Take a look inside any fashion magazine and somewhere within those pages you’ll find an expert telling you what the newest and hottest trends are. Many times, these trends are birthed in communities that do not reflect the people who read them, yet the influence of Black culture in fashion is undeniable. In the early 2000s, Chicago designers were popping up all over the place, creating one-of-a-kind boutique styles, specific to streetwear culture. These styles took the world by storm, but 14 years later, many have been absorbed by bigger brands or have disappeared into obscurity. Corey Gilkey of Leaders 1354 has stood the test of time and continues to innovate and create styles for streetwear culture while he ventures into newer business endeavors. We caught up with him to talk about what Leaders 1354 represents, what his legacy will be, and what’s next for the brand.
Tell us why you started Leaders 1354 and how you came up with the name?
We saw a need for an independent streetwear brand at a time where retailers were focused on larger, mainstream brands. Everything was a global brand that made $100-$150 million a year. I worked in sales for Varcity Sportswear at that time and traveled the country to different retailers who just wanted to put big brands in their stores because that’s what they thought the customer wanted. Retailers simply didn’t understand the streetwear customer, but I knew what the customer wanted. We then decided to open our own store and develop our own brand, Leaders 1354. Leaders is about consumers who are leaders of their own style and individuality. They have a good eye for fashion and they don’t need a large name to dictate what streetwear fashion is. 1354 comes from the address of our first store location; 1354 E. 53rd St. in Hyde Park.
What has kept you in business for so long?
Having strong relationships with people in the business and learning from other retailers’ mistakes and accomplishments plus consistency.
What is the state of streetwear right now?
Streetwear designers and retailers succeeded because they came from streetwear culture and worked in the business and learned from the industry. We came from that culture and we worked within the business. The youth in streetwear culture now believe they can learn everything from the internet and start right away. In the culture I grew up in, we worked our butt off. We did sales and worked in stores for years before we were able to learn and build our relationships. This is why you see Leaders 1354 surviving other retailers and brands. We know what to do. We grew up in the business. We saw the bad times and the good times and we always saved for the rainy day.
I know you are not solely focused on the clothing line these days. What else are you working on?
We ventured into brand development consulting. We connect startup brands up with photographers, videographers, and web developers. We show them things so that they don’t make the same mistakes that we made. We also design private labeling for entrepreneurs. We may come up with their logos or print their merchandise for them. We’re also working on our quick casual restaurant right now.
Tell us a little more about the quick casual restaurant.
I don’t want to talk about it too much. Leaders 1354 is about proving it to you. The restaurant business is a real tough business and you have to find the right location and stuff like that. Our concept is a secret right now because we see it’s not being done and we firmly believe in doing the work first, then talking about it. Follow us on social media to see how we develop the concept.
What were some of your challenges as a black man developing a worldwide brand?
I didn’t have challenges like that because we had great relationships. Our relationships are everything. We developed strong relationships with small brands from the beginning and maintained them as they blew up. Brands like 10 Deep, BBC, The Hundreds, and Akomplice remember me going to their booth and supporting them when they were nothing and no one was there. So when they became $20 to $50 million dollar brands they never forgot us. We paid our dues. Our relationships saw the story we tell and the support that we give individuals and they bought into it. People simply love the quality and content we provide.
What would you do differently and what advice would you give somebody starting off?
I wouldn’t do anything differently. All the guys who have come from the brand are successful entrepreneurs. I wouldn’t take any of that away. If you are just starting a business like this and you haven’t worked retail or a brand it will be tough, but I would never say not to go for it and not to give it a try. Failure is the best teacher in life. Just get out here and do it. If you do it to improve your livelihood and not for the fame or to look cool, I can do nothing but applaud that. Just work your butt off every day.
Twitter and Instagram @Ldrs1354
The store is located at 1152 W. Madison in Chicago, IL 60607