Urban Legends

Karmaloop’s Greg and Dina Selkoe have gone from selling sneakers out of his parents’ basement to running a multimillion-dollar global business and hosting Kanye West at their downtown Boston headquarters. Um, what?

On a September afternoon in the sunny 10th-floor Downtown Crossing apartment he shares with his wife and business partner, Dina, Karmaloop founder and CEO Greg Selkoe sits stroking a massive cat, sending clouds of Siamese fur into the air. He is dressed self-consciously hip, if a little like a high schooler, in spotless gray and navy suede New Balance sneakers, dark jeans, and a pink cotton T-shirt silkscreened with black and yellow bananas; his deeply dimpled cheeks and china-blue eyes suggest a jowly former teen heartthrob, a baby-faced James Spader. The only evidence of the gaudiness that often accompanies rapid moneymaking is the pair of gargantuan white sunglasses he’ll sport later in the elevator on his way outside. Now, though, as he lounges with Dina on their leather couch and describes the rocket-ship trajectory of their venture, he’s calm and candid, giving off an effortless and somehow not unappealing cooler-than-you vibe.

In less than 10 years after its modest, and unlikely, launch from the depths of his parents’ house, Selkoe’s Karmaloop has grown to become the largest online streetwear retailer in the world. It is currently the 1,500th most visited website in America and the 7,000th worldwide, racking up more than 1.5 million unique visitors each month, and enjoying so much visibility with its target audience that 60 percent of its traffic is “direct load,” meaning those visitors arrive at the website by typing the name directly into their browser rather than blindly Googling their way to it. Revenues have increased at least 100 percent each year, as the company has repeatedly crushed its competition, most of which is based in more artistically inclined urban locales like New York, L.A., and Tokyo. Last year Karmaloop was nominated for best retail site at the Webby Awards, considered the Oscars of the Internet. It has dozens of celebrity fans, including, from various walks of fame, Kanye West, Pink, Tommy Lee, and the Celtics’ own Kevin Garnett.

“Before the Internet, you would never have a fashion business located in Boston. But we’re killing it,” Selkoe says, pointing to projected sales of $20 million (up from $8 million in 2006) by the time the books are closed this year. “We’re the biggest pure, true streetwear retailer both on- and offline. No one even comes close in terms of the traffic we get.”

If it all sounds a little crazy, that’s because it sort of is.

An Internet image search for Greg Selkoe yields dozens of photos of the 32-year-old CEO clowning with celebu-friends, pouting, and making various hand gestures for the camera; in one snapshot, he clutches a Chihuahua while making a kissy face. The images display a fratty jackassery that does little to suggest the master’s degree from Harvard (in public policy), or the canny marketing strategy that’s making him rich. In Karmaloop’s downtown office, the couple’s two dogs roam free, their only responsibility being to pee on taped-down paper squares and not on the white backdrop in the fashion photography room. (Back at home, they have their own bathroom.) But the pets and the posturing are all part of the idea behind Karmaloop and the juvenile (or at least youth-oriented) fashion it sells. “We’re just having a lot of fun,” he says. “I had no idea that it’d get as big as it has.”

Selkoe will tell you that his background as a rich white kid is somewhat “soft,” to use the parlance. “Yeah, I used to break dance for money, like in first grade, on the streets of Nantucket,” he jokes. He grew up in Jamaica Plain, the son of renowned Alzheimer’s researcher Dennis J. Selkoe (once featured on the cover of this magazine) and Polly Selkoe, a Brookline town planner. He and Dina met as 14-year-olds at Brookline High. “Then I went to reform school for bad children,” he says, smiling. After turning things around, he went on to graduate from Rollins College in Florida, and got a suit-and-tie job as an urban planner at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)—a position that would become a surprising complement to his future rise as a streetwear mogul.

“As an urban planner, you have to know how cities work, what draws people to them, who is shaping them,” says Prataap Patrose, deputy director for urban design at the BRA, who remembers Selkoe as “always on the go.” Right now, he adds, youth culture is doing most of the shaping. “Greg understands the urban milieu very well.”

