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Conversation with DEF

Updated: Apr 16

Photo: on Instagram

A small store is tucked away on the northern end of the Auckland's stylish Ponsonby district. Yellow framing wraps around the shopfront, a simple bold black logo that reads "DEF POP UP" is printed on the top panel. I'm reminded of the a local supermarket chain that uses the same yellow and black in its logos and shops. Though DEF is a bit cooler. They deal in skate decks, T-shirts and hoodies instead of milk and bread.

Photo: on Instagram

I step in to shelter myself from the midwinter Auckland rain. Some muffled old-school hiphop booms in the background, not too loud, not too quiet. Willy G, a tall and stocky man with a carefree and easygoing beard (if his beard was a dude, I'd want to have a beer with him), mans the register. He sees me and gives me a grin. He must recognise me from last week when I came in with my interview request. Chey, the owner of DEF, stands beside him. Someone else is chatting with Chey and Willy G (I later find out he's Eisei, a key part of DEF). He tells me he's leaving for Melbourne, and from the tone and body language, I think it's a permanent move.

Should I tell him my close friend is studying in Melbourne? I decide against it and just wish him safe travels.

I turn to Chey and introduce myself, slightly nervously. "I write for Invasian, I'm here for the interview."

DEF is a staple of NZ urban culture. A skate and apparel brand. But also a brands thats at the intersection of NZ's skaters, artists, designers and musicians. I shared a conversation with Chey to understand the label a bit more.

Photo: @defmfgco on Instagram

When I first saw DEF at skateshops, I thought it must've been a big and famous company from overseas, like Vans. But the more I learned about DEF, the more it felt like an approachable, grassroots, community-based label, How did DEF come about?

Chey: I had a brand prior to DEF called ABC, I worked on that for maybe 10 or so years. Some things happened with that (ABC), which meant I had to leave. I went into a corporate job at a big surf and skate chain, the Billabong/Amazon Surf company. They wanted to build their skate program. I came from about a decade of being able to do whatever I wanted, y’know? I didn’t have any anyone to answer to. Then going into a corporate structure where there’s so many sing-offs and procedures, I didn’t really like it. It was too hard to get things to happen.

Part of the reason I went there was to buy back ABC from a company that I had sold (the ABC label) to. I did a deal behind the scenes with them. I would go work for them, and in exchange they would come and help me purchase the brand (ABC) back. But the deal ended being too crazy, they wanted too much, so I ended having to let the brand go. Then I was just working at Amazon/Billabong and wasn’t really feeling it. I still wanted to do my own thing, I felt like I still had energy to put into a new brand, so I started DEF. 

Photo: @defmfgco on Instagram

To me, DEF is very, very kiwi. The design cues and references may not be immediately obvious to a non-New Zealander, but its immediately obvious to a kiwi. Where does DEF take inspiration in its designs?

Chey: I grew up in the 90s. That period was from the early 90s to the mid (90s) was very much parody-based graphics. Labels like World Industries, before they went real “kiddie." I grew up admiring that sorta shit, it had always been part of the aesthetic and what I was into. Obviously, we’re from New Zealand, we have a closer look into things in our local area. Even now, I’m trine push harder in that direction, the kiwi vibe. It kinda legitimizes us too. The goal is to take it (DEF) internationally, and it would be more unique if we come from a New Zealand point of view.

Photo: @defmfgco on Instagram

A lot of it is what I'm into. Graffiti, hiphop, skating…the stuff I'm constantly looking at rubs off on me. When I started skateboarding, it was through the early 90s golden era which included hiphop and the parody style design too. So it was my roots, its all in my DNA in some way.

Our community is also big. Whether its with a bakery or a burger joint down the road. It’s cool to collab with local businesses. They might not be the biggest and coolest brand to collab with, but its kinda more your community.

Have you run into any legal trouble with your parody designs?

Chey: We actually something parodying Timberland, and their lawyers told us to destroy all the goods. We also actually had to pay their lawyer fees, which was around three grand. We didn’t make any money on that product, but it was cool. It made us a bit of a talking point, we just saw it as marketing. The word got out that, so I guess the negative was turned into a positive.

Photo: @defmfgco on Instagram

And also another close run-in with Nike, we did a deck with a Jordan shoe silhouette, their lawyer came into the shop and just basically said to stop doing it. There was also a run-in with Patagonia. We did an Auckland skyline... an Auckland version of the Patagonia logo. The dude who was their sales and marketing guy knew me through skating, so he just gave me a phone call and told me to stop doing it. But because Patagonia is all about sustainability, they asked for us to donate the products or just print over it, so we ended up printing over it

It's easier when we were a smaller brand. But when places like North Beach started carrying our products, there were more eyes on us. With the internet too, its makes it harder.

Photo: @defmfgco on Instagram

On that point, how would DEF consider expansions to markets beyond NZ? Would you want to share this NZ culture with the world?

Chey: That’s always been the plan. Obviously, the last three of four years have been pretty tough. It’s kinda just gone back to survival mode (for DEF), y’know? We were probably close to launching a few internationals. Aussie was sort of simmering away, we had a few contact stores over there. When the lockdowns and everything hit, we essentially went backwards a couple years. It was just hard to get back into.

We had a retail space (in NZ), so our focus shifted to retail and away from trying to get the internationals poppin’. But taking DEF internationally is still my goal.

We’ve got a book that we’re actually about to publish in the next month. It’s a 10 year anniversary book. Once that’s done, we’ll ship that around the world to all the stores we want to approach, and use that as an introduction. As opposed to just a cold email.

To wrap things up, where do you see DEF in the next 5 - 10 years?

Chey: The goal is to have around 10-20 International stores. And then just grow the product and selection a bit more. It’s kinda shrunk back a bit in the past few years, so currently its just your basic tees and bits and pieces. We’d slowly want to get the cut-and-sew products out.

Thanks for the time, Chey!


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