No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn: A Conversation With Dom Deluca - Extended Interview
Brooklyn Projects' history is the stuff that legends are made of. Started by Dom Deluca, the original Brooklyn House opened in New York in 1991 and expanded to Los Angeles in 1995. Given his history as a central figure in the '90's music scene and the host of MTV's Headbangers Ball, Dom's immersion in skateboarding and fashion gave him the vision to establish something unique. Brooklyn Projects is more than just a shop, it's an institution. Dom describes it best with this quote "the store is just like a platform, it's a melting pot, a think tank – low and behold, here we are twenty something years later and we're still doing it."
Give us a little history on where you're from and how you got started with skateboarding.
I'm from Brooklyn, New York. At first I was an accomplished BMX racer and freestyler. I always dabbled in skateboarding. I got a skateboard before I got a BMX bike, I got a bullshit cheapo skateboard. I remember my first real skateboard was a Shmitt Stix, I dabbled in skateboarding but I was always a BMXer at heart. I was always around skateboarders hanging out in New York city in Washington Square Park. I would skate around with Scott from Anthrax, and we would hang out at SoHo Skates. Skateboarding was more of a community than BMX was. I would have my BMX homies, but skateboarding was more of a movement.
You hosted Head Bangers Ball back in the '90's. How did you get involved with MTV and how did being around the music scene influence the direction that you went with later on with your stores?
I was a roadie for a bunch of heavy metal bands – from Anthrax, to Violent, to Biohazard, to Metallica, all of them; but primarily Anthrax – those are my boys. Those guys brought me up. From that, I always hooked up people with passes and made sure tickets were sorted out – just looking out for everybody. I would look out for these MTV people all of the time not knowing who they were or what they did. Even to this day, I don't look as people as a commodity; I look at them as a person. I don't care what they do, if they're cool to me; they could be the president of the United States or the guy that bags your groceries at Ralph's – if they're cool to me, then I'm gonna be cool to them. I remember I was kind of over going on the road. Literally I would travel the world and I appreciated it, but being home only three months out of the year – I wanted to have more of a career. I didn't want to be a roadie the rest of my life. So I reached out to some people that I knew at MTV at a show, and oddly enough they said "we were going to ask you if you wanted a job?" I told them that I would love to get a job, and that I would do whatever – office work, PA work, anything. They told me they had something for me, and low and behold they wanted me to be on air talent for Headbangers Ball. At first I didn't want to do it. That's not where I thought I would go, but they saw something in me. The kids like me, the bands liked me, the bands cosigned me; so I started co-hosting headbangers ball and eventually hosting it. From doing that, I was always in the streetwear scene before it was known as streetwear. In the late '80's from hanging out with the Beastie Boys and working at Def Jam and Rush Management which was in the Lower East Side – that was the epicenter of streetwear. That's where brands like Stussy started from, and Kingpin, and Stash, and Not From Concentrate… Fuct, X-tra Large, those were all streetwear brands. It started from that scene and that era – late '80's, '88, '89, '90. Triple 5 Soul, all of that. I used to buy the stuff and I used to know the people that started the brands – cause at the time, they were kids. They were young kids getting their hustle on. Once I got on MTV, nobody was wearing the stuff on TV at the time. There was no cable, there was no Reality TV – MTV was where it was at. So I started wearing all of the stuff from all of my favorite brands – Pervert, X-tra Large, Phat Farm, Fuct, Subwear. So, eventually I started getting more and more brands sending me stuff to wear and eventually my dressing room became boxes and boxes of stuff. There was no room, so eventually I wanted to open up a store, so I took all of that stuff and I started in a swap meet Caesar's Bay Bazaar. Me and two of my friends started a store there called Brooklyn Union Gear company. That lasted for about a year until we flipped the money and soon after we opened Brooklyn House, which was in '93. At the time it was ridiculous, I sold everything in there – every streetwear brand, every skate brand, I sold snowboards. I remember Marc Echo used to come from Jersey and bring his rhinoceros t-shirts. It was like the cool place to be in '93 and I really enjoyed it. At the time I was still on MTV and I still worked at a record label and fashion became an integral part of that music scene. From grunge to hip hop to rap metal, it was an integral part – so I found my place and I liked it. It wasn't about money for me, it was more about offering a service and offering a lifestyle to the consumer. To this day, I've never pulled a paycheck out of my stores. I just do consulting work and I work on other things to make a living. The store is just like a platform, it's a melting pot, a think tank. So low and behold, here we are twenty something years later and I'm still doing it.
