When Mike Cherman started his own streetwear label in 2016, he wanted its name to acknowledge his roots in New York City, where he grew up. His first thought was to call it Canal Street Market, after the energetic downtown boulevard known to some for vendors selling counterfeit luxury goods, a place he had visited many times with his family during his childhood. That name, however, was taken. So, in a split-second decision that would prove fateful, he named his upstart business Chinatown Market, shifting the focus to the ethnic enclave through which Canal Street runs.
Since then, Chinatown Market has grown stupendously by selling hoodies, T-shirts, sweatpants emblazoned with bold, graphic prints like its signature, a demented yellow smiley-face. Its clothing is affordable, youthful, and widely available at retailers like Urban Outfitters and Zumiez. In an age of unprecedented collaboration, it has collaborated unusually widely: partners included The Grateful Dead, Lacoste, the NBA, and Mike Tyson. Two years ago, at ComplexCon, I saw Cherman walking the floor with a small gaggle of young men tailing behind him, like some hypebeast Pied Piper. Cherman, who is white, is an affable and well-liked figure in the streetwear community. While his brand isn’t spoken about in the same reverent tones as Supreme, his irreverent designs—often mimicking or remixing popular high-end motifs—appealed to customers while also delivering a winking commentary on fashion’s ongoing copying game.
But things changed earlier this year, when Chinatown Market—specifically its name—became a flashpoint in a larger discussion about streetwear, race, and cultural appropriation. Throughout 2020 and into this year, growing violence aimed toward the Asian American community put the brand’s name in a markedly different lens, as insensitive or exploitative. Cherman was recast as a white man taking ownership of a space that was not his to claim. After a string of shootings in Atlanta left six Asian women dead, what was a quiet rumble grew into a roar; the brand’s Instagram posts condemning Asian hate and announcing a fundraising T-shirt were deemed insufficient. An online petition to change the name quickly garnered the signatures of well-known fashion industry stalwarts like designer Phillip Lim, Humberto Leon of Kenzo and Opening Ceremony, and the influencer Bryanboy. Diet Prada, the social media industry watchdog amplified the outcry, creating a snowball effect of public awareness.
On March 29th, less than a month after the original petition was posted, Chinatown Market and Cherman posted an update to their respective Instagram feeds. “The Asian American community is rightfully demanding all of us think and act more honestly,” it read. “We should have done this sooner but it is never too late to do the right thing. Today, we are announcing that we are changing our name. We are working with our partners and retailers to donate the proceeds from existing products and work to fund non-profits working with the AAPI community.”
“The reality is,” Cherman told GQ in April, “after listening to people in our community, we realized this isn’t our name to have.”
The controversy surrounding Chinatown Market typifies the growing pains that the streetwear industry faces as it expands from an insular, insurgent subculture within the fashion world to its dominating force. But it’s also a lens through which to view the massive shifts in the zeitgeist that have occurred in a very short time, especially regarding race. It raises thorny questions, none of which have easy, clear-cut answers: Do clothing brands owe their customers more than great products? Should fashion companies be advocates for social causes? Must they stand for something beyond profits? What is the line between appropriation and appreciation? Who owns a name? Or, for that matter, a neighborhood?
“Early on, we said, We’re not taking from Chinese culture,” Cherman said. “But that was ignoring the name itself. And through conversations we had over time, we had to make sure we weren’t being ignorant of that. You know, just the name itself was confusing enough to create an issue. I think, to be able to acknowledge that and take a step back and figure out how we can do this right, is the best approach.”
Part of the problem is, of course, one of perception. Chinatown Market branded itself as an irreverent label poking fun at the status quo—a David throwing rocks at Goliath. But in its short existence, the world has undergone a huge change, leaving many brands—not just Chinatown Market—to play catch-up. And over that same span, Chinatown Market’s rapid growth has turned it from an underdog to a power player, which made the choice of name look exploitative.
I reached out to Julian Han Bush, who started the Change.org petition. Bush, who works in tech, had his first brush with activism last year, when a close childhood friend and his grandparents were attacked in New York over the summer; Bush started a GoFundMe for him and raised $15,000. Earlier this year, as #StopAsianHate hashtags flooded his social media feeds, Bush noticed that Chinatown Market had yet to make any sort of statement, which rubbed him the wrong way. “Streetwear brands have a responsibility to be honest and sensitive,” he told me. “Don’t infantilize your customer, and know that your audience is bigger than their consumer. I may not own something from Chinatown Market, but I see their brand.”
So he reached out—in Instagram comments, through DMs, going as far as finding Cherman’s information on LinkedIn and contacting him directly via email and phone. Bush says he received no response.
