“Hey,” Eli Gesner calls across his kitchen to me, “you can’t write about any of the tech stuff I do.”
I look around Gesner’s apartment. A phone charger with an aerospace logo is plugged in by the sink; a clearance badge hangs from a key hook. It’s hard to know if my host is being secretive for the sake of national security sake or simply to cultivate mystique.
“Fine,” I say. “But you’ve gotta let me use that line. I mean, who says stuff like that?”
Gesner laughs. His voice has the habit of hitting a higher octave when confronted with life’s absurdity. “Well…I guess I do.”
It’s a fitting answer. After spending more than ten hours bouncing around Venice Beach, CA with Gesner, helping him prep for his new role as editor of Uproxx Style, I’ve heard enough stories to make his nebulous aerospace work seem bland. Any talk of rockets has been shoved to the margins by tales of hanging with Rosario Dawson on the set of Kids and casual snippets about bombing graffiti with Shepard Fairey. Many of Gesner’s sentences somersault across generations. Movie stars and style icons become sidenotes in the grander epic: How Eli Morgan Gesner became the Forrest Gump of the streetwear industry — a master of surfacing in all the right places at all the right times.
“Look,” he says, “the real story of my success is about timing. It comes from being creative during a very particular moment in history.”
That moment was the dawn of the New York City skate scene — when Gesner and his teenage friends put the world on notice that kids raised in the wildest concrete jungle on earth might just have something to say about the Cali-dominated sport of skateboarding. In the process, Gesner found himself steering the creative direction of two of the most iconic streetwear brands on the planet — Phat Farm and Zoo York.
Though skating is the tendon and sinew supporting Gesner’s style-maverick status, the backbone is New York City. As a young adult, he was posted up at the nexus point of a massive convergence that encompassed the slow fade of punk, the birth of modern hip hop, and the ascendency of skateboarding. Over the span of a few years, all of counterculture seemed to collide in Manhattan’s East Village.
“More than anything, my story is about a kid whose parents insisted on raising him in the lion’s den of New York,” he tells me. “It ate a lot of people alive, but for me and my friends it was everything.”
That’s about as concise of an origin story for Gesner as you could ever hope to get. There are plenty of details to shade in — and when Gesner is speaking, chasing down his deep cut references is half the fun — but the basic thrust is simple: He was part of a scene that would eventually permeate all of American pop culture. As he shows me original works by my favorite street artists, I suggest that he and his crew grew up in their own sort of Wild West.
“That’s wrong,” Gesner says, looking at me through thick glasses. “Those people knew that there was gold in the hills. They saw the money. We weren’t thinking about that. We were just a bunch of dumb kids doing what we’d always done — skating and tagging and taking pictures — and the zeitgeist caught up.”
The first person with serious sway to recognize that Gesner and his crew were onto something big was Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam. In 1993, Dominique Trenier — famous in his own right for producing and managing D’Angelo — called Gesner and offered him a position as part of the creative team for Simmons’s yet-unnamed clothing company.
“I took the job before I met Russell,” Gesner says. “I just thought, ‘What’s the downside here?’ They offered me more money than I’d ever made in my whole life and I’d get to hang out with Russell Simmons in a bulletproof Rolls Royce with models and rappers, while making clothes…” He lowers his voice. “Which I didn’t know how to do.”
Simmons gave Gesner and his friends Alyasha Owerka-Moore and Paul Mittleman one single directive for starting the brand: The word “Phat” had to be in the name. The teenagers pushed back, promising Simmons that no one would be saying phat in five years. Gesner laughs remembering how his boss’s response put the trio in checkmate:
“‘So what,’ he told us. ‘No one says ‘def’ anymore either, but I still got Def Jam.’ How are you gonna argue with Russell Simmons?”
Besides the name, Gesner, Owerka-Moore, and Mittleman were left to their own devices. They’d pitch Simmons on ideas in the back seat of his car or in the corner booth at has favorite restaurant. They’d draw graffiti characters and expense clothes that they wanted to emulate from midtown boutiques. Still, no seams were stitched or cloth cut.
“Finally, there was a rude awakening,” Gesner says. “We’d been like, ‘How hard can it be?’ and it turns out… it can be pretty hard. We started hiring people right out of the fashion institute and dropping this whole line in their laps. When they couldn’t keep up we’d have to fire them and hire someone else.”
