This is: Yoon
Yoon (@archiveunit), founder and creative director for Ronin (@ronindivision)
treetwear culture has taken the world by storm over the last few years. High-end luxury brands have released collections showcasing their takes on streetwear, and numerous guides have been published online to help ambitious designers start their own brands. While this accessibility has allowed for new avenues of creativity to be explored, it has also oversaturated the market with unoriginal concepts and meaningless ideas.
Before the eruption of streetwear, smaller brands were built off of a sense of community, common interests, and purpose. Forums such as the Hypebeast forums, NikeTalk, and KanyeToThe were the primary methods of interaction between brand-owners and their fans, and the personal relationships formed on these channels helped create everlasting fanbases. Over the course of the past decade, however, forums have been slowly replaced by social media platforms; this has caused an influx of consumers with no interest in the historical or community-focused aspects of streetwear culture - only the products themselves.
Rōnin, a Brooklyn-based streetwear brand founded in 2012 by Yoon, was born out of those legacy forums. Despite being incredibly sought after, the brand has maintained the community-driven principles that it started out with. Rōnin began with a few screen-printed tees and has since matured into a full-fledged label, producing seasonal collections that feature a wide range of products. Whether it be by using specially imported Japanese fabrics or by referencing anime in his graphics, Yoon manages to tastefully weave his Japanese inspirations into his designs.
Read Myth's full interview with Yoon below to learn more about Rōnin's history as well as Yoon's influences, future aspirations, and take on the current state of the streetwear industry.
How have you and Ronin been over quarantine?
It’s been crazy. All of last year (2019), I was busy juggling my time working on Ronin while taking classes at FIT. So when COVID hit and everything started to close, it forced myself to really slow down and just be in the present moment. We’re still in the middle of this chaos right now, but it’s crazy to remember that New York City was entirely empty for a few months.
Quarantine was as best as I could make it. I revisited my past hobbies like breaking and beatboxing which helped keep me sane. I really enjoy top-rocking so I started practicing that in my studio during my free time.
For Ronin, we had planned to release our Spring and Summer 2020 around April but most oversea factories ceased operation. I couldn’t get rounds of samples I needed to go forward with the initial timeline and factories told us they were closed without any indication they would reopen again. It was scary– factory workers in China were even struggling to get masks for themselves. So I asked them if they’re alright and if they needed face masks. Turns out they did need em, so I sent a bunch over to them and then a couple of months later when we got hit with COVID they were like, “yo, do you need masks?”
It was pretty funny how that worked out. They returned the favor when I was in trouble.
So you have a pretty close relationship with them?
Yeah, I have a solid relationship with them. I always tell up-coming brand owners to treat your manufacturers - and all people that you have working relationships with - as if they’re your family. Finding a good factory or printer that you can work with for years is like finding love on tinder, it’s unlikely. So treat them well, get to know them, and send them gifts during holiday seasons – especially to your local postal drivers.
How did Ronin get started?
It started sophomore year in college. Me and my girl at the time were both heavily into streetwear. I remember walking to my class one day and getting a text from her asking me if I wanted to start a brand. I don’t remember exactly how I replied to her, but I do remember the excitement I felt when we started that conversation.
We tried to figure out what wasn’t in the market. We thought “hey, what about anime inspired graphics, but not screaming that it’s an anime t-shirt?” Back then, there weren't a lot of streetwear brands that had anime inspired graphics, and making it very subtle to the point that you had to literally watch the show to even know that it (graphic) was from an anime was important to us.
So we did a Samurai Champloo inspired shirt for our first release. It was one of our favorite anime at the time and it blended in nicely with our other samurai motif shirt. That’s how we came up with the name “Ronin” - the meaning really resonated with us. In the feudal Japan era, samurais lived by their certain way of life called the bushido. Servitude was most important to them and they were ready to die on command if they didn’t uphold their duties. They lived by their normal societal duties and samurais that were not about that life were Ronins, the outcasts. They carved their own paths and did things their own way.
Shots from Rōnin's earlier collections
Jarvis is a name that frequently appears when people talk about how you guys got started. Can you tell us more about who that is?
So Jarvis is a pseudonym - she was actually my ex-girlfriend. Early days, streetwear brands were mostly dominated by men designers, so she thought we would’ve been better represented if she hid her real gender and being known as Jarvis on the Internet.
Who’s part of the Ronin team now?
I lead the creative direction with a small team of assistants. For the past few years I’ve started to collab with friends or hire specific freelance artists to help bring my ideas to fruition. Everything I create is a project within a project and the brand has been operating like this for the past 5 years. I look at this like different Ronins with particular sets of skills coming in and contributing to a collection.
We know you had a lot of growth early on within the Hypebeast Forums. Due to social media, forums like those are for the most part inactive. How did that impact your marketing/business?
Right. So during the forum days, Jarvis and I had direct interactions with our supporters, which helped us better understand what our supporters liked and didn’t like. After forums abruptly ended, I went incognito for a little bit. I wanted to be isolated at that particular time. I don't know, I guess I just didn't want to have any type of fan interaction because the way the Hypebeast forum ended was a bit bittersweet. There were some people that didn’t like how I operated the brand, and some that supported whatever I did. I wanted to get away from the noise and start my design process over without any type of preconceived feedback.
