Designer Erik Brunetti and A History of Streetwear

Fuct. And Erik Brunetti saw that the word was good. So he made T-shirts. And the T-shirts begot caps, and the caps begot sweats, and the endeavors begot skateboards, and the line grew and prospered, and Brunetti giggled. And Fuct begot Lucifer Wong and Dorothy's Fortress and Hellnote Records and a Fuct fanzine, and within the time, the word spread from the confused and delinquent of high schools and skateboards ramps to the models of Vogue and the Musicians of MTV and the actors of the screen and the wide world beyond. And everywhere, teachers and principals and parents and guardians gnashed their teeth and rented their garments in frustration. And Erik Brunetti giggled. 

BY JEFF SPURRIER 

Erik Brunett is checking out a test print from the silkscreen in a two-level loft in L.A.'s downtown warehouse district. It's a simple design: a T-shirt with a little blue-and-white nametag like people wear at trade shows or singles meetings. The printed tag says HELLO MY NAME IS, followed by a black scrawl reading SATAN. 

Erik, Twenty-eight, is the designer, originator, and now, after six bitter months of contention, the sole pilot of Fuct, a T-shirt company he launched from his bedroom in Venice five years ago. At first, the T-shirt was just a private joke for disaffected skate punks like himself. But success breeds imitation, and other streetwear purveyors co-opt Fuct's angry, pop-referential sarcasm. One of his early shirts featured only the company's name, slyly remodeled to look like the famous old Ford logo. It was essential, easy to read, and offensive. Erik had a partner in his crimes against good taste for a few years. Aptly named, Slick was an artistically talented wannabe seeking street credibility but with no talent for business, says Erik, or for getting along with anyone at Fuct. Their partnership quickly deteriorated into thetas and pushing fights, epic financial disputes, pistol shots, and a lawsuit.

Today the company is no longer foundering. The reps are reassured, and distributors are demanding more. Trent Reznor's people want to sell Fuct products through the Nine Inch Nails pipeline.

Part P.T. Barnum, part Malcolm McLaren, Erik is a non-P.C., anti-charismatic Punk, a tattooed entrepreneur with a bad attitude. He is a skate-punk purist, an archetypal outsider from the wrong side of the tracks, casting rocks at suburban plate-glass windows to hear them break. His aim is pretty good by his estimation: "I can tell when I have something someone is going to wanna wear or listen to. I knew it when I started Fuct because no one was doing anything like that. The hip-hop thing had to be Punk, so I got into it early. 

 He has no ideology, no agenda other than to shake things up with whatever is at hand. Erik's first shirt featured only the Fuct name in clear, friendly lowercase letters. Next came the Ford/Fuct logo. He risked his saving-$2,500-and printed two hundred. He peddled some to local skated shops and sent a few to Union, a boutique in Manhattan. He soon branched into '70s iconography, lampooning Kiss and movie posters of Jaws and Planet of the Apes.

He printed STEAL THIS GARMENT on every label to ensure people got the joke. The letter he moved into swastikas, pentagrams, and defaced crosses, anything that would shock.

 

Erik doesn't endorse the symbolic power of an image, only people's reactions to it. The message is loud and clear: Fuck you if you can't take a joke. Fuct isn't a fashion statement. It's fashion vandalism. 

"Then all the checks started coming in, and it was like, 'Whoa! This is doing well!'" In 1993, the partners of X-Large, the vanity boutique co-owned by Beastie Boy Mike D, approached him about a joint venture. Together they opened X-Fuct on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. The store flourished immediately. He shakes his head, confused by the process, cynical about success: "Profanity is profit," Erik says.

Though he admits he's no businessman, Erik has guided Fuct, and now Dorothy's Fortress, with an almost intuitive marketing sense. He built up demand by ignoring by-the-book notions of business as usual — in fact, he hardly did business at all. The product was shipped according to supply, not deadline, and distributors and retailers were carefully vetted. He says that they don't care about what they are carrying. Fuct never attended trade shows or sent out catalogs. If you wanted Fuct, you left a message, and maybe they'd call you back, and perhaps you'd get an order filled. Maybe... 

"Never give away the game, like showing the product. Established name before you have the product. It's all hype. There is no product. People want it, and when it – finally comes out, it just blows up."

If it weren't for the name, you could wear some of the shirts in polite company, however, unlike the '90s.

