Spotlight
MuffinMilk: Feeding the "Hungry," One Shirt at a Time
In a city where bagels and coffee rule, a group named MuffinMilk NYC is daring to take over. Not too many 15 year-olds translate imagination into money-worthy ideas, but three high school friends collaborated in 2008, only to stumble into what is now a New York based urban streetwear company. As the "accidental" brainchild of CEO Gary Haze, the humble endeavor of printing 50 shirts to give away back in high school five years ago went from a simple day of just wanting to make a statement, to all of a sudden becoming the birth of an ultra-competitive, message-driven, and completely fan-centric urban clothing line. And right by his side are his two most trusted friends, Steven Gordon and Courtland Hui. We met with Gary, who was accompanied by associate Tyler Blake. A warm and toasty cafe in the Lower East Side called Table 12, perfect to shield away from the cold Saturday afternoon. WikaMag: Gary, can you explain how the idea for MuffinMilk came about and the background of the company? Gary Haze: Essentially, back in 2008 when my business partners and I were 15, we randomly started the business, and it actually came up accidentally. We never had any intentions of running a business... of being entrepreneurs. We were just three 15-year-olds who struggled (with)in low-income families... with bullying... And so in a way we had low self esteem and couldn't really talk to people, so we kept together in a tight-knit group, and our focus was in art. ...We submerged ourselves in art - graffiti, stencils, clothing or screen-printing - from there, when you think about it, graffiti is about getting your name everywhere. (Back then) we were doing screen printing, which is the art of printing on a t-shirt or apparel, and we thought, like, OK, if we want to get our name out there, the easiest way is to print on shirts. And then, literally, people would be walking tags for us. MuffinMilk's start was triggered quite simply, as Gary says. They printed 50 T-Shirts to give away to people that they knew, and it sparked curiosity when all these people walked around wearing their shirts.
We were poor kids... we felt invisible, and we struggled with bullying. So... we wanted to make a statement.
GH: My business partner and best friend, Steven and I went to Brooklyn tech, and our other partner, went to a different high school. In Brooklyn Tech, there were about 5,000 kids... the hallways would always be packed, and everybody always knew each other, even though it was such a large school. And 50 of these kids were now walking around with these MuffinMilk shirts, and these were in like rainbow amounts of colors, they can choose the color of their t-shirts. We wanted to see what the next steps we could take were. Gary goes on to explain that within the next few weeks, they grew a following of about 3,000 people from their Facebook group page alone. GH: So we thought, being poor kids, let's charge them $20 a pop. And then the money just started coming in. Most people would think, like, ...it was something easy to make money of during the weekend, but this was always a passion for us. We never meant (to set out and do this)... Money was coming in, literally, stacks and stacks and stacks of cash, and we were filling drawers with that money. But the thing is, poor 15-year-olds like us... what did we do? Within three, four, five months, we wasted ALL of that money, it was ALL GONE. We thought like, hey, let's buy this camera because we can use it, we totally need this. So we wasted (our earnings), and we maintained that popularity, but the pressure from people demanding more product was challenging for us. WikaMag: Can you describe how far you've come along with MuffinMilk? GH: Yeah, definitely. I've come a long way in terms of understanding myself, of our business. Like I said, when we were 15, we always felt like we were invisible, and this made us strive to be noticed. In a way, that was always what drove us, in terms of trying to be as visual, to be 'as popular as possible,' but at the same time, ...we weren't the types that would party all the time... Gary went on to say that he, Steven and Courtland enjoyed being on the other side of the spectrum, but still kept total focus on studies and their enterprise. GH: "Really, this was attributed to the fact that we were bullied as kids, we never felt like we belonged, and in a way we wanted to excel. And five years down the line... we've developed our talents to serve our own marketing needs. We couldn't really get people to work on our marketing, so all the artwork and photography is done by myself and my partners. We didn't go out to hire people because we couldn't pay them. "I actually have my camera in my bag right now - it's a 30 year old camera - a Canon AE-1. And people are like, oh Gary, you're such a hipster for having a film camera, but no, it's because I can't afford a nice camera. It was on  eBay for $50, and this was more necessity rather than a choice. We would have friends take pictures for us, but the shots they were taking (weren't necessarily a good fit for us)." He goes on to explain that buying the cheap camera forced him to work on his skills as a photographer, and that it was a lesson on looking for more ways to improve and to learn more. GH: The first 10 rolls of film I took, I can guarantee you, were absolutely horrible. But I was forced to improve.
WikaMag: So, why the name MuffinMilk? GH: It stands for that sensual desire (within) people, that hunger and passion to pursue. In the 90's, the slang word for MuffinMilk was actually 'pussy juice.' And that kind of represented the male desire to chase women. In a sense, males always want to chase something, females want to chase something, humans want to chase something. People wanna chase 'MuffinMilk,' because of that hunger. That's the message that we portray with our product. 
The essential mission behind MuffinMilk is that we create our products and we create this lifestyle for the "Hungry." 
