Streetwear Side Hustle
Read the full Fall 2019 issue of Coulture, “Roots,” here.
John Vance named his brand after the fabled monster stalking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont.
He tends to favor 90s-style nylon fly pants, color block hoodies and gray Nike muscle tanks, so the name of a dark and murky creature seemed appropriate.
Currently a junior Studio Art major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Vance has channeled his passion for design into his Durham-based streetwear brand, Champ. You can now purchase items through Instagram auctions and Galore Store.
Vance’s interest in fashion began at an early age. “I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through 8th grade, so we had to wear uniforms everyday,” he said. Vance later attended a public high school in Durham, signaling a major shift in his appreciation of style. “Expressing myself through clothing wasn’t really anything I had done to the extent that most people do growing up,” he added.
Vance’s brand has also become extremely popular on social media, and has developed a local fan base, with hundreds following both his personal and brand accounts on Instagram.
But money isn’t at the center of Vance’s design strategy. It never has been. “Champ is an outlet more than anything,” he explains, “I don’t really think of Champ as a business. It’s just something I enjoy. It’s mostly my want and my need to create.”
“If the shirts that I’m selling and sourcing aren’t doing a service to the environment, that’s not something I want to continue to do.”
Art has been a part of Vance’s life since he was young. “As the mediums of my art changed, I realized that I could tie in my love of clothing,” Vance said. His teenage interest in drawing and graphic design has evolved to current focus on screen printing.
Curiosity, a respect for the planet and a fascination with the stories hidden within old clothing have helped Vance realize his brand’s mission.
“Being able to source clothing in an ethical and sustainable way has been really important to me,” he said. “If the shirts that I’m selling and sourcing aren’t doing a service to the environment, that’s not something I want to continue to do.”
The core of what Champ does is called “upcycling,” a term used to describe the transformation of old, unwanted products into something of new and higher value. The upcycling mindset pushes Vance to create pieces with unique fabrics and prints that celebrate individuality. Not one of Vance’s garments are exactly alike, and it is this tie of invention and environmentalism that drive the Champ brand forward.
Vance begins his production process at the thrift store. He makes frequent visits to the various Rescue Missions, Scrap Exchanges and Goodwills between Durham and Carborro. “It’s not about expecting to find gems everywhere,” he said. “It’s being really selective with the things I get.” Each of Champ’s pieces must have a purpose, or they aren’t worth making.
“If I have an idea for a print already, that primes my eye for an item going in,” Vance said. “But sometimes I’ll just see something and as I’m looking at it, have ideas for prints.” Since the beginning, he has done all the screen printing and development work himself.
At the most simple level, Vance has come to see himself as a creator, Champ as his statement to the fashion world. He credits his inspiration to influential pop artists from the 1980s such as Keith Haring and contemporary indie artists like Gus Dapperton.
Champ products go beyond the classic graphic t-shirt. Vance likes to print on angles of pants and sweatshirts that don’t get much attention: inside seams, outer leg lines and tailored rib cages. And, always an artist, he plays with color theory.
“Something I really like to do is tie-dyeing and bleach dyeing. I think that that’s something that adds a lot of visual interest to pieces,” Vance explained. “It’s all subtractive coloring, so understanding how shirts are dyed in the first place, then being able to extract different dyes from it is something that’s cool to me.”
Vance said he can get hooked on specific color palettes. Carolina blue paired with a Texas burnt orange are current favorites, also referencing a collection of color block sweatshirts he debuted last winter.
“Understanding what people think about certain colors and why they feel that way is something I like to explore,” he said.
Vance is mindful to share this idea with his consumers. “The people that vibe with my clothing, it’s not a calculated thing,” he said. “It’s a cerebral expression of my relationship with art and clothing. People just tend to like that. It unifies us under this concept of self-expression and a combination of art and textiles.”
Champ has not only acted as a way for Vance to explore his own style, but also as a conversation starter with friends and classmates. He appreciates the immediate feedback he can get on his designs. “It’s cool to have other people assess and assign value to what you make. It lets me see in real time what people like and what people don’t like as much and incorporate those into the next pieces I make.”
Vance takes the same mindset to the recent work he has done designing album art and music videos for nearby North Carolina record labels like Immaculate Taste. But he doesn’t know where his career will go from here. Vance appreciates the “side hustle” element of leading a brand, but he sees many paths forward in his style evolution—with or without Champ.
“I usually don’t hang on to things,” Vance said when asked about his favorite designs. “It’s hard without a picture reference to think about all the pieces I’ve made. I would deconstruct blank sweatshirts, mix and match the different sleeves and hoods, then reassemble them that way.”
If Vance knows anything, it’s that he will always create. He will try funky color combinations and upcycle tattered jeans. He’ll stay with the process—beginning at the nearest thrift shop.