WHEN I FIRST MET ERIK IN AUSUST OF 1994, he hesitantly opened the door to his home in the Hollywood Hills, glancing around the leafy courtyard and the street beyond. He was friendly, but the fight with Slick had worn him down, his nails bitten down to the nub. He immediately told me that he wasn't sure he wanted to interview since he was pretty sure Fuct was about to expire. The last thing he wanted was to give Slick any publicity. 

Fuct's offices were located downstairs, packed with boxes full of tees, plastic Japanese monster toys, guitars, amps, Macs, and scanners. He was in the process of shutting down X-Fuct and completely disengaging himself from Slick.

Their partnership had been going sour for a while. Now it was dangerously weird. Earlier in the summer, Slick and Erik had clashed over money. The dispute escalated into a showdown. The week before, Slick had shown up at Fuct offices and left when Erik emptied his pistol into the ceiling.

The partnership was doomed from the outset. In retrospect, he says Slick was just.

From Erik's list of Things, he hates...

Hotels, his therapist, Mari-A version of Punk, Fuct clothing won't be trying up in malls. "Kids know Fuct can never sell out," he says. "It's like the Darby Crash of clothing."

I HATE: jocks, snowboarders, baggy clothes, coattail riders, rollerblades, staying in Juana designs on street clothes, and Neopunk, his ex-partner Slick.

A spoiled rich kid with no credibility. But after they met on a freelance job, he'd sold Erik on a different image: a street-tough artist with access to capital. Within a few weeks, Erik knew he'd made a mistake. 

Now Erik says he's a nervous wreck. He takes an entire bottle of Excedrin daily to deal with his migraines: "My blood is so thin if you cut me, it'd spew out like water." He shows me his bedroom, adjacent to his office. Shards of broken phones are on the floor, smashed after frustrating talks with his lawyer. 

Even though it's past midnight, he has to finish a Fuct ad for Thrasher Magazine. He sits down at the Mac and starts to work; the soothing tones of '70s cult leader Jim Jones's People's Temple Choir fill the small room with a churchly glow. It's perfect mood music. Jones is the subject of the ad he's making. Nigel, his pit bull, snores gently next to the laser printer.

 

"Charles Mason is passé," Erik says softly, concentrating on a fuzzy scanned image of Jones which he's positioning above the word FATHER. "Jim Jones is way crazier. Manson tries to be witchy and crazy. Jim Jones looks like Wane Newton. He's a class act."

Erik is wearing a ratty thrift-store mohair cardigan a' la Kurt Cobain, pet-leg black jeans over his ever-present black Vans, and a Black Flag T-shirt. The only bit of Fuct gear he wears regularly is his "stealth" hat, a black baseball cap with the Fuct logo embossed in nearly invisible relief. He is thin and needs a shave. He's got a computer tan, sallow, and set off by horn rims. But for the manic giggle and a Japanese koi and dragon tattoo that runs down his left arm, he looks like any kid who spends too many long late nights in front of his computer. 

Once when Erik was wondering about how I would describe him, he asked me: "Erik has the physique of a seven–year–old and a pedophile's brain."

ERIK BRUNETTI WAS RAISED WITH HIS TWO brothers and sister in Covington, Virginian, a small town where most kids go straight from high school to a job in the local paper mill. Then his parents divorced, and he and his mother moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Between ninth and eleventh grade, he and his mother moved four times; he was the perennial new kid, tormented by the "jocks and wealthy kids," he says. "I was always dirty and stinky. No dates, not really. I was a virgin until I was like nineteen or twenty." He never really took to any of his schools; the art room was the only place he felt at home. Other than that, his life was mostly about playing in punk bands. 

He passed his GED during his senior year and left early. With no money for art school, he took off for New York and worked as a bike messenger during the day, tagging the city with graffiti at night. He bombed walls, buses, subway cars-just about anything that would take paint. He left his mark-pieces, tags, throw-ups- all over New York and Philadelphia.

"It's fun to destroy public property. I pay for it with my taxes. I should have the right to destroy it when I want.

 His interest in graffiti blossomed, but his bike job got old after five months. He quit and returned to Pennsylvania to stay with his mother again. Without knowing what to do next, he took off on long drug-punk-skate holidays around the country. "It was just for fun. I liked to skate. I still do.

I'm not into that street-style shit, kicking flipping. Leave that to the break-dancers. I can do all the old-school stuff – lip tricks, inverts, frontside-backside, backside air, rock n rolls. Typical stuff."

