Sunday, June 7, 2009

'Pronounced Cha-Ne' - Feature

When I was living in Portland, Maine, I even saw some of his stickers there and wondered about them. I hope he'll break big someday. This was my first piece for Yall, when they said they wanted to write about interesting Southern people, without it looking like a Southern People magazine.

Across the South, the name Chane is becoming known. On the backs of car windows, in places of honor normally reserved for Oakley stickers, more often you will see an oval sticker emblazoned with the word, “Chane.”

Beside the ubiquitous oval logo, you might also see a black “SomÃ¥” or a sticker with “Swell Sk8” on it. These are all labels attached to Chane, a unique man from Jackson, Mississippi. Chane is sometimes incorrectly called a fashion designer. He prefers the term “lifestyle designer.”

“If I feel like I can be creative with it, I’m going to design it,” he says. So far, he has been creative with clothing, skateboards, furnishings, and furniture. He is a one-man industry in Jackson, with four different stores in the arts neighborhood of Fondren: Swell, Etheria, SomÃ¥, and Studio Chane. In September, he is planning to open a fifth store in the same neighborhood, Dwello @mosphere. This might be his most audacious idea yet. Dwello @mosphere will be a showroom in a loft, a place where customers can browse and see the furniture in use. Chane is making this possible by making the store his home.

“I could have the perfect scenario. You know, the most crisp, clean designed museum to live in, where I’d never get tired of my surroundings, because it’s constantly being sold.” To him, this is not just thinking outside the box. He refuses to get inside the box in the first place.

“It’s the most claustrophobic thing I can think of, from a creative standpoint.” From that place outside the box, Chane has created two lines of clothing, “Chane” and “Modsushi.” Both of them, he is proud to say, focus on women’s garb as much as men’s. He is also responsible for “Chane Sk8 Co.,” his line of skateboard decks, wheels, wax, and grind rails. His most recent design line is “Dwello Furnitura,” furniture crafted of industrial metals and glass.

Born Ronnie Chane 33 years ago in Jackson, Chane doesn’t fit the image of a businessman or an artist. He is whipcord-thin, with the raw type of face and features that implies a more rustic sort of upbringing. He is filled with the youthful energy of a man half his age, but he doesn’t seem to smile as much as simply let a look of satisfaction cross his face. Chane speaks quickly, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness delivery that makes it clear that his mouth cannot keep up with the turmoil of thoughts and ideas in his head. Asking him a question is much like blowing a hole in a dam.

“It started when I was eighteen, because I basically had $150 that inadvertently came from graduating high school,” he says. “I just wanted a summer project to keep me from getting bored, because I didn’t have a lot of motivation and ambition at that point.” Instead of frittering away his $150 during the summer, he decided to design a t-shirt. His first effort was, admittedly, a strange one.

“It was kind of marketing volleyball. I have no clue to this day how that ever happened. [The] volleyball was round, and it wasn’t that hard to draw.” Chane took his idea and searched for a place to turn it into reality. “I probably hit close to a dozen screen printers in town and no one’d really take my order, because I mean, I only had $150. That’s small potatoes.” Frustrated, Chane reached the point where only one place was left to try – and he wished they would turn him down, just so he could spend the money.

“I went to a local screen print shop, Ad-Graphics, and this lady was there and she kind of showed a little bit of interest, and that shocked me.”

Melinda Ledbetter says she was struck by Chane’s presence immediately. She took his order on the spot. “I admired his drive and ambition even then,” she says.

Chane says she added as a joke, “I might need a job some day.”

About a year ago, Chane posted a help wanted ad for a screen printer. Ledbetter took the position. She is now head of production and customer service for his screen-print division.
Chane sold his first t-shirts to his friends and family, “everyone who feels sorry for you,” he says. “They can’t turn you down.” With that success, he decided to design a second shirt. “I never really expected it to be a career.”

When Chane went to college, he started selling shirts out of his dorm room, turning his hobby into a business. He also began to sell his gear at BMX meets. A longtime BMX racer and skateboarder, Chane realized that people who shared the same interests might share the same sense of style. He was correct. His sales increased.

Before graduation, he made the decision to change his life by moving to New York City. He made the move soon after.

