EDITOR’S NOTE: Our Retail Wednesdays series profiles a different specialty retailer each week, in an effort to spotlight success stories and gain insight from shops that are continuing to grow in the face of a challenging economy. This profile is powered by our friends at Building The Revolution.
Retailer: The Los Angeles River
Location: Downtown LA
Years in Business: 1
Interviewee: Stephen Carballo, Owner
The Los Angeles River is a blend of tattoo parlor, surf and street wear shop, curated by the likes of artist and designer Stephen Carballo. The shop makes its home in downtown Los Angeles — a hub for fans and followers from all over the world who stop by to experience the brand Carballo has created.
“I have always been interested in a million things, from tattooing, to snowboarding, to surfing, skating, graffiti, etc.,” says Carballo. “I’ve had a tough time focusing on one area because I just love mixing it up and working on several different projects.”
The shop was a great opportunity for him to channel and combine several of his passion projects into one location. Its eclectic mix of handmade knives, leather goods, street wear and custom surfboards, among other things, seems to embody the quintessential southern California lifestyle.
What was your background before you opened the LA River?
The LA River flagship store was just opened in February, however, it has been a brand for more than five years.
I spent the last several years traveling full time all over Europe, Asia and Central America tattooing, filming our snowboard web series, and promoting the brand. We were very heavily snowboard influenced from the beginning, and we still do a lot of projects within the snowboard industry. Our European snowboard team actually just completed their summer tour, traveling all over Europe in the "LA River RV" filming at all the summer spots.
Over the last two years, after spending a lot of time in Bali and Costa Rica, I started to get more involved with surfing. I’ve always been a craftsman and when I tried shaping my first surfboard, I fell head over heels in love with it; I didn't tattoo for a month or so because I was shaping everyday. I also spent all my money on tools and shaping supplies. That’s my typical move — find a new project every month and spend all my money on it [laughs].
The store is based on your art and designs. Have you collaborated on any projects with surf brands?
I recently did a collaboration with Album Surfboards. Album Matt is an awesome dude and they made my dream come true by putting some of my favorite designs on their iconic mat black boards. We are working on a collaboration apparel line as we speak.
I am also working on shaping a board in the near future with my buddy Tyler J, from Wax Surf Co. He makes some rad boards. I have been riding one of his boards for the past few weeks. We did a little tattoo barter. At the shop, we carry Album, Tim Stamps, Wax Surf Co, and my own shapes.
Do you have plans to expand the Los Angeles River apparel into other retailers?
As far as the U.S. goes, yes we would love to have some of our shirts and boards in other select retailers. I have always had a tough time with that side of the business. I love making things, but I hate nagging retailers and distributing line sheets. I’d love to see my tees and boards in shops like Deus Ex Machina, Iron and Resin, and General Admission, so if you buyers are out their reading, slide into my DM’s! As for Europe and Asia, we are pretty covered. We have a Japanese, Korean, and European distribution set up that has been rocking for the past few years.
You’re located right in the heart of Downtown LA. What are some of the positives and negatives to not being in a traditional “surf” market?
Oh, I love downtown. I love the vibes, people walking around, the sense of community with our neighboring shops, and watching all the crazy junkies and hobos doing wild stuff. It is a great location for most of the retail aspect. As for actually moving surf boards it isn't the hottest location given its distance from the beach [laughs], but the boards just give the shop a cool vibe, and they are great companion pieces to the clothing and accessories.
How does tattoo and street art influence the community that frequents the shop?
Ninety percent of the people who come into the shop are my Instagram followers. People that surf, often like to get tattoos so the two go very hand in hand. And those who just follow the tattoos and don't surf, still love the street wear and the accessory aspect of the shop. You don't need to be a surfer to appreciate a cool T-shirt, and some board shorts. The surf/skate cultures really extend to those who don't even partake in the sports. The lifestyles are just so influential that they can be enjoyed by all. Most people in Southern California can find some sort of connection to the, surf, skate, tattoo, or street art cultures.
What are some of the events and other experiential elements of the shop that have been brought to life through your connections outside of the surf world?
In my vision of the shop I tried to incorporate a juxtaposition of all the different cultures and experiences that have rubbed off on me during my travels. Most of the brands I carry are friend brands from all over the place — sunglasses are from Sweden, leather goods are handmade in Germany and knives are forged in San Francisco. Every product has a story and some sort of meaning to me.
I regularly have "famous" international tattooers coming in to work at my shop. These are often friends that I have made along my journey. I may have tattooed with them while I was traveling, and now I am able to give them a spot to tattoo while they are in the states.
Also a large amount of my customers are international. Often I get the story, "oh I have been following you for a while and I am on vacation in LA so I figured I would finally get a tattoo from you."
Almost everyone who comes through has some sort of connection to me or the shop. They either found out about the shop because I tattooed a friend, or tattooed in their city at some point. People come from all over the place to see me at the shop, and it’s just so fortunate that LA is such an epicenter for travelers.
I feel like there are several different cultures that have had an influence on The Los Angeles River — from skate, surf and tattoos, to cars, motorcycles and LA culture. But the main underlying influence would definitely be my travels.
What do you foresee as the “future” model of retail in this new landscape? How will you evolve the shop and brand to keep up?
Being in downtown, I see new boutique shops opening and shutting down everyday. Everyone and their mom has a clothing brand that they are trying to push or launch. All these shops that keep opening and closing are trying to do the same type of "Supreme" or "The Hundreds" style streetwear. People are sick of big logos on the fronts of T-shirts.
In my opinion for a retail shop to do well they have to be bringing something original or interesting to the table. At the end of the day it comes down to quality product, originality, and good design. If you go to a shop and it is well designed, and the products are interesting and of good quality, then it will speak for itself, no gimmicks needed. I just intend to continue providing quality craftsmanship, solid design and originality to all my customers.
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