Speaking of Brooklyn House, you started that in New York and you ended up on Melrose in LA. How did you bridge that gap from East Coast to West Coast?
I used to come out here to LA a lot for business, working in the music business. I would come out here and see bands and what not. I first moved out here in '91. A lot of people don't know that, but I moved out here in '91. There was a break in between tours when I was working with Anthrax, in '91 there was a four or five month break and we finished in LA. Scott had just bought this crazy house in Huntington Beach. I went there and I stayed for a week. This was when like Bay Watch was the number one show on TV and I went to Huntington Beach Pier and Main Street and I saw all these chicks and the weather, and was like "why the fuck do I wanna go back to Brooklyn." So I stayed out there for about nine or ten months and I would go to Hollywood all the time to see my friends and to see shows. I always hung on Melrose because it was the epicenter of what was going on in fashion and trending stuff – it was all on Melrose, you can find everything on Melrose. Every cool spot was on Melrose – everything, it was the cool place. There was one cool store there called Atomic Garage which I loved. I used to go there all the time, and eventually I wanted to… I didn't wanna be a dick, but they were like Goliath and I was David, I wanted to go open up on Melrose because they were the only skate and snowboard shop in town. So one day I said fuck it, I came out to LA and got a store on Melrose and I opened it up. So I had two stores, one in Brooklyn and one Melrose, and that was in '95 and I just kept it going.
So how did Brooklyn House morph into Brooklyn Projects, and wasn't Kareem Campbell involved in the store back then?
Once I started the shop, about two years in I couldn't do it anymore financially. It was just really hard for me to do it. Kareem has been a long-time friend of mine and I brought him in as a partner. He became my business partner in Brooklyn House. I came out to Hollywood and I had all of the connections with all of the clubs, from being connected in New York it flowed into LA. So all of these pro skateboarders who could never get into these clubs started hanging out with me and I became friends with them – very good friends with them. From Chad Muska, to Keenan Milton, to Eric Koston… Guy Mariano, Billy Valdez, Eric Pupecki, Gino Iannucci – that was the crew. We would go out every night and that was our crew. We would go out with like eight to ten heads every fuckin' night. Every night it would be a fuckin' headache getting eight to ten rowdy crazy pro skateboarders in clubs, but that was it – that was our crew. You couldn't fuck with my team at the time, I had the cream of the crop. So that's how that started, then eventually in 2000 business was bad, skateboarding took a shit, and I was over it. I was going through some personal problems and some financial problems, and I closed everything. In 2001 I lost everything, I went bankrupt, I became homeless, everything. In 2002, a friend of mine – my partner Murph, he was talking about opening a skate / surf store with another friend of mine from Japan who used to be my employee and they wanted to do Brooklyn House again. I was like, "you know what, it's done – let's do something different." I always fucked around with this idea of Brooklyn Projects because I grew up in the projects and a project is never ending. Brooklyn Projects is a never ending thing, there's always something morphing out of it. So there you go, in 2002 Brooklyn Projects started and here we are.
So when you started, you're a contemporary of Supreme – one of the original…
I was there before Supreme. Supreme came in '94, I did it in '92 actually. When I got my job at MTV, that's when I did it and then in '93 Brooklyn House opened.
Right, so being that that formula that you're basically a pioneer of has become the worldwide model for the skate boutique; how do you feel about being one of the originals and everyone sort of copying that formula?
