The One-Man Brand; An Interview with Kahim Smith of H33M

    “Don’t make anything you wouldn’t wear.”

    When we speak about the purpose behind what it is we do, we often think about the future and where we see ourselves in it. Whether in a different country or a different state, we envision ourselves doing exactly what it is we love and sustaining through tough times—but it’s the question of our purpose that sparks the idea of what our success looks like in our heads. The idea of success to an individual is visually different from the idea of another. One might want a house in the mountains, while another wants a house on the beach. The idea of success spoken into words, however, is often very similar amongst a group of individuals.

    A part of success is being happy, finding joy in spending your time doing something that engages you. When brought to the conclusion that you could do something that makes you happy for the rest of your life, you also conclude that you’re going to have to make a few sacrifices to get to where you want. Whether it’s long nights of work with no pay or paid nights of doing work you don’t like, that sacrifice will come. 

    We see people mention the idea of sacrifice, but never truly expound on the purpose of said sacrifice, and why it holds meaning towards the future of one’s career. Some people truly can’t speak on sacrifice because there was nothing for them to give up. But when looking at success and sacrifice we want to look at examples that resonate in our hearts. People who we see and understand that for them to be in their position, they had to let some things go—and boy, do we have an example for you.

    Meet Kahim, the founder and one-man band behind the streetwear brand H33M. To me, Kahim is a great example of what it means to sacrifice for your own happiness. With H33M, Kahim can bring almost all of his creations to life, but at a cost-maybe, the sacrifice is time, materials, or even something as trivial as human contact. For the sake of his vision, his future, and his passion, Kahim puts 110% into everything he does, knowing that at the end of the marathon comes your time to relax—but it is only after you make it through your journey, whether slow or fast, that you get the chance to kick your feet up. 

    Recently, I got the chance to speak with Kahim about his motivation for H33M as well as its origin story. Along with this, we discussed his creative process, work inspiration, and how he overcame some of the obstacles that started with last year’s pandemic. A hefty interview filled with gems for anyone taking a journey through this creative industry.

    For those that don’t know what is H33M?

    Kahim: I would describe H33M as the way I stay gainfully employed & out of trouble; a passion project I created to keep myself employed and creatively generating content that resembles my thoughts & my voice and translates that to the audience, whoever that may be. In other words, I would say it’s almost like a manifestation of myself, but at the same time, it’s not just me. H33M is as much of the supporters that resonate with the clothing and products as much as I am the creator of those products. Without one, the other doesn’t exist. 

    Where did the name and the idea to make the brand originate from?

    Kahim: The brand name is a variation of my own name “Kahim” which speaks to the idea that the brand is simply me & my thoughts personified into clothing & other pieces that I choose to create. I came up with the name around 2014 when I was making shirts for my brother’s clothing store—PMA. On the inside label of my shirts, I wrote “HEEM for PMA” and once people started to gain interest in the shirt, I just ran with that name. 

    At the time I didn’t think I knew that would be the overall idea, but as time passed I saw how it grew with me throughout my journey. Ever since then it’s been what it is too, I never stepped aside and thought “Well I’ll just make another brand and call it something else.” Since that first shirt in my brother’s store, I’ve been consistently working on products for H33M so it’s safe to say we’ve been in production since 2014.

    Its sole purpose is to be a reflection of the things that I enjoy formatted into something that someone else can enjoy. From a shirt to a coffee mug, if there’s a way to express myself on it I will—and if anyone is interested in having one of their own they’re more than welcome to. I wanted to create something that I can look at and enjoy along with anyone else who is seeing it for the very first time. 

    When was the first piece made? 

    Kahim: The first pieces to be made were the “H33M for PMA” shirts of course, as well as the “Just Say No” graphic tees we did not much longer after the first release. That tee was an idea that I and my brother Kamal had and really was just another piece for us to put in his store. We came up with the idea, we both put our hands on it and we decided to run it when he had the shop. A lot of the early H33M pieces felt like an introductory class into what I would be doing years later. I don’t disown any of those old pieces–in fact, they help me understand that I’m always leveling up with new ideas. I look at them like you would some drawings from middle school; they weren’t the best but the idea was always there from the start.

