Proletariat originally started in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Founded in 2004 by Kerry Simon out of his apartment near Harvard, the tiny company grew from a small operation spanning across his living space to an influential store in the area to an online market with satellite locations that includes Raunch Records here in SLC. A short time ago, Simon himself relocated to the City of Salt, and today we chat with the man himself about his company and its eight-year history, plus his thoughts on where the company is headed,
Gavin: Hey, Kerry. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Kerry: My name is Kerry Simon, I’m 34, married, and new to SLC.
Gavin: When did you start taking an interest in art, and what were some early influences on you?
Kerry: My mom is very artistic and has been a professional graphic designer since 1972, so I have never known a world without art or its influence. Even as a newborn, my parents took me to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “Wrapped Walkways” in Kansas City where we lived briefly. My mom was always making stuff around the house, whether it was stained glass windows for our church or my dad’s wedding ring. In fact, we had a room in our house called the “Art Room” that had a sewing machine, drafting table, hundreds of markers and paints and tape, and I had free rein and a helpful hand when I needed it. I think the best thing that influenced me at a young age was when my parents decided to purchase a powerful Apple computer when they cost about $10,000. It meant my mom would have to drive a beater around town for another few years, but that was a game changer.
Gavin: How did you first get into T-shirt design, and what influenced you toward producing works?
Kerry: When I graduated college, I opened a few vintage clothing stores in Texas since I have been a fan of vintage my whole life. Those stores did really well but my wife, Leslie -- then girlfriend -- got a scholarship for her master’s and Ph.D at Boston University, so I decided to sell the shops and accompany her on the adventure. I opened a vintage shop in Harvard Square and I was finding it harder and harder to supply it with enough merchandise to pay the $4,500 per month rent. At the same time, I was undergoing a major life change. Growing up in Texas was a lot like growing up in Utah -- everything for the most part is peachy keen. When I got to Boston, I had to step over homeless people multiple times a day. I was learning that life isn’t as easy for people who don’t have good families, or who suffer from addictions or circumstance. So one night, a new friend and I went to check out the movie Fahrenheit 911 and it blew my mind. Not that I completely align myself with Michael Moore, but I realized I had never even known there was another side or point of view to the story ... or any story, for that matter. I was brought up in a place that votes one way, prays one way, and teaches one way, and in that theater I realized that I had a choice in life – infinite choices. I knew I had felt uneasy about the Iraq war, and at that moment I decided to take my art skills, my love of the 1st Amendment and my need for new merchandise and I put out the original 4 Proletariat shirts -- all made by me, on American-made clothing.
Gavin: Prior to starting Proletariat, you mention that it was in response to post-modern America in the early '00s. What were your thoughts on the politics and country at that time?
Kerry: Well, I’m sure I lost half of your readership by simply mentioning Michael Moore, but let me admit something that I don’t freely admit. I was raised in a conservative environment and I voted Republican, all the way to 2000. But I also lived in a safe part of Texas, made good money for my age, and had been given a life up to that point with a safety net, an amazing family, and not much real, personal, everyday connection to people who did not grow up with that. In 2004, when I started Proletariat, I had lost my entire savings from the sale of my two shops, plus had to take out a $10,000 loan to stay afloat. I had to get out of my apartment and live in the storage room of my store – unbeknownst to my landlord and my customers. I had to think about every dollar I spent, and all these things I used to have access to simply faded away. I began to talk to my customers and learn what it was like to grow up without a parent, or to be kicked out of their house at a young age, or to be robbed, etc. On top of that, I didn’t believe in the War and I was worried about my two younger cousins who were in it. I guess you could say I was disenfranchised with the American Dream.
Gavin: What was the big thing that pushed you to start up Proletariat, and what made you choose that as the name?