Selkoe’s long-standing love for urban culture—he wasn’t entirely kidding about the break dancing—was Karmaloop’s catalyst. (The name came from an erstwhile logo, which incorporated the Buddhist symbol for karma. “It kind of looked like a volleyball,” Selkoe says, “which was cool but impractical. And it had a loop, loop, loop, so we said Karmaloop.”) When he founded the company in 1999, as a side project while he was still at the BRA, he and Dina—then pursuing a dual degree at Harvard Law School and Tufts’ Fletcher School—were living with his parents in Jamaica Plain. He’d decided to quit the BRA to study public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and thought he might as well focus on the store at the same time. Which he did, with $50,000 in stocks saved up from when he was a kid, support from Dina, and periodic small sums from his dad, who’s still an investor. “The Internet bubble had just burst, and most people I talked to said they wouldn’t touch e-retail with a 10-foot pole,” says Selkoe père. “But Greg knows how to do cool.” (“He’s been very supportive,” says Greg. “Obviously he doesn’t know anything about streetwear, but he knows about life and business, and it’s paying off for him.”)

At the beginning, the couple sold a limited inventory out of the elder Selkoes’s basement. To impress the labels they liked, whose specialty lines they wanted to sell—particularly in the case of major players like Puma, Reebok, and Adidas—they focused on small but intense brand representation. “The Internet wasn’t the newest, craziest thing,” says Selkoe. “So I developed a new paradigm. I said, ‘Look, we’re not going to be your biggest customer right now, but we’re going to represent your brand better than anyone else, we’re going to represent your brand online, and yeah, we might not sell that much at first, but we’re going to basically be a free online magazine ad for your clothes.” The corporate sneakerheads bought it, although revenue was, unsurprisingly, slow in coming at first. “There’d be three or four orders a day, and Dina and I would package them up and drop them off in the mail on our way to work or school,” he says. “It was sometimes a mystery to me how people even found our site.” Yet such are the vagaries of his chosen market that by not doing anything to baldly lure customers, he was almost guaranteed to bring them in.

Streetwear’s growth into the global phenomenon that it is comes as the result of media-savvy kids who sample from around the world to discover unknown clothing brands and fashion trends. These shoppers are students, artists, musicians, DJs, wannabe DJs, skateboarders, break dancers, and everyday people with the requisite money, vanity, and sense of irony. Though they rabidly follow their favorite indu
stry, they are not “followers” themselves. Says Selkoe, “Streetwear customers are connoisseurs,” adding that, in his own closet, “I have probably 100 pairs of sneakers.”

Loosely defined, streetwear is utilitarian clothing that’s artfully flashy and moderately expensive (Selkoe’s banana T-shirt retails for almost 60 bucks). In many ways it represents the three-way union of hip-hop, hipsterdom, and haute couture, manifested in things like Technicolor sneakers, hoodies, and T-shirts, made in limited editions by obscure designers from around the globe. What it’s not is all gold teeth and Swarovski crystals. Rather, it borrows as much from Japanese anime and Brazilian baile funk as it does from punk and high fashion. Like pornography, explains Dina, “you know it when you see it.”

Even more than other kinds of high fashion—and due to its steep prices and designer exclusivity, some of this stuff is unmistakably high fashion—streetwear is ephemeral. As soon as trends are recognized on a bigger stage, such as a major magazine or a runway, they’re obsolete. A large part of streetwear’s appeal is the underground factor, the idea that only the truly cool know the truly cool brands (which, by extension, are not the ones sold at the chain stores). The typical streetwear buyer wants to feel as if he or she has stumbled upon something special, and to be spoon-fed glossy advertisements is to be denied the self-satisfaction of discovering something through a friend’s e-mail, or that cool blog, or that semi-obscure celebrity who mentioned in a zine interview where he got his pants. It’s like how buying a wooden owl from a kid on the sidewalk feels a lot better than buying that same wooden owl from Anthropologie.

“Giant corporations help kill trends by turning them into profit and mass consumerism,” says Oliver Mak, co-owner of (offline, small, and very hot) Symphony neighborhood sneaker boutique Bodega. “Something will be hot on the streets, then Middle America buys imitations of it online, and the trend ends up on a kid in Minnesota trying to emulate what he saw in Nylon. [But] the streets have already moved on to the next thing.”

Despite Karmaloop’s scant promotional budget (currently only one full-time marketer), or perhaps because of it, it’s succeeded in the same way that a traditionally advertised company would, i.e., lots of customers buying lots of clothes for lots of money. And yet—and here’s the real trick—it has managed to get big and famous without scaring off its elusive target: the discerning, skittish cool kid who prides himself on smelling The Man from a mile away.

