Q&A With Tribal Founder Bobby Ruiz: 20 Years Strong

Bobby Tribal

he fashion game has evolved over the years, especially in the streetwear arena. There’s new lines popping up all over the globe, but streetwear hasn’t always been the saturated market it’s become today. When pioneering brand Tribal began in 1989, by brothers Bobby and Joey Ruiz, there weren’t any other brands to look to for inspiration or a blueprint for success. They just set up shop and created gear that appealed to themselves, their friends, and were inspired by their interests. That mind state has resulted in over two decades of success and trendsetting.

Last year, Tribal celebrated 20 years in the biz … and is as relevant today as they’ve ever been. 20 years doesn’t come easy though, it’s been a long journey. But, from successes to failures, Tribal has persevered and overcome obstacles that many lines today won’t have to face, because they’ve already leaped over them.

With such a huge milestone under their belt, we decided to catch up with founder Bobby Ruiz to discuss Tribal’s 20-year history. From how they started to their success, to obstacles and memories, Bobby gives us his account of moments frozen in time … in Tribal’s storied history. This story is also detailed in their recently released 20-year DVD documentary, titled “Beyond The Four”, which is currently available on their website (TribalGear.com).

Streetwear lines, open your eyes and ears, because Bobby’s words can give you some insight on how to attain longevity in an industry where so many fail.

BallerStatus.com: 20 years in the game… how does it feel to be able to last and stay relevant in the clothing game for two decades?

Bobby: It just kinda crept up on us. It wasn’t a goal or anything I was looking forward to, it just kinda happened. I’m working on a book right now, and I’m looking back, digging through my archives, looking through old photos and graphics … it’s given me perspective. It feels good man. It feels real good just to know that we’re pioneers in this … what’s become this west coast clothing movement.

BallerStatus.com: Looking back to 1989, when you first started Tribal, did you ever think it’d be what it is today? Or that you’d even be around this long?

Bobby: Nope. I had no idea. I had no clue. It just kinda evolved. It was never a mission. I wasn’t that focused bro. Back then, my brother and me (and later Carl) were just putting out what we liked and people were feeling it. [We started] getting some publicity and just having people support us, like rock bands, hip-hop crews, the low rider scene, the skateboard kids and they were down with it. It just kept moving and growing. T-shirts turned into caps, then into shorts, and pants and so on and so. It just became a whole line. We made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of money, lost a lot of money, and umm, here I am. Here we are.

BallerStatus.com: Can you talk about the journey of Tribal a little — some of the things you went through in the beginning to get off the ground, some of the biggest obstacles, etc?

Bobby: One of our primary obstacles was, you know, when we started and the first five to up to 10 years, there was nothing really like us, nothing really to compare us to. There was no recognized market back then. The only thing that was out there — that was relatively close, but still doing it’s own thing — was a brother of mine named Risky and Third Rail and Sucker Brand. Then, Joker came through later on in the game. They were more focused in different areas — Joker was more a Latino line that crossed over into hip-hop, and Third Rail was unique in what they did. We were more eclectic and really uncategorizable. I think with that, it was a struggle to market it, because they want to label you a hip-hop company, an urban streetwear company, a skate company, or call you a surf company or what have you. I wasn’t willing to label myself and just focus on our skate team, or b-boy team, or graffiti heads, or just the lowrider market. We are who we are and that’s what we represent. We’re a big collective of people, we’re versatile. And, the reality is a lot of people are very eclectic and versatile and into different things like rock-n-roll and hip-hop just as much as the other.

This is southern California. We grew up around so much that people like all types of different things. Not being able to be categorized or not willing to be categorized, I think may have been an obstacle I created for myself. But, I stuck to it and I think people felt it or respected that. I’m not the biggest company, or not making the most money, but it’s cool to be respected by my peers — people who I have so much respect for, my idols. That, to me, is worth a lot.

BallerStatus.com: The “Beyond The Four” DVD/documentary, you guys recently dropped, shows the history Tribal has of working with artists on the rise, as well as new musicians. Does it a trip you out to see these same artists, you started with years ago, reach the stature they have today?

Bobby: I don’t know how to describe it other than I’m happy as f***. I see these dudes that I’ve known since way back — the bands (Linkin Park, Korn, P.O.D., Cypress Hill) or people like Mister Cartoon, OG Abel, Estevan Oriol … so many people. To see where they’re at now, it’s us. It’s the sh**. We’ve made our mark, I think, as a whole. When people talk about this place in time, historically what was happening culturally in southern California during this period, there’s certain names that will pop up in music, in art, in the clothing industry … and I’m happy to feel that we’re a part of it. Hopefully, we’ll be acknowledged as much.

If you look back at the old Tribal videos we released in like ’94, everything you see in those are in the new ones. It’s the The same sh**. It’s b-boys, it’s tattoos, it’s low riders, it’s rock n roll, it’s hip-hop. It’s everything, the same elements/content at a different level. It’s always been that way. We’re not compromising or changing.

BallerStatus.com: One thing about Tribal is that you guys really appeal to a broad range of people, as you mentioned — from graffiti artists to surfers to b-boys and gangsters. Why do you think so many different types of people have always taken to the brand?

Bobby: As corny as it sounds, or cliche, it’s ’cause they can see the reality of it. We’re not just business-minded here. It’s more than just a business. We really are just a group of people expressing ourselves collectively. I think people recognize the reality of it.

Like there’s people who love tattoos, but are rooted in graffiti and they go skate. They recognize us as who we are. I think they recognize us as more than just a clothing brand. We show up at an event and it’s us. It’s not a corporation, it’s not a marketing ploy. It hasn’t been built as a strategy; it was built out of who we are. When we show up, what you see is what you get.

