Kevin Bennett is the CEO, mastermind and creative force behind New York City’s most “gifted” influential concept yet – Gifted Apparel NYC. If you got something to say, this brand has about every t-shirt available for you to “express yourself” such as “Kings Recognize Kings,” “Love Thy Hater,” “OG Before IG,” “Icing on the Cake” to “Humble Like Kanye” – you’re sure to find the t-Shirt, tank or hat whether male or female to speak your mind but then again, why not let the shirt do the talking for you?
RESPECT. got an opportunity to sit down with the “Viva La Brooklyn” creator himself to discuss his ideas for his brand, personal history concerning fashion, his biggest lesson learned, what he saw, that changed his life forever to encouragement for any up and coming artist whether in the genre of fashion or business. From clocking in and out on a 9 to 5 to becoming fully self-employed by his own brand. See how this “gifted” CEO’s venture lead to mega star Beyonce and Jay-Z sporting the Gifted Apparel brand.
RESPECT.: First tell us, What is Gifted Apparel NYC, How long has the brand been around & what inspired the name for the company.
Gifted Apparel NYC is a men and women’s urban street wear brand, we do graphic t-shirts, sweat tops and accessories, we’ve been in business for nine years – I tell people you can’t stop; if you’re expecting something to happen overnight then you’re in the wrong business, the past three years are the years that the brand is starting to see and bear fruit. The inspiration for the name came from my mom, Growing up she used to always call me “gifted” and said that I could do anything (I know that may sound a little corny) but when the idea for starting this brand came up I was tasked to come up with a name, I put a nice thought into it, but then Gifted Apparel came out. It literally took no time, we talked about starting this t-shirt brand and I was like “Gifted Apparel,” yeah, that sound dope, so that’s what it became.
RESPECT.: I read your “About Us” statement on your website and loved the motto – “It’s time to be gifted” what was the driving force behind that motto and you stated that you wanted to bring something back to the t-shirt culture that has been missing, What do you think was missing and how has your company played a part in bringing that missing piece back?
I like the idea of making t-shirts because that’s me, like that’s my voice – that’s the avenue I use to speak what’s on my mind. I like that we have a brand that’s at a perfect place between having a catchy, popular message but not being too preachy at the same time. It depends on what side of the fence you fall on, which is okay because it’s business at the end of the day. But you either find yourself putting out things that really don’t say anything or it just says too much and a little to preachy. I believe Gifted Apparel falls right in the middle of the two because our customers really get an opportunity to express themselves with some of the quotes that we come up with for our brand, they connect to the brand; the response they get from other people, how they feel when they read one of our shirts, there’s a connection instantly. The most consistent statement we get from our customers is they love the feedback they get from other people when they wear Gifted Apparel. So that’s what we have provided to the t-shirt culture “a connection” between customers, friends and co-workers.
RESPECT.: In the company Bio, you stated that your Viva La Brooklyn design t-shirt caught the eye and earned the loyalty of everyone, who was the first person to represent the t-Shirt that caused the wild fire to start in which made everyone take notice to your brand.
Kevin Bennett: I was a street vendor for a long time growing up, so when I came up with this shirt concept my default strategy in which we call going on tour (say, like if you didn’t work that day for whatever reason) I went on tour, you take your batteries, your cologne or whatever you were selling and you hit up the barber shops, the beauty salons and businesses in the neighborhood, so that’s what I did; I came up with this shirt concept and started selling it in the neighborhood; people started liking it – You start with your friends and your family and then you start with the friends of the friends and it started spreading out on its own. There was a point in time where I wondered, why are people staring at me? Because at that time I was the only one wearing a shirt like mine and hadn’t started selling them yet, It took a second for me to realize that people really liked the shirt and began to ask questions about where I get my shirt from, I used to work at the GAP and would wear my shirts to work and people would ask me; where did I get the shirt from. It was a very organic growth, that really took a life of it’s own.
“There’s no substitution for hard work”
RESPECT.: Now there are quite a few celebrities that Rock your Tee’s, from Beyoncé to Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, K. Michelle, Carmelo Anthony, Jason Derulo and the list goes on and on – How did the Celebs get in on your Gifted Apparel brand, did you send them your product? Or did they discover it on their own?
