Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Interview: Reuben Barnes-Levering of Famous Four Colors

Reuben Barnes-Levering, screen printing king and cake pop distributor 

It was a mid-September weekend. Like many weekends to come, I dragged a couple of friends across the Bay Bridge to explore Urban Air Market, an indie craft fair in San Francisco's Hayes Valley. Being the multitasking blogging machine that I am, I had an ulterior motive to snap a few photos along the way, resulting in Exhibit AExhibit B, and Exhibit C. As my friends scoured through the offline Etsy and I did my rounds scouring the crowd scouring Etsy, I passed by a booth that caught my fancy. Reuben of Famous Four Colors was giving out free cake pops.

Being a seasoned follower of food blogs as well as an occasional Starbucks patron and display case detective, I knew these things were popular and at least worth a try. I asked Reuben what I had to do to get a dessert chunk in my possession and to my delight, I just had to fill out a short survey. Let me assure you: this was not one of those "WIN A FREE iPHONE SURVEY NOW NOW NOW!!1!" nuisances you used to come across on pirated TV sites three years ago. No, this survey was actually short and kind of fun. (I have a slight penchant for filling out forms.) I filled it out, got not one but two cake pops (I should be in business, just sayin'), and touched one of the softest tees I've ever encountered. 

This last part was unexpected. After gingerly devouring the stick treats, I realized that there was a booth attached to this cake pop distribution center and it went by the name of Famous Four ColorsReuben Barnes-Levering started this downtown Oakland-based organic clothing company as well as its custom screen printing brother brand, Umbrella Shirts. After being rather impressed by the clever designs on the angel-soft tees and the fact that they hailed from Oakland on Webster just off Broadway, I knew there was more to explore. Reuben gave me the opportunity to thoroughly pick his brain and tour their headquarters. Without further delay, here's how the screen printing king does it one shirt at a time.

Brittany: Like many entrepreneurs, you discovered your passion for designing t-shirts in high school and eventually bought your own screen printing press. Can you describe how you transitioned from working in your father’s garage to starting your own label, Famous Four Colors?

Reuben: One track mind! Seriously. Just kept my head down and kept working on the same project… of course, making adjustments over the years to the game plan. But what I have now is essentially what I was working for when I first started.

Brittany: Have you always been interested in pursuing a creative field or being an entrepreneur?

Reuben: Yes. I originally wanted to go to school for graphic design but could not get in a program for that. I really never saw myself working for anyone else long-term, not to say it's not an option, but I just never pictured it.

Brittany: What are some of the adjustments you made over the years that have culminated in what Famous Four Colors is today?

Reuben: I think that most of the adjustments are internal. I think that when you get older, more knowledgeable, more experienced, more healthy (less drunk!), you begin to shift your perspective of how to achieve what you want to achieve and also what your vision is. For example, if I were to start a restaurant today I would not be starting at the same place I started my screen printing company, which was a little hole in the wall one-man operation, ducking and dodging regulators, hiring friends under-the-table part-time and partying constantly!

Brittany: So, basically your company evolved with you.

Reuben: Is evolving.

Brittany: What are some ways it's still growing?

Reuben: Well, I think my ultimate goal is to have a cultural impact. To me, Famous Four Colors is a reflection of the diverse new landscape of America: culturally diverse, socially and environmentally conscious, and hyper-connected globally. So, if you think about it in the terms of a personal evolution, that's an interesting step that we must take. Many people think that they want cultural success and the trappings that come with it, but they don't critically analyze their life to see if they are open to that level of demand and critique from the outside world! So, just like E-40 says, gotta stay Humble & Hungry.

When I visited Famous Four Colors, I asked Reuben how exactly the screen printing  process works. He said it's made up of a few components, such as these plastic tubes...

Which look like this when opened up...

Some of these buckets of paint...

A few of theses...

And finally a giant octopus of a machine with many arms for the many layers of color used in a given design.

After a couple of hours, you end up with some pretty rad pieces like this shirt and that shirt.

Boxes and boxes of custom designs, created under the Umbrella Shirts branch, are found throughout their work space.

Brittany: What does a culturally successful Famous Four Colors look like?

