By Katie Karpowicz Originally Published on ChooseChicago.com
When it comes to Chicago's streetwear fashion, Leaders 1354 owners Corey Gilkey (right) and Diego Ross have elevated the playing field. What started as a humble Hyde Park shop in 2002 is now a nationally recognized brand and portal into the city's music, art and design communities with prime location in the downtown neighborhood. In addition to their primary mens and womenswear shop, Gilkey and Ross recently returned to the Hyde Park neighborhood to open LDRS Skate with its own line of gear and skate team. Celebrities as far and wide as Jay Z and Tommy Lee have been spotted wearing the brand. This summer alone, the Leaders 1354 store (located at 672 N. Wells St.) has hosted an album release event with Chicago native Common, a pop-up shop from white hot local MC Chance the Rapper and his Social Experiment band and a graffiti session with female street artist turned fashion designer Claw Money. Chicago Like a Local sat down with Leaders' owners to get to know more about the brand and how it came to be the staple that it is in Chicago's fashion scene.
So, let's start with how Leaders 1354 got its start. How do you two link up in the first place?
Corey Gilkey: I had a business before that was called Crew Sportswear but we failed so I learned from my mistakes. We didn't know how to run a business. I didn't have mentors so I learned how to run a business the hard way. I did some consulting after that and then I got into the sales end of things. I was a Midwest sales manager for brands like Pony and Varsity. What I noticed was that when I would do trade shows we would have a caravan of like 40 different brands within a hotel. Buyers from each city-Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis-would all come to these shows but they would only go to the top five brands so the other 35 guys sat around and couldn't get any business. They had great stuff. I hated it. I made a little money but it was a tough business.
Diego Ross: We both came up through sales.
CG: And we didn't like it because our blood is in retail. We like being able to engage with the customer. My friends and I knew what we wanted to buy. I wanted to open a store. I wanted to call it Leaders and I wanted to sell independent brands that can't get the exposure these bigger brands are getting. I wanted to start off small. I wanted to buy my friends brands and see how it went. And that was it.
So how'd you meet Diego?
CG: When I was with Crew Sportswear, Diego was our Reebok representative. He would come help merchandise our store. We didn't know anything about the business. Diego taught us everything about it: how to sell the customer, how to merchandise our windows and the inside of our stores. He went on to work for various stores and he was a buyer for Finish Line.
DR: It's funny because I was working for Reebok but because we had a relationship I would come in and do their window displays and tell them that they had all this cool merchandise but they just weren't showing it right.
Are you the designers for Leaders too?
DR: No, we have a full-time designer and a couple of interns. I actually sit down with the designers on a weekly basis. Right now we're just putting fall to bed. Now we're in the concept stage of holiday [November, December]. We have so many logos so we'll start off with thinking about what logo we just used in the past season and which one we want to bring back. Then it's concept. Every collection that we release, we want to have something Chicago in the design. Currently, we have something on the floor that's our take on the Chicago Park District artwork. Even though we're a national brand we always want to have something Chicago. It's definitely a full-time deal, especially when you take your personal tastes out of it and focus on the design and the consumer. Half the time the designers think I'm crazy because I'll zone out for a minute but I can see the kid. The kid's not gonna wear that but he will this.
When I think about Leaders, I kind of associate it with the hip hop community. Was that what you were going for?
DR: Not at all. The cool thing is that it's happened organically. We didn't sit rappers down and say, "Please wear our brand." Take a guy like Chance the Rapper who's been around Leaders since he was 14 years old. When he wears a Leaders hat, he wears it for a reason. He doesn't wear it to say, "I'm sponsored by them." It's a personal relationship. Subsequently there's a lot of artists that wear Leaders for a number of reasons. If you put 10 of them in a room, they'll all say different things. Some of them like the name and like the message. Some of them like the graphics. Some of them wear it because they think they have to to be cool. The biggest name is Jay Z and he's worn Leaders a few times. He has the ability to put anything on so for him to wear it, I was really like, "Wow..."
You mentioned the message behind Leaders, to simply be a leader. How do you go about making sure your designs and products reflect that?
