In the upper lobby of the Luxor Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, across from the theater where Carrot Top does six shows a week, a rave has broken out. At least that’s probably what it looks like to the Midwestern families and busloads of old ladies from Henderson, Nevada, who gape as they wander past the LUX Rave pop-up store.
It’s the day before EDC Las Vegas, the largest electronic music festival in North America, and near the store’s entrance a group of about 25 young men and women, some wearing purple hair extensions and backpacks shaped like cartoon characters, are waving white gloves, covered with blinking lights, in one another’s faces. Inside the store, cash registers ring as EDC attendees stock up on last-minute festival essentials: bandannas, snapbacks, T-shirts, booty shorts. Kandi bracelets are traded, selfies are snapped. A Deadmau5 track bumps on the store’s sound system. EDC may not be until tomorrow, but the party has already started.
At the heart of the festivities are the glovers, those young people giving one another light shows (“throwing lights,” as it’s commonly known) with multicolored LED microlights on their fingertips. The company behind LUX Rave, EmazingLights, is the world’s largest manufacturer of these glove sets, which can retail for as much as $180. High-end sets are fully programmable, with variable color sequences and strobe patterns.
Since emerging as a rave subculture in California about a decade ago, gloving has exploded in popularity. The best glovers incessantly practice their moves, which come with their own language: “liquid,” “tutting,” “whips,” “finger rolls.” There are gloving crews and competitions. Popular gloving YouTube videos garner hundreds of thousands of views. The Facebook group Glover’s Lounge, which has spawned meetups at EDM events across the country, boasts more than 16,000 members.
It really helps me get through the day,” explains a glover who has traveled to EDC Vegas all the way from Maine. “I never learned how to dance, so for me, this is like dancing.”
Brian Lim, the 28-year-old owner of EmazingLights, drops by, fresh from a meeting with the CEO of Zappos. Since starting Emazing by selling glove sets from the trunk of his car in 2010, Lim has built gloving into a full-fledged industry, almost from the ground up. According to a recent CNN Money report, Lim’s companies — including his apparel-focused brands, Into the AM and iHeartRaves — are projected to rake in $13 million in sales in 2015, up from about $8 million last year.
As he arrives, the slim, spiky-haired Lim is immediately mobbed by glovers. Some already know him from his store in the San Gabriel Valley or from the International Gloving Championship (IGC), aka the Super Bowl of gloving competitions, which Emazing hosts annually in Orange County.
But these days, Lim is more likely to be recognized for his triumphant appearance in March on Shark Tank, ABC’s entrepreneur reality show. Lim left with a $650,000 investment from two of the show’s “sharks,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and FUBU CEO Daymond John. It was one of the biggest deals struck in the show’s history.
“I couldn’t ask for a better experience,” Lim says of his Shark Tank appearance. “They made us look good.”
There is little disputing that Lim is gloving’s greatest — and most polarizing — champion. He has transformed it from rave sideshow into a competitive sport and helped turn its top practitioners — all known by their nicknames: Gummy, Sharky, Blitzen, Mimik — into YouTube stars. His company’s products continue to push the technology further, with microlights that change color based on the direction they’re facing or how fast the glover’s hands move.
Lim has waged a relentless PR campaign to legitimize what even many EDM fans still see as an artifact of raver drug culture, a wannabe “art form” best appreciated by kids too cracked-out on molly to see straight. Several major EDM promoters — including Insomniac, the company behind EDC — continue to prohibit gloving at their events, and though none will openly say it’s because rave light shows have long been associated with drugs, everyone in the gloving community suspects that’s the No. 1 reason.
Lately, however, the gloving ban appears to be the least of Lim’s concerns. There are rumblings among glovers and rival companies that EmazingLights doesn’t play fair, cutting deals with suppliers to squeeze out competitors and perhaps even stealing ideas from other glove designers. The company also finds itself embroiled in a nasty legal battle with a former Emazing engineer, who has released his own microlight that, according to Lim and his attorneys, violates Emazing’s intellectual property.
For most successful startups, such battles with competitors are par for the course. But when you’re running a business that sells hoodies emblazoned with the rave-culture motto “PLUR” — peace, love, unity, respect — these conflicts can irrevocably damage your brand.
