I’m really getting into this whole interview thing, it’s fun asking interesting people questions and getting entertaining responses, and I think that the more of them I do the better I get at asking questions, or perhaps it’s just that I’m asking the right people questions, because Greg Long (one of the founders of Gama-Go) has given me some great answers to the various questions I asked him about life, San Francisco, his eclectic clothing/art/homewares/everything brand, and how to survive a bear attack.
I’m not going to do the clichéd blogger thing of suggesting that you get a cup of coffee and put your feet up to read this interview since it’s pretty long, but it’s a really enjoyable read so I think it is deserving of your time, and if you were thinking of heading to San Francisco some time (as I know the C-Dog is this week), there’s some great tips you’ll want to check out.
Like a lot of San Francisco based clothing lines, Gama-Go really seems to be proud of its home city, I visited last year and loved it, if I came to SF again, where would you tell me to go?
I’ve been in SF since ’92 and it never gets old for me. Yes, we’re proud as all get-out of SF. There’s always areas of the city that are doing new things, reinventing themselves. An obvious area to check out is Valencia St between 14th and … well hell with the addition of Anthony’s cookies and Pi it’s good all the way down to 25th. You’ve got great shopping there, some little boutiques and quirky stores, good food, lots of primo coffee roasters (ritual, four barrel), good bars. While you’re over there, might as well head down 24th st and walk down to Bryant. Check out the Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream, Mission Skate, Dynamo Donuts, Arkitype boutique. Take a left and go down Folsom to 20th and grab some awesome German grub at Schmidt’s. A friend of ours (Ohio design!) is a co-owner of the joint and he crafted all of the interior work and furniture in there.
I’m a huge fan of my current neck of the woods, the Richmond. If you hit Clement St & walk down from Arguello to 9th you’re gonna get some really super authentic San Francisco-ness. You’ve got Burma Super Star, there’s about 1000 Dim Sum, Pho, Sushi, and Korean BBQ joints, there’s the Parkside gallery and boutique, New Way Mah supermarket, Hero’s Club for your “we’ve-rocked-Japanese-Vinyl-before-it-was-cool” shit, Spices and Spices II for stinky tofu. From there you’re sandwiched between Golden Gate Park and Baker Beach/Lands End. So if it’s a nice day head to the beach, if it’s shitty, hit the park and take the free elevator ride up to the top of the Deyoung tower and check out the view.
There’s so much going on in the city now, it’s hard to pick a place to focus on. The lower Haight is terrific – Uva Enoteca is just about my favorite restaurant on the planet, I love going down to the Tenderloin and hitting White Walls/the Shooting Gallery & then walking up to lower Polk and going to the bars/seeing bands. Hayes Valley always has some good stuff happening, Fecal Face has their gallery there, Blue Bottle coffee started over there, Propeller’s a pretty super furniture and homewares shop, there’s a really good Saki store, etc.
Christ, come on down to SOMA and visit the GAMA-GO store! I tell you what, GG’s been in SOMA for six years, going on seven and it’s getting awesome down here. We opened the store almost a year ago and have been loving all the fans and customers and tourists and everyone coming in to check us out. Since we opened, there’s a brand new bar – the Bloodhound, 3 new high-end coffee joints (Vega, Sight Glass, and the anything goes Kink cafe), a new unbelievable wine store (Terrior), and soon a new slow food/locally harvested cafe/restaurant called Radius all within 2 blocks of us. The 1AM gallery/street supplies store is a couple blocks from us as is Chrome’s HQ and store. There’s a lot of new energy and excitement down here in SOMA and we’re all really digging it.
I haven’t even mentioned all the stuff going on in the Sunset and in Upper Haight, and all the shops popping up in random places throughout the city. Christ, there’s the Excelsior as well! Talk about authentic SF, go walk down Geneva and hit the Broken Record. Now there’s a bar. The food is out of sight there.
Gama-Go is a well established and respected brand, what do you think of all the new brands that are launched every week? Two or three years ago it felt like the market had reached saturation, but they still keep on coming.