    What is your favorite H33M piece? 

    Kahim: Honestly that’s a very had question [laughs] and not in the sense like I can’t answer it, but I just wear so many of the pieces I make every day it’s kind of hard to think what my all-time favorite is….. [a few moments of thinking pass] personally, my favorite piece is the “Metal Gear X” shirt I released a few years ago. It was a mash-up between Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid and the picture of Malcolm X looking out of his window. I loved that piece because every time people see the graphic it becomes an instant conversation starter–and I feel that’s what most of us designers want you to know? We want people to stop and ask questions about our designs, otherwise why even make something?

    Who are the members (or helping hands) behind H33M?

    Kahim: Nine times out of ten it’s just me, but I do have friends that help along the lines of the actual execution; so things like product shots and packaging for shipments are things I would ask friends and family to help out with. Everything else however is all me, from the concepts to the final pieces being made I’m there standing above it all. 

    As someone who is constantly working on designs and ideas for your brand, how would you say you stay inspired/or find the inspiration to come up with new concepts for pieces?

    Kahim: In the last year it’s gotten a bit easier to stay inspired, even before the pandemic hit this was something I knew I needed to work on but now that there’s so little to do in today’s climate I find myself putting in more time to gather inspiration than ever before. As much as this is my career, it’s also a hobby for me at the end of the day. And I think about H33M 24/7 every day, it’s like I’m obsessed with it… because I am [laughs]—I’m also trying to do bigger things to keep me inspired; extravagant concepts or things I felt like were impossible for me to do at a certain time in my life. The motivation just comes from me being in the moment and making it all work. So if I’m not working towards finding new ideas for the next collection or trying out something different for the brand, I’m not being as focused as I know I should be. 

    Can you briefly describe a day in the life working at the H33M office? Do you immediately start working on the main attraction pieces or is there anything else you do to fuel your creativity while working?

    Kahim: A general workday for me would be getting to my office and checking my email, then getting to my to-do list. I always keep a list of my work to-do because it’s always something to do; one day I’ll have to shoot product shots the next day I’m putting together packages and then the day afterward I might be sitting in front of my computer looking at designs and planning for months ahead. I try to keep myself on task with what’s in front of me at that moment and worry about the future drops and ideas when I finish. Once one task is done, I find another one to keep me occupied. 

    I will sometimes find myself doing random tasks that weren’t planned but definitely have helped out in the long run. Even with being a small business owner, I’m constantly learning that there are things I need to work on, so some days I’ll be strictly doing creative work, and other days I’ll think to myself “you should look over your taxes and make sure you’re doing that right.” Then I’ll be doing that until I feel accomplished even if it wasn’t something on my list for that day. It’s not really my area of expertise, but taking the time to make sure these things get done is way better for me in the long run. 

    As a brand, what was it like to adapt to the Covid-19 quarantine?

    Kahim: It definitely threw me for a loop when they were telling us that everything needs to be shut down in the beginning. I had partners and other companies who help me bring some of these creations to life were all closed [laughs] in the beginning it was definitely a moment where I was like “Ok…what’s gonna happen now?”—Funny enough, around that time I had actually shifted gears where I decided I would go back to a more “old school production” style of in housework, and I maybe did that for a month or so to not drive me crazy while I was at home. So the work process changed drastically, but the motivation behind it was still there, it just had to be expressed differently—more hands-on I would say. 

    Another thing to become an obstacle was the situation with the mailing system; like everyone’s packages were either being delayed or just not shipping at all. So waiting to see the effects of that play out was also a very big obstacle, but the way I made it around that was just having great communication with my customers. Letting them know the situation and keeping them updated rather than in the dark the entire time. If you keep a good line of communication with your customers, they’ll definitely understand. I would also say the pandemic took away the spontaneity and physical fun all of us designers like to have you know? There aren’t any popup shows or shows or anything like that going on so a lot of the time I would spend preparing for things like that, I just found myself putting more effort into the digital aspect of my collections. Making sure the effort is still there whether in person or not.

    How would you describe the trials and tribulations of being a one-man band in streetwear right now?

