Johnny from State of Flux discusses his mission in The Mission
Photos by Derek Tobias at IG: Simmonstobias
To hear the audio version of this interview with Johnny & Derek visit AusformMag.com, where you will find numerous interviews with some of the wonderful personalities that make the Bay Area such a unique and magical place.
Johnny is an SF native who grew up in Visitacion Valley with his single mom and sister. He developed a love for streetwear at an early age and although his first love was basketball, he took the practical route and studied business at SF State, where he met his first business partner which eventually lead him to starting his first clothing line FAZE. Johnny and his partner Herbert have been slinging sought after threads in the Mission for over 8 years, and their latest venture State of Flux (on Valencia st) is a hybrid clothing store/work space/ photo studio. We talked with Johnny to get more details on his background and motivations for State of Flux, Enjoy!
Ausform: Let’s go ahead and talk about where you grew up and what your upbringing was like?
Johnny: I’m a San Francisco native. I was born and raised here in San Francisco, grew up in the Visitacion Valley area of the city. And I was raised by my mom, as a single parent. She raised my sister and I in what was probably one of the toughest areas in San Francisco. The area is actually no longer there, In the mid to early nineties, it got imploded and they put some other low income housing there.
But, my mom she did the best she can to raise myself and my sister. I was fortunate enough and did relatively well in school. I wanted to stay close to home because I was the man of the house, and I didn’t want to leave my mom and my sister too far away. So when I had the opportunity to go to college, I went to San Francisco state. I got accepted into a few other colleges, but I wanted to stay close to be close to them and make sure I’m there for them as well.
So I went to San Francisco state studying business and I was fortunate to get my tuition paid for via financial aid and grants just for my grades and stuff. Upon graduating, my first job was in finance, but I’ve always had an affinity for fashion.
Ausform: When you were growing up, what was your mom doing work-wise to support the family?
Johnny: My mom worked security. She worked security at the mall. She worked security at a few high rises down in the financial district of San Francisco and then she also eventually started driving the bus. Whatever it took to provide for the family.
Ausform: what were some of the jobs that you were thinking that you would want to do when you grew up?
Johnny: When I was a junior in high school, I always kind of wanted to have my own brand. And I didn’t know how I was gonna be able to do it, but I had the vision for it and I wanted to do it. I didn’t really pursue it then as a junior in high school, it took years later for me actually to materialize some of those thoughts.
Growing up my first love was basketball. I really wanted to be an NBA player. And I know how hard that is to do. At the time, no one could really tell me I couldn’t do it, but I realized that that wasn’t the path that I could take. So my next plan of action was business. And I stuck with that path because I just had a fascination for the dynamics of running a business and it called to me to be independent and entrepreneurial.
Ausform: I think business is something they should really teach in high school because it’s one of those things that regardless of whatever you want to do, if you’re an artist, if you’re a sports player, Anything really, you have to, know how to brand yourself and market yourself and run your business successfully. You can have all the creativity in the world, but if you can’t market yourself and, make sure that your business is viable, then you’re not going to go anywhere.
You talked about wanting to own a brand when you were growing up, what were some of the brands that you aspired to be?
Johnny: I was never really a high fashion guy or a crazy name brand guy, I would say the only brand I really was somewhat loyal to was Nike. Not to say, I wanted to be the next Nike, I just wanted to be able to offer something a little bit different and then be able to be behind the creation of this thing that people are wearing or embracing. that part still never gets old. If I see somebody wearing something from State of Flux that part is humbling still to this day, even though we’ve sold thousands of thousands of products.
So there was brands that I looked up to. I looked up to Nike, I looked up to brands like FUBU, LRG And then when I was younger, I would buy a lot of South Pole, which they’re not a crazy popular brand, but their price point is very good. And they have decent looking products. So I was able to get a lot of stuff from there, you can find them at JC Penney’s back then and I could still put an outfit together without breaking the bank.
Ausform: How did you first connect with your business partner Herbert Gracia?
Johnny: Initially when I started my first brand, I started that one with one of my friends that I met in business school at San Francisco State. We knew we needed somebody to actually be able to draw and create the things that we had in mind. So we set out to try to find a creative person to actually be able to do art for us. And Herbert happened to be one of the guys that replied back on the Craigslist ad. So we interviewed him and vibed pretty well when we met him. And initially it started off as we would put the money up and we split it three ways. He was giving his art but Matt and I was funding whatever project that we decided to do.
And then eventually Matt my initial business partner. He stepped out and he decided to go get his master’s. We respected his decision and Herbert and I just took the reigns from there and we’ve been together ever since.
Ausform: What was the hardest part of opening that first storefront with FAZE?
Johnny: It was something that we didn’t know how we were going to, I mean, we had an idea and it was Herbert that kind of pushed it a little bit more. I wanted to do it a little bit more gradually and build up because in my mind I had it misconstrued we gotta have a crazy buzz before we can open up a store, instead of opening up a store and creating the buzz which is what Herbert wanted. Sometimes you just gotta go for it. And I commend him for that. And when we opened up the store, we’ve never paid that much of an expense on anything we’ve done. Even as far as storing the products, every month we would just swap out public storage units so we can pay that $30 monthly monthly fee.
