When Bobby Kim and Ben Shenassafar founded The Hundreds 14 years ago, they had no idea it would go on to become internationally recognized as an iconic Los Angeles–based streetwear brands. Right behind industry giant Stussy, The Hundreds has grown successful enough for its proprietors to see their Adam Bomb logo pop up in various branches of pop culture. And it all began as a simple T-shirt brand.
Now, Kim — who’s better known as “Bobby Hundreds”; likewise Shenassafar goes by “Ben Hundreds” — has a new project. The documentary Built to Fail: A Streetwear Story, premiering Saturday at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is what Kim has put a lot of his time into over the past five years. As he sees it, making a film about the history of streetwear is something few people would be quite as qualified to do as he is.
“I’ve been in this space for so long, and the longer I existed and worked within the space of building a streetwear brand, the harder it was to define what that even meant,” Kim says. “The more people I met in the industry and the more customers I talked to, the more everyone seemed to have a different idea and interpretation of streetwear. For me, that became kind of frustrating, that here I was thriving within the space and yet I didn’t really know what it means or entirely understand where it came from. I wanted to figure that out, not just for myself but for my audience and for the greater culture.”
During the years he's worked within the industry, Kim has remained a streetwear fan. Rather than just following the trends or only paying attention to what his own brand is doing, the native Angeleno tries to keep as much of an objective eye on the industry as he can as both a producer and a consumer. For that reason, Built to Fail is able to show the subtleties and politics that only an industry insider would know while still keeping the general public’s point of view in the spotlight throughout.
“I’ve always kind of approached streetwear as an objective journalist and as a fan of the culture, and that’s why we even started our own brand to begin with,” Kim says. “I’ve always been a big supporter and big enthusiast, and even though some of these other brands and designers out there are our competitors, I’m still a big fan.”
In Kim’s eyes (and according to most other Southern California–bred streetwear historians), the entire streetwear movement began when Shawn Stussy combined his loves of surfing and music into one brand that would end up encompassing pretty much all of SoCal’s countercultures in 1980. Although these days the word “streetwear” is about as vague as calling music “alternative” or “urban,” the Hundreds still believe in holding relatively true to that initial vision and putting their own twists and touches on a form of clothing that has been a part of Los Angeles history for almost 40 years.
“If we look at how streetwear began, it was an amalgamation of different subcultures and lifestyles — communities that were counter to the mainstream,” Kim says. “It started mirroring itself in communities around the world. L.A. was really the epicenter for that mentality and thinking, because we’re such a melting pot and such a diverse city with so many different backgrounds and subcultures. It was ripe and fertile as somewhere for streetwear to grow. The streetwear capital of the world is still arguably on Fairfax, where our store is. If you walk up and down the Fairfax District, you can have a pretty good sense of what streetwear looks like at the forefront right now.”
But while The Hundreds may be a gold standard for many of the smaller local streetwear brands these days, Kim and Shenassafar couldn’t even conceive of their current level of success when they began. Back in the early 2000s, they were just a couple of guys selling T-shirts in a streetwear scene that didn’t yet really exist. High-quality clothing wasn’t cool in the subcultures the brand was looking to encompass, so The Hundreds guys were thrilled any month they did better than break even.
“I just wanted to do enough to pay my rent in order to survive, and everything on top of that was extra,” Kim says. “If I made a little bit of cash, it was a huge win. I never really looked at it as a potential career or something I’d be able to support a family off of. It wasn’t perceived as a potential viable option because streetwear didn’t exist as an industry. At the time, it catered to a very sophisticated and discerning customer of men’s fashion, and at that time it wasn’t really a thing for guys from skateboarding or hip-hop to be into fashion. It’s pretty much mainstream clothing now, and because I didn’t foresee that, I couldn’t foresee what happened with our own brand.”
If you ask Kim, the rise of streetwear in mainstream fashion mirrors the rise of hip-hop. What began as a small community with only one or two notable names has blown up into something prominent enough for children and senior citizens to be knowledgeable about it. In much the way that artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Drake are inescapable even for those who have no interest in the rap scene, streetwear brands and elements are popping up everywhere from the runway to the mall to local big-box retailers like Target and Walmart.
“There are still underground facets of it, but mainstream, consumer-facing hip-hop is as much pop radio as Taylor Swift and Katy Perry,” Kim says. “With something like streetwear, there’s still very much an underground element to it that isn’t necessarily mainstream right now, but as a whole all mainstream trends in fashion have elements of streetwear. There are different genres of streetwear out there, but as far as opportunities and potential futures for streetwear, the sky is the limit. Clothing and fashion and streetwear have become almost synonymous at this point.”
Kim continues, “We’re at the point where almost anything can be considered streetwear, and that’s why I think it’s important for a movie like this to be made, so people have some understanding of what it means and where it came from.”