Founded in 2010—or thereabouts—Brooklyn’s LQQK Studios is a screenprinting shop whose services have become a key cog in its creative community. As founder Alex Dondero tells it, their client base is anchored by long-standing, mutually-supportive partnerships, and Dondero credits this interdependence for his studio’s longevity. Some of their clients include Tom Sachs’ studio, the musically-inspired label Bookworks, and CNY NYC, from photographer Peter Sutherland and artist Maia Ruth-Lee. “Servicing a community and constantly trying to reinvent and be creative” is the LQQK motto.
To the latter point, LQQK’s own brand isn’t just graphics slapped on tees — while most of their output hews to standard garment types, they often add subtle construction tweaks that refresh the classics. A personal favorite: the trademark LQQK Studio hoodie, which features a snap closure at the collar rather than the standard adjustable drawstring.
The LQQK team is small but mighty. “It's an ever-evolving cast,” says Dondero. In addition to a regular print shop crew of six, Dondero notes that there are “plenty of people who are LQQK studio lifers who don't come in on the daily anymore but who we consider family and who helped us where we are.”
On Saturday, November 21, LQQK will release its second collaboration with Vault by Vans. Consisting of an OG Chukka LX and an OG Mule LX — each available in three colors — and a capsule collection of apparel, the goal with this collaboration was simply to produce more durable versions of styles the LQQK crew already loved. To celebrate the collaboration, they’ve partnered with online radio station NTS on five days of mixes from NYC DJs and producers. Beginning with a mix from AceMo and MoMa Ready released earlier this week, the series wraps up Saturday with a contribution from the Discwoman collective.
I spoke with Dondero earlier this week about his relationship with Vans and what he’s learned over the past decade of running LQQK.
What's on your plate right now? Obviously, you have the Vans launch coming up.
We’ve got our own little December line sheet that's gonna hit stores at the end of this month—our big focus right now is finishing up production on that. Also, through Vans, we partnered with NTS and this pretty amazing collection of New York DJs and producers. We made a zine from a bunch of interviews with and photos of them, and there's a five-part mini-series that's going to be up on NTS this week leading into the Vans launch.
That's amazing. Could you tell us about the DJs and producers involved?
First up is Haus of Altr with AceMo and MoMA Ready. They've been really really crushing it in New York recently. And then the next is BANK Records—contributing on that mix is the owner of Bank, Entro Senestre, and then Bookworms and Via App will be on it, as well. CHROMA NY is the third collective, and Blazer Sound System is the fourth. Blazer are OG homies and they break up the really heavy techno vibe we’ve been laying. Then, lastly, Discwoman, which is pretty fucking awesome, too. That’s going to be a really special one because they got Juliana Huxtable to add to the mix, as well.
Evening listening for the rest of the week sorted, then. Is this collab with Vans the first sneaker collab you guys have done?
No, we did a Vans in 2018, so we already had a working relationship. We had had a few other potential collaborations kicking around and I always held out to do a Vans collaboration because Vans are just the shoes that I tend to wear the most. It's kind of an ideal collaboration for me. It’s a dream collaboration for me, so I always want to maintain the relationship with Vans.
It's more fun to work with the same people over and over again. You end up building on something rather than starting fresh every time.
That's exactly what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to expand on the groundwork that we’ve laid and have people know that whatever we put out is going to be special and exciting.
We had had a few other potential collaborations kicking around and I always held out to do a Vans collaboration because Vans are just the shoes that I tend to wear the most. It's kind of an ideal collaboration for me.
Where did your relationship with Vans start? Are you a West coast guy that grew up skating in them, or were they just the shoes that happened to be the most comfy?
I'm from the East coast. I grew up outside Philadelphia, lived in Baltimore, and ended up in New York, so it wasn't so much a California thing. I did have a lot of friends that skated them, but by the time I really learned to love Vans I’d stopped skating. there wasn't ever really my skate shoe. The era of Vans that I grew up with was, like, the bulky loaves of bread you wear on your feet, not the really slim silhouette. So, I kind of had to get educated on the real history of Vans, and then Authentics were always my go-to. You know it's going to look good and you know they're affordable so you can beat the shit out of them like. It's an easy wear, so that's why I’ve always connected with them.