For now, Lim is taking it all in stride. “In my mind, if you have no haters, you have no fans,” he says. “You don’t stand for anything.” But with high-profile new investors to please, he knows that the next few months could make or break his company — and prove whether his bold Shark Tank proclamation that “we can build gloving into a billion-dollar industry” was an empty promise or an achievable goal.
The middle child of Chinese immigrants, Lim likes to say he’s from West Covina, the home of Emazing’s original brick-and-mortar store. But really, he admits, his family lived in “ghetto-er” nearby La Puente. He and 10 of his family members, three generations, were crammed into a three-bedroom house.
His parents ran a 24-hour doughnut shop, and Lim grew up determined to escape the low-income grind that wore them down. From an early age, he was a hustler. He saved up enough money to buy used game consoles, which he resold on eBay. He burned CDs and sold them at school. In ninth grade, he learned how to build computers from cheap parts and ran a small business reselling those. “Anything to make extra money,” he says. “I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur.”
Lim didn’t invent gloving, nor was EmazingLights the first company to sell custom-made glove sets. But when his-then girlfriend, Christine Kang, introduced Lim to gloving at Avalon in Hollywood in 2010, the budding entrepreneur, then only 22 and fresh from majoring in business economics at UCLA, quickly recognized an underserved market.
His first glove set, given to him by Kang, “took, I think, a month and a half” to arrive, he says. Instead of shipping them, the seller made Kang pick them up at his store in Long Beach, more than an hour’s drive from her home in Chino Hills. “It was just a really bad experience all around.”
Even so, when Lim started selling gloves, he reached out to the company from which Kang had made the purchase, OrbitLightShow, and its owner, Aaron Son. “I wanted to build the scene with him,” Lim says, “but he saw us as a straight competitor. It was just like, ‘Screw you guys,’ basically.”
Son remembers it differently, saying he gave Lim advice on everything from printing up business cards to sourcing his microlights. “Everything seemed like he wanted to work with me, as opposed to against me,” Son says, speaking from his company’s small warehouse and storefront in Huntington Beach. “But now it’s clear that’s not the case.”
For starters, there was the name of Lim’s company. “I actually had a product probably a year before he came into the picture, which I named the Emazing Glove Set. The story is that his girlfriend bought him that glove set.”
Lim insists he was unaware of Orbit’s Emazing product until long after he had been using the name. “I saw it later,” he says, with a sheepish grin, “and was like, ‘Oh, crap. I’m gonna get some flak for that one.’”
To build an audience for his products, Lim started hosting weekly glover meetups, called Friday Night Lights. At first he couldn’t afford to rent a space, so the meetings happened in the parking lot of an In-N-Out. Eventually they grew so large that the store manager kicked them out. “We were running from the cops,” Kang recalls, laughing.
Lim’s first store in West Covina started out mainly as a place to host Friday Night Lights. The display merchandise was minimal. Instead, there was a big sound system and lots of floor space — which was important, because glovers prefer to give light shows kneeling in front of a single, seated recipient.
No one is sure how the convention of throwing lights while sitting got started, although it’s hard to overlook the similarities between a gloving crew camped out on or near the dance floor to give shows and a “cuddle puddle” of ravers high on ecstasy. It’s also the clearest reason EDM promoters give for banning gloves at their events, citing safety concerns over too many people sitting in high-traffic areas. “Between the fire marshals and the media perception,” Insomniac CEO Pasquale Rotella said in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, “[gloving] was putting the events in jeopardy and was not helping the health of the culture.”
Glovers deny any cuddle puddle connection, and in interviewing and observing dozens of glovers at multiple events for this article, L.A. Weekly encountered only a few who were visibly high. Even so, some glovers are beginning to admit that the insistence on seated light shows is hurting their scene. Mary Spohn, a 22-year-old from North Hollywood known as Blitzen, is one of a handful of up-and-coming gloving stars who has begun advocating “involving full body movement with gloving and starting to really push it into being considered dance as well.”
Like a lot of top glovers, Spohn is part of Emazing’s sponsorship program, meaning she gets free products and other perks in exchange for promoting the brand through videos and personal appearances. In her product video for Emazing’s Subsonic glove set, Spohn incorporates everything from old-school glowsticking to breakdancing-inspired robot moves, using her entire upper body in ways most glovers rarely do.
Another highly regarded, Emazing-affiliated glover, Corey Defeo, better known as Ice Kream Teddy, defends seated light shows, likening them to watching a movie. “You can sit and relax and enjoy the show and really let them take you in for a second,” he explains. “The glover literally takes over your entire field of vision for that two, three, four minutes. You are theirs.”