Reuben: You've got all the hard questions, huh! That one is difficult and probably revealing! What does my vision of our company's success look like? I would love an outpost in France.

Brittany: Why France?

Reuben: Because I came back from there this summer and Paris blew my mind. To me it's like a huge San Francisco. Artisan, they really take living well seriously. Great bread, cheese, wine… But seriously, I would love to be a part of an organization that is in conversation with popular culture (meaning that we are noticeable enough to be referenced), but that retains its original message and backbone. Since we are a clothing company, I think there is a certain level of sales you must achieve. But it's also just about listening to the outside world, and what people are truly talking about and what they truly want. As a producer of goods, it is very easy to get caught up in our own messages (marketing, product, sales, whatever...).

Brittany: How would you go about retaining Famous Four Color's backbone?

Reuben: I think that a culturally successful Famous Four Colors is a company that constantly reflects the true current of popular culture through our unique lens. Our backbone is retained through living our values and holding each other accountable to them.

Brittany: What sets Famous Four Colors apart from countless other clothing lines? Is it the aesthetic, company ideals, community involvement…?

Reuben: Doper clothing.

Brittany: A given.

Reuben: Indeed. You know, Brittany, I've been in the world of art and design for long enough that I am aware that talent is everywhere. Many people have ideals. Community is built in many ways, and most often not by people with money or companies but by the humblest members. So, in that way I think what makes a company stands apart is really just their unique combination of all of those and more: How we interact with each other. How we interact with our customers. How we design. Fabrics we choose. Our location, our vibe, our website, our value system. And that's what I truly love about business. It's not about making money, but it's like cooking the most complex dessert ever, that takes 10 years to bake! You have to get each ingredient just right. And when you got it… boom! So, we're not quite there yet, but I believe we are close. You'll know when we are!

Pieces from a previous art show held in their gallery space are lined up along a wall.

I found this guy watching the action from afar. Please note his fur cape, full-length plaid piece, and industrial hoop earrings. Can you say "style icon"?!

Brittany: How will I know?

Reuben: Well, I guess there won't be a literal boom, but figuratively!

Brittany: Bat signal?

Reuben: Oh my god, I want an Umbrella bat signal so bad. I actually made an Umbrella Batman shirt. We used to sell it as a part of our old line. That's what it had… the SF skyline and then the Umbrella Bat Signal shining above it. I think I have a few extra somewhere if you drop by our shop!

Brittany: I'm sure someone in Oakland knows how to make an umbrella bat signal. A rogue artist, perhaps. Speaking of artists… you’ve collaborated with many different artists in a range of disciplines, including a New York tattoo artist, Oakland-based rap duo The Coup, and Oakland graffiti artist Vogue. How do you go about picking who to work with?

Reuben: We run the artists that we choose through an assessment. How well they align with our values, our history, our future, and our audience. I am really looking forward to a scarf and blouse we have dropping next week from Joshua Mays, an artist who recently relocated from the East Coast to Oakland.

Brittany: How would you describe his artistic style?

Reuben: Futuristic neo-soul-scapes.

Brittany: And that translates into clothing how?

Reuben: You'll see next Friday!

Brittany: Where do you find inspiration for your own designs?

Reuben: At my best, through the cultural reflection lens that I was talking to you about. At my worst, by staring at a blank computer screen… ugh.

Brittany: If you had any materials and tools at your disposal, what would your ideal article of clothing look like?

Reuben: Materials and tools… gosh, things are so scientific these days! I think just an amazingly soft cotton-hemp blend and vibrant screen prints are all I need.

In case you forget where you are...

Brittany: Fair enough. How has working in Oakland, and in the city’s downtown in particular, allowed Famous Four Colors to prosper?

Reuben: Tough question. I think the City is vibrant and blossoming, but so are so many other urban centers. By the City I meant Oakland… my bad… The Town. It's not where you're at, but where you're at… nah'mean? I love Oakland. Wouldn't trade it, I'll tell you that much.

Brittany: What can we expect to see from Famous Four Colors in the future?

Reuben: Ah! The Future! Let's see… boom! Smoke & Mirrors! Lights, Cameras & Web Apps! A super solid team of people contributing creatively to society's myriad literal and figurative cloth.

Learn more about how their shirts are made:

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