To be honest, I was not confident about my abilities to run a brand after Jarvis left. It was a two man show before and [when she left] I had to take on everything that she was doing. I had to learn her part of the job while also maintaining the trajectory of the brand. I isolated myself to learn the craft and I think that's why it helped me get to the mentality I have today.
Her leaving the brand really pushed me to make it out there.
When did you make the switch to your brand full-time?
The brand was at the stage where it was sustainable after I graduated. I moved the brand’s operation out of my parent’s house after there wasn't enough room to store inventory.
Was there any season or collection you released that you felt brought you more recognition?
One of our most sought-after items has to be our cut & sew hoodies. Tonal logo hoodies were particularly popular when we first released it back in 2015– I wanted to make a quality hoodie at an affordable price point so I was really happy to see the recognition it received.
Is there any item in particular that is special to you?
There’s a lot, but If I had to pick one it would be the Mountain Fishtail Parka. I really digged how fishtail parkas looked back then and it was also our 2nd cut & sew piece we’ve made for the brand.
Tonal hoodie from Ronin Fall/Winter 2016
Who were your influences back then? How about now?
Early days, WTAPS and Bounty Hunter really inspired the brand. I was also heavily into 10.Deep at the time too– I always looked forward to their releases. But for the majority I think WTAPS really shaped our brand’s aesthetic. I really admired Tetsu Nishiyama’s work. Now, I try not to look too much so I don’t subconsciously get influenced when I’m designing.
There are a lot of Japanese brands that I appreciate now like Monkey Time, Kapital, Cav Empt, Mountain Research.
What forms of media do you engage with when coming up with a concept for a new collection?
I don't think my inspirations have really changed from the past to now. It's kind of like, you know, my day to day life. It’s what I see off the street or maybe a show I’ve watched or how I felt that particular day. I would create a mood board and add things a bit at a time.
Lately I can’t help but to incorporate more personal things into the collection. The latest Fall 2020 was particularly personal since the collection was cultivated at the start of COVID to the end of summer. Black Lives Matter movement was very impactful for me so contributing and helping to the cause was really important to me. There is also a design pertaining to my dating experiences. It’s a subtle design that I’m sure resonates with others as well.
How did getting a Hypebeast feature affect your brand?
In terms of sales, not too much, but I do think that certain opportunities could have been possible from Hypebeast articles.
Did you know that they were going to do the feature on you?
Yeah, I had an internet friend that helped me out- I don't know if you're going to write this, but shout out to Drew!
He was part of the Hypebeast forums too, and he was a big help in putting smaller guys like us on the map. He's a cool dude.
You also did something with influencers recently as well, right?
Oh yeah - Kyle. I asked him to be on my last Winter lookbook since my photographer friend Dale knew him personally. I had never asked him or his girl Hang to promote my brand or anything after, it just happened.
You never want to just go and pick out random influencers because of their follower count. I don't knock influencers but I do think it's important to pick out [influencers] who you think align with your brand’s vision. I think as long as you're not just picking up random people, you're going to be OK.
Shots from Ronin's Fall 2020 lookbook. Photos by Brendan Lee
The streetwear market has become quite oversaturated, especially with Japanese culture inspired brands. What separates a meaningful brand from any other brand out there?
I completely agree with you there. For me, it’s the overall message and ethos I perpetuate for the brand.
Since the inception, I wanted to create clothes that I personally would like to wear. If I wanted really nice pant, I’d make my own nice pant. If I needed a jacket, I would make a jacket. Even now, I don't believe in creating stuff that I personally wouldn't like to wear or use. Doing it for just money or trend was never in my agenda. So I think that as long as you're passionate and have a message, people will catch on and appreciate the brand as a whole, not necessarily just the products you’re creating.
I also believe in big collections too, because it shows cohesiveness. It's not just one design where you’re like “hey look, I made this - boom, done.” A collection is kind of like an album, you know? Like rappers will drop singles, but then they also drop albums where they tell a whole story. I like showing a collection because it tells a whole story instead of just a piece of it.
What are a couple of your long term goals with Ronin?
One long term goal to make it more accessible for people. I know it sells out really fast sometimes and people get frustrated that they couldn’t get the stuff they wanted. I want to expand more of my collection. As big as it is, I want to make it bigger.
This is also why I have a large variety in my collections, because I’m catering to a lot of people. I want my supporters to be able to pick and choose what they like and have something for everybody.
If you had to start over, what is one thing you would do differently?
If I can go back in time, I would've liked to work with more photographers, models and designers. I've been doing more of that recently.
Even this interview - my past self probably wouldn't have gone forward with this. I haven't done an interview in a really long time. I did a really small one at Carnegie Mellon University when they invited me to their fashion show, but it wasn’t online nor was it for a magazine. But I said yes to y’all because I fuck with you guys, haha.
What's one piece of advice you cherish now that you wish you knew back when you started?
Just have fun with it and don't take it so seriously. I feel like I really took it too seriously back then and took criticism to my chest, but now I'm just kind of like, fuck it. Like, I don't care about what people think, I’m making whatever I like for a living and nothing will beat that privilege - just keep riding your wave.
Keep up with Yoon and Rōnin @archiveunit and @ronindivision