Defeo, who now runs Emazing’s wholesale department, also claims partial credit for Lim’s cleverest innovation: turning gloving into a competitive sport. Defeo had been into the trading card game Yu-Gi-Oh, and he told Lim, “Whenever a new store would pop up, they’d throw a big competition. Huge cash prizes, door prizes, giveaways, all that kind of stuff.” That planted the seed for what would become the “Battle of Supreme Swag,” or BOSS — a monthly competition that has since evolved into a national competitive gloving circuit, all leading up to the annual IGC tournament, which Defeo won in 2014. (The next IGC takes place Oct. 10 at the Yost Theater in Santa Ana.)
In a way, BOSS was a necessary survival tactic. Insomniac began banning gloves at its events in 2010, part of a larger effort to clean up its image following the ecstasy-related death of a 15-year-old girl at EDC that year. The move threatened to kill off the gloving scene just as Lim was launching his business.
“Gloving really originated at Insomniac and SoCal events,” Lim says. “So being banned from Insomniac festivals … was a huge downfall [for] the community. So it was like, what can I do to keep gloving alive, and how can I grow it?” BOSS and IGC were the answers; the first IGC, held at the Pomona Fairplex in June 2011, drew 2,000 attendees and more than 400 competitors.
EmazingLights briefly owned three stores in the Greater Los Angeles area but Lim has closed the newer two, keeping his original retail home in West Covina. “We are not store operators,” Lim admits. “We suck at it, quite frankly.” Instead, Emazing has moved most of its operations to its corporate headquarters in Anaheim, from which Lim concentrates on e-commerce, wholesale transactions and product development.
The headquarters for what Lim now calls the Emazing Group (a holding company for all his brands, pending some corporate restructuring) sits about two miles north of Disneyland, across from a drywall contractor and an RV storage facility, in a warehouse painted a Kermit-like shade of green. In the lobby, a mannequin in a purple wig and rainbow-colored tutu greets visitors, as does a wall of framed articles about Lim and Emazing in Rolling Stone, Inc. and L.A. Weekly, which first wrote about the company in 2012.
“We just took over the building next to us,” Lim explains. “We’re trying to scale for the next two to three years.” Currently, Emazing has about 50 employees. “From September  to today, we’ve probably hired at least 20 folks. Almost doubled our headcount.”
After peeking into the studio where they shoot gloving videos and product photography, Lim leads the way into the new, 15,000-square-foot warehouse, a raver’s wonderland, crammed with industrial shelves overflowing with hula hoops, hats, leggings, tutus, animal hoodies, fluffies (those furry raver legwarmers), light-up this and glow-in-the-dark that. “It’s probably about 5,000 active SKUs now,” mostly for iHeartRaves, which Kang — now Lim’s fiancée — oversees.
Technically, Lim has a corner office, though it’s nothing as grandiose as that term implies. The only two luxuries are a mini-fridge sporting a “Gloving Is Not a Crime” sticker and a wall-mounted HD screen, which he uses frequently to annotate his conversation, calling up gloving videos and product web pages.
It’s a few weeks before EDC Las Vegas, and as excited as Lim is about his pop-up store at the Luxor, he’s even more excited to reveal that, for the first time, iHeartRaves will have a booth inside the festival. “We’re bringing half a million dollars’ worth of merchandise over there. So hopefully we do well.”
The booth will be allowed to sell apparel and most of Emazing’s LED product line, but not glove sets — which seems a little like inviting Nike to have a booth at your sporting event, then telling them they can’t sell shoes. But for now, Insomniac’s gloving ban remains in place.
Lim is undeterred. He sees the iHeartRaves booth as a much-needed foot in the door with Rotella, whom he has yet to meet.
“One of the main drivers of IGC and BOSS and building our portfolio is to show guys like Pasquale that gloving is legitimate. It should be allowed back in,” Lim explains earnestly, his demeanor as bright as his baby-blue polo shirt. “So we’re working with them in different capacities, and hopefully one day I can be like, ‘Hey, Pasquale, come on, man.’”
