When I sit down to interview Marcelo Burlon, I ask the DJ and creative director the usual icebreaker questions. Was it his first time in Toronto? No, the fifth. He‘s come here before for gigs. Was he staying at the Hazelton Hotel, favoured by his friend and partner in burgeoning luxury company New Guards Group, Virgil Abloh? No, the Four Seasons. Like Drake, I joke—which is fitting since the artist is a fan of Burlon’s label County of Milan.
This time Burlon is in town to promote his latest collab—a sneaker design for Reebok. The shoe, which comes in black or white, adheres to the sleek sock-like designs that have been popular of late. “Just easy and simple,” Burlon remarks as I turn the lightweight shoe in my hand. This sleek sneaker, like much of what Burlon touches, already has the youth (and the sneaker blogosphere) abuzz ahead of its exclusive debut at Saks Fifth Avenue in Canada. Once I put the shoe down, our conversation shifts to Burlon’s unlikely fashion success story (let’s just say it involved being at the right nightclubs at the right time), why he doesn’t consider himself a designer and the importance of living only in the present.
You’ve had so many different jobs—DJ, event planner, stylist and now creative director. Is there something in your personality that enables you to do all of these things simultaneously?
“I feel super free. I’m super lucky because I’m able to do whatever I like to do. I also have my partners that allow me to create beautiful things. I found myself at the right place at the right moment. And of course, each of us feels our own destiny. I feel very lucky.”
But you capitalized on that right moment.
“Absolutely. When I started my brand, I never thought that it would be so big because it was just one of my projects. For my whole life I’ve spoken to a very niche type of customer because I have been working in clubs for the last 20 years. My parties were super underground, in the basement of some club, Raf Simons on the dance floor. When I decided to launch [County of Milan] I had been working for many independent magazines and I worked for Prada for many years on their special events. And then social media came out. I was building my network through music and DJing. And then I was like, ‘lets do a T-shirt brand.’ And in a very short time everyone went crazy.”
Why do you think the T-shirts were a hit?
“They were quite unique, quite recognizable. It was a moment when my audience, the party scene, they wanted to belong to something. I was DJing in Moscow, San Francisco, New York but people wanted to be part of my tribe, something that I was building around the world. So they started buying. And then Pusha T came out with a T-shirt in a video, and Drake posted a few photos. And they all bought it. I never gifted anyone, I didn’t have the money.”
Do you consider your brand a luxury brand? Like Off-White?
“Half and half. Because there are things like this leather jacket and the price is super high, but the quality is amazing. And then you’ll find a t-shirt for like $200. But it’s still luxury because the quality is super high. So, what is luxury today? We have to define it.”
So what is it?
“Something that’s well made, it’s the graphics and the research behind it. The concept, the communications. It’s everything—the whole package.”
You don’t like to call yourself a designer.
“I’m not a designer. I never went to school for it. I never went to college. I went to clean hotel rooms with my mom. That was my school. And then the street, and the clubs. That was my real school. When I launched my brand, it was because I’m really good at putting things together and seeing the talent of people and bringing them into my world. So it’s not just about me.“
You make it sound so easy, so accessible.
“We’re connected to these people. They really care about what we say, and they really care about our vision. And they embrace it. Virgil and I are super lucky because we could build a brand and we have a big responsibility to these kids.“
And that’s what I feel separates you from the old-school luxury houses. You’re speaking directly to the youth of today. And they want to reach the same audience.
“Yes, but they cannot reach the youth. They are not down at the street, they’re not on the dance floors. That’s what we have in common with this new generation, this new wave. We are the DJs, we’re connected like a stairway to the people. Even on social media, we answer, it’s me, it’s Virgil.“
I interviewed Virgil a few months ago, and something that stood out to me was when he said, “the future is not that exciting of a concept to me.” Does the future excite you?
“I’m reading this incredible guy, Eckhart Tolle. He’s like ‘the past is gone. Let’s talk about the present and be connected to the now.’ The future will come. The future is now.“
And you have a documentary of your life coming out soon?
“Yes, November or December this year. It’s not like ‘ha-ha-fashion,’ it’s a proper story. I’m sharing my point of view about the fashion system. I have 20 years of footage.”
You also just wrapped shooting an Italian reality TV show [editor’s note: the show is similar to The Amazing Race, but the participants trek through different countries with no money while completing various challenges.]
“It changed my life. We went to amazing tribes in the mountains, eating with the Shamans. It was touching, it really changed me, seeing people living with so little. I didn’t come from a rich family. I’ve been in poverty, for real. But having that for a month, no phone, no money. You just have your identity, you’re just a person. You don’t have those half a million Instagram followers. It’s about really connecting with people and with yourself. It’s a journey, but more than anything it’s a journey inside yourself.“
The Marcelo Burlon Reebok sneaker ($428) is available at Saks Fifth Avenue.
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