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“I didn’t really intend to start a brand,” explains Eric Elms, the Los Angeles-based multimedia artist and founder of Powers Supply. “I’d been doing graphics for a long time and felt really burnt out. The scene just seemed stagnant. But then a few friends started doing weird little projects and you could feel people’s personalities coming through in graphics again. That’s what got me excited.”
Beginning with a few designs originally destined for the publishing site he runs, AndPress, Elms launched Powers Supply with the support of Brain Dead’s Kyle Ng. Alongside Partners & Others, his design agency, and a busy art practice, it works like an extension of Elms’s ever expanding studio. As much a testing ground as streetwear brand, Powers is an unlimited platform where his weirder and most exciting ideas have a home.
With an LA store that feels like a further reflection of the mind behind the brand, full of books and ephemera sourced by Elms to frame the collection of tees, sweats and accessories featuring revisited graphic ideas and art experiments from his wider world, Powers has also captured the spirit of New York’s original streetwear hangouts. Complete with an ongoing public art project in the form of a bench outside, most recently covered in work by Cali Thornhill DeWitt.
Having cut his teeth at Supreme straight out of college, probably the last time he focused on one job at a time, Elms then worked for the likes of Nike and Stussy, giving him a unique insight into how the world’s biggest streetwear brands tick. Priceless when starting up your own thing. “You know, I wasn't even gonna give it a name,” says Elms. “But then I thought what if people started calling it something I didn’t like? My studio at the time was on Powers Street, so it became Powers Supply.”
Here, speaking over an unstable Zoom connection from LA, he tells Parade about the joys of juggling multiple projects, how he should really explain his art references more and his obsession with a nosy character called Kilroy.
Ben Perdue. You were in Brooklyn for a long time before relocating to LA, do you think where you live and the attitude of that place has a big impact on your work?
Eric Elms: Moving to New York and living there for so long definitely exposed me to so many people and things. So, that whole experience informed a lot of my creative style and studio production. Now that I have that established, I don't think Los Angeles changes my point of view that much, but it has definitely exposed me to new references.
BP. Do you think working with big brands like Supreme helped you figure out that balance between growing Powers and keeping it exciting creatively?
EE. People see how successful Supreme is, but they forget it's 30 years old. What excites me in design is brands with interesting identities that they use in smart ways, building their business by integrating that branding consistently over the years. But what you get from smaller brands is quick hits and merch opportunities, and there are definitely some cool pieces coming out of those experiments and processes.
BP. Is that the challenge then, trying to navigate that middle-ground?
EE. It's pretty hard to grow and stay interesting. Brain Dead has a very niche, specific style, and they grew to a good size but still do weird, interesting things. That level appeals to me, where you're starting to make actual clothes but not feeling the pressure to do things that aren’t relevant to your brand.
BP. Has Powers given you a platform for recycling ideas explored on previous projects and revisiting old references in new ways?
EE. Graphics that companies didn't use pop up, and if I'm working on a logo, then a reference or failed experiment might turn into something for Powers. And I’m doing collage paintings in my personal work that spill over into my graphics. I feel comfortable with all that coming into the brand from weird directions without having to feel sensitive about it. There can be that strange conversation between everything in a studio, which is fun because I used to worry about not having a specific style. Over the years all these projects have come together with a similar point of view or attitude. It’s the same with Powers, I can reference cheeky old streetwear stuff I like but I’ll always change it in an interesting way.
BP. It almost feels like a series of collaborations, but they all come from within the same studio because you have all these different places to pull from?
EE. Exactly. I like it when you can see a brand’s personality. I think with some of my references maybe I should explain where they came from more, because they'd probably be interesting for people. Like the time I saw a Phillip Guston show that featured a book, and I knew that there was this famous type designer who worked on that book, so then I used that type reference in a design. Like three levels down from the original inspiration. People who get weird and different references just get it.
BP. Are there artists coming through at the moment who show that same kind of personality through their work that you like to see in brands?
EE. I really like Jan Gatewood who does these amazing watercolour paintings of ducks and frogs here in LA. And Peter Sutherland is always an inspiration. It’s not always young artists - I find Sigmar Polke and Albert Oehlen are super interesting because they morph different styles. I gravitate towards artists who push and pull between the abstract and really graphic. That's the realm I'm in right now.
BP. Does creating product allow you to reach a different market with your art and make it more accessible or real in some way?
