We’ve all had the notion to print a funny phrase or doodle on a t-shirt and sell it to our friends. Some of us have even followed through with it. But how many of us have figured out how to get our own branded headphones manufactured before even reaching 21? Kyota Umeki has one such distinction. He’s also got a bunch of skate parts and a brand that’s about to open a store in the neighborhood he grew up in.
How’d skating get into the picture?
In middle school and high school, I went to the school in 12th and A [East Side Community High School] and I got into skating because we got “out lunch,” which meant we could go out to eat lunch. My friends King, Josh and I would go to Tompkins every day.
You didn’t start skating at 12th and A?
It had slowly begun to start getting taken over by the school. It wasn’t that great a school. The principal changed and I think it became a way nicer school; that’s when they took the skating away. The whole neighborhood has changed a lot. Especially after COVID.
What do you mean?
Before COVID, it was a bit more mellow. It was how the East Village is supposed to be. Now there’s people everywhere. It’s a race if you want to get a spot [apartment.] Prices are insane. Food prices, too.
Are you saving money by staying with your parents?
No, I stay at 11th and C now — I got this room I found on Craigslist. I just have a bed to sleep there. A bed and a desk. It’s always nice to be able to go to Tompkins. I feel comfortable being around this neighborhood. There’s a lot of people I know and a lot of days where there’s nothing to do, and you can just run into people. You can walk around and end up with 10 people.
Is that different from what it was like growing up in the East Village?
Well, I don’t know how to compare it with growing up in other places. There’s a lot of people coming from other places and you get to share their experience. When I was younger, I thought it was that everyone was actually in the East Village, but now I’m beginning to realize that everyone knows everyone here, if that makes sense. Eventually, though, it starts dividing people up. When there’s too many people, there’s too many plans. It gets a little overwhelming. Everyone brings their own friends and then a lot of people I don’t know are around all of a sudden.
How do you see yourself fitting into the fabric of it all?
I think it’s important to have something dedicated to this specific community. One of the main reasons I want to open a shop is to leave something of me behind while the East Village is still a thing. Tompkins is going to get renovated like, maybe next year. [Ed. note: Tompkins is slated to begin renovations in early September 2023.] There’s gonna be new flatground. That will take a couple of months and the park will be closed. After that, I think there’s gonna be a whole new wave of people and skaters who aren’t gonna know anything from before. There has to be something to keep that memory.
Your store can kind of be a flag bearer in that transition.
Yes. It’s definitely a pinpoint. Having a store is sort of like having a billboard. It sits there and people can walk by it and see it. That physical aspect of it is what drove me to do it. It advertises itself just by existing. So many homies have been helping me get to this point. I could keep my money and keep reinvesting it into the clothes, but I think a physical space really brings it alive. Everything is too much on the internet. The final presentation of so many things is on the internet. I never felt great about doing that, even though it totally works. You can make your money from just the internet. But I think the whole purpose of making clothing or something to represent yourself is to leave a landmark.
📷 Photo by Mark Custer
What kind of landmark do you see your shop as being?
I don’t know what the shop will actually be like after it opens, but right now, I’m imagining a shop where the community will grow on its own. I want this store to be run like a real store. I want it to be proper. I want people to feel comfortable here. I’m looking forward to doing events and gatherings — not exactly “shows.” The space is pretty small, so it’s hard to think of bigger stuff to do, but it’d be sick to do drop events for homies and little gather-arounds every couple weeks, like having other brands and clothing.
What’s gonna be in there on opening day?
For now, it’s all the older Star stuff that I still have and Hardbody boards. There will definitely be some store exclusives.
You were on the Angel & Z Podcast just about a year ago and you mentioned opening a shop as a very long term future goal. It’s now a year later and it’s happening. How’d you pull that off?
I was thinking more about it and I thought, you know, it is doable – if I put my everything into it. I changed from wanting a shop to the idea of wanting to watch it grow. There’s no point waiting to open the shop. I see now that opening the shop is the beginning.
How’d you actually make it happen?
I was on Craigslist and rental sites or whatever looking for commercial retail spaces. Everything on there is really priced up. I was walking to Tompkins one day, and I saw this storefront with one of those posters with the realtor and a phone number on it. I called them and it ended up being the same realtor from Autumn Skateshop, which was next door. [Ed. note: Autumn was open at 436 E. 9th Street from 2004 until it closed at the end of 2011.] They were really cool about how they used to rent to a skateshop. I gave them a deposit, got the keys and have been working on the shop every day since. It’s also sick because the F.A. shop is on the same block. They’ve been helpful. It almost feels like we’re taking over the block — making it a skate block.
