Photos: Zach Kinninger
Zach Kinninger, founder and creative director of the brand Basketcase, looks both out of place and at home in his office in Long Beach.
Despite the familiar implications of working in a formal work environment, Kinninger’s office space parallels the personality of his brand, and himself. Small racks of clothing samples and push-pinned photography line the room. During the interview, he pulls a Yashica T4 out of a fake Chanel bag purchased at Goodwill. For some reason the action begs for assigned symbolism.
“I’m super inspired by this weird sort of marriage of culture where hip hop is now rock n roll, emo rap exists and high fashion is streetwear and is all kind of together,” Kinninger said. “It’s so funny, but it’s really fascinating to me. I want to exist in the gray area. I want to bridge the gap between high quality ideas and thought processes and make it human.”
This matrimony is apparent in his product line. All white trousers are screen printed with western imagery and otherwise formal pinstripe button-ups carry full-fledged text and illustrations. If you were meeting your future employer in a warehouse downtown, you’d probably be wearing Basketcase.
“There is a sonic identity,” Kinninger said. “It’s film photography. It’s streetwear made more sophisticated, almost trying to curate and condense and have an extremely high attention to detail and quality.”
Despite Basketcase’s orbit around graphic design, illustration wasn’t in Kinninger’s view until faced with underwhelming tattoo designs.
“I would tell tattoo artists my idea, and they would draw this god awful something, hand it back to me, and I’d be like, ‘There’s no fucking way I’m putting this on my body ever,’” Kinninger said. “After two or three times I was like, ‘I’m just going to have to learn how to do this myself.’”
His journey into art was done so organically, designing tattoo stencils for himself and friends. The next step, evidently, was clothing.
“This is my first artistic venture and I truly believe that about myself,” Kinninger said. “But because of the implications socially, I would never be like, ‘Yeah, I’m an artist.’ Never.”
Jumping into an industry, especially one with a glass ceiling that only takes $100 to break into, came with its own complications.
“That’s what’s so tricky in clothes specifically, because it’s so fucking surface. I feel like most people are doing this because they want to get a tshirt on a rapper, they want to pop off and have a cool clothing brand and flex,” Kinninger said. “For me it’s like, ‘No, dude, I want to learn how to do meaningful shit.’”
His first project under Basketcase occurred at the beginning of his senior year of college, a time he acknowledged was best to open a “live case study” for the brand.
“(I thought), I’ll see how these things are interacting with people,” Kinninger said. “You’re never going to have that many people that you can directly interact with.”
To derive the themes of his brand, his inspiration never lies in one place.
“Sonically, inspiration comes from this weird, meta, ambiguous self-awareness. Physically that exists in architecture and 90s ads and cool vintage, and sort of trying to make something current, but also still have some sort of respect to ideas that are much bigger than my own,” Kinninger said. “I try to operate in this place of freedom that says nothing I ever make will be 100 percent.’”
He doesn’t expect this boundless freedom to come naturally, as he admits it took him awhile to get to that point.
“I think every person that tries to create, and make new things, are so like, ‘I have to make the wheel.’ Dude, just make the first one,” Kinninger said. “Being in that place, actually creates the most unique things for me.”
His first tshirt was printed in August 2017 at TshirtMart. Kinninger conducted a photo campaign using DSLR photos of his friends, one with a skateboard, the other looking “cool.”
Despite having over 100 potential and unreleased skews, he says most won’t ever be released. Some don’t fit the brand once printed, and others only show their potential after being photographed.
“That was the template, and it still kind of is,” Kinninger said. “It’s finding that marriage.”
Within a few months of launching the Basketcase website, he took initiative and organized his first pop-up shop for the brand.
The pop up shop ended up being in the place he currently lives now, two back alley garages next to each other, that were fully cleaned and swept out. One was turned into a full coffee bar.
To come full circle, he created three small tattoo stencils, hoping to bundle a tattoo with a tshirt. He went to a local tattoo shop and offered to pay the artist for their time if they made less than $250 during the event. The end result could be summed up by nothing less than success.
“Everyone got fucking tattooed,” Kinninger said. “Way more people came than I thought.”
