Setting the stage for Manila’s sneakerhead subculture

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The key to successful retail is storytelling, says Commonwealth co-founder Mike Concepcion. Through the brands it carries, Commonwealth puts the spotlight on the sneakerhead subculture and lifestyle in Manila. Photo by FRANCO BORROMEO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the year since it opened, streetwear store Commonwealth has challenged local retail conventions by putting streetwear and sneakerhead subculture at the forefront of the retail experience. For Commonwealth, narrative is a strong element of operations — emphasized in the way the boutique works with their brand partners to tell the stories of their wares, instead of just putting products out for the sake of selling. By doing this, its retail space expands beyond its physical space, bleeding into the daily lives of its customers who essentially become walking advertisements for the store themselves.

This has allowed the store to quickly become one of the top sneaker stores in the country, carrying limited edition sneakers previously only seen online. The physical store itself, located in SM Aura Premier, is spacious, with minimal products on display, the space accessorized with wooden benches, succulents, and a large sunlit dressing room located right beside a floor-to-ceiling window.

Aside from the usual suspects such as Comme Des Garçons, A.P.C., Adidas, and Converse, Commonwealth’s carefully selected roster of goods include celebrated brands you won’t usually see in Manila such as Carharrt, Raised by Wolves, and Saturdays NYC.

“We don't do things out of trends,” says Commonwealth head honcho Michael Concepcion, who is also responsible for the optical store Ronnie and Joe. “A lot of our brands have features that show sustainability, longevity, and history … we're not interested in of-the-moment designer brands that you know, just really fool around with whatever."

Neighborhood Lookbook Looks from Neighborhood's AW '16 collection. Photos from NEIGHBORHOOD.JP

Commonwealth comes into the retail scene at a time when streetwear and the sneakerhead culture are growing as more than just a counterculture niche but rather a strong indication of things to come in the fashion industry. Paired with a thriving local economy, it makes sense that a boutique like Commonwealth exists to cater to discerning and well-aware fans of streetwear and sneaker brands and shops, which you won’t usually see at a regular mall.

The same philosophy bleeds into POV, a pop-up space that’s meant to tell stories as much as it’s meant to sell clothes, which had been been Concepcion’s mantra for the stylish streetwear store from the very start. Each iteration of the space has an area designated to showcasing each featured brand’s storied history — a way of letting their customers know that they are not only buying into a piece of clothing but into the stories that come with it. Their first concept in the POV pop-up centered on the well-established workwear brand Carhartt WIP.

POV is meant to be a showcase, an intimate space where the brand and consumer can get to know each other. POV recently launched the Japanese apparel brand, Neighborhood, applying the same kind of treatment in their Carhartt WIP exhibit.

IMG_0004.jpg "A lot of the brands you'll find at Commonwealth are all brands that I feel like I can build strong relationships with," says co-founder Mike Concepcion. Photo by FRANCO BORROMEO

CNN Philippines Life talks to Concepcion about what sets his retails spaces apart, the formula for longevity, and setting the stage for the future of Manila’s sneaker subculture.

You once said that the key to successful retail is storytelling. What kind of story are you trying to tell with POV?

POV can be anything. POV stands for point of view. A lot of these brands that we showcase exist at Commonwealth or will be at Commonwealth. Neighborhood, we decided to launch it at POV to give it its space. In a retail store, you kinda work within five to eight square meters of space to showcase a brand, and that needs to sit alongside 30 other brands. Sometimes it's difficult to convey messages when a lot of these brands are new to market and are still making their introduction. So I think it's really important for us to commit to telling who they are and what they represent and the best way to do that was with POV.

Where would you find an opportunity where for three months we could showcase the current collection and also feature a gallery of a brand’s 25 year history? My problem with retail now is a lot of it is just black and white. A lot of it has to be like how do I make sense of this or how every square meter has to earn x amount of pesos. At POV, we kind of go against the grain of every retail principle ... but it’s that exact freedom and luxury to work without the parameters of a traditional retail setting that makes this all so exciting.

Neighborhood Lookbook Like most of the brands in Commonwealth, Neighborhood is a testament to fashion that is not dictated by trends but rather sustainability and timelessness. Photos from NEIGHBORHOOD.JP

Let's talk about your market, because you market is very niche. Do you feel like you are catering to their lifestyle or is it more of a collaborative experience?

What we're trying to do isn't unheard of. With the internet, everyone's aware of the product. I think the market's here and ready. You can see that. Come in any Saturday when we have a release and you'll see 400 people who have been there since six in the morning. It's here, you know? Commonwealth simply offered a platform that brought it all together. I think it's been long overdue.

A lot of your businesses have a very personal feel to them. Was that a conscious decision to bring in more of yourself into the work?

I guess naturally it came out that way. It comes down to supporting the products that we’re into. The products in here sit right with our perspective and complement our lifestyles. When we start anything, we want to do it from a very authentic and honest approach. A lot of what we do is really collaborative, take for example this Neighborhood event we just did ... start to finish, the space and event was designed alongside their team. While we put ourselves into every project, we also don't want to redefine who they are and try to change their identity to the context of our market.

Talking about taking things to a new level in the Philippines, did you really set out to elevate the retail culture in Manila?

I just have so much pride in Manila. I've always been so proud of what we could do here. It's always just been a frustration of why we don't have or why we can't do certain things. I think the market has matured greatly and people are looking for it. We want to play a significant role in developing a voice for this market in the Philippines and to have that voice be heard globally.


Neighborhood Lookbook Launching Neighborhood through a pop-up store affords Commonwealth to showcase the heritage and strengths of the brand on its own. Photos from NEIGHBORHOOD.JP  

Owning all these businesses at 25, do you find that there’s a lot of pressure to stay focused?

I think the pressure’s not so much on trying to keep it together, but just trying to make sure that it actually works out. I just put so much time and kind of dedicated my life to this and I've accepted that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I think I was fortunate enough to have that realization early on.  When I realized that I wanted to be a retailer, it was like tunnel vision. This is what I wanna do, this is what's lacking, how do I make this a reality. For the past seven or eight years now this is all I've been — this has been my world. It's game time. I'm 25, I've just got to make this really work.

So what's next for POV?

Actually it was just supposed to be for six months, but the mall liked it so much that they said, "Could you do this for another six to eight months?" and I was like absolutely. What you're gonna see is a lot of big name brands. Adidas is going to be doing something next month. We kind of shopped this idea around after the success of the first two concepts, and our partners from around the world kind of just said, yeah, I love it, and how can we be a part of it?


Commonwealth and POV by Commonwealth are located on the ground floor of SM Aura Premier, McKinley Parkway, Taguig.