That’s what a sneaker is supposed to be. The point of a sneaker, to me, is that you know you can get them wherever you are. If you're traveling around the world and need to replace them you can probably find a Vans Authentic wherever you're at, and you can fuck them up and it doesn't matter.
With this collection, though, I knew I wanted to use really premium materials. I wanted basically Timberland-grade leather because I really do run through Vans so quickly. I really do thrash them. So, let’s make a sturdier pair that will really hold up and be the pair that people come a little bit further out pocket for but end up having for twice as long.
You founded LQQK in 2010, right?
It’s tough to put a real time stamp on it, but, yeah, 2010 seems a good place to put it.
I'm glad that we were able to do 10 years. The studio has always been a Hail Mary where it's like, yo, this is what I'm doing and I don't really have a backup plan. So, to be able to maintain it is just just a dream.
2020 has been a weird year to reflect on the past, given that the day-to-day is so insane and unpredictable, but I'm wondering if you’ve found time to reflect much on having been doing what you're doing for the past decade and what you’ve learned along the way.
I always try to surround myself with people that are inspiring and driven. I maintain such a fast-paced course, and that doesn't really give you time to reflect. We're just always crushing work for other people, doing stuff for ourselves, just trying to build on what works, what we've laid down already. But I'm glad that we were able to do 10 years. The studio has always been a Hail Mary where it's like, yo, this is what I'm doing and I don't really have a backup plan. So, to be able to maintain it is just just a dream. I just want to keep maintaining all the relationships that we have, whether it's with collaborators or whether it's with actual clients that we print for.
10 years is quite an achievement for sure, so, congratulations to you and you and the whole crew. What's the breakdown between your own stuff versus client work, stuff you're printing for other people?
We’ve only recently become more dedicated to adding regular releases of our own stuff. We ended up finding it so much more rewarding. It kinda took us to the last year or two to really tapped into that, because it's difficult to turn people down that want to get stuff produced, but the more that we get traction with our own stuff, we have to be able to find that balance. Some months it's 70 percent other people's work, 30 percent our work. Other months it's zero percent our work. But we're trying to get to a more healthy 50/50, something like that.
We've always focused on the quality of what we produce, but we've also made sure that we're servicing a community that we feel like we're actively participating in.
This summer was obviously a particularly wild one by New York standards with daily protests and people assembling to fight for justice in America. You guys did a couple t-shirts in support of some of those initiatives. How did those projects manifest for you guys?
It's a bittersweet thing, because obviously the morale in the US over the last four years made people reckon with how fucked up things have been for a really long time. These last four years have been such a slap in the face. Things have to come to a head because they’re just so unbalanced. With the murder of George Floyd, I don't know how anyone could just stand by idly and not want to take action. Printing shirts is our forte, so it felt like the obvious thing to do to try and have a fundraiser where a hundred percent was donated to a proper conduit for change.
It was so exciting to be able to raise over $20,000 for the NAACP’s legal defense fund, but I'll tell you what, it felt like nothing. It felt like not doing enough, and I still feel that way. It's really changed our mentality, and I think New York has become stronger because of it. People are really galvanized, and that's exciting to see.
Based on the election results from the other week, are you feeling any sort of optimism?
I mean, a politician’s a politician. You can't really get worse than Trump, so there is a sigh of relief in the sense that a leveller head is stepping into office and that happens to be someone in the Democratic party. But we can't take our foot off the gas when it comes to the changes that need to happen. I definitely feel as though something has been woken up inside of me and that we have a moral obligation to raise children in a better world. I'm about to be a father, too, so we're talking about it all the time, how we just want to make sure we bring our future daughter into a better world.
Congratulations! There are a lot of young people trying to enter the lane that you're in and start their own studios, start little brands of their own. Any advice that you might have for someone just starting out?
There's probably two things that I did when I started printing for other people and started my own brand. That's the thing about little studios—we don't just print for ourselves. We've always focused on the quality of what we produce, but we've also made sure that we're servicing a community that we feel like we're actively participating in. We're interested in building relationships with people. That's what's really allowed us to have that longevity. Anyone trying to start a brand or anything creatively, you’ve got to surround yourself with people that inspire you and that you can work with to build something bigger.
The other thing is just constantly just trying to constantly learn something new and achieve things that are bigger and better. Don't just get comfy. We make safe decisions all the time, but we also make sure that a lot of our decisions are kind of off the wall. That’s appropriate for Vans, right? [Laughs]