz Khalifa, Juicy J, Ty Dolla $ign—and, obviously, let’s be real: Everybody listens to hip-hop. I know I do; I always have. Me and Vlad are huge fans of Three 6 Mafia. But getting the opportunity to work with those guys, and with Wiz especially, who was a supporter of ours from the start and actually suggested us for this project, was incredible. It was in L.A., at the Staples Center, and it was a really big deal. We were still a really small brand. 

So it was an opportunity to really prove yourselves. 

Exactly. We thought, “Hey, we can make some cool products here and put on this high-level concert-runway show with our friends at 424, another brand, and really show people what we’re about.” That became a turning point for us where people started thinking, “Oh, this is a real brand. Not just an Instagram brand; they’re doing real things.”

When you’re doing something like that, if you’re not doing it for the right reasons and you’re not genuine, it shows through quite easily. When you are, people will take notice. 

That’s why we try to make our stuff affordable, too. Because that’s just the way we grew up. We grew up shopping at Goodwill and at Salvation Army and stuff like that—places where we’d be lucky to get a branded T-shirt or something. Now we always have that in our minds, and it’s like, “OK, we can make cool stuff, and design doesn’t have to be expensive.” I think that’s what’s cool. 

If you grew up listening to punk and hardcore and as a part of those scenes, then it’s your instinct to make things more accessible. More democratic.

Exactly. And we can use our platform as a voice to bring awareness to things that are happening in the world, things that we don’t agree with, and try to help people understand to do the right thing in their daily lives. That’s what I think has been cool, too: to really speak out about certain issues that are important to us, especially with everything that’s been going on in the U.S.

In that sense, outside of your musical influences, what is it that you think most permeates what you do?

I really think the inspiration is from growing up in the age of the birth of technology—the birth of the internet. It’s about showing people why we are the way we are—why we reference certain things and why we dress the way we dress. 

The transition of not having the internet, then having the internet and trying to navigate this new world, I think having that knowledge and experience really helps us get our point across. There’s a whole generation of people who maybe might have missed out on the internet because they might have been too old at the time, but I was at the height of it, and I really took advantage early on of submerging myself and thinking, “This is where the world is now.”

Are there other brands that share your values and creative ideas that you’re a fan of or that you’d like to work with?

It’s funny: I don’t really pay attention to what other people are doing as much because I think that messes with my creativity. But, obviously, brands that I wear: Ralph Lauren has been consistent in my life for a very long time—someone that I look up to and admire and is still making really cool products now. I really like some of these independent footwear brands that are coming up, too, like Stepney Workers Club. I’m actually wearing a pair right now. It’s just something a little different. An iteration of a timeless classic with just a little bit more to it.

They’re from the U.K., right?

I’ve had this attraction to British culture my whole life. I don’t know what it is, you know, with the music. I guess the root of it is Morrissey, but we’re not going to go there. Regardless, I’ve just always had this tie to British culture, and now the brand is getting very popular in the U.K.

You had a New Order collection come out, a follow-up to your Joy Division release. I guess that comes from the same place of love?

Also just our love for music that’s always changing and progressing and there throughout our lives. When we worked with Peter Saville for our Joy Division project, we had a good workflow, and we said, “Hey, can we do New Order, too?” We’re actually doing Factory Records, as well. Everybody knows their iconic imagery but doesn’t really know the history of it. So we’re gonna tell a little bit more of the Factory story. Obviously, 24 Hour Party People is a great crash course for anyone who wants to learn, right?

Even in the U.K., some of this stuff is still fairly niche because it’s still technically “alternative culture,” right?

Absolutely. And I feel like when you listen to New Order’s music, you feel like, “Wow, this song sounds pretty fresh,” and you look and it was made in 1983. And then you listen to something else, and you’re like, “Wow, this was made two years ago.” There haven’t really been too many bands that have evolved with the world and time and culture like New Order has. 

They can play older songs alongside their newer stuff and none of it sounds stale or old-fashioned.

It seems fresh and fun and different. And I think it really is an identifier of our brand—of something that we aspire to be. New Order is just such a good example of that. 

Working with Peter has been amazing, too. He’s somebody that we look up to. He’s an interesting dude that’s done so much. 

Even if people don’t know his name then, they’ll know something that he’s done, right?

Yeah, I know! We really did the education of the Unknown Pleasures cover with our Joy Division stuff, and people really got to learn that it’s not just a Tumblr image. It stands for something more.

I know what it is about a band like New Order that appeals to you, but outside of that, what is it that attracts you to a band or a brand as a good partner to work with?

A good partner in any project is just someone that brings something completely different to the table other than what we can offer. When we’re working in music, it’s gotta be someone that we vibe with, that we listen to, that we co-sign—that we love, really. We’re not gonna work with an artist or a band if we’re not into it. It’s gotta speak to us, and we’ve gotta be as excited about their work just as much as they’re into ours. 

If you haven’t got that authenticity at the root of what you’re doing, then you haven’t really got what makes you, you, right?

Exactly. People look at the brand as having that unique voice, and between me and Vlad and our employees, I think we have a pretty clear path. People know what we’re about and what we’re into, and they know that through our work.

This interview appeared in issue 397, available here.