So actually having a store where you have to pay a lease, and pay all the utilities, that was a huge job. It was stressful, and it was very difficult in the beginning, but we were able to push through it. The hardest thing was just making that jump and doing it. We got to a point where we were trying to wholesale our brand to a bunch of other stores and they weren’t giving us the opportunity. Even though we felt our product was superior and our product was good, if you weren’t a well known brand, they wouldn’t take the chance to put our brand on their shelves. So we got to the point where we were just fuck it. let’s just open up our own shit and go from there.
Ausform: So what’s the most important thing that you learned working on FAZE that you’ve taken into State of Flux?
Johnny: Everything. When we started FAZE, we didn’t come from this industry. I studied business and Herbert studied film. We didn’t have any formal training with fashion or anything. I mean, some people can come into our shop and they can ask me questions and talk to me as a store owner. I didn’t know anybody that had a brand or I had a store that I can even have a conversation with. So all the resources that we found, that was vital to carrying on State of Flux afterwards, because we built all these relationships and these resources and the infrastructure over time and we can apply it.
People ask me, “well, isn’t it easier that you’re able to go from FAZE to that. now, having all that information and that knowledge from before?” Yes, it’s easier, but there’s still nothing guaranteed. This is a completely different business. So we have to approach it as such.
We have people that support us, that befriended us and they know who we are. So they just rock with whatever we do. Which that’s a great feeling to have. And that’s very appreciative. but a lot of other people, don’t know who we are. And even though we’ve been in the mission district for eight years, I’ve had people come into the shop and ask why did you guys move here on Valencia?
We’ve been in this area for eight years. We just have a new store around the corner from our previous store. So It is building everything else from scratch, we do have an idea, and a better plan that with FAZE which was more drawn out over time. This one, we have a lot of those experiences and that knowledge, and we build on that and can build State of Flux with that.
Ausform: Talk to us about the idea and some of the goals that you have for State of Flux.
Johnny: It’s not just one dimensional as just a brand and the store. Our physical space here is divided into three. So we have our retail portion which is the primary portion of our space. But then we have a workshop area that when people are shopping, they can actually see us working, sewing, printing through a clear glass. Almost like when you’re at a restaurant and you see the chef cooking right there in front of you, we want to have that kind of effect. And then the last portion of the store is a photo studio. So we wanted to bring all this creative stuff under one roof.
And before the COVID thing hit we wanted to host workshop classes. And bring small groups in, whether it be small groups of adults or even kids and show them different aspects of the fashion industry.
Today, we’re going to screen print shirts. Or today we’re going to sew tote bags or whatever. So we want it to do that and offer that aspect as well. And also utilize the photo studio in the back. We’ve done some Valentine’s day photo shoots where people can come in and they can buy physical prints, and we decorate. It’s just the community aspect of it. That was important with FAZE but it’s taking it to the next level with State of Flux, cause we just have more space to get creative and do different things.
Ausform: One of the things behind State of Flux is that you guys are carrying a lot of brands that people don’t normally see in the city. Where do you find the brands that you want to feature in the store?
Johnny: A plethora of places. I mean, we’ve been in this industry for 13 years, so we know people that are out there, people that are coming up, whether that be through social media, sometimes I’ll come across brands that way. Sometimes we go to a lot of trade shows. So we’ll come across brands there, sometimes it’s brands who already know us and we just reach out.
We brought in a brand from from Taiwan a few months back and that brand was introduced to us from a friend. When Herbert was in Taiwan, he linked up with another friend and he introduced them to a bunch of different brands out that way.
So it’s a bunch of different ways that we find out about these brands. And obviously it has to be something that appeals to us, first and foremost. And then we think okay, will it work for our demographic? And then we just go and pull the trigger.
Ausform: You opened up the new store, end of October and pretty much within six months, everything shut down do to COVID. How have you been managing the business during this lockdown period?
Johnny: The timing of it was impeccable. We were already doing the face mask thing, because it started becoming a little more commonplace. So we were doing a bunch of things with face mask and trying to perfect the pattern here in our workshop. We even had tutorial videos on ways that people can make their own face mask at home. And when we were showing people how to make their own face masks we were making, State of Flux masks, and people were asking is that available? I want to buy that face mask.
So then I said I guess we gotta put a few online. And the first pattern that we did with our goal of 20 reversible face masks sold out right away.
And over the years we’ve had a bunch of fabric that we just sit on we’d go to LA and buy dead stock fabric and sometimes you don’t know at the time what you plan to do, but we had a bunch of fabric that we were sitting on. And we can actually make a bunch of masks with this. And at the same time when we released those masks, it was a perfect storm because that’s when the city mandated that everyone had to wear a mask.