And I hope the new brands continue to come on up. Fuck, it’d be boring as all hell if it was just Tommy Hilfiger everywhere you look. Ya know, this business is a bit deceptive because it seems so simple. Come up with an idea, a name, a couple of illustrations, get ‘em printed and start schlopping it around. But it’s a tough, tough gig. It’s like starting a band. You look around and there’s loads of bands you can point to who are successful, and hell – you like music, so why not get into that? But then you look at who’s playing at a joint like the Bottom of the Hill and you’re like, holy shit – who the fuck are all these bands? How can so many people be in bands!?
Well, it’s because it’s an low barrier-entry kinda thing. You want to be in a band? Get a friend, a guitar, and a drum. Boom, you’re a fucking band. You want to be a clothing brand? Buy some shirts, get a cheap silkscreen kit. Boom, you’re a fucking brand.
Lemmie know when you quit your day job though.
No fooling, if you have no backing and no industry contacts, the apparel industry is a grind. You have to grind it out and work work work. And even if you’re doing terrific stuff and you’re working your ass off and you’re making the shipments … you can still disappear overnight. l look back on brands that I’ve really liked and people I’ve met who were running them and, yeah, now they’re gone and on to something else. It’s not like they were doing anything wrong. It’s a very difficult business with a tremendous amount of very talented and better capitalized competition.
I will say this, the people in this industry have been nothing but fantastic to us. Chris and I have gotten advice and have formed friendships with industry people all along the way. Major competitors of ours have been outstanding with answering questions and being stand up, decent folk. I have nothing bad to say about all the people out there who we’ve met along the way who’ve taken the time to wise us up. And if there’s people out there in Hide Your Arms-land who have questions or need some two-bit advice from a fella who’s been doing this for a while, well I’m easy to find & would be happy to answer questions.
Similarly, what do you think sets GG apart from other clothing (and accessories) companies?
The ritualistic sacrifices we perform on the Solstice. You can say what you will, but that shit works.
Well, firstly, we’ve never thought of ourselves as a t-shirt company. From the get-go we’ve always wanted to make all sorts of things. Cockblocker bottle stoppers, Flipper guitar spatulas, sweaters, pajamas, hip-hopsicle ice trays, yeti slippers, floati pens, all sorts of stuff. We design, source, manufacture, sell, receive, warehouse and ship everything we make. We put time and care and energy into every part of the process from the minute that drunken inspiration hits to the moment we’re handing the goods over to UPS to make it’s merry way to stores around the world.
Secondly, we work with really talented people. We’ve been hugely fortunate to be able to hire and employ a stellar group of individuals who work very hard. Every single person who works at GAMA-GO is appreciated and does a heck of a job.
Last, we make things we love and enjoy. We’re not chasing trends, we’re not trying to appeal to markets that we don’t know anything about. We focus on making things that we would buy. I think if you look through the 9-year history of the brand you’ll see a consistency of our vision and of our likes and interests. I’d be just as happy printing up a design we did 9 years ago as one we’re developing right now. That’s not to say we haven’t changed and evolved, but I think people recognize that we’re putting a lot of ourselves into everything we do. They’re attracted to the fun and joy and quirkiness of our products. When you’re wearing GAMA-GO, people will come up to you and tell you how much they dig your shirt. Or your bag, or your coasters, or your spatula. It’s fun stuff that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
I’m rambling a bit, and now here comes a segue on the question … indulge me. I would say it’s safe to say that after 9 years we really understand the niche we’ve carved out in the market. That’s a big part of our success. I’d also say that the work we’ve done to get where we are has hugely informed and educated us. The work itself has been our teacher. We’re now in a place where we’re able to use this wisdom, use our market position, leverage our employee’s talent, and take advantage of our manufacturing experience to dramatically broaden our offerings and our market reach.