As of recent, Kinninger has begun a potential partnership with a brand group based in Long Beach. A side office of the brand’s building is Basketcase’s new home, and the unfamiliar environment has had its perks.
“They have the resources to sort of differentiate into new experiments and different audiences,” Kinninger said. “That’s where I am.”
Humanity is so important. I’m doing this to connect with people in a way that I want to. I’m doing this because I don’t want to be a cog in a corporate machine. I have to maintain this part, in one way or another.
Not only does the group offer order fulfillment, something Kinninger was formerly spending 30 to 40 hours doing himself, it also gives him time to focus on the brand itself rather than the day-to-day semantics.
“This has been a huge jump for me, which has been really cool,” Kinninger said. “I feel like I’ve had the ideas and thoughts and desire to do this, but I was just carrying this really heavy baby for a year and a half.”
To get the initial partnership, Kinninger “send an email into the nebulous” with the PDF of a zine he had created.
“Even though my numbers financially at the time, and on social media, was nothing to jump out of a boat for, artistically he was super interested in it,” Kinninger said. “He has sort of cosigned me on all of this, because he believes in the direction of it on a personal level.”
Though he’s been given the framework to scale his business, he’s focused on growing Basketcase at a healthy level and maintaining authenticity. Things like including handwritten notes in each of his packages is a part of that.
“Humanity is so important,” Kinninger said. “I’m doing this to connect with people in a way that I want to. I’m doing this because I don’t want to be a cog in a corporate machine. I have to maintain this part, in one way or another.”
With any large endeavor comes fear of delivery, and Kinninger is no stranger to this fear.
“I take so much ownership over the attention to detail in every step,” he said.
From something as simple as an Instagram post, all the way to the production of a potentially below-par tshirt, he’s constantly aware of the narrative of his brand. His pointed focus lies on the brand, so much so that he doesn’t have a personal Instagram.
Underneath is this deep desire to tell a story, but all of this is a story that I’m writing at the same time.
“I have a hard time with finstas. That shit scares me, it’s like duality,” Kinninger said. “With social media stuff, maintaining an ethos isn’t difficult because I’ve really leaned into point and shoot film photography. It’s actually created a really cool community.”
And that group, whether existing intangibly on the internet or in the real world, serves as a self-identifier for Kinninger.
“You’re only as important as your cosign,” he said. “You are your community.”
As for what’s in store for Basketcase, he enjoys keeping the answer nonspecific.
“Retail is… I’m not really interested in filling Urban Outfitters. Not because that wouldn’t be huge, because Urban Outfitters buys half a million dollars of shit and it would change my life, but it’s not about that,” Kinninger said. “It’s not the same, for the purist for sure. It’s tricky.”
The core of his goals surround his brand’s identity.
“Underneath is this deep desire to tell a story, but all of this is a story that I’m writing at the same time,” Kinninger said. “I can’t tell you, ‘Oh, I want to do five collections a year and be in these twelve retail fronts.’ I can say those things to people in the business world, and I totally believe them when I’m saying them, but there’s a huge amount of openness in this situation.”
He does, however, have goals for the kind of content he wants to create, and the kind of environments he wants the brand to exist in.
“Where I’m at is serving middle ground streetwear and high quality content,” Kinninger said. “My hope is to sort of stay where I am until I’m doing a certain amount of ecommerce, to where I can fully fund and produce a collection that includes cut and sew and the higher quality print of a finely curated line.”
With cut and sew will come his first dive into shape, what he feels is one of the pinnacle tenants of fashion, “coloring up something that already exists.”
“Not that printing on clothes and repurposing vintage isn’t cool, because I’ll always love that,” Kinninger said. “But there’s something I haven’t tapped yet with actually starting with feeling a fabric and finishing with a sewn product. I’m hoping to be there in the next six months. That’s the hope as far as super tangible ideas.”
The future has yet to be determined for Basketcase, but constant motion is assured.
“More than anything, it is a complete work in progress, and that is almost like what I want it to be,” Kinninger said. “I want it to be constant learning, constant reshipping.”