Bush said he reached out to other Asian Americans in the streetwear community to help spread the word, but was often ignored. The reasons for that are complex. No culture is a monolith, so some may simply not find the name offensive (take for example streetwear designer Jeff Staple who, in a 2018 podcast for Hypebeast said, “I’m Chinese and it doesn’t bother me at all.”). Others, meanwhile, may have had their relationships with Cherman in mind. For what it’s worth, I reached out to a handful of high-profile Asian Americans in the streetwear community who declined to speak with me or didn’t respond to my requests.
But Bush’s petition made waves nonetheless, racking up more than 3,000 signatures. It started a conversation. Jian Deleon, a former GQ editor who is now the head of men’s fashion and editorial at Nordstrom, compared the situation to the one involving his hometown Washington Football Team, which started using its new name last year. “It took decades of deconstructive conversation for people to understand why the change was necessary and the reasons why it was offensive in the first place,” he said.
The main argument made by Chinatown Market’s critics was that Cherman hadn’t thought hard enough about the name in the first place. “He’s a white man, so, naturally he’s privileged,” says Vicki Ho, who works in social media and founded the Asian culture and fashion magazine Banana Mag. “It’s likely he didn’t think about his own impact. But now that you know, do better. And he has the ability to influence others to do better too.”
“If you’re going to put a design on a shirt, and it takes a piece of a different community, then that will open up a dialogue whether you mean to or not,” she added. “If you don’t want to have that conversation, don’t have that graphic on your T-shirt.”
Cherman says he’ll announce the new brand name later this summer, and that all proceeds from goods that have Chinatown Market branding will be donated to nonprofits that benefit the AAPI community. (The company recently posted an update on its renaming, thanking its partners in that community, while its Instagram page—@chinatownmarket—continues to promote Chinatown Market-branded products.) “Because to give respect, and to leave legacy behind the right way, we need to actually make sure that we’re affecting the community in the right way,” he said. “Not just walking away, saying, ‘Cool, we changed the name and nothing’s wrong.’ We know that.”
This represents a marked shift. Once it was enough for brands to make cool clothes and, ideally, a profit. Today’s young consumers, however, want the brands they buy from to align with their political and social beliefs. Some companies, like Patagonia, bake this sort of activism into their core philosophy. But others, especially streetwear brands, are suddenly expected to have a political stance, which can be difficult to forge as an afterthought.
“The popularity of Chinatown Market was never about the name, it was about the signature style and voice the brand had, and the self-aware, tongue-in-cheek way they talk about themselves and what they make,” Deleon said. “Mike could have called it Bootleg Market or Los Angeles Apparel Brand from the start and I don’t think it would have been any less successful. I think the name change is a step in the right direction, but their complicated history with their previous name now means they have to hold themselves accountable to the work they’ve started doing, and have pledged to continue to do.”
Bush is, of course, happy that Cherman is changing the name—it was the explicit request of his campaign—but when I asked him if he was happy with the outcome, he was conflicted. “I don’t feel great about how it ended,” he said. “I didn’t want to tear the brand down. It’s funny: they did everything I asked for, they’re changing their name, they’re donating the proceeds to Chinatown. But I’m not happy with how it turned out.”
In response to criticism of the slow speed with which he responded, Cherman said there were conversations happening behind-the-scenes that were nuanced and difficult—he wanted to speak to his employees to hear their thoughts, and anyway, changing your brand name isn’t a snap-your-fingers sort of decision. After all, that sort of quickfire response had led him here in the first place.
In today’s world where fashion controversies operate at the breakneck speed of social media, public debacles like this can obscure more nuanced daily actions that take place offstage. “I’ve known Mike Cherman for a while on a personal level,” said Deleon. “I know the ways in which he’s helped give kids who look like me opportunities behind the scenes and also on social media, and how he’s also been a low-key figure whose access to manufacturing and willingness to help people out through making lines for aspiring brand owners.”
“He’s having the right conversations,” he continued. “And now it’s about the actions that will result from them.”
While the situation is on its way toward resolution, it’s hard to point to a real winner or loser. Bush got what he wanted, but doesn’t feel vindicated. Cherman admits that the original name was misguided and vows to change it, but he’s no villain. Even many of the comments on the Chinatown Market post announcing its name change include many commenters—some of them members of the Asian community—criticize the decision.
But for now, Mike Cherman is taking his first steps toward whatever comes after Chinatown Market, and the rest of the streetwear scene is no doubt watching.
“It’s more than just the name,” says Ho, of Banana Magazine. “It’s bigger than him at this point. A lot of eyes are on him at that point. And that’s an opportunity, really, to step up and do better.”