Kerry: When we moved to Boston, I had no intention of owning a shop again. The problem was -- much like it is now – there were no jobs. Boston is a funny place because everyone there is so educated that most jobs are held by a college graduate. The dude serving you coffee probably has a Ph.D, so a random stranger from Texas with a basic college education couldn’t get a job at a liquor store, retail shop, coffee shop or a dry cleaners -- even though I had three years dry-cleaning experience from high school. So, after six months of my savings dwindling and no one offering me work, I just bet on myself, which, in the short term, was a bad bet! The name Proletariat came from a few things. My dad is from a strong working-class background and he was the first person in our family to go to college. I have always had the working-class pride thanks to him and my godmother in St. Louis. On top of this, I always wanted my clothing to be affordable for working people. There are so many brands that are exclusionary based on price and I wanted an all-inclusive brand. Finally, my T-shirt designs are my art – and I think art should be affordable for all people. So, with all of these requests, I asked my wife what I should call it and she said: “Easy. Proletariat.” I had never heard the word at the time but quickly realized it was perfect. I really realized this the first year where I worked 360 days in a row and lived in the shop.
Gavin: You founded the company back in 2004 out of Cambridge. What was it like for you first starting up?
Kerry: I guess I have touched on this a bit already, but it was grueling and exhilarating. For one thing, starting a business in Texas cost me $350 a month in rent and a handshake deal. Starting a business in Cambridge cost me $4,500 a month for the same amount of space and a personal guarantee that dictated if I went out of business and couldn’t find a suitable buyer I would owe my landlord $50,000. But being young and confident I went for it. Owning a business has its ups and downs and, honestly, I think it is something that some of us are made for and some of us aren’t. I love knowing that doing little everyday things like sweeping the floor might make a customer like the place that much more. And I love the fact that all of my recent best friends have been customers of mine – because we were drawn to the space for the same reasons. I hated the shoplifters, dealing with taxes and the city, and the “us versus them” mentality some competitors have, but if someone reading this really wants to do something, just do it. You will not regret it, no matter how it turns out, and money is worthless when it isn’t being put to a good use.
Gavin: Where would you come up with designs for your shirts, and how was it for you coming up with material?
Kerry: The designs for my shirts are usually topical and are mainly my take on society. For example, let’s take one of my first designs: Bomber$. I remember watching the news one night and they were mentioning that each smart bomb we dropped in the “Shock and Awe” campaign cost X amount of millions of dollars. So I sat there thinking, "Imagine if we took the same amount of money that just one of these bombs cost and invested in our 'enemies'. We could get them the necessities of life like education, water, food and a future." After helping them get on their feet ,I doubt they would want to fly planes into buildings – in fact, they would probably defend us and support us. So, I sketched out a few bomber planes dropping a payload of dollar signs and most people got the idea. This is just one thought on one shirt, but I am really into the news and current events and most of my ideas stem from that. I try to create a simple yet powerful graphic to get people thinking.
Gavin: What was the process like for you making shirts early on from your apartment?
Kerry: Oh, man. That was a world-class nightmare! I had a 350-square-foot studio apartment in Boston for the “low” price of $1,250 a month. In that studio, I had a single bed and a desk, a four-head screen-printing machine, my closet was emptied to be used as a darkroom, and I had a 1500 psi pressure washer hooked up to a garden hose on my kitchen sink that ran into the bathroom to wash the screens out -- and you thought a meth lab made for an annoying neighbor. First time I used the pressure washer, I was amazed at how well it cleaned the screens, and I was also amazed that I had just blown all the grout out of my bathtub’s tiles! Once I sold my first few batches of shirts, I linked up with an amazing printer and now friend, who ended up printing my tees for the next seven years.
Gavin: When did you start getting others involved with the company, and what was it like expanding to community volunteers and getting small businesses involved?
Kerry: After my 360-day-straight work year, I took off to get married to Leslie and go on our honeymoon. When we left for that trip, she was a grad student making $16k a year and I was over $10k in debt and I was told my store lease/illegal dwelling would not be renewed – so the entire time we were gone I was nervous about coming back. However, when we got back, a new landlord notified me that an amazing warehouse space in Harvard Square had opened up and it had my name on it. This is when everything started to change. We started winning awards for best vintage store and best original-clothing brand, multiple years in a row. This meant I was expanding and staying true to Made in USA; it took some creativity, which meant I was using manufacturers in other states and I had a single mom in the projects sewing my labels on while she watched her young son. My friends all offered their talents whether it was marketing or photography or design. We had built up such a name for ourselves that whoever I reached out to was down for the cause, big business or small. We threw multiple parties with Adidas, and Pabst Blue Ribbon sponsored Proletariat with about 700 cans of free beer a month – which I happily distributed to everyone who helped out, from the building’s security guards to the mailman to all of our customers – which, in turn, got more and more people involved.