And there was scarcity because people couldn’t find masks as well. So the timing of it was perfect. So as soon as we posted on the social media pages, that we have masks, it went viral. And then we also had a charitable component tied to each mask. When people buy one, we give one to local essential workers, which we’ve been doing. We’ve sold thousands of masks and donated thousands of masks. So that kept us afloat while we didn’t have our store open. We were in here every day just banging out hundreds of masks a day. And that helped us for sure.
Ausform: Coronavirus aside, the last six weeks have completely changed the course of history with the murder of George Floyd and the civil rights protests for black lives has the last six weeks and everything that happened with those events affected your mindset at all as a business owner?
Johnny: Not really as a business owner, this is stuff I’ve known. Me just coming from the hood I know of this stuff happening. It’s just now that it’s being recorded and shared, and for me as a black man, I know there are obstacles to certain things that I want to do. But I’ve never really considered that. I just figured that I just have to work twice as hard to get something. So I’ve always been driven in that sense. Honestly, I swear I can get anything anybody else could get, whether that’d be career advancement, whatever. I just gotta bust my ass and work harder to do it, But I’m okay with that.
So as far as my mindset as a black man with the stuff that’s going on, Yeah it pisses me off when I see this stuff being shown on TV and seeing someone being executed that alters my mindset. And sometimes I don’t feel like doing anything cause I’m just so shocked by seeing that on TV, even though I know that this stuff happens.
Especially with the COVID stuff, I feel the brakes have been put on our business, but we’ve been maintaining and doing relatively well during this situation. Once the brakes are removed, it’s full systems go and it’s full speed ahead. There’s nothing that can stop us.
This is unprecedented the stuff that’s happening now with the black lives matter movement and the COVID stuff. And if you can maintain a business in one of the most expensive cities in the world and still be able to retain your employees and pay yourself and keep the lights on. Nothing could stop us once stuff actually normalizes a bit.
Ausform: What are some of the things that you or State of Flux has been doing to support the community and progress the movement for black lives and social justice?
Johnny: I mean for one on our personal endeavors, we’ve donated to various programs and initiatives. We’ve been protesting and actually been in the streets too, not just putting our money out there. Pretty much all the protests that have been out here in San Francisco, at least one of us has been there. And then as far as the community, going back to the COVID stuff, we’ve been donating in masks to the local essential workers when everything was locked down.
and ultimately just providing inspiration and motivation for other people. I think at the end of the day, if a young kid who’s a person of color can come in and see either Herbert or myself in here running the business, and they come in and do something better in the future, my job is done. I may never, sell another piece of clothing, but then this person does something huge when they get older. That’s huge for them.
Ausform: What’s been the most inspiring thing that you’ve seen during this lockdown?
Johnny: The most inspiring thing is just people coming together. San Francisco is a very unique place. Because for better or worse, people have the same mindset. We were out in front of our store the other day and it was a protest of cars and all of them had their signs for black lives matter. And the black population in San Francisco is probably 2 or 3%. All those people weren’t black, but they were standing with us, during this fight. And that’s a beautiful thing.
One of the protests I was a part of was put on by a high schooler and that protest had about 20,000 people participating in it. That’s beautiful and that at least gives us hope for the future that we can have some organizers and people actually come together and make a solid impact for future generations.
Ausform: We like to do a few rapid fire questions at the end. So burgers, tacos or other?
Johnny: Ooh, I’ll say other pizza.
Ausform: So what’s your favorite pizza place in the city?
Ausform: Top two favorite music genres?
Johnny: Hip-hop and the second one is new wave eighties.
Ausform: Give us some favorite artists from each.
Johnny: So hip hop, I would say, Kendrick Lamar, Tupac, Black Thought from The Roots and Nas as far as lyricism. And then New wave, I would say Billy Idol, Queen, even Culture Club, I fuck with Culture Club too. All that new wave eighties stuff I fuck with it heavy.
Ausform: Favorite concert venue in the Bay Area?
Johnny: the Greek Theater when the weather is cool. I mean, I’ve been there before, freezing my ass off with no with no jacket and that’s not really a good thing, but the Greek Theater is cool. Mezzanine was kind of cool too.
Ausform: Three places you want to go first thing once everything gets better?
Johnny: My dream spot is Egypt for sure. I don’t know, if it is the right time to go even with the COVID or not COVID because there’s a lot of turmoil there, but Egypt is one of the top spots I want to go. I go to Mexico pretty much every year. my wife’s family is from Mexico, so I get out there pretty often. So that would be cool to go there and enjoy the weather and chill out for a few weeks. and then I want to go to a Japan too, at some point. I mean just for fashion inspiration. Santorini, Greece, too.
Ausform: Anything else you want to promote for yourself or any organizations?
Johnny: Only thing I would say is, if you’re not up to date with the State of Flux movement. Make sure to check us out on all the social media, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, everything is @stateoffluxshop all one word and so check us out online. And we’re looking forward to continue in this new journey we’ve embarked on and hopefully once this stuff kind of subsides, we want to do some popups around different parts of the world.
We want to take our workshop experience on the road and do some production and offer some unique experiences for people, once we get the opportunity to do so. So just look out for that and stay up to date with the brand and the crew and that’s about it.