You know it's funny, I was just talking about this. I remember when I did Brooklyn Projects, it was a very minimalist design. It was very boutique oriented and it was clean as opposed to Brooklyn House which was skate – posters and stickers on the window and POP. I did this new idea. I straight up took ideas from the design firm Wonder Wall and all these stores in Japan – all these high end boutiques. I created a skate shop, but I put like… I remember when I first opened up Brooklyn Projects I was putting like Paper Denim next to Elwood Denim. People would trip out, they didn't understand what this was. It was a skate shop, but it wasn't a skate shop. I would say it's a skate boutique. A lot of people didn't get it and thought it wouldn't work and then low and behold three or four years later, places like Active started going with that formula by carrying fashion brands with skate and trying to mix it. But the dude that comes into my store for say like a Paper Denim, they'll buy a hoody from The Hundreds because he's never seen that before, and he's not used to seeing that at the stores he shops at. At the same time, the kid that comes in to buy a skateboard may want to step up his game and buy a shirt from a different brand other than a skate brand. It looks good when you mix and match. People would always ask "is this a skate shop?" and I'd be like "nah, it's a skate boutique." People would ask, "what do you mean?" and I would explain, "this isn't your average skate shop. You don't go in there and there's stickers and like kids running around in this dirty messy… you know there's thought put into this. Each piece of clothing is displayed as a piece of art." That's the skate boutique mentality.
Right, so what's your take on celebrity culture which flows into popular culture adopting that skate boutique culture as far as fashion? I mean you see everyone wearing skate brands now, it's a normal thing. How do you explain that evolution?
The Beastie Boys did it first when they did X-tra Large, and before X-tra Large they were wearing like Fuct and Fresh Jive and all these brands as well as American work wear brands like Carhartt. Celebrities tend to… they want to be different. I remember the first time I met Chris Brown and Bow Wow. I remember they came into my store back in 2005 I think it was. They were little kids, they were like fifteen or sixteen year old kids. At the time the urban hip hop community was wearing like Sean John and Rocawear still. So they came into my store through a friend of mine who managed Chris Brown and I gave them Stussy, Fresh Jive, and The Hundreds and they started like rocking it on red carpets and MTV Music Awards and they stood out. That's when other rappers started going "oh wow, what the fuck is this; we never seen this." It's cool, it's edgy, and it's skateboarding – that's punk rock which is so hip hop to them. They started gravitating toward that, then the whole Fairfax thing happened and it just blew it out of proportion. It made it into a novelty. It made it into an accessory. Fairfax spawned a whole scene, it also spawned music. Before Fairfax, the Odd Future kids were just skater kids – kids that were just hanging around and doing their thing. Next thing you, because of Fairfax they adapted a style and an image, and it took off cause the world never seen anything like that. Everything was just concentrated on one thing. It's funny to see even now, all these brands they are all about Fairfax. Supreme was the first one to do it, they were the first ones to open up there followed by The Hundreds and Sal Barbier with SLB. It's funny, Supreme created that block. I'm sure James Jebbia is pulling his hair out – well his heads shaved, so whatever little hair he has left. He must be pissed, because it's like a fishing boat synopsis, the main fishing boat goes out and finds a spot. They get all the fish, then all these other boats follows them and catches all the spare fish that didn't get caught in the net. So that's what happened with Supreme, they started a whole scene and now it's like a mall. If you think of a mall, you can go there and get everything. You can get your hair cut at a mall, you can get your sneakers at a mall, you can get food, glasses; if you go to Fairfax it's like a mall – it's an outdoor mall. You got streetwear, it's places to eat, it's got tattoo shops, barber shops, and some little kitschy girl stores. It's a mall now, it turned into a mall. What it was so against, it became and I'm happy I never fell into that. I was always anti that, and I've always been anti that. I've always stayed in my lane. It sucks cause I used to be the spot for a lot of these brands to showcase their product, and as the brands got bigger and bigger they opened up their own flagship stores on Fairfax and I'd have to rethink my business. That's how it influences popular culture, because the kid that's an aspiring actor is going to go to Fairfax because it's the cool hip place with all the bars and restaurants and all these cool little brands that people are talking about. For the kid that wants to kid into music, there it is; the epicenter of what music is as far as fashion goes. So he'll go there and he'll go to like Supreme, Diamond, Hundreds, Hall Of Fame, Odd Future store; it's a one stop shop. You can get your identity there.
Since you did stay in your own lane, how do you balance the integrity of remaining a core shop while carry some of these brands that have become larger entities?