WikaMag: You mentioned that you guys experienced bullying back then. Is this 'Redemption?' GH: Pretty much, yes. For me, I grew up in this neighborhood (LES)... It's such a nice neighborhood now, very gentrified. Like, these apartments would cost you about $3,000 a month. But back when I was growing up, I would see a ton of cokeheads, heroin addicts. I grew up two blocks away from Tompkins Square Park. But back in the 90's, it was nicknamed "needle park," because people from all over came to the park to shoot up heroin...  Our newest staffer, Dan Ablan mentioned, "That was what Alphabet City was known for, right? My dad worked around here, too, by the hospital." Dan also hails from the area. GH: Yeah, exactly. It wasn't as nice as it is now. The reason it was called alphabet city was if you were on Avenue A, you were Alive, if you were at B, you were Beaten, C, you were Crippled, and D, you were Dead! Like, they called it because of that. I learned that from someone who grew up in Stuy-Town, that that was the cultural nickname of Alphabet City. But nowadays, it's this hipster fucking, fancy fucking neighborhood, and my friends tell me, 'Oh, you're such a hipster, stuff like that.' But I just let them say it because it's a mouthful to explain my history and the fact that I grew up here. I wasn't implanted here, I didn't go to college here, I don't party and stuff like that. WikaMag: With New York as the main hub of fashion and modern culture in the globe, how do you assess the competition, as well as your impact on, whether it be with hip-hop, or with our generation? GH: When it comes to the design, and the media that we produce, we try to have an introspective understanding of the concepts of society. Personally, when I look at other brands, I see just very basic designs that don't really have a message. We try to have a message in all of our collections, when making our media (and) our videos. Because we want to impact society for more of a positive change. The essential mission behind MuffinMilk is that we create our products and we create this lifestyle for the "Hungry" - people who are hungry for a passion, for achievement, whatever it is. If someone wants to become the next musician or the next big rapper, an actor or entrepreneur, or even a Nobel Piece prize winner for quantum mechanics. We reach out to the people who have that 'Hunger...' We want to change society for the better. Gary Haze has lofty goals, and within those goals are to create an atmosphere of community, of positive reinforcement and of growth. He talked about mainstream media's projection of today's urban culture. After all, MuffinMilk's target audiece, according to Haze, is the urban teenage group - from 15 all the way to 28. He is aware that the advancement of their target audience coincides with their own maturity. GH: We don't want our efforts to go to waste when we make our products. Everything is all about "swag, swag, swag." What kind of intellectual depth is that? We portray that with our designs, that concept that we live our lives by. My designs are based on achivement, on hustle, on making money. That may be the easiest way to explain it, but we try to project the lifestyle of people who are aiming to reach a million types of successes. WikaMag: What are your projects for 2013? GH: Right now we're working on this current project, "No Hunger, No Hustle. Know Hunger, Know Hustle." We're basing this collection on New Yorkers, because this is such a place of potential, of hope... People who are all around the world who come here (understand) the potential of achieving something. And in that way we're answering to New Yorkers of all kinds that of possibility (of achieving exists), that you can do that. But you have to have the hunger to know the hustle. 
For our Spring 2013 collection, we're basing this collection on New Yorkers, because this is such a place of potential, of hope... When you guys see it, you'll know what I mean.
I don't wanna "leak the details" with what exactly we're producing, but in terms of the maturity of our designs, we're taking it to another level - we're not just printing on t-shirts anymore. The Spring 2013 collection is gonna be composed of cut-and-sow pieces, we're making our first foray into cut-and-sow. So it's gonna be custom hats, custom apparel, shirts, garments, all that type of stuff.  When you guys see it, you'll know what I mean. Gary and his staff see to every part of the business, including and especially with the designs. They have also recently acquired Brazilian talents - the design group Duquegalo and their leader, Felipe Guimarães. GH: We built a very good relationship with guys, and we also want to get him exposed to American culture, and to (eventually) get him out of Brazil, eventually. WikaMag: (We) actually found you guys on Tumblr. How integral was that to your success?  GH: We started our first Tumblr in 2008... It helped us, I guess (because of it's popularity with our age group). In terms of how brought us to where we are, it definitely connected us to our fans at a much deeper level. As far as our perception of our fans, we love them. We love them to death. We are at the feet of our consumers and our fans because if it weren't for them, we wouldn't have exploded. If it weren't for them, chances are I'd probably be dead because I was very depressed from my background... That's why we always personally answer every single question they have, all the messages we get. Every email, every complaint, every message on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, everything. We answer with a very genuine compassion because we love them. Tumblr introduced us to that, to connect to a deeper level.  WikaMag: What is the immediate big goal for you guys? GH: To mature our product. To create a deeper understanding of this hunger and passion to our consumers. We want to increase the 'complexity' of our products as well. The last five years, we've been printing shirts, but at the end of the day, we believe we're not just a t-shirt brand. We believe we're a lifestyle brand. We are THE lifestyle brand for the hungry... With the new investors that we got recently, we're at a better position to do this now.
WikaMag: To those who want to follow your footsteps, whether they were bullied and want to stand up, or whether they are just artistic, what would you say to them? GH: In all honestly, just from my past experience, it's to never give up. For me... I didn't come from an easy life. I've struggled through my life... If you want something and if you're passionate about something, don't let other people's opinions, perceptions - don't even let society's constraints stop you from getting what you wanna get. That's the piece of advice I've always tried to live by, and I am happy doing what I want to do... Money is a great thing to have. But at the end of the day, happiness is much more important than just money...   WikaMag: Do you envision just going after the money, or is it more important to convey your message? GH: The message is definitely more important. It always has been... For me personally, I've never had money, so I've always wanted money. But it's not what (I'm only after)... The three most important things to me are my family, my close friends, and their happiness. And those three things are what drives me, and what makes me work so damn hard, because it sucks to see my family work so hard with dead end jobs. My parents were immigrants from China, they had to work so hard, they made minimum wage... It sucks to see them come home after 10, 12 hours, six days a week just to give me the little that they can. Their happiness, to me, is what drives me... To get that money, I can give them what they never had.         Check out more of MuffinMilk - MuffinMilk.com Twitter - @MuffinMilk | Facebook - www.facebook.com/muffinmilk --- Make sure to comment and like here on Facebook, and Tweet about it! The best comments and tweets have a chance to GET FREE STICKERS and even a FREE T-SHIRT! Be sure to follow @MuffinMilk and @WikaMag, and use the hashtag #MuffinMilk Happy New Year, y'all!
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