He spent about a year in Texas, living in a car and crashing with friends, and drifted to California. He started designing skateboard decks for manufacturers like World Industries and got an education in the nuts and bolts of commercial graphics. Then he launched Fuct out of his Venice bedroom – a few hundred shirts at a time, hand-delivered to local skate shops – and suddenly Erik was in business for himself. As fast as he could design and manufacture the product, it was snatched up, and he started learning about deadlines, unreliable jobbers, and not always getting what he paid for.

He was no longer just a freelance illustrator but an entrepreneur – not a role he found comfortable. He had always been on the outside looking in, a drone, not a boss. Soon he was overwhelmed. When he decided he needed a partner, he hooked up with Slick, who'd promised to put some money into the company. When he thought he needed more hands, he tripled his payroll. Then he opened the X-Fuct store. And he lost control of his burgeoning empire. Now he's returned to the start-up feel, just a few employees, no partner, no store. 

Because Erik assumed that Fuct would not survive the fight against /slick, last year, he created Dorothy's Fortress, a new line marketed primarily to women. Dorothy's Fortress gave Erik a business that Slick had no claim to. And though Erik says that he hates the greed and amorality of the clothing business, he also smelled an opportunity, sensing that women would be the next big streetwear market. Six months ago, Dorothy's Fortress had three designs. Now it has fifteen.

The latest Dorothy's Fortress designs feature '60s rockers MC5. ("Punk before Punk,) says Erik. "Many people the Sex Pistols were first, but MC5 were.”) Dorothy's clothes were now rival Fuct in sales.

He stays in touch with his family-both brothers are in the military, while his sister's husband works for a Ford dealer in Pennsylvania. His father has remarried and becomes a born-again Christian. Erik says he supports Fuct, but Erik has to assure him that the Satan references are a joke. His mother, Jane, still works as a waitress back east but plans to move to Los Angeles when Erik buys her a house. He is a son any mother could be proud of. He is concerned about her welfare and protective of her future. He is still angry with Slick; he fills Slick screwed up his plans to buy her a house. When I asked Jane what she thought about the company's name, she laughed and said, "Fuct? What's wrong with it? I say it myself."

To ensure people got the joke, Erik printed STEAL THIS GARMENT on every Pentagram and defaced crossed-anything shocking. It wasn't a fashion statement, it.

 

FROM ERIK'S LIST OF THINGS I HATE: jocks, snowboarders, snowboarding, baggy clothes, coattail riders, people who beat him up in high school and now wear his clothes, rollerbladers, New York, Hollywood, staying in hotels, his therapist, marijuana, or graffiti designs on street clothes, neopunk, and, of course, Slick.

"Yeah, I'm negative," he says. "So what?" He disses everyone and everything, but it doesn't take long to figure out that his bitterness is, in some ways, just a pose. His T-shirts betray the same attitude. It's not that he hates everything. He thinks everything's funny. The images and symbols on his T-shirts are designed to annoy parents. 

They're snide, but you have to laugh—like the image of a stormtrooper gorilla from Planet of the Apes hunched over a crack pipe or a decapitated doll's head with punkish swastikas and pentagrams scratched on the cheeks and the message THE CHILDREN ARE THE FUTURE. His audience knows that Erik's no more severe than the standard heavy-metal band.

Things are going better for Erik, though a heavy winter rain has his bedroom dark and moldy. His prize band Kiss sleeping bag is soaked and stuffed into a big plastic hamper along with a mohair sweater, but there don't seem to be any broken phone parts on the floor.

 His closet is stacked with Star Wars toys, many still in their original boxes. Plastic childhood icons are part of the Fuct landscape. Hanging the front office is a framed Vietcong recruiting poster; nest to it is a Vietnam bush hat worn by U. S. Army grunts. "During Vietnam, they had their artwork on their helmets, which is cool—a peace sign on one side and BORN TO KILL on the other.

It's like punk rock, a real passionate form of art." He sees art in places most people don't, like lost animal posters. He has a collection of Xeroxed flyers that he has picked up over the years, badly drawn pictures, and fuzzy Polaroids of missing cats and dogs. "They're cool," he says. "People put everything they've got into those flyers because they've lost this thing they love so much and will do anything to get it back!"

The massive toys-electronic and plastic-would indicate satisfaction, at least on a material level, but Erik says success hasn't made him any happier. "I don't enjoy life at all," he says. "I don't have time to. I have to express myself through art, music, whatever. If I don't, I end up smashing phones. I like to do my art without all the business aspects. I could be a better businessman.

 "So what if someone offered you $ 10 million for Fuct?"