I keep the integrity by supporting what I believe in and whoever wants to believe in me – it's a two way street. Every brand that I carry at Brooklyn Projects, I have something with them. And there's a lot of brands that I try, I still to this day try to watch new brands. If somebody comes up with a brand and they need help, they want a place to put it; as long as they're doing their part with social media, getting it in other stores, and doing their PR for it – I'll give them a fucking show place to showcase it. In part, I have a huge celebrity clientele that come in there – that's one thing that they know about Brooklyn Projects, they know they can find stuff in there that they can't find anywhere else still. They can find stuff that they never heard of or hasn't been blown out, so that's why they come here. It's kind of hard to keep the integrity because at the end of the day, there's brands that I could carry that I could make a lot of money on; but I just don't want to. I'm not gonna go down that road. I'd rather be me. It's like when the whole all-over print thing started happening again a year and a half ago, every brand was doing that shit – I didn't bite into that. There were so many brands, and yeah I could of carried it and made money, but it's not my thing. I learned my lesson a long time ago. I did that a long time ago with Brooklyn House when roller blading was the biggest thing, so I carried roller blades. I made a lot of money on that, but at the end of the day I look back and I'm like "wow, I supported roller blading." But they were supporting me, one customer for roller blades was good for a thousand dollars every other month. They'd come in and buy the fuckin' roller blades for four hundred bucks, buy the grind plates, different wheels, bearings, the pads, the helmets and the next thing you know it's a thousand dollars for one kid; then they come back a few months later because the roller blade company would come out with a new boot and he'd buy that. It was constant, and I did that; but I look back and think I supported something that I never did and never thought about and I took the money. I was young back then, I was twenty three. I would never do it again.
Talk a little bit about DGK. I know you've been friends with Stevie for a long time. How did you guys meet and how's your relationship been with DGK and Kayo over the years?
I met Stevie when he came to Brooklyn House and he rode for FIT Skateboards. I remember I saw his board, it was an ostrich swallowing a hand grenade. He was from Philly and we connected because I was from Brooklyn. He was into hip hop and I was into it – I was heavily into hip hop. We just connected because we both have a similar mentality, and we just became friends. He would hang out the shop when he was in LA, then he moved to LA and he got on DC and I supported his shoe; and I helped him get into clubs back in the day just like I did for Keenan, Koston, and everybody else back in the day. Then when he started DGK I was like "fuck dude, whatever you need." I've been supporting it since day one. It's the shit, I love it. And Kayo, especially Jake really looks out for me. Also Vinnie Ponte is an old friend of mine. They support me like no other skateboard company does – with the pricing, with whatever I need, they look out for me. They're one of the only brands that when they opened up a shop, they came to me and said "hey, we're opening a shop in a couple of months; but we're gonna give you A, B, and C, we're gonna do this and we're gonna work with you. We're not just gonna come here and swoop your business." And that's what they've done, all of they've done is send business my way, they give me exclusive shit – they did it right. A lot of brands don't do it right. A lot of brands want to hoard all the money themselves. There's a way to do it where you still support the brick and mortar shops that helped you get there. I always scratch my head when a brand becomes so fuckin' big, and the shops that helped them get to where they are – they don't do anything special for them. The stuff that they give to them is what they give to online retailers and other stores, and they put the same stuff on their website and in their flagship store when they open it. It's like "dude, where's the exclusive." It's not that hard, it's like "okay, we did these ten t-shirt designs; we're gonna take these three and we're just gonna give them to our core shops. We're not gonna even touch them." It's not hard, but people don't do that. I'm doing it now with my brand. The stuff that I have at Brooklyn Projects my store, is not gonna be available at other stores; and the stuff that's available at Zumiez ain't gonna be available at my store or other stores. So, there's a way to do it, I don't know why people don't do it. It blows my mind.
Final questions, what projects are you working on both with Brooklyn Projects and outside of that; and what are your future plans for both the shop and the brand?
Well, right now we have three stores in Canada – two in Montreal and one in Toronto. We're opening up another store in Brooklyn this spring. We have a capsule collection for the Brooklyn Projects brand with Slayer coming out next year as well as Black Scale. We're in Zumiez now also, so that's a good thing – Zumiez picked us up, I'm psyched about that; we're gonna do some special things with them. Then in the next couple of weeks, we're inking our deal. We had a reality show deal with MTV back in 2005 that never saw the light of day because we couldn't get on the same page money-wise and production-wise. Now, we have a reality show coming out in the fall of 2015. I can't say the network, but the deal is done and we start filming in January, so we have a reality show on a network station – that's gonna be a good thing. So we got some good shit coming down the pipe.