Gavin: Within five years, you had acquired a shop and the company was selling across the country through online sales. What was it like for you to see that much growth in such little time?
Kerry: Honestly, it was amazing. We were getting written up in travel guides like Let’s Go as one of the 10 places you had to see in Boston, and many foreign travel websites were sending people from England and Japan over. I had a customer from Europe who was vacationing in Manhattan and talked his dad into taking the four-hour Amtrak to Boston just to see Proletariat and then they went back same day. The best thing about it was, and is, the fact that I felt like we were doing the right thing for us and for our country. I believe in our statements whether it is our Americana line that boasts the Made in USA label or the Originals line, which points out my interpretation of the ills of society. There’s nothing like taking a tough road and ending up at an oasis.
Gavin: Part of the expansion was bringing in graffiti supplies and brands such as Krink and Montana. What made you decide to incorporate graff art into the company?
Kerry: I always had a good ear to the ground and listened to what my customers wanted. One of those customers was a graffiti artist by the name of GROE, who is very talented and from the well known Circle T graffiti crew in Boston. He used to buy my clothes and was a cool kid and just said I should check this new brand of German spray paint out called Montana. He then told me he wouldn’t buy any but he was sure others would) I had been into graffiti since about 2001, but only in the sense that I would sit in train yards drinking beer and watching the cars go by. Anyway, I ordered about 18 cans from Montana and they sat on the shelves for about two weeks. I was like, great, thanks for that, GROE. And then one day, a guy came in freaking out and bought all 18 cans. That guy put in an advance order for another 50 cans and so the story goes. At the same time, I was friends with a kid who was in Boston for school from the world-famous IRAK graffiti crew, so we started selling their clothing – way before any of the streetwear shops just because we were boys. Then another customer suggested I sell Krink, which is a major ink/marker brand out of NYC. I called the owner and he had already heard of my shop and decided we could be the second retailer of his brand, the first being the Alife. Krink is now sold in hundreds of stores worldwide and I believe we helped get him to that point. Selling graffiti supplies was also a way for me to connect my love of art with other artists, and even though there isn’t much money in it, I just kept it up for the love of it.
Gavin: What's the process for you in creating a new design, from concept to final product?
Kerry: Normally, I come up with an idea and write it on a little piece of scratch paper or put it into my phone or text it to myself from bed, etc. My whole life is a puzzle of trying to find these damned notes or remember what I meant when I scribbled down something like “math counts/meth lab.” Most of my ideas don’t get made because when I sit down to draw them they just aren’t strong enough or they are too soon or too old. The second thing I do is I Google the hell out of my idea, as well as check like-minded brands like Fresh Jive or Obey to make sure that I don’t put out a shirt that could ever be considered a copy. Once I am confident that my idea is fresh, I sketch it up and that usually takes about 8-10 hours per design. Once that is done, I fight back my nerves and I show it to my wife and then my inner circle. The people in my inner circle are all good friends of mine and have all bought stuff from my brand in the past and most of them have different tastes and different styles. Usually, there is some kind of common taste from the inner circle, but at the end of the day I still put out what I want to.
Gavin: Is there a lot of editing done to it before hand or do you try to stick to the original as much as you can?
Kerry: The original and the editing are almost always done at the same time. Every once in a while when I get to my printer, he will explain to me that a part of my design won’t transfer properly in the printing process so I should change it, and that is why it is important to find a printer you trust who actually cares about you.
Gavin: What's your relationship like with all the artists you have on board, and how is it for you to stay connected to them and keep up with their works as they work in different parts of the country?
Kerry: You know, every artist I have worked with has been a friend first and amazing artist second. I can’t put my name on something if I don’t personally vibe with my co-collaborator. As for staying in touch, it requires a lot of e-mail, Facebook, phones, and our blog, ThatsTheHookUp.com, which I co-own with a few of those artists. We are also very good about visiting each other. One of my best friends, Kenji Nakayama, who has done more collaborations with Proletariat than any other artist, recently had a gallery opening at The Woodward Gallery in the lower east side of Manhattan. Leslie and I flew in for that and all of the Proletariat crew came in from Boston and NYC to celebrate his success. We are definitely a tight family and our friendships always come first.