EE. When I have random run-ins with people wearing Powers it’s exciting and takes you off guard a little bit. But I’ve always been into making real objects in the studio, coming up with weird ideas like spending thousands of dollars on creating 3D marble candle holders. Physical is always nice. That's why I have a publishing company, because making things feels good.
BP. Have you always found it difficult to restrict yourself to just one medium or creative output?
EE. With the art I don't even restrict myself to one medium, I like to keep it all going if I can. It would be great if I could split everything equally into painting, studio work and Powers, but it never gets divided like that. There are definitely times when it's not the most productive studio, but you can’t just expect eight hours of creativity every day, that’s not how it works. That's why it's nice to have a few things going on at once, because if I’m blocked on one, I can swap over to something useful instead, like stretching canvases.
BP. Could you ever see yourself working for just one brand again?
EE. Supreme was the first time I was in the office working on just one brand. But that was my first job when I was 21, and I had so much I wanted to do on my own still, that's why I left. If I’d started there when I was 30, I would have stayed longer. But yeah, I could see myself working with one brand. I'm already doing less graphics for outside people now that I'm doing Powers, because that takes up time and ideas. So, it would just have to be the right situation.
BP. You’ve also worked with labels like Proenza Schouler and Guess in the past, does that make you a link in the story of streetwear’s crossover into fashion?
EE. When Supreme established the weekly drop, and trained their customer to work that way, the big brands realised that releasing a resort collection just wasn't enough to fill the gaps anymore. But also, the people in control of these things now, like Kim Jones, grew up with Stussy and bring in their own references. It’s partly a changing of the guard but also fashion adopting a new business model. Working with Proenza was super interesting because I got to see what they did with my graphics and logo, how they took them a step further than I could. Sometimes with collaborations you see the end product and it’s like they ruined it, but when you work with really creative people and they make your work more interesting it’s really inspiring. It amplifies the vision.
BP. Now that you’ve opened a store what does that physical space mean to you?
EE. I always wanted it to be an old school streetwear shop where you can hang out for an hour. You might go in for a shirt and find a weird art book, or Japanese brand you never heard of, or a vintage Comme des Garçons magazine. Having all that in one spot, rather than it being a white box gallery store that only has new stuff, is like an explosion of the brand’s personality. We stock things that represent how all my references come from different places, so it’s the feeling and vibe of Powers. And we could do it without worrying because space in LA is much cheaper than New York. There's so much of it!
BP. And you have the art bench project right outside the door that’s like an extension of the studio too?
EE. I just liked the idea of having a mini version of Undefeated’s billboard. Not for ads, just whatever we want to do. So, having artists I like - the first one was Nick Sethi - doing something random and without explanation felt interesting. Eventually we’ll change it every month and produce a charity T-shirt each time.
BP. Sourcing objects and brands for the store is the perfect excuse to explore new references for yourself too.
EE. Exactly. I can bring over that little brand from Tokyo I like, but then while searching for new stuff I get exposed to other things that may end up going back into Powers somehow.
BP. Is that how you discovered the Kilroy character that’s become such a recurring theme in your work?
EE. I was fascinated by the concept. It's like pre-graffiti graffiti in a way. I started collecting lots of old ephemera and objects with it on. Then the first thing I made was a book called Wish You Were Here, with a Kilroy on every page - it was kind of a joke because I was doing the New York Book Fair. But then I started using it in weirder ways, like I did a show in Japan with these original drawings for a book and a product with it on. It's just so perfect for collaborations, because the whole point of Kilroy is that he’s peeking over things. I look at it as a little mascot that I use.
BP. And is having a hangout attached to your work a good way to stay connected culturally?
EE. I was working there once or twice a week before lockdown, enough that I had a presence while still doing the studio, and interesting people would come in all the time. I took it for granted then, but I would love that now! Also, you meet people who do weird things, like 3D modelling ceramics, who you can work with on stuff. I loved those chance encounters with people who are drawn to the space. Because in LA, unless you’re on LaBrea or Fairfax, people have to make a decision to come visit. So, a lot of people coming in are likeminded individuals already.
BP. How much do you miss that human interaction?
EE. You forget how much you get inspired by chance encounters. Now we rely on scouring the internet and old art books but those incidental things that happen are always the most exciting moments.
All photography by ASATO iiDA
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