It was a combination of both, for certain stars you send a package out to them and you’re honored that they wear it, like Jay and Beyonce we sent the product to their stylist Tyrone. We had Jay on Friday and Beyonce on Thursday. Somebody like Diddy, Diddy’s stylist purchased the merchandise because that’s what he does; he looks for styles for Diddy to wear. Like I would never forget we were going over our invoices and the order name said “Derrick Roach in care of Sean Combs” and we all laughed for a second (this was years ago) and my partner said “Yo, look naw; that’s addressed to ‘Bad Boy Records” so sometimes the artist will buy the merchandise or their family or stylist will buy it for them to wear, in which I like because the fact that they actually purchased it sometimes is really dope, it shows that they really like it.
RESPECT.: Out of all of your products, what thus far has been your bestseller and what shirt design and saying do you feel most people relate too?
Our best seller is a toss up because we offer both men’s and women’s apparel; but for men I would say our best seller is “Kings Recognize Kings” and for women “Love thy Hater” – that top has done really, really well over the years and it constantly continues to sell. But we did get a Beyonce look in that shirt though (laughs) – That’s actually one of my favorite shirts, in which started out as a men’s shirt because we were originally just a men’s brand; but a friend of ours named Les Perry owned a store in Clinton Hills back in the day, we ended up putting merchandise in his store; he said we were going to have to start doing something for the ladies, because they were asking if we had any women’s shirts like the men’s. So we started making women’s tees, in which women are our biggest customers. I got into this other faze where I said “D***n! Look at this company selling this $90 t-shirt, I bought this $90 dollar t-shirt and that’s when I woke up!
RESPECT.: How has your personal history, influenced your fashion views and do you feel as if your t-shirts are giving people a voice or a way to express themselves?
My mother did not believe in buying high priced name brand merchandise for her kids, No! My family is from Trinidad so the idea of spending like large amounts of money on clothes that you’re not going to be wearing next season. I loved fashion so I went though this phase when I became an adult, I started working and I began to buy my own clothes and I got really into clothing, then I got into this other phase where I said “D***n! Look at this company selling this $90 t-shirt, I bought this $90 t-shirt and that’s when I woke up and said that’s a little ridiculous, which affects me now because our goal is not to sell our customers a hundred-dollar t-shirt, but to sell our customers a reasonably priced t-shirt that they are going to love. We like for our customers to get something that they could make a statement, make them feel good and get good feedback from their friends. It’s not something that’s going to break their pockets.
“I’m no different than you and you’re not different than me and the same way you want to be treated; I want to be treated that way.”
RESPECT.: Gifted Apparel has some really cool and thought provoking quotes on their t-shirts, my favorites are “Kings recognize Kings”, “Love Thy Hater”, “Icing on the Cake” and “The Good Stuff” which is currently sold out in the women’s tank online; as the creative designer, I’m sure you love them all but what quote or verse is your absolute favorite and why?
My favorite out of all of them is probably “Viva La Brooklyn” because that’s what started it all; that’s the first design for this brand that I ever did; it changed the course of my life. I started not to make it because “Yeah, I had this brand” but it was just me talking for a while, nothing really came of it – I gave up on it for a second and decided to give it one more shot and the “Viva La Brooklyn” is the design that I came up with myself. It’s one that has not only changed the course of my life but sticks with me even today, I love what it stands for and what it represents.
RESPECT.: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned since starting Gifted Apparel.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned (and it’s going to sound a little cliche’) but it would be, there’s no substitution for hard work, there’s no such thing as a hook-up, nobody’s going to put you on, this person is not going to do this for you. If you’re not putting your all into the business that you have started whether it’s a clothing brand or a hardware store, if you’re not putting your all into it, if you’re not giving yourself every opportunity to learn about the industry, production, to be on top of your back of the house or the moment you can give your customer the best shopping experience or visual, if you’re not giving your all it just won’t work. People get caught up in the short term thinking, you can’t come up with something today and three months later it’s the biggest brand in the world – not if you want a long lasting company. There’s no substitution for hard-work, dedication or being a good person, which is a major factor – you need people, you can’t do it alone and if people can’t work with you or have a general like for you then it won’t work. You need people around you that generally like you. Give yourself the opportunity to learn as much as possible about what you’re doing, know your product, know your customer and know how you’re going to get better so when the opportunity present itself, you know what to do.
RESPECT.: Where do you see Gifted Apparel in another five years and are you working on any other designs at the moment?
