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Kristopher Kites: The 20-Year-Old Artist Preserving Childhood

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Jason Morena for ONE37pm

Kristopher Kites is a 20-year-old jewelry designer and artist preserving childhood figurines in plastic neckwear. It’s a certain kind of nostalgic taxidermy, where Kites encases comic book characters in translucent pendants and strings them on thick, molded chains. The result is enchanting—a blend of innocent cartoons and hip-hop bling reminiscent of LL Cool J and Run-DMC.

Listed on ifakemakeclothes.com and Kites’ Instagram page, the pieces retail for an average of a few hundred dollars. They’ve been spotted on J Balvin, Jonathan "Foodgod" Cheban, Don C, Ben Baller and more. LeBron James rocked one of Kites’ tees in September.

After a chance encounter in an airport, Tyler Schmitt, the right-hand man to Gary Vaynerchuk, invited Kites to the ONE37pm office in New York City to chop it up. Joined by Nick Bullen, a vital member of VaynerMedia, and ONE37pm’s Style Editor Madison Russell, the entrepreneur revealed details from his past, how he creates his pieces and what’s on the horizon.

Tyler Schmitt: We were sitting at the airport, and I thought, “That kid looks like he has something going on.” Kris recognized Gary [Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerX, ONE37pm’s parent company], and we started shooting the shit.

Madison Russell: You were just like, “He looks cool.”

Nick Bullen: Fire.

Schmitt: You mentioned a studio before. Are you opening a spot?

Kristopher Kites: I’m trying to get my art studio together, more of a workshop for me and my team. It’ll be a place to create. And then, I’d like a separate gallery space in Chicago.

Bullen: Would you want to sell products from there?

Kites: No—no retail or commerce. Just a place for up-and-coming artists in the city, and to showcase some of the sculptures I’ve been working on. Gallery spaces never hit me up, so I’m making my own.

Russell: Wow. 

Kites: I’ve been dabbling with how to brand it. Either with my family name or not. 

Schmitt: Where do you work out of now?

Kites: I have a huge two-bedroom apartment in Chicago. So the second bedroom is my studio. The only thing I can ever think about is creating. I was waking up in the middle of the night for two hours randomly and wanted to go straight to my studio. I’m really excited to display my collection to the public, though. I’m a huge collector. Arcade machines, toys, figures, clothes. I want to display everything.

Russell: So where are you originally from?

Kites: Chicago. The south side.

Schmitt: When did you start making pieces?

Kites: The beginning of last year, January 2018. I dropped the pieces in July of 2018—it took six or seven months to create them all. Then, I had a weeklong gallery show where people could shop for the items.

Russell: Do you make one-of-ones?

Kites: The majority are one-of-ones. The ones that people really like...I want them to be happy, so I make more of them. It’s a balancing act. Some pieces are one-of-ones because I can’t find the figurine to replicate. 

Schmitt: How did you get into this? 

Kites: I’ve always been into cartoons and comics. I’m a huge comic book collector. I was watching an art documentary and came across the Jeff Koons “Equilibrium” tank.

Russell: So pretty.

Kites: It’s three floating basketballs in the middle of a fish tank. But if you put a basketball in water, it floats to the top. It will not go down. I found out that it was in Chicago, so two days later, I saw it in person. I thought, “This is it. I don’t know what it is yet, but this is it.” And that piece sparked the vision for the chains.

Bullen: That’s beautiful. 

Kites: So after trial and error—trial and error for months—the chains came about. They started big at seven-by-five inches. They took up your whole chest. They were like $30 when they first released. Now they’re roughly $400 and go up to thousands.

Bullen: At what point did you start making sculptures and art pieces? Was that before or after you got into wearables?

Kites: Before the chains, I did clothes. Before that, I wasn’t in any fashion or art programs. I did boxing, basketball and baseball as a kid. 

Schmitt: Did you find that people were pushing you toward one thing?

Kites: When I said I wanted to get into fashion, everyone wanted me to make T-shirts. But it just wasn’t my medium.

Schmitt: What about your family?

Kites: I’ve never really dropped this before, but my dad was a Class X felon. He couldn’t get most jobs. Or housing. If you think it’s hard to find a job, having felony cuts the market by 80 percent. So he ended up becoming a train conductor. 

When I told him what I wanted to do, he wasn’t with it at all. Fashion? Nope. On my last day of school, I fell asleep during graduation, then I ran to my pop-up shop. Why waste time? I’ve got ten years to do whatever I want. 

Everyone wants to wait. They wait on their idea because they’re scared. I graduated third from last. Out of 147 kids, I was 144. Everyone was worried about me. You can’t just talk about being the best, you have to show people. So I didn’t want to wait. 

My dad slowly started seeing the vision. Growing up, I didn’t commit to anything. But he started to see it. And even so, my dad, a Class X felon, was able to find a job that paid $100,000. If all of it fails, you can always go be a train conductor. 

Russell: How old are you now?

Kites: I’m 20.

Russell: What is the process to make these chains?

Kites: I manufacture all of them myself. It’s a process. Each piece takes a different amount of time. I sculpt the links from scratch to give a factory a sample. Or I 3D-sculpt pieces to give them a rendering if the design is too complicated. It’s kind of like setting glass. I have my own compound. I change it up often. I haven’t made a perfect chain in a few months because I’m perfecting this compound that should look clear and flawless.

Bullen: What’s the learning curve on that?

Kites: It comes down to how much you love it. It only can work if you love it. I do it for a living, so it is also my job.

Russell: Where are you marketing your stuff?

Kites: Mostly social media. When the line first dropped, I did a shoot underwater. In my first gallery space, I was featured in Vogue. I emailed 50 different blogs, newspapers and journalists. The only person who took the story was Brooke Bobb at Vogue. I remember going home to my grandfather’s house to find a rejection letter from the Fashion Institute of Technology on that same day. I was just like, “I made it in Vogue today. How many of your students can say that?” 

As for marketing, I’m a very observant, hands-on person. It’s always about the product and who will wear it. Every product isn’t for everyone. 

Schmitt: What’s on the horizon?

Kites: I’m looking for long-term relationships. I’m precious with my supporters. I love them as much if not more than they love me. It’s almost like a parent and a child. 

I want to be a creative director, designing at brands for a season or two. I’m getting ready for ComplexCon this month. Big things.

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