    Kahim: I would say one pro of being a one-man band is that there are no other cooks in the kitchen during my creation process. I don’t have a lot of other people I need to bounce ideas off of like I would in a group. The group work I’ve done has already shown me that too; sometimes in team projects, you have to sort of arguments as to why your design should be used whereas when it’s just me, I don’t really argue or go back and forth with anyone. 

    Any idea that I have I can just get to work on it without someone critiquing me or standing over my shoulder as I do it. I’m the judge, jury & executioner so if I say “I’m making this tomorrow.” It’s no rebuttal, I’m just gonna run it. I actually very much like having the ability to do what I want when I want, without anyone’s approval. But I would say the con to that is, sometimes it’s nice to have those collaborative work sessions. Not from the aspect of being critiqued and told what to do, but to work with some of your fellow artists in your industry. Sometimes you may need help, and that’s ok too. It’s also great to have the homies around. 

    Maybe you have packages that need to be sent out or you have a big release coming and need hands to work with. I think the addition of collaborative work sessions amongst your peers is always a great thing; you get the work you need to be done while also venturing into the creativity of those around you. Just a great way to keep inspiration and motivation going amongst artists. There are pros and cons to the one-man-band situation, but I feel that it’s more of a balance between accepting help when you need it, but also being completely comfortable when you’re on your own.

    As someone who has been in the streetwear business for quite some time, would you say there are rules to streetwear?

    Kahim: I feel some people will try to push a rigid structure towards how to make it in streetwear, but what I found that worked with my scenario was the freeform of it. I think that part of what makes streetwear so tight is that you have the freedom to express yourself in any creative way that you can. And that extends from a redesign of a famous logo to an original graphic. It’s kind of whatever you wanna do—and if someone wants to have an opinion on it, it’s there’s have but it holds no weight on the decision making process. 

    I also see a trend of bigger companies trying to make the structure more rigid than it needs to be; pushing that everyone needs to do wholesale and trade shows—and this is coming from someone who has experienced all of that as well. But as I’ve gained my success from creating my own path and doing my own thing, I learned that not everyone will have the same climb. 

    If no one is doing it with me then I’m going to do it my way. That’s just how my mind works now, I’m making what I want when I want to—and those products end up having the most success for me. So I wouldn’t say there’s a rulebook to streetwear, but there are definitely experiences that you should have to show you what you really want. As you move around the industry you sort of realize that you can do it however you want. 

    In the terms of following the “rules of streetwear” would you say that transition from following to leading has helped H33M in any way?

    Kahim: Yes 100%. I think that as I was able to become way more comfortable in not only my ideas but in the way I wanted to run my business, that I was able to see more financial success. Plus it gave me more fulfillment towards what I was doing, like a moment of “ok, I can do this forever” to me. It showed me that I can do it my own way and get the same results as if I did it towards the industry’s standards.

    As much as it is a brand, H33M is also a blog space for what goes on in the culture. Does this blog space in any way speak about the future of H33M and what you want to build with it?

    Kahim: I definitely would like to push myself into being more active with posting content that might give more of an insight into the mind of H33M, but it’s simply just something that will come with time. Even now, there’s content on the blog section but I think as I find a routine to get more involved with that blog space everything will come together as it should. I want it to resemble a window where people can just immediately look and see what’s going on. Either ideas that we have, the music we’re interested in, or events that happen in the culture—there’s honestly a wide variety of what H33M likes. As much as I’m H33M the brand is almost like its own persona; it has its own likes and dislikes that are not always equal to my personal likes & dislikes. 

    Would you say you have any idols or specific figures of inspiration when it came to the process of making H33M at its start? 

    Kahim: Respectfully, fuck no man. Honestly the idea of “idols” is wack to me. I think that people spend too much time worrying about having idols and who’s above them, rather than trying to be the best person—or artist—that they can be. Too many people get caught up in what the next man is doing and idolize that without remembering to focus on their own passion or craft. They believe these idols to be otherworldly when in reality, they’re just another human who has no clue what the fuck is going on either. So, personally and respectfully, I say fuck that. I don’t idolize anyone. 

    What would you say the analysis and critique process at H33M is like?