"I'd take it. Totally. Then I'd be free to do what I want, but it would have to be more than that. I could make $ 10 million if I buckled down, got up in time, got my head together, and stopped smashing things."

"But you seem to work well under stress. The Thrasher ad was done at the last minute and looked great."

"Yeah, but now the people at Thrasher are sweating me, saying they won't run it because it promotes mass suicide. People will always find a reason. You must remember; that everyone is out to censor you; put tape over your mouth."

Sometimes he'll let his girlfriend, Ana, a twenty-six-year-old anthropology grad student at UCLA; put that tape over his mouth-but she's virtually the only one. Once, he designed a swastika made of pink flowers over an upside-down cross and the message HAVE A NICE DAY. She wouldn't stand for it.

"That design may have been a mistake," he admits.

A MONTH OR SO LATER. THE OFFICE IS BUZZING. Boxes of clothing delivered from the screener fill the loft. One of his employees hands Erik a fax from i-D Magazine. They'd asked him to design a shirt for a promotional subscription drive. He sent them ten designs and told them to pick one. They want him to do all of them. The Japanese rep just left, placing a "we'll take anything" order. Erik has just finished ten designs for Fuct and Dorothy's Fortress. Best of all, it looks like the battle with Slick is over. A temporary restraining order against Slick has been made into a preliminary injunction. Until the case is resolved, only Erik can use the Fuct name.

Label. Later he used swastikas, which Was fashion vandalism.

He's moved from the house in the hills to the warehouse, the same building he started in a few years ago. He also has a new business manager, John, and a couple more employees; orders are piling in. He sleeps in his art room on a mattress on the floor.

The only other signs of habitation are a clothing rack on which hangs his court suit and a huge T.V. set. There's no stove in the loft ("I hate stoves"), so he has to rely on fast food ("I hate fast food") or restaurants in nearby Little Tokyo.

Things seem more together now, and Erik is slipping back into the old routine he had before all the legal hassles began: getting up around noon, fiddling on the computer, going out to lunch with friends, hanging out in record stores; he doesn't start designing until four in the morning. "A lot of Fuct stuff is hand-drawn. I can usually whip a design out in a night." 

He's just returned from visiting Trent Reznor in New Orleans and is excited yet cautious about the potential. It goes back to what he told me when we first met: Keep them hungry. Saturation kills. He shows me a catalog of their merchandising material. He thinks Fuct gear will fit nicely alongside NIN's, although he stresses that he will retain control over which Fuct images he'll let NIN market. Nothing has been signed, but it looks suitable for some distribution deal, which would vastly increase the Fuct's reach, especially in music stores.

Now it's playtime. He's just returned from South by Southwest with his band Lucifer Wong. He is concentrating his energies on the newest wing of the Fuct empire: Hellnote Records, an independent label he's helping to launch along with Silverlake engineer-producer Mickey Petraila. There are five bands on the label, including Lucifer Wong. Like the Fuct zine, Dorothy's Fortress, and Fuct, Hellnote is another of Erik's do-it-yourself projects.

There are no contracts, just handshakes over beers. Mickey handles promotion, management, and recording, while Erik oversees the graphics. He figures that his zine database holds thousands of potential fans. The sensibility is the same-"anti-everything," according to Mickey-and, the Fuct name will undoubtedly attract attention.

"It's the same way I started Fuct," Erik says, handing me the first seven-inch pressings of Charley Horse, one of five Hellnote bands. "You keep putting your money in and doing jobs on the side because you know it's good, and it'll work if you keep circulating it in the right group of people. When Mickey approached me, I immediately knew the potential. We're very selective. We don't put out crap."

THE LAST TIME I TALKED WITH ERIK IS ON THE phone. He's canceled some designs he has orders for; in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, he doesn't want to feed any resurgent fascism. Symbols interest him, he says, not politics. After all, he speculates that George Lucas used S.S. uniforms as his inspiration for Darth Vader's shock troops on the Death Star. 

 "I'm into Nazi uniform and warfare, but I'm not into the Holocaust. It was genocide."

But perhaps, Erik thinks, it may be time to move past Nazis. Not for any moral reason but because Nazi iconography is getting old. The papers today, for instance, are full of stories about the Japanese cult leader who allegedly spearheaded the nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway.

"Asahara," he says. "This is a whole new can of worms here. Jim Jones is over. All these guys have a childhood grudge they want to take out on the world. Payback. Everything comes around. You better think twice before picking on that kid in high school because he will get you in the end."

 Or he may start designing T-shirts.

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