To continue with the band analogy, our challenge today is in artfully moving GAMA-GO from the “My favorite indie band” to “chart-topper.” Over the next year GAMA-GO is going to be showing up in places that many of our fans will be surprised by. It’s like when you use to love Wilco when only you and that dude in Duluth loved Wilco and then they did YankeeHotelFoxtrot and you friggin’ couldn’t get away from Wilco, right? Well that doesn’t mean Wilco sucks it just means they were able to broaden their base and achieve a different level of success. If you stay true to what you do and true to where your creativity and inspiration comes from, then it’s easier for your fans to embrace your success. That’s our challenge. It’s exciting.
I’m in the woods, alone, and a bear is running at me, I have no clue how to defend myself, what should I do to prevent myself from being mauled to death?
The real question is, how do you want to die?
Do you want to die cowering on the floor of the forest pretending that you’re already dead?
Do you want to die running away?
Or do you want to die standing up to a motherfucking Grizzly bear and punching it in the ovaries?
You’re gonna die anyways, at least go out with some balls.
GG is responsible for creating two iconic characters (in t-shirt terms at least), Deathbot and the Yeti, I don’t know if you were involved with the creation of them but why do you think that they have been so popular and what is the key to creating a popular character?
Ya know, the Dbot and Yeti genesis was all Tim. I’d leave the creation aspect of the question to him. The short story on it is that Tim is a brilliant, talented, creative genius and the world’s a better place for having him in it.
As for their popularity, I think it has to do with Juxtapozition. They’re both familiar and strange, scary and funny, unique yet nostalgic. I also think you can’t over-emphasize how appealing things are that are a bit nerdy and geeky and … again … don’t take themselves too seriously.
You’ve had some really interesting collaborations in the past (Mastodon was something of a surprise), are there any companies or artists that you would really like to work with?
Oh yeah, that one was really fun. We’re all huge fans of Mastodon and Brann was the clothing buyer for a store in Atlanta that we sold (and still sell) to before Mastodon got ginormous. He use to come into our booth at the Magic tradeshow and we’d spend the afternoon shooting the shit and drinking beer and drawing flying pegacorns pooping on things. We actually turned that pooping pegacorn idea into a shirt.
I think there are a load of great people doing incredible work out there. Chris (my business partner) has more depth to his musical knowledge than I do, I’m a bit flighty with my tastes. I’m currently hooked on Fever Ray and anything with her would be a real treat. House Industries never ceases to inspire me and they are great people, love them. I own a bunch of stuff from Common Projects & really love their style and craftmanship. Self Edge and Iron heart are near and dear to me. I think Nice Collective has always made amazing and bold clothes and I’m thrilled to watch them succeed. As for artists, well I just went to a show at White Walls and fell in love with Jessica Hess’ work. She’s uber, uber talented. My dream artist would, of course, be Jeff Koons. I’d like to do some work with Alessi. I think we could rock the shit with Alessi. In fact, I think the world wouldn’t know what hit it with a GAMA-GO/Alessi collab.
The term “in this economy” gets thrown around a lot, with a lot of companies struggling during the economic downturn. In my experience the t-shirt world has not seemed to have suffered as much as other businesses, I know GG isn’t just a t-shirt company, but how have you coped with the economy, and why to you think the t-shirt economy hasn’t struggled as much?
Oh, I’m more than happy to touch this one.* I love talking business. No doubt it’s been an interesting year. More than anything it’s meant – for us – an opportunity. A couple years back now we looked hard at the market and our business and where things were going and came to the obvious conclusion that people aren’t gonna want to be spending $90 on hoodies forever. As the econopocalypse approached, we made a conscious decision to drop the top end of our SKU’s. We decided to continue with our core (tees, wallets, general accessories) and to dramatically broaden our $10-and-under gift and housewares. We put tremendous time, energy, and capital into creating a giftware, kitchenware, and houseware component to the GAMA-GO brand. This has proven to be a very good decision. If you’re familiar with GAMA-GO and have been noticing, hey – they just made a spatula, whoa, here’s a GG bottle stopper, and ice trays, and and and. Yes. We’re going to be making a lot more things that are unusual and unique and not what you’d be expecting from what was considered a clothing and accessories company.