    Kahim: The main rule of H33M is “Don’t make anything you wouldn’t wear.” I can stand by that wholeheartedly because I’m the one getting all the best H33M fit-pics off; because I wear all this shit and mix and match it down to the very first collection. I feel like if I make things that I would wear, then everything goes smoothly & according to plan—but the times that I was on the fence about something, I ended up not fucking with the product. So my critique process is really just “would you wear it?” Some concepts are cool on paper and probably sound even better when spoken out loud, but they may get thrown out the window because it’s not something that I would put on when I leave the house. 

    Would you say H33M’s creative impact on its customers has in any way had an effect or influence on you?—Were there any specific moments where your supporters showed you that you could do this for as long as you want? 

    Kahim: Oh yeah definitely, I would say those moments come very often. As time and time again, that exact scenario has happened and it’s the reason why I’m here today. Seeing people like the product and want to wear it is the number 1 form of motivation. Without my supporters I wouldn’t be able to do any of this, so every single person that has purchased anything from H33M has a special place in my heart. And their continued support is how I’m able to continue to make whatever pleases me and go beyond what I previously gave them—because I sort of know their tastes now. 

    Like last year I released some homeware items and I never thought about that sense of creation. Fast forward and I’ve got some candles and people are telling me that they smell good so I’m like “ok!” You know? They’re showing me that I can expand beyond just clothes and that if I’m putting my own spin on it like always, people will still be interested.

    How did the Lakai Limited collab come about? For someone who is a one-man band like yourself to team up with such a big brand like Lakai and not make anything regular like shirts—but shoes? That’s outstanding

    Kahim: That was just a culmination of the time that I’ve spent in the industry—whether with H33M or working with brands that I was a part of previously—it was something that came together very naturally. I was talking to a friend of a friend who just so happened to work there and we had a conversation about our careers that led to us making very similar connections to other friends. At a certain point, I say “hey I’m trying to make a shoe with you guys” and he was like “cool let’s schedule a meeting.” Next thing I know I’m at the Lakai office designing the shoe.

    I believe it came together so well because it wasn’t a forced networking situation; like I said I was speaking with a friend of a friend so there is already some respect as to “ok, this person must be serious about their work.” But it wasn’t until the conversation unfolded that my worth was truly seen. And that’s not to say I wasn’t worthy of the jump, but nowadays you often have people with no passion or work trying to “up clout” or fit themselves into what’s going on. Without those real organic networking situations and conversations, it would be a lot of frauds in the industry right now. So I’m very grateful that a small, friendly conversation turned into a fantastic business opportunity on both sides of the network. 

    Without going into too much detail—What are the plans for H33M 2021? 

    Kahim: The goal for this year is to stay connected to my audience, whether digitally or physically. Depending on how the first half of this year goes will determine which skill I’ll use but the synopsis is to let my supporters know that I’m still here and I’m still working for them. I always wanna make more intricate pieces and fewer t-shirts—and not in the sense of no shirts at all, but maybe the shirts will be built differently this time around. I came up making graphic t-shirts so it’s only right that I expand my creative horizons and try something new. As I stated before, last year I made candles so I’m thinking of building off of those types of ideas along with the longevity of the brand as a whole.

    Any words for the readers looking to you for inspiration?

    Kahim: I would tell anyone if you wanna do something, do it. Start wherever you can. A lot of times we allow our minds to be our own enemies and tell us what we can and can’t do, but I think that when you start small, with hard work—you eventually become big. 10 small things turn into a big thing, you know? When I first started this brand I made one t-shirt, and now I’m sitting in my office with racks of t-shirts and products. Checking emails, reviewing new products, coming up with new ideas, and working on my own time and my own schedule. So just start wherever you can. Even if you got a 9-5, try to work on your vision and your passion in the time that you can. Prioritize your time until it truly becomes yours. And once again, just have faith in yourself. If you’re creating something that you like and put it out there for people to see, as long as they can tell that you like it then they’ll love it. 

    For more information on H33M you can visit the brand website here—below is a gallery of several pieces available via the H33M website. You can also follow the Twitter & Instagram accounts for more information on collection releases and other news. While you’re at it, give Kahim a follow to see the life of the man behind the brand, and everything else that comes with it.


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