At HARD Summer last month, on the swelteringly hot grounds of the Pomona Fairplex, a team of glovers moves through the crowd at the indoor Purple Stage, fingertips blinking. The collective, called Facemelt, is a nationwide network of glovers that acts as a sort of guerrilla marketing team — Emazing’s main promotional vehicle at events where gloving is banned. A HARD Summer security guard stops Facemelters to say that they can’t give any light shows sitting down, so they go try their luck at a different stage.
HARD and Insomniac are the two largest EDM promoters that ban gloving at their events. (Both companies declined to comment for this story.) In the past, the Facemelters agree, HARD has been the stricter of the two at enforcing the ban, but this year it seemed different. “It’s very, very lax. Not usually what we’re used to here,” says Cypher, a 21-year-old glover from Orange County who seems to be the group’s de facto leader.
(Later, we will learn that HARD security had bigger issues to worry about: Over the course of the two-day festival, there were 45 arrests and 49 attendees transported from the Fairplex to nearby emergency rooms. Two teenage HARD attendees later died at area hospitals, both of suspected drug overdoses.)
“HARD has been one of the more difficult festivals for us to come to, because they are so strict with pat-downs,” Cypher continues.
EDC, glovers agree, is usually easier. “Once you’re inside, they’re a lot more lenient,” says another glover, Gambit, from San Diego. “I was actually giving a light show to one of the security guards. It was pretty cool.” They smuggle their gloves in just like any other contraband: stuffed into the bottom of a backpack or, more commonly, down the front of one’s pants.
Members of the Facemelt crew wore matching T-shirts with their logo — which is the Emazing logo, melted — on the front, and their glover names in big white letters on the back. After they leave the Purple Stage and go back outside, it’s still too light to give shows, but they hand out Emazing promotional cards to curious passersby.
Lim says he isn’t worried about any potential blowback from violating HARD and Insomniac’s anti-gloving policies. He believes enforcement of the ban is lax because “the top-level promoters, they know it’s wrong. It’s like banning a form of dance.”
Lim thinks Emazing controls “80 to 90 percent” of the worldwide gloving market, a claim that is difficult to verify. But if you talk to glovers at events such as EDC Vegas and HARD Summer, it seems plausible.
“EmazingLights,” says a glover called Two at HARD Summer, when asked where he and his friend, Subzero, got their gloves. “It’s a pretty generic site.”
“They own, like, 80 percent of the market,” adds Subzero, who has clearly been reading Lim’s press.
To achieve that kind of market dominance in less than five years is remarkable, and even Lim’s competitors grudgingly give him props. “Brian’s a really smart guy,” says Norman Wong, 32, the owner of KandeKreations, a Texas-based online seller of glove sets and microlights. “They did evolve the scene to where it is. I’m glad to see where it is now.”
But you don’t control 80 percent of any market without ruffling some feathers, and Lim has ruffled his share.
“You should talk to Ramiro,” says Raymond Stone, owner of a Los Angeles–based EDM clothing and accessories retailer called Rave Ready. Stone claims Emazing has cut off many of his suppliers, signing them to exclusive deals.
“I hope you have the chance to talk with Gummy,” says Ramiro Montes de Oca, a disgruntled former Emazing engineer. Montes de Oca now is trading legal salvos in the EDM press with Lim over a new microlight he has just brought to market with help from Rave Ready. Lim claims the light infringes on his company’s intellectual property; Montes de Oca claims Lim forged employment documents to retroactively insert a noncompete clause.
“Did you talk to Aaron?” asks Gummy. One of the first “web-famous” glovers (his most popular YouTube video has 3.7 million views), Gummy once was the star of Emazing’s in-house gloving team, even appearing with Lim on Shark Tank. But just before the episode aired, he was fired from his Emazing customer service job and, according to him, denied thousands of dollars’ worth of sponsorship commissions.
“Try to reach Zohar at Futuristic Lights,” says OrbitLightShow’s Aaron Son. “He has some stories.”
Zohar Wouk is an ambitious 19-year-old glover from Santa Cruz who, working with an engineering partner, designed a new microlight specifically for gloving called the Kinetic. He says it’s the first microlight with a built-in accelerometer, making it possible for glovers to change colors and flashing modes based on how fast their hands are moving. A Kickstarter for the project, launched in December 2014, raised more than $60,000.
Before releasing the Kinetic, Futuristic demoed the light for Emazing at its Anaheim headquarters, hoping Lim’s company would distribute it. Just a few months later, before Futuristic could ship the Kinetic, Emazing released its first microlight with an accelerometer, the eLite Element.
