Los Angeles Times

Count on Union to keep its cool

Highbrow European brands and mass-market finds mix gracefully at Chris Gibbs’ store, a menswear stalwart.

- By Max Berlinger image@latimes.com

The menswear store Union is small, easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there, and tucked away on La Brea Avenue next door to Stüssy and across the street from Sugarfish and a Bonobos Guideshop.

On a recent overcast afternoon, graphic T-shirts from a collaborat­ion between Union and the skate brand Bianca Chandon were hanging on racks downstairs, while upstairs, higher-end items with a conceptual slant from labels such as Junya Watanabe, Thom Browne and J.W. Anderson were on display.

It’s a funky, surprising mashup of luxury avant-garde and streetwear that is popular at stores including Opening Ceremony and Dover Street Market, but it’s a mix that Union, in many ways, predicted and helped popularize.

“One of the beauties of the store is that it’s been able to change with every new era of fashion and retail,” says Chris Gibbs, the store’s owner.

Gibbs sits in his office, in a second-floor space near the shop, wearing an oversize Marni trench coat, a side-zip hoodie from a forthcomin­g in-house collection, slim blue pants and Nike sneakers. Just outside, a young man takes product images of clothing for the store’s website. Gibbs looks intimidati­ngly cool at first, with his shaved head and beard, but an approachab­le grin and relaxed dispositio­n prove it’s just for show.

Union is one of the longeststa­nding stalwarts on the menswear scene, a store that has a reputation for breaking many new designers into the mainstream. There was a time before anyone could peddle their goods online, when a store with cool-kid cachet would have to give you a retail platform before a place like Barneys New York would be willing to carry your line. For many, that place was Union.

“We’re the best-kept secret,” Gibbs says. “And there’s a gift and a curse that comes with that.”

Union has a long, twisty history, one that’s intertwine­d with Gibbs’ own. A New York location opened first, in 1989, with an L.A. outpost following in 1991. Gibbs arrived at the original location in 1996, working closely with the founders Mary Ann Fusco and James Jebbia.

When Gibbs’ wife wanted to make the move to the West Coast, he worked alongside Eddie Cruz, now of Undefeated, at the La Brea location. Around the time of the Great Recession, Cruz wanted to focus on his other projects, and Gibbs felt ready to take on the store as his own.

In the last decade, Gibbs has cultivated a vision of fashion where lines are blurred — highbrow European brands are hung next to mass-market finds with ease.

The store’s history also mirrors the recent ascent of menswear — from streetwear’s dominance in the ’90s and the Japanese boom of the early ’00s to the current market, which is, in a way, an artful juxtaposit­ion of all that came before.

“I’m proud to say we’re a blend of all of the eras,” Gibbs says of the store’s vibe. “I think we’re still a rare place where all of those sit organicall­y.”

It’s an approach the led Complex magazine in 2013 to name Gibbs one of the 25 most powerful people in streetwear.

Gibbs did all this by trusting his gut. It doesn’t hurt that, behind the cool facade, he’s just a fashion nerd and retail addict.

“I’m a sucker for product,” he says. “I’m still in love with our product.”

As for the future, Gibbs has some collaborat­ive products in the works and an in-house line he’s toying with — the details of which he has kept under lock and key — but there’s one thing for certain: An Angeleno, be he skate rat or highminded aesthete, likely will find something to wear at Union.

“I still think we have the best customer,” he says. “You’ve got the best guy walking in here, and he will make your brand look that much better.”

Union, 110 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 549-6950, union losangeles.com

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 ?? Photograph­s by Wally Skalij Los Angeles Times ?? “WE’RE a blend of all of the eras,” Chris Gibbs, top, says of the store on La Brea Avenue.
Photograph­s by Wally Skalij Los Angeles Times “WE’RE a blend of all of the eras,” Chris Gibbs, top, says of the store on La Brea Avenue.

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