CG: It is what it is. If you want to be a leader, that's what you put on. It should remind you every day of your goal to be the best son, father, husband, brother, cousin, nephew, teacher, partner there is. That's what we want to show, that we're about community and the creative industry. We're taking a lead and providing jobs and mentorship so that our city can grow. The creative industry here doesn't get enough credit.
DR: Everybody talks about New York and LA but there's a lot of talent here.
CG: We're just trying to show that one day it can become economic. People can make money from Chicago being known as a hub for photographers, videographers, graphic designers, artists.
DR: We also try to make sure that people understand that Leaders 1354 equates positivity. We're not selling "Chiraq" shirts. We're not playing "Chiraq" music. It's terrible. We want people to understand that that's just one part of Chicago. There's a bigger Chicago out there. A lot of these kids don't have a mentor or someone they can talk to and if they can't rap or they can't be in sports they end up thinking, what can I do? I always tell kids if they want to be around sports, there's tons of jobs in the sneaker industry. You can make shoes. You can market shoes. You can sell shoes. Maybe you can't rap but there's also tons of things you can do behind the scenes in the music industry. They don't even have people that they can have those conversations with so our doors are always open. We're not necessarily experts but we try to give them our life experiences.
You've kind of bounced around the city. You started in Hyde Park, right?
DR: At 1354 E. 53rd Stret. And then we went to 4351 S. Cottage Grove in Bronzeville.
CG: We had two stores at one time because we wanted to branch out to the North Side so we had a Wicker Park store at 1400 N. Milwaukee Ave. Then we decided to move downtown and close the Bronzeville and Wicker Park stores to consolidate. Now we have our skate shop in Hyde Park so we're back on the South Side. That location was Barack Obama's first Senate office.
DR: The skate shop will have been open for two years in October.
Is that a totally different line of clothes?
DR: It has its own line, its own headwear and it's a fully functioning skate shop. We have decks, hardware, grip tape.
CG: We just wanted somewhere for kids to congregate so they didn't have to be in a gang or get into trouble. We always look at locations as how we can build on it. There wasn't anything independent downtown when we moved. Everything was huge department stores. For streetwear or boutiques there was nothing around here. So when we go into an area, we want to plant our seed and bring the culture there.
DR: We have a Leaders skate team now too.
Is that for any certain age group?
DR: The kids are 11 to 19 years old. We actually just had three kids graduate. Two are going to college and one is going away to do missionary work for a year.
With so much involvement in the community I'm wondering if you have any specific outreach programs or charities that you're working with.
CG: That's our next project. Going to Englewood and trying to help there. I just got back from a meeting with the mayor and 70 percent of the city's shootings and murders are in Englewood. Seventy percent of the murders are kids from 17 to 25 years old. The skate team is an outreach program. Our store is an outreach program for graphic designers. They come here and ask questions about things like invoices and how to get business. We deal with that every day.
And these aren't kids you have previous relationships with?
CG: No, they're aggressive. They come in and get to know us. We're approachable and we support them. That's why our industry is growing here.
Did you open Leaders with the mentality of wanting to be a mentor?
CG: No, we just wanted to be small. I have friends that come in and tease me all the time about how I used to say I just wanted to have a 500 square-foot store and sell t-shirts.
But now that you've gotten to the point that you're at what is the ultimate goal for Leaders 1354?
CG: To take over the world and be everywhere. I feel that infants, pre-teens, teenagers, young adults, adults and the elderly should all wear Leaders because that's a perception of who they are. They should go out and lead every day. That's what's going to make the world better, if we have leaders instead of followers that just get caught up in the negativity in the world. We have to help each other, build our communities and stay strong for each other. It's white. It's black. It's Asian. It's Hispanic. It's straight. It's gay. As long as we're doing well for each other, that's all that matters.
What's been the best moment for you?
DR: I wouldn't say it was the best moment but I would say an eye-opening moment was Jay Z performing at the pre-Super Bowl party on DirectTV in front of 30 million people wearing the Leaders brand. And then we get a lot of feedback from people we know from all over. A friend called me after the Grammys and told me he counted 30 Leaders hats. But we know we still have a lot of work to do because every day somebody walks in here and doesn't know what Leaders is. I think we are a household name in a lot of places but we have to do a top to bottom deal.