“Dina and I are in our early thirties and we wear this stuff all the time,” says Selkoe. “So do most of our friends.” But typical Karmaloop shoppers, according to Selkoe, are 18 to 25. They’re male and female “alpha consumers”: socially influential, culturally diverse, “early adopting” kids (in a generous sense of the word) who demand the newest gear and can handily get it online. (As of 2005, there’s a brick-and-mortar Karmaloop flagship store on Newbury Street, but 95 percent of the company’s business is conducted through its website.) And now that former scenesters are growing up but not dressing up, what once was an open-and-then-closed window is now an elastic gateway. Adult rappers like Kanye West, Talib Kweli, and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels are all regular Karmaloop shoppers, as is troubled man-child Owen Wilson (who “bought, like, five pairs of jeans before he tried to kill himself,” Selkoe says, “so hopefully that didn’t have anything to do with that”). Also, Robin Williams is another celebrity fan: “He shopped with us, like, 15 times.”

While Karmaloop’s MO ensures
a certain degree of insider-ness—the company’s Kazbah page, for example, keeps small, home-grown labels in its retail mix by using design competitions to put unknown talents in touch with the broader site’s vast audience—the operation’s size and scope make maintaining underground grittiness increasingly difficult. Selkoe is well aware of the challenge. “As we get bigger, we want to stay as close to the street as we can,” he says, describing how the Kazbah connects customers in Oslo, for instance, with kids making T-shirts in Brooklyn.

Part of Selkoe’s effort to capitalize on the following that Karmaloop has generated online—even from scary, embarrassing places like Minnesota—involves directing that momentum into other outlets without repelling the early adopters, the hunters, who made the site so popular to begin with. The company’s biggest gambit is the newly launched KarmaloopTV, which features original online television content: interviews with musicians, designers, artists, and actors, as well as plenty of shows Selkoe’s still figuring out. Extending to cover more than simply clothes was a natural, Dina explains. “People come to the site not just to buy stuff, but to see what’s cool and just check out trends,” she says. The pair is not averse to calling on their famous friends for help. “A lot of people are starting sites like this”—streetwear sites Commonwealth (cmonwealth.com), Digital Gravel (digitalgravel.com), and Krudmart (krudmart.com), for example—“but they can’t touch us because everyone already knows us,” Selkoe says. “If I call Kanye’s manager, he’ll say, ‘Sure we’ll do something with you guys.’ We have access, and that’s the difference.” Celeb endorsements on the site’s trailer confirm this: “KarmaloopTV, you know what time it is” (hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics); “Nobody reps it better”; and, less concretely, “350 carats in this motherf*&#er” (rapper Ben Baller). Russell Simmons also makes an appearance.

Selkoe would like to think Karmaloop has been a catalyst for Boston’s ongoing streetwear boomlet, which has seen new stores Laced, Bodega, Concepts in the Tannery, and L.A.B. Boston opening in the past two years alone. But although that scene is increasingly respectable, Karmaloop’s influence may well be incidental. One of the less heartwarming reasons that Karmaloop has flourished here is that its ’Net-centric business isn’t tied to Boston any more than it is to anywhere else. Still, while this city maintains an ambivalent relationship with fashion—do we care, or don’t we?—no matter how big Karmaloop grows, or how much the move might help its street cred, Selkoe vows he’ll never relocate. “Boston’s not even in our top 10 [sources] for revenue,” he says (that group includes Manhattan, Brooklyn, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, London, and San Diego); still, he says with pride, “it’s my hometown.” Selkoe is hoping to tie Boston to Karmaloop’s success, proving that the city can foster cutting-edge fashion as well as anywhere else. Or, at least, that it’s not prohibitively unstylish.

“It would have been easier in New York in a lot of ways, but it matters to me that I’m doing it here,” Selkoe says. “The thing that’s been the hardest, however, is keeping our employees. Creative people don’t want to stay in Boston. The type of people we want to work with are cosmopolitan—they like cities, they like things to be open late, to get food after 10 p.m.—and unfortunately a lot of people we have just don’t want to be here.” (Selkoe also has a bone to pick with the local clubs and bars that won&
rsquo;t let someone in even if he’s wearing $350 sneakers and $100 jeans, but will let in the guy in “$30 Dockers and bad loafers from JCPenney.” Dina agrees: “It’s the most retarded thing.”)

Despite Selkoe’s complaints about the city’s talent bleed, Karmaloop seems to be doing more than all right. Over coffee in the company’s sparsely decorated downtown office, the Chihuahuas scurrying at his feet, Selkoe repeats, “We’re the biggest in the world in what we do.” In the background, there’s a quiet hum: busy employees with plenty to do. All of them are beautiful and carefully dressed. Many are domestic and international transplants who’ve come to Boston for the sole purpose of working for Karmaloop. Selkoe didn’t have to recruit them; he didn’t have to wonder where he was going to find suitably cool help. They just came. Just like that.