You’re joining a legacy. What made you decide to start a brand in the first place?
I’ve always liked making clothing. Having my friends wear my clothing was the coolest feeling. If you’re not wearing it, it’s just sitting in a closet like a dead idea. It’s a physical thing that your body holds. It’s a cover for your body. The way my friends represent the Star logo really inspires me. It makes me want to, you know, do something with the logo. It’s literally just a star, but people see it as my star and that kind of pushes me to put it on as much cool shit as I can.
There’s a lot of creativity going on. Do you have any other art practices?
I do a bunch of drawings. It’s all like crayons or colored pencils on stuff. It definitely helps free your mind. Drawing is another one of those things like clothing. Or, a lot of people draw, you finish and the final presentation is on Instagram. I’ve posted my drawings before, and it kind of feels like “that’s that.” You can draw it and finish it, frame it and it can be on the wall.
Have you ever worked in a retail store before?
I worked at Supreme for a day. I had never seen the basement or anything, which was cool to see the systems. And I worked my ass off that day. They had a party the night of, and I was supposed to work four days in a row. After that first day, I just woke up at 1 P.M. I fucked it up and called them and told them that I couldn’t come in. It stopped there. I’ve worked in kitchens, I’ve worked in an office, kind of. But I’ve never really worked retail. It’s pretty cool to learn now.
Did your experience riding for Noah influence you at all?
Oh, for sure. Seeing that makes me realize how I want to do things. It also makes me want to try and keep this a small brand as much as possible. I really want to try and keep it more focused on this community I have in front of the store, rather than having the whole world know about it — even though that might be better for business.
I wonder what people would think about Star if they don’t know a single thing about me or us or this community.
What do you think of Star?
Everyone is on their phone. I feel like people forget that there is an old way of doing things you’re “supposed to do.” If anyone has an idea, the first thing they think of is going to their phone. Even if it’s for a shop. Before, there was no “e-comm.” You had to actually sell things outside. Things were a lot slower because of that. Now, things are fast and a lot of good ideas never really come all the way through because they already exist on the internet. Star is like my braindump. It’s leaving a memory.
Holding it down in downtown Manhattan.
Yeah, I need people to know. There’s a lot of people who come through who don’t know.
You’ll still have time for skating, I hope. What’s good with Hardbody?
Hardbody is more of a crew thing than a team; I feel like Hardbody is more the community in the park than a skate team. I think it’s way cooler and it’s more lowkey. People that know, know. And people that don’t, don’t.
So Hardbody boards. What else? Do you have skate goals?
Oh, of course I do. I just started skating for Asics.
How are those?
They’re fire. My goal is to — after this shop is open and running — get out, get more clips, and film more. I think I’ll be able to travel around with Asics and film skating. It’s getting hard to get clips in the city for me now. There’s so many experienced skaters all skating the same spots and everything gets done.
I’m sure people have asked you about them before, but I’ve heard multiple people, including some older heads, say that willy grinds are a no-go unless you are doing them.
Man, willy grinds — I’m trying to remember the beginning of me and willy grinds. I was trying to do a half cab crooks at Tompkins and I would always get into a half cab to willy grind. It felt like the sickest trick. I’d never seen a half cab back willy. I posted an Instagram video of me doing half cab to back willy to nollie 180 out of the ledge at Tompkins and I think that was the beginning. Then, I learned them frontside and did it on Zuccotti one day. It’s honestly a really easy trick.
Easier than when you front-nosed the out-ledge at Zuccotti?
Oh, no. Front nose was much easier because you can just hop out halfway if you want. With the front willy, sometimes it’d leave the lock-in and go into a front board and then you’d have to spin out of it. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of how people viewed willy grinds when I was doing them. I hadn’t seen any, so I thought it was cool and then I learned it was a controversial trick. And with a controversy, everyone is either on one side or the other.
Well, thanks Kyota, this is all awesome. Opening a shop in your own neighborhood. Are your parents hyped?
Yeah, They’re hyped. They’re definitely pretty hyped.
The Star Team shop opens at 436 E. 9th Street on May 31st.
Those not locally based can via StarTeam.shop.