BallerStatus.com: I heard you say in the past that the integrity of the brand is your top priority. Most people would say if the money is there, why not? Why has it been so important to maintain the image, instead of selling the company or moving into department stores?

Bobby: I feel, honestly, my life … I’m so blessed. Yea, I have my cars and pads and I’m happy with the material things I have, my blood family and extended Tribal family … it’s like, I don’t wanna mess that up. I think by being in the wrong places [it could mess that up]. To this day, I think people who rock Tribal, they’ll show up at a party, or school, or event, and people still bug out like “Where did you get that?” A lot of times, they’ll say “You gotta go to this spot, or maybe find it here.” But, it’s not like you go to the mall and there’s 20 stores carrying it … chain stores. You gotta look for it. It maintains that edge.

Yea, there’s been some offers and some deals where I could’ve made a lot more money, but yea, it would’ve lasted me a couple years and then it ain’t cool anymore and I gotta move on and do something else. There’s certain brands out there, last year or year before, it was everywhere. Everywhere you turn, damn, everybody’s got on that shirt. Now, you don’t see it and if you do rock it, it’s like … it ain’t cool no more.

The brand I still have a lot of respect for to this date is Stussy. I think Stussy has been able to maintain brand integrity and is always supported culturally. They have cross-over. They were surf and skate and they threw some hip-hop into the mix. What they’ve been able to maintain, its dope. It’s still cool, it still has that feel. Another brand that I’ve been able to do a collabo with is Dog Town. One of the most respected brands in the skate industry, one of the innovators … Dog Town is legendary, but not huge. It will always be Dog Town. It will always be that brand. It’s just one of them things where real motherf***ers know. Real recognizes real.

This is how I try to keep it. There’s been so much more popping up within the past five years that’s taking a big chunk outta the market. Before when it was Third Rail, Tribal and Joker, it was us three for years. Now, there’s a lot of other brands — some of them I have a lot of respect for, some I don’t. Gotta give it up to OG Abel, ’cause he’s killing it. I’m so proud of that dude and what he’s been able to do with his brand. He’s an amazing artist. I’ll hang my brand next to his.

BallerStatus.com: Who did you look to for inspiration while you guys were starting? You didn’t really have many to look up to then…

Bobby: In ’89, the only thing I really remember was Cross Colors coming out at the time. I’m good friends with Karl Kani, who was starting to do his thing at the same time, but he was on the east coast. There was Triple 5 Soul, we became family with. Out here, I met Risk from Third Rail in ’92, and met Estevan [Oriol] and Mister Cartoon around ’93. But, I think Stussy … they had a little more surf, skate, but threw a little reggae stuff in there… I can’t really say from the clothing industry there was anyone I was overly inspired by, but I thought Stussy was cool.

The competitiveness that I had amongst my friends — with Third Rail and Joker — that helped us keep it moving. We learned a lot together, especially Risky and I. We didn’t know sh** about making shorts or button-up shirts or denim jeans. I remember walking down downtown LA one day and be like “What is this, cotton? What is this? Can we make shorts outta this?” We were really learning the business from scratch. We didn’t have anybody holding our hands, or showing us how to really make stuff. When I found something that I could share with the homies from Joker or Third Rail, I would, and they would do likewise. We would help each other, because between the three of us, we were the size of one of the big New York companies. We were representing the west coast from the clothing standpoint. The people who were representing the west coast musically, like Soul Assassins, Korn and P.O.D., they were reppin’ it too right alongside us.

BallerStatus.com: Looking at how big the streetwear industry has gotten today, there’s a lot of competition now. How does a brand like yours continue to come up with new, fresh ideas to compete?

Bobby: Being that there’s so many different artists that I work with and I have such a talented pool of people, we brainstorm and someone will hit me with a sketch or idea … or I do the same. I try to keep my ear to the streets, listen to what people say … I try to stay informed. I travel a lot and I get inspired by the places I go and the people around me, things I see. Occasionally, I feel a little competitive. I know that we have an image and reputation to maintain. It’s just drawing inspiration … is the main way to continue to compete. It’s not easy. Sometimes, as we prepare for the next line, I look at stuff and I think: “I need harder letters, sicker graphics … more of this, less of that. I need better photos, bomber chicks.” Whatever I need, I’m gonna go look for it or I’mma try to make it happen.

It’s the same circle bro, since ’92. It’s four trade shows a year — the catalogs, the art, the line … it’s all the same. The circle’s growing and changing, but it’s the same. Before it was MAGIC, ASR, MAGIC, ASR. Show in August, show in February, over and over. Preparing the line, preparing the catalog, doing the show, coming back, going into production, shipping … it’s the same circle.

BallerStatus.com: What’s in the future for Tribal?

Bobby: We just dropped the “Beyond The Four” DVD/documentary, which I’m very proud of. And, we’ve always got a new line coming. We probably gonna do a part-two [of the documentary], but be more like an artist series thing — interviews, features and things.

I’m working on a series of books. The archives I have are amazing. One book is just of my graphic archives — ones from over the past 20 years, different t-shirt graphics. And the other book is just the photography — photos from the different photographers I’ve worked with, candids and my photography. It’s kind of a Tribal history through photography. Another book would be my personal art collections — cars, art, etc. I have a personal collection I’m really proud of.

For more information about Tribal, visit their official website at TribalGear.com.

Photos of Bobby courtesy of Willie T (GoodTimesMedia.tv), design images courtesy of Tribal

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