Founded in 1999 as a small record store and t-shirt design brand, Upper Playground has grown from a few t-shirts and a certain long-toothed sea mammal logo into one of the world's most recognizable streetwear brands. With a deft combination of street tough and street art, the brand has both reflected and fostered the growing popularity of street and graffiti-influenced contemporary art culture.
"Our strength is in the relationships we've built with all of these different designers and artists," says founder Matt Revelli, 34. "Not just cherry-picking talent and going with already established people but spending a lot of time working with developing talent."
In addition to its own line of apparel and accessories, Upper Playground has built its name and reputation on its many collaborative efforts. The brand acted as an outlet for sales of artist Shepard Fairey's Obama posters, which soon became Obama t-shirts, which then became a full poster series by a collection of artists including Sam Flores, Ron English, Gary Baseman, Evan Hecox, Chris Pastras and more. The effort, with all proceeds going to the Obama campaign, culminated in a special gallery show at Denver's Manifest Hope Gallery during the Democratic National Convention.
The brand is also home to spin-off brands by a few of its most popular artists, Flores, Jeremy Fish and Estevan Oriol, and its most recent project with Adidas yielded four limited, artist edition kicks, available only at Upper Playground's website.
"You can find lines that try to do what we do but the feeling and passion aren't there," says Revelli, who is also editor of art and culture magazine Juxtapoz. "We do a lot of things that don't make money but we do them because we're excited about it and not because of the bottom line. The amount of gallery stuff, flying in work and artists from around the world, the video stuff, club events, books—at the end of the day, you're not making money off these things but they're all part of the energy of the brand and our re-investment in the culture."
Revelli also credits the brand's conscious lack of corporate or outside funding as a key to its freedom of expression. He says larger companies too often look at this genre through green-tinted glasses instead of focusing on the culture itself.
"We don't sell widgets," he says. "Everything we make has its own unique story and idea. If it's not the specific product, it's the artist or designer behind it. A corporate brand can work with one of our artists, and they do, but what they find is that it's just a solution to a look. They have a hard time executing something more organic from the ground up."
Read about Zappos, another of our 2008 Creative Marketers.