Gavin: What led to you moving to Utah in 2011, and what made you decide to stay here since?
Kerry: Well, Leslie graduated with her Ph.D from Boston University and Utah Valley University scooped her up. Neither one of us had ever been to Utah before, so we flew out and thought it would be something new. Personally, I love Utah. It’s a beautiful state in every season. The shops and small businesses are well executed and are just as nice as any I have seen in Boston or NYC or Austin, etc. The people are friendly, and this place is CHEAP compared to everywhere we have lived in the past decade. Plus, the city really has some great events planned out like the Twilight concerts and the Farmers Market and those movies at the Capitol. I feel like SLC is about to blow up – because all of my East Coast friends come out here expecting it to be super-weird, and before they leave they are planning their next visit.
Gavin: What was it like for you to sell the shop in Cambridge and take the company almost completely online?
Kerry: It was definitely hard – but it was the right thing to do. I just wasn’t ready to settle in to one place for the rest of my life, plus in the back of my mind, I always knew Boston would be temporary. We had given up a cushy life in Texas with two successful businesses to focus on what my wife needed for a few years. We will always consider the Boston years an amazing time in our life and we met most of our best friends while living there. On the other hand, having a brick-and-mortar shop is all consuming. It's always on your mind and needs constant attention, and, frankly, I was ready to take some of that attention and throw it back on Leslie and remember what it was like to have life outside of work. Running an online business is fun – but it isn’t as inspiring and it's definitely a lot less interactive, which is why I recently started a part-time job over at Salty Peaks Snowboard Shop where I am running their blog and social-media department.
Gavin: Locally, you've been working with Raunch Records to sell merch and supplies. How has it been for you working with Brad and his crew at the shop?
Kerry: Brad is definitely cool and Raunch Records was one of the main signs for me that Salt Lake City wasn’t going to be too much of a culture shock. When my wife was interviewing, it was my job to drive around SLC and try to take in as many shops, restaurants and bars as possible to see if it would be possible to leave big-city life and move here. I stumbled upon Raunch, which is strikingly similar to my old shop in Cambridge, and as I read the store’s motto “A fucked up place to get some shit” I knew we could call this home. Haha! Seriously, it meant that there were enough people into music and alternative culture to keep a unique business like that alive, and it also meant that the religious majority was also cool enough to let people be and I respect that.
Gavin: Having the kind of independent success you've had, are you looking to branch out into other areas or are you comfortable with where Proletariat is today?
Kerry: After owning four stores in the past 10 years, I am really excited about taking a breather from store ownership and I am learning how to make my business work around my life – not the other way around. I have been getting more into writing and have set up a successful blog that originated as the Proletariat blog with many of my East Coast friends on ThatsTheHookUp.com. We cover street culture, nightlife, art and graffiti – and everyone on the site is an expert in their field. I have taken this experience and am currently working with Dennis and the Salty Peaks crew to create an extensive Snowboard & Skate blog for Utah. This leaves me time to focus on Proletariat but also forces me to not let it take over.
Gavin: What can we expect from both you and Proletariat over the rest of the year?
Kerry: Well, I will put out a fall line that will include a limited-edition letterpress print from one of my customers in San Francisco, as well as some designs with Kenji Nakayama, who is working with us, Juxtapoz, HGTV, and Stussy in the next few months! I’m also adding tools for pinstripers and sign painters to the website, which is a way to tie in my love of vintage cars and bikes, and I am also going to be carrying the full line of Montana Spray paint for all you aerosol artists out there. Mainly, I’m just gonna keep doing what I love doing and I hope to meet like-minded people here in our new home.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Kerry: First of all, I’d like to thank you, Gavin, and City Weekly for running such a nice magazine – you introduced Leslie and I to a lot of our favorite places here in SLC. I’d really like to thank my parents, who have supported me 100%, and, obviously, Leslie, who has been through every high and every low with me. Also, a shoutout to the good people at UVU Humanities for bringing us out here and making us feel at home. My boys Cody and Marcus over at cityhomeCollective for being great Realtors and better friends! My friends and colleagues at Salty Peaks -- a place where I learn new stuff every day even though I owned a skateshop for eight years! Raunch Records, Uprok, Bar X, and all the coffee shops and small businesses that make SLC a great place to live!
|Follow Gavin's Underground:||