Part of the charm swirling around the early days of Phat Farm was that literally everyone seemed to be winging it. Simmons was already a millionaire many times over, but he’d essentially handed his newest company to three skaters with little experience in business or apparel. It was fully funded but still operating like some kids in a basement. Weeks before the Phat Farm flagship store was set to open, a chance meeting with the two founders of the Canadian clothing line Roots finally set the wheels in motion.
“Russell was a force of nature,” Gesner says. “He still had to do Def Jam and was working every second of the day — he was the first early adopter of cell phones and he’d do all his business in a booth. We’d just sit at the table and listen to him make deals. Meanwhile, we had a clothing line with no clothes, until these Canadians saved us.”
The genial Canadians were fans of Def Jam and they offered to help Simmons out on a whim. Gesner was on a plane the next morning, headed to Canada to deliver designs to the Roots factory.
Once clothes hit the rack, Phat Farm went stratospheric in a hurry. Gesner, Owerka-Moore, and Mittleman had seen kids on the street wearing oversized Polo, Nautica, and Tommy Hilfiger gear and they built their brand with that aesthetic. The shirts were cut big, the colors were bold, and graffiti emblazoned everything. It was the marriage of hip hop, skateboarding, and tagging — straight from the minds of three young men barely able to buy beer.
As the money started rolling in, Gesner quickly realized that he was an employee, not the boss. Rather than fight his way up corporate ladder, he and his friends launched a second company on the sly. The brand would be a little more skate focused, named Zoo York after a famous graffiti crew.
“We couldn’t afford the equipment to do the computer work,” Gesner says. “I was the design whiz kid, but a Macintosh with all the goodies was $30k back then. We thought, ‘Better let Russell Simmons pay for that.’ I would just do all the Phat Farm work and then intentionally wait everyone else in the office out. As soon they left, I’d buzz all my friends up and we’d use Phat Farm equipment to make Zoo York stuff.’
Told in person, this anecdote carries a giddy enthusiasm — some renegade kids starting an exciting project, late at night in the office of their mogul boss. It plays much more like a caper and less like a murky question of intellectual property.
Zoo York launched at a time when California’s skate marketing had gotten lazy. The industry was centered on the West Coast and that didn’t seem likely to change. The same spots kept showing up in ads, and the discovery aspect of the sport had all but vanished. This cracked open a door that the brash New York kids were able to kick wide: Infusing their advertisements with an in-your-face edge and more diversity than the scenes in San Francisco or Santa Monica.
Gesner was in charge of the look for Zoo York and his advertisements — made on Simmons’s equipment no doubt — became legendary. It was the dawn of Photoshop and here was someone using the tool to make pictures look more scruffy rather than more slick. Once again, the zeitgeist aligned perfectly with Gesner’s vision.
“We just happened to be the new thing on the block,” he says. “People started coming to New York to skate because they saw our half page ads in Thrasher. All these things had an effect on each other, a little domino chain reaction. James Jebbia opened Supreme and the only outside brand they had were our Zoo York boards.”
Through all of this, Gesner and his friends still skated, often in a crew at Washington Square Park or the Brooklyn Banks. There they met an ambitious young writer named Harmony Korine and, eventually, the photographer Larry Clark. As Clark started working on Korine’s script for Kids — with Gesner and the rest of the crew consulting — Zoo York benefited from product placement in a movie that would come to define 90s youth culture.
“This stuff just happened organically with no conspiracy and no forethought,” Gesner says. “We were hanging out and having a good time and it all fell into place.”
As his ambitions have shifted from fashion to film, Eli Morgan Gesner’s career has been defined by one core competency: Authenticity. His radar for cool is impeccable and his patience for bullshit is nil. That’s why we picked him to guide our Style section at Uproxx. He’s made an indelible mark on the streetwear industry and has all the cred a person could ever hope for.
Over the course of the next six weeks, we’ll be running articles and interviews produced by Eli in this space. For him, the gig is more than just a chance to talk about one of his favorite subjects, it’s an opportunity to remind us that style can have substance.
“People are essentially buying really expensive uniforms these days,” he says. “You can’t be cool while protecting your self-esteem. The key, the reason I want to do this, is to encourage people to do their own thing and rock something that’s far out. It’s like, ‘You think this raccoon hat is stupid? Fuck you, I’m gonna wear this anyways!’ That’s what skating is; that’s what hip hop is; that’s what cool is: Fearless. And that’s what I want to bring to Uproxx.”