A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today for more stories like this one, plus receive a $15 gift card to the Gear Patrol Store.
Cool can be elusive, but there’s no doubt that Kyle Ng’s Brain Dead is one of the coolest streetwear brands around. Along with cofounder Ed Davis, Ng produces a dizzying array of graphic-print clothing, neon eyewear and limited-edition sneakers. While the brand has gained legions of fans with its own merch, its co-branded products with the likes of The North Face, Reebok and A.P.C. have caught the attention of a much wider audience.
Ng moved from Berkeley to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film, but he eventually found his calling in the fashion industry. He founded the menswear brands Farm Tactics and AXS Folk Technology before taking a managerial position at Urban Outfitters. In 2014, he and Davis started Brain Dead, partnering with numerous artists and designers on initial products. One of its first projects was curating a gallery show for the New York boutique Nepenthes that explored ethnic bootleg culture's place in what's known as outsider art, or works produced by people without formal training or connections to the art world. To support the show, of course, Brain Dead put out a limited set of skateboard decks.
From the start, collaborations were a part of the brand's DNA, and over the years they've explored mediums from food to furniture to sporting goods. For Ng, the breadth speaks to his own range of interests and the value he places on nurturing a deeper sense of community, at times with massive results: a T-shirt he made in June 2020 with musician Dev Hynes raised around $500,000 for The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and the LGBTQ Freedom Fund.
He's also worked with champion climber Ashima Shiraishi on a technical shoe supporting organizations working to get marginalized groups into climbing. And the vegan burgers Brain Dead did with L.A.'s Burger Lords? Proceeds went to support the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Stop AAPI Hate.
Though many companies have strategies for collaborations and business models for philanthropy, Brain Dead organically blends the two to fuel positive change. We caught up with Ng to learn how.
When did you start thinking about collaborations as a form?
Growing up in a community of music and art, collaborations have always been part of what you do, right? The community is the most important thing in anything we do in creativity because that's the people who support you, and you support them. So I think with Brain Dead, especially, we really want to focus on our community and trying to spotlight it in some form.
You know, the big part about this brand over a lot of other brands, is that it's less about a singularity of, let's say, products or fashion or menswear or whatever you want to call it. It's more focused on community-driven creativity and hobbies and interests of identity and personality, and letting people kind of get inspired by work or creative avenues that hopefully make them get excited about life.
How do you approach a Brain Dead collab?
I don't find myself a product guy at all. And I think we do make products and I try my hardest to make good products, but I'm more interested in storytelling because of my desire to be a filmmaker when I was younger.
If it's The North Face, I think about its rich heritage, I think about climbing, what's missing in climbing, I think about interesting stories that we take, and I think about the actors — the characters — that could be in it.
When you make a movie, you have to think about [a character’s] subtext, you think about their background, and even if it never is mentioned in the film, that actor knows, and is confident in who they are as an actor of a character. And same with products; the world around us is an environment that's created, but at the end of day, you have to feel confident by building the environment for that product.
How can collabs be a force for good?
Right now, in our culture, we're so focused on consuming everything from content to Netflix to Spotify to products, and I feel like we've lost contact to build context. What we realize is that now that we have success, we need to give back to that community that's fostered our upbringing. I can sell a T-shirt and then give people a cassette with that T-shirt. How hard would it be to just sell hundreds of cassettes? Really hard. But, if I gave them something back, like a record or a cassette, they would be like, "Whoa, I don't know what this is, but I'm going to figure out how to play it." So, this is almost a reverse-engineering way of culture that I think is really interesting.
How do you measure success?
I'm not really interested in capitalism as a whole — I want to support myself and survive. But at the end of the day, a lot of the work we're doing right now gives back to initiatives to help back the community, because that's the most important thing — that's the thing that fostered me. If you cannot afford to climb, you should still be able to do it, so we want to build a climbing wall in Long Beach so kids can go climb. There's no marketing or financial gain from that in my opinion — that's the only way it should be. And honestly, I feel like companies should figure out ways to be profitable by just doing the right thing.
Collaboration and commerce and ethics all work hand-in-hand because it's all about community and all about creating relationships and putting this mycelium network together — knowledge, ideas and people. And, the more it's interconnected, the more it flows. Everyone's just trying to put pieces together and sometimes it's really fucked up and weird, but hopefully you can do it in a good way. There's a reason why all this is where we are at.
When does that connectedness get weird?
I'm watching this documentary called Can't Get You Out of My Head and it's really interesting because in a world where you can't really trust anyone, how do you show real sincerity and how do you show a narrative? That's why the QAnon thing's popping. People want to put puzzle pieces together themselves and feel like an individual again, and sometimes it's like, super fucked, you know what I mean? But, all of it's a by-product of where we're at as a culture. And, you know, I think that's where you as a brand have to realize how to swim through that, and if anything, work with it in a positive form. It's kind of like what we were saying with a product — reverse-engineering consumerism — where you give back to some form of culture.