As for tees and the tee industry, it’s important to remember that tees are the base product for many stores. The bread and butter. If you took away 98% of American Apparel’s line what would they keep? Their basic men’s and women’s tees. By definition tees are a stabilizing force in the apparel industry & that keeps their price steady. People still want to go out and go shop, they just don’t want to spend a lot of $. Buying a tee isn’t a big capital risk & it’s something you can wear and use and for $30 you’re gonna enjoy the heck out of that tee for years. Because of that, clothing stores have leaned even more heavily on tee sales during the downturn. Worth noting, we haven’t changed our tee prices since we started the company in 2001.
* I gave Greg the opportunity to leave this question since some people won’t want to talk about their business and money, which is understandable, so kudos to him for being so open.
This is a question I always ask people, if you could go back to 2000 when you were starting Gama-Go, what would you have done differently?
Oh I don’t know, I think it’s important to look back and see that doing (a) caused (b) so you can figure what changes to make. But I don’t spend much time dwelling on what ifs. In order to keep the wheels moving and to keep heading forward I think you need to let your errors and shitty decisions slide on by. You did what you did, now you’re here – where are you going? What’s next? Stay positive, stay motivated, do the work.
But yeah, that fucking genital piercing was a terrible idea.
I know how all-consuming the clothing business can be in a person’s life, but how do you like to spend your time away from Gama-Go?
Well, I have a lot going on. I’m a father of a really amazing five year old, I co-parent with my ex-wife and we’re both very involved in our son’s life. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s challenging as all hell. I also have a loving and wonderful girlfriend who I spend a lot of time with and we really enjoy building our lives together. She’s incredibly supportive of me and of my involvement with GAMA-GO. She has an about-to-be 18 year old daughter who is the shit and when she deigns to hang with us old fucks, it is super-fun. I’m also in the midst of doing some crazy construction with a multi-unit home that my parents and myself and my girlfriend will be moving into later this summer. I cook as much as possible, I love going out to see bands or going to see art. I enjoy entertaining and sharing food and booze and fun with my friends. I do what I can to stay in touch with my friends and with people I’m inspired by. I ride motorcycles, shoot guns, build legos, the usual.
Can you name a few clothing companies whose work you admire and like to wear?
Well I admire all the SF guys and gals who’ve been working and struggling and succeeding. UpperPlayground, Huf, Goorin Bros., Nice Collective, True, Self Edge, Imaginary Foundation, RVCA, Rebel 8, etc.
As for others, I think Rag and Bone, Paul Smith, and Dries Van Noten are the shit.
I think it’s fair to say that Gama Go goods aren’t cheap, but they aren’t expenisve either, what are your thoughts on streetwear brands like Bape and Ice Cream that charge hundreds of dollars for hoodies?
Hey, more power to them. We charge what we do for tees because that’s that’s the honest cost that allows us to employ the people we do and make the products we like. BAPE’s a heck of a machine and I’m sure they have challenges and triumphs like we all do. They put their crazy-ass super-fly jumpsuits on one leg at a time. In all seriousness, I think they’ve pushed things forward in streetwear in a way that I respect and enjoy. Do I own any BAPE? No, it’s not my thing. But for people who dig it, that’s fine, enjoy the hell out of that $400 hoodie. Christ you think that’s expensive, go price a shirt at Tom Ford.
Greg, you seem like the right man to ask, can you run me through the correct way to put together a plate of nachos? I’m British and therefore have no understanding of Mexican food.
Oh, my friend. For that you need to come to San Francisco. I will happily set you in front of a big platter of the best nachos you’ll ever encounter.
Big thanks go out to Greg Long for taking the time to answer my questions, even the dumb ones, and as ever, if you’re connected with the clothing industry and would like to be interviewed (or possibly interview me) please get in touch.