Since creating Phat Farm with Russell Simmons and co-founding iconic skate brand Zoo York, Eli Morgan Gesner has been a constant presence in the streetwear scene. His journey started back in the early 1990s, when skateboarding was a shunned counterculture and not a billion-dollar industry. In those days, Gesner’s circle was filled with fellow renegades — rappers, skaters, and graffiti artists — who collectively found themselves ahead of the curve in an industry that was about to explode.
When Gesner got a chance to create designs for Phat Farm, he took the opportunity and ran with it — growing as a creator while making significant contributions to the fashion landscape. His legacy is a living one, still consulting for major labels, including a return to Zoo York, serving as a voice for the industry, and as the founding style editor of Uproxx.
With an eye towards bringing your style game up a notch, we asked this legend of the old and new to share his “essential style rules” with us. Trust us, you’re going to want to soak up this wisdom.
Understand What Cool Is
I feel like most people these days don’t really understand what “cool” is. Not just what it means as a term but also its origin. The roots of the word cool is a 1920s term, used in the underbelly of society. They labeled the guys who would be able to handle the dirty jobs and not squeal to the police as “cool” and having a “cool head.” So there was this direct correlation between the word cool and doing something that was outside of society’s rules.
These days being “cool” means too often you’re wearing whatever is necessary to not be made fun of. I’ve found that there are a lot of buyers out there who are just purchasing a shirt or shoes because they want to have the ability to point to a photo of a hip-hop artist wearing the same thing on the cover of a magazine. They want to be able to say, “Look, this famous person wears them, too.”
That is not cool. The true way to be cool is to take risks and chances. One of my skateboard friends, Josh Green, was one of the early guys wearing a bumbag on his front, from Off White, while he was skateboarding. I would see him skating around with this chest pack and my initial reaction was, “What is he doing?” But the fact was the colors were correct, it was flowing with his skating, and it just worked. Big ideas may not always work out, you aren’t always going to have a perfect record, but you are blazing your own trail.
That’s what cool is. If you want to have style, you’d better own that idea.
Know The Difference Between A Collection And A Wardrobe
There are people out there whose wardrobes are more of a “collection” than a representation of their own personal style aesthetic or philosophy. I know there are some people who connect with a certain brand deeply, but there are also many who are just snatching each drop from Supreme, etc, just because. Then they go into the closet and the clothes are kept immaculate. There are no ideas behind how so many people dress — it’s just paint-by-numbers with the “numbers” being brands.
There is nothing wrong with that, but we’re talking more about a collecting hobby at this point. The same kind of hobby as trying to grab up all the Beanie Babies. People are out here getting full outfits from their favorite brands, looking to Instagram to dress them. Back when I was coming up it was more of a piecemeal process that represented who you were and where your interests were.
Bottom line: Don’t look like a catalog. Look like a person with some element of originality built into your personal style.
Look Beyond The Big Brands
There are a lot of brands out there doing great work. I truly enjoy so much of what Supreme does. Whenever I go in there, I have to ask store manager Jeff Pang about what he’s got on him. That man has style. I also like what Virgil Abloh is doing with Off-White, even if it is not what I usually wear. I like the futuristic lean. There are so many. Public School. Saturdays. I could go on forever. I have such an appreciation for what these brands do on a daily level.
There are also these incredible micro-brands popping up who are solely selling their products online. I’ve found a few that I’m a huge fan of, like Total Luxury Spa which is a group of kids out in Los Angeles. What I like about it is instead of coming up with items that have no frame of reference, they’ve done their research. I think there’s something special about getting something unique, that you connect with, that has everyone asking where you got it. Bobbito Garcia once wrote “Where’d You Get Those?” about the sneaker culture in New York City, and that isn’t a question that you hear too much these days.
So yeah, go with classics. But also, dig into the underground. Surprise people.
Consume Trends But Don’t Be Consumed By Them
People say you don’t judge a book by its cover, but that is utter garbage. Let’s be honest, people definitely do. So the fact is that getting dressed is an opportunity to really express yourself and say something. This is connected to the point I made above, but there are a lot of people telling the same story right now. Which can also be seen as a chance to really set yourself apart.
I remember when my crew was getting the majority of our attention it was because we were going to the skate shop, the sneaker store, and the hardware store for our clothes. And we were getting noticed by the people who shopped at only those stores exclusively. I have found a connection between the way that people buy clothes and the rise in DJ culture. People have gotten very comfortable with the idea of someone telling them what is cool, in music and in clothes. That isn’t style or fashion to me, that is conformity.
You like a certain trend? Fine. But if you want to embody that, you’ve got to make it your own. Otherwise, you’ll always be chasing the true innovators.
Find Your Own Inspiration
There’s only so much time that we get in this life. One option is to be the encyclopedia of streetwear. The other option is to truly explore who you are as a person via clothing. I ended up dressing the way I did when I was coming up because I was into skateboarding and surfing, which didn’t have the biggest presence in New York City at the time. I had to seek out the gear that supported those passions.
I would say “don’t look to outside forces to find your style.” Go back and dive deeper into the music that you like. Dive deeper into the music that your parents used to play that you liked. That has been connected to you through your early years. If there’s a car model and make that you like, find out who the designer was and what inspired them to create that look.
Or if you like to hike in the woods, go for a hike and see where that leads you and what colors or scenes pop out to you. You may be connected to what is going on at Patagonia or North Face either now or when they first started. Study the color wheel. Figure out your own story and acquire that understanding of self that will guide you through the waves of clothing that are being thrown at you. That way when you find something you connect with, you will understand why.
You’re the source of your own inspiration. That’s true originality — creating a style that is defined by you and not just the brand on the tag.