Lim says Emazing had been developing an accelerometer for more than a year and a half before they saw Futuristic’s version, and he shares emails from August 2013 that appear to prove that one of his engineers was at least exploring the concept. While he admits that Futuristic “did put pressure on us to release quicker than we would have,” Lim denies stealing product ideas from them or any other competitor.
Wouk is not convinced. “If they were already making their own, why would they even want to talk to us? That’s the only thing I can come up with, that they were fishing for information.”
Before Lim rush-released his rival product, “I never really had a problem with Emazing,” Wouk adds. “I just saw there was a lack of real innovation put into [the industry]. Most of the way microlights had worked up to this point is the basic hardware stays the same, you just change the software a little. I really wanted to push that.”
Lim, for his part, makes no apologies for doing whatever he feels is necessary to stay ahead of the competition. “Obviously, based on Shark Tank and all this other publicity, there are new competitors coming into the market now,” he says. “Now we have engineers that are hobbyists that are like, ‘Hey, I can create a new light.’ Which is cool — I don’t blame these guys. It just lights a fire up under our ass to continuously innovate and kick everyone else’s ass.”
Despite the controversy surrounding Emazing’s behind-the-scenes activities, the company remains, for now, wildly popular in the gloving community. Most glovers seem inclined to give Lim the benefit of the doubt, and nearly all would much rather focus on their craft than on the increasingly cutthroat nature of the business.
“They always have the best intentions of growing the community,” Spohn says of Emazing. “They’ve always done so much for me.”
Another female glover — once a rarity in the scene, but becoming more commonplace — is even more passionate in her support of EmazingLights. “I’m very grateful to Emazing for existing in the first place,” says Sari Isaak, a 22-year-old from the Denver area who goes by the gloving name Starlight. “This incredible art form has saved my life.”
For years, as a teenager, Isaak suffered from rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, a rare mental illness that can be debilitating and difficult to treat. At one point, due to a combination of her disease and an allergic reaction to medications, the 5-foot-9 Isaak was bedridden and weighed just 85 pounds.
To pass the time, she surfed the web. When she stumbled across some EmazingLights gloving videos, she was entranced. “It was the first thing in my life I had fallen in love with for many, many years.”
She has since found the right medication for her illness but says gloving continues to help. “I still have a lot of chronic nerve pain that happens throughout my body,” she says. “And gloving makes it stop. It also stabilizes my emotions. I’ve never experienced a more therapeutic art form than gloving.”
Isaak’s story was one of several that inspired Emazing’s latest initiative, Glove4Glove. The goal, says Lim, is to demonstrate the positive effects of gloving by donating one pair, for every pair sold, to someone facing mental or physical challenges, from depression to cerebral palsy to paraplegia to deafness (“They already know sign language, so they kind of have that finger dexterity already,” Lim notes). The program is a few months old and has already begun donating glove sets to nonprofit groups such as the Walk and Roll Foundation, which organizes an L.A.-based wheelchair dance team.
“We love them,” Walk and Roll founding member Chelsie Hill says of her team’s new glove sets. “We can turn off the lights and no one would even know we were in wheelchairs.”
When describing the charitable initiative, Lim can’t resist calling out the entrepreneurial upside: “Obviously at the same time you create new glovers, which is one of our biggest goals.”
But just when you think he’s all strategy and no soul, Lim says something striking.
“I’ve always wanted to do a charity or a philanthropy that I can get our entire community behind. That’s a big reason why a lot of folks glove — people don’t exactly have the best life, and it’s kind of an escape for them to practice their art and find a place that makes them happy.”
Though he’s speaking in broad terms about all glovers, you get the sense he’s also speaking for himself. Maybe gloving didn’t save Brian Lim’s life the way it saved Sari Isaak’s. But for a first-generation Chinese-American kid from La Puente, it provided an escape.
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“I get emails and social message literally all day, every day, with stories of how gloving has changed their lives,” he continues. “That’s what drives us to this day, versus just, ‘It’s a cool light product.’”
[Note: An earlier version of this article described Ramiro Montes de Oca as a former employee of EmazingLights, but Montes de Oca disputes this. According to Montes de Oca, he was a contractor; according to Lim, he was a full-time employee. The article has been revised to simply describe Montes de Oca as a former EmazingLights engineer.]