“I knew that going to New York was probably the most intimidating thing I could do. It was either going to scare me into the fact that I just need to live a normal life or it was going to push me to the edge and change me forever.” In New York, the spectrum of cultures changed the way he looked at things. “It made me want to be a designer in more than just one way.”
But he was unable to do so in New York. He worked three jobs at one time, leaving him no time to design. Instead he sold his inventory in the streets. “I’d slam the shirts down on a footlocker and sell them as fast as I could, before the cops got there.”

Chane also found himself meshing another time-honored, yet illegal, urban tradition with his own marketing skills. Sharing an apartment with religious cultists meant that he didn’t like to go home much. He preferred not to return until they had gone to sleep. Chane would stay out late, carrying a stencil of his first logo, the Chane oval, and cans of spray paint, tagging walls with stenciled graffiti.

Before long, he realized he was spending so much time simply trying to get by that he had let his designs slip. He left New York and returned to Jackson, after an eight-month stay in Pensacola Beach.

He began designing skateboards and other types of clothing. Still an avid BMX racer, even going professional for two years, he toured from city to city, making sure he was in the right place at the right times for the BMX meets. With this, his business exploded. He found himself calling home frequently and having his gear overnighted to whatever address he could.
The last stop of his tour was back home. During a visit to a skate shop, the owner told him that the restaurant next door had just closed. “It was the only time in my life that I had serious money,” Chane says. “I had $14,000 in my pocket. I went to the landlord and I dropped bills down on it and said, ‘you know what, I don’t care who you got looking at this. The time is right. I’m not ready for it, but I’m supposed to do this right now.’”

They reached an agreement and Chane opened his first store, which is now “Swell.” He had fears that he was not a businessman and he would fail. He set a goal.

“I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do the business for six months.” It did not go quite the way he thought it would. Working under the idea that the store was a little bit of New York dropped into Jackson, he began with no business plan and no idea of how to make it for those six months.

But he had faith in the youth of Mississippi. His initial lines were aimed at the younger crowds. He knew they would find him. From the adults around him, he received apathy. They told him, “’you know what? These young kids don’t have the money.’” Chane admits that is true. “But I know their parents do.”

The youth came through. Six months to the day after he opened his first store, he opened his second. He has not looked back, but he refuses to do anything the normal way. Even though he sells men’s and women’s clothing and furniture, he still considers the high school and college kids his main market. He lets word of mouth carry his name around the country instead of expensive ad campaigns. And he works on his own style of 3-D, guerrilla marketing.

At 2002’s MTV Video Music Awards, Chane went to New York with backpacks full of his stickers and catalogs. He recruited several young men and women to his cause. He strapped the backpacks onto their chests and had them crowd-surf Times Square. They did, throwing Chane’s stickers, his catalogs, and his name out into the crowd.

He received orders because of it. But to this day, New York remains his greatest challenge. He desires to be in stores there, but no one carries his products.

They can be found in stores from Philadelphia to Miami and from Washington D.C. to San Diego. Chain stores like Fast Forward and CHAOS CULTURE carry his gear. Two mail order companies, Dance Competition and Revolution, sell his things through catalogs. Due to the unusual ways he gets his name and his products out, occasionally he is surprised to see his own name.

“On an episode of V.I.P., they pop in and do a fast-forward shot into a freeze-frame of Pamela Anderson’s mailbox. And there sits our oval Chane sticker. How it got there I may never know,” Chane says. It’s not just the mystery person on the V.I.P. set who is a fan.
“Right now, we’ve got stuff that Steven Tyler [of Aerosmith] wears, that he buys from us. We don’t just give it to him.” Referring to the BMX Grand Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Chane says, “He has a son that races BMX. We end up seeing him on Thanksgiving, pretty much every year. He just happens to pop in every time.”

“We sold a t-shirt to Huey Lewis. He was there at that same race last year,” Chane says, proud that his name is being worn by these celebrities. “I’d love to get it on a million celebrities.”

He has a fairly strong idea for the future. He wants to go after the young men and women who only shop at The Gap and Abercrombie and Fitch. But that’s not the limit of his vision.

“We have got all the elements sitting here. The concrete foundation has been built. We’ve got the elements to make an empire.”

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