“I was a fan of his work before I even knew who he was, from his time at Supreme to now owning Union," says Curtis. "Before the Virgil Ablohs and Jerry Lorenzos of the world, there was Chris Gibbs. He was the first person in my circle and community to become a globetrotting traveler using his keen eye to break international brands stateside. Lucky for me, after two decades of friendship, he is my personal style guru and frequent collaborator on the agency’s brand projects. More important than our shared love of style, is our commitment to our communities and having an impact through our work."
Here, Curtis has a discussion with Gibbs about his approach to brand collaborations and the story behind his community-centric Union x Jordan "Spread Love" campaign from last fall, which resulted in a completely sold-out collection and was supported by stars like Vince Staples, Jerry Lorenzo, John Mayer, Melina Matsoukas and many more.
Coltrane Curtis: After the success of your first collaboration, Jordan Brand approached you to partner on another collection. Tell us the story behind this follow-up collaboration. What was the inspiration to launch with such a community-centric campaign?
Chris Gibbs: A couple months ago, as the entire world was taken by storm with the global pandemic, as well as dealing with tough questions around racial inequality, I felt the need, stronger than ever, to bring awareness to the current challenges in our communities. I spoke with my wife Bephie, who has always been "woke," and discussed with her where, what, and how we could help. She has always been a proponent of building up and supporting our community so we decided to use our upcoming launch with Jordan Brand as an ignition point to do just that. Our sentiment was to think globally, but act locally.
We came up with an idea to share our privilege and the access we have through this upcoming launch to provide support and opportunity to other independent, black-owned businesses in our community. We decided to call it "Spread Love."
Curtis: Knowing that community was such an inspiration for this release, how did you go about executing the "Spread Love" campaign? What were some of the elements?
Gibbs: Union and Jordan Brand teamed up with five local partners with the goal of highlighting and bringing awareness to their businesses. Goods from each of the identified companies were included within influencer gifting kits, in addition to select styles from the three-shoe Union x Jordan Brand collaboration. We felt strongly about spreading love to individuals who are making a positive impact in their community during this unprecedented time and made a conscious effort to gift frontline workers, first responders and community leaders, in addition to our friends and family, before launch.
The goal was to drive awareness and energy around these black-owned businesses with coordinated activation moments throughout the launch as well as sharing with them a percentage of Union's revenue from the collaboration sales.
Curtis: Many of your initiatives have a cultural giveback or community element to them. Why is this so important to you? How do you keep them organic?
Gibbs: I like to work as organically as possible. Union as a store is very much a reference to my personal journey through fashion as my tastes evolved and as I gained access to new and different sensibilities of the fashion worlds. As I took inspiration from the new worlds, I was discovering I also lent my own ideas from my world. Very specifically, my world, especially concerning my Afro/Caribbean heritage, sadly [has] a lot of underrepresentation in nearly every aspect of American society. I didn’t feel like I can help solve all of our country’s issues, but maybe I could start in my own backyard.
So I have always tried to make sure that what I am doing is representative and supportive of my community in order to help support but also represent a much-maligned community. It’s the stories of the people from where I live and narratives from the people who I cross paths with on a daily basis. The hope was that this campaign ignited others to "Spread Love" and create work that positively impacts their own communities and beyond.
Curtis: I know from personal experience that you’re one of the kings of brand collaborations. What advice do you have for brands looking to activate community programs like this? What do you look for in potential partners to make the collaboration so highly coveted?
Gibbs: I think the best collaborations are when each brand comes to the table with something that the other brand does not [have] and then they work to combine the two things in a unique way, thus, creating something new that has elements from each brand. Sometimes this can be very simple design solutions, other times you might lean into a special narrative that the parties make together. If you think of it, “collaboration” is as old as humans. When two people get married that’s a collaboration of two totally different people with different backgrounds and ideologies coming together to form a Union (pardon the pun). The best marriages are when the two parties are appreciative of the unique properties that each party brings to the Union. I suppose if we stretch this metaphor out, the children become the outcome of the collab. A new person with attributes from both parents mixed into one. The best version of this is if the new person is able to take the best traits from each person. That’s what I look for in a collaboration. Trying to get the best parts that each party has to offer.
Curtis: What do you think the future of brand collaborations is?
Gibbs: The sky's the limit as it relates to the future of brand partnerships. Quite frankly, the top has been ripped off this whole ecosystem. I think collaborations as we know it really got a reboot through streetwear’s embrace, and as streetwear has risen in prominence, our take on collaborations has also risen. You have fashion brands teaming up with cookie’s brands (Supreme/Oreo), you have fast food restaurants teaming up with chip brands (Taco Bell/Doritos) and high fashion luxury houses teaming up with sports brands (Dior/Nike). Really anything is possible. We are living in a great time (for ideas that is). I always reference the restaurant in Los Angeles, The Gorbals. Their menu has bacon-wrapped matzo balls! Even that to me is a collaboration of two different cultures…cause, why not! I think the golden rule is only that each party to the collaboration has to bring something different to the table, and then you are off to the races.