We’re always working on new designs, me and my partners whether we’re randomly talking about something, everything is a t-shirt concept for us so we’re always working on something and if we come up with something good whether we’re walking the streets, looking at T.V. I write it down. We’re currently working on something to drop for the holiday season, we’re dropping a good set of merchandise, I think people are going to love what we’re putting out. In five years I see us as a full line of men and women urban street wear, much more detailed pieces, more accessories, broader range of colors, maybe some bottoms a little bit of everything. You’re going to see a lot more from the brand as far as events is concerned, sort of a full range brand in five years, I mean who knows, maybe three years. We’re also going to be putting a lot of effort into our store market, we made the decision to focus on the online content and build that business which was a good decision for us, but in five years you’ll begin to see stores in your neighborhood and across the United States.
RESPECT.: Outside of the celebrities named earlier whom are already sporting the Gifted Apparel brand, is there anyone else in whom you would like to see your t-shirts worn by?
You know when I first started the brand (laughing). The idea of people like Jay-Z, Beyonce’ and Diddy these are people whom I really wanted to wear the brand; Oh you know who I like, I wouldn’t mind Tracee Ellis Ross wearing our tops, I just like her personally. She’s so beautiful, funny and seems so down to earth. She has a nice urban street style to her when she dresses down. I would love to see her wear one…I think I’m going to make that happen, I would love to see a picture of her rocking the brand.
RESPECT.: I’ve seen the video with Spike Lee and Moleskine, in it you state that the one thing you can’t live without is your daughters love, I know she has been your biggest inspiration and is probably the driving force in you doing what you do – Has she inspired any quoted T-shirts for you; if so, which ones and do you think you’ll do children tees in the future?
“Happy is the New Rich” was inspired by her, Sometimes we randomly (it’s not part of our program) but we sometimes might put out some kids tees. In the beginning we used to make kids “Viva La Brooklyn” tees, At the start of the summer we did “Handsome Men Problem” tees for boys. There’s a design that we’re working on now that I believe people are really going to connect with; its a parent/kid shirt so it’ll be available for kids too, I like the message and I think that it would be nice to see kids wearing this tee. Yes, my daughter inspires me all the time, she definitely is my driving force.
“Give yourself the opportunity to learn as much as possible about what you’re doing, know your product, know your customer and know how you’re going to get better so when the opportunity present itself, you know what to do.”
RESPECT.: What advice or encouragement would you give to other upcoming designers?
Do your research, Know exactly what it is that you want. I was just talking to my partner last week and we were discussing how people want to be successful, but what do you want to be successful at? We have big ideas and there’s nothing wrong with that but you have to narrow it down and know exactly what it is that “you” want to do. The moment that you know what you want to do, then you have to put together a plan to get there. So if you say I want to start a t-shirt brand or I want to start an accessory line – you may say, I want to make funny, funky earrings for people who like funny, funky earrings – now you got a goal instead of saying I want to have a brand, which is not a clear cut vision. Now you have to spend your time, I mean all that extra time outside of your regular 9 to 5 you need to survive, taking care of your kids, family and so forth. Everything else is free time, spend that time educating yourself and learning as much as possible. It’s a long journey, a long ride in which has it’s scenic moments but it also has it’s choppy moments, in which you’re going to want to give up. Dedicate and stay the course, the road gets brighter. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself what am I willing to do without; people say they want to treat themselves but we sabotage ourselves with a “treat” – that money spent can be used to put into your brand. You have to stay focused and try to become a better person for yourself and other people, because it pays to help others.
RESPECT.: One last question, with all the police brutality, racism and things going on today with the African American culture and the Black Lives Matter movement, if you had to create a shirt that said something to the nature of what’s going on in the world right now, what would it be?
We have a shirt, that wasn’t directly made to sell on that behalf but it’s called “I know my rights” in which has become one of our popular shirts within the past year because of what’s been going on. I’ve had people to ask me “what does that mean?” – I tell them that the shirt means whatever you want it to mean. I will say this, we’re all human beings in which I am just like everybody else, the United States is a great country and it has issues but we all need to get to a better place to where we have a broader understanding of each other. I’m no different than you and you’re not different than me and the same way you want to be treated. I want to be treated that way. So that tee grabs the Black Lives Matter movement in that we’re all here together – we’re all the same.
We all have a “Gift” on the inside of us that’s just waiting to be heard, Now you can express that gift by clicking here to visit the Gifted Apparel website and purchase your next statement. On the Gifted Apparel website you can also view a video by Spike Lee and Moleskine to learn more about Mr. “Viva La Brooklyn” himself and how his inspirations are captured on paper.