Photo by Sammi Li / North by Northwestern

In 2020, Brian Chan, 28, opened a pop-up store in Chinatown, where he flipped and sold sneakers. The pop-up was part of Vital Kicks, a luxury streetwear company he founded in 2017. Last year, the pop-up transformed into Vital Chinatown, a permanent store along West Cermak Road where clients shop for bold sneakers and colorful hoodies while strong rhythms of rap and hip-hop music play in the background.

Known as “Vital,” the Brooklyn native came to the Midwest after landing the Posse Foundation Scholarship that granted him a full ride to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. After visiting Chicago with his friends, he decided to make the city his new home – and a place where he could increase equity for marginalized communities. By day, he is a special needs administrator for Chicago Public Schools. By night, he runs Vital Chinatown and works toward the store’s mission of breaking historical divides between the Black and Chinese communities. The space hosts rap cyphers, a place for hip-hop artists to perform together. Chan also opens his store to listening parties and footwork events, complex dances with precise and quick foot movements. Chan is planning plenty of events for this year, and NBN talked with him this APIDA month about his passion for fashion and advancing equity.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You grew up in Brooklyn. What was your childhood there like?

In middle school, I really liked playing basketball, so my group of friends were always out in the park. New York is so diverse, and when you put yourself out on the streets, whether it’s sports or just socializing, you meet a lot of different people. I got to experience so many different aspects of community and culture that really made me the person that I am today and the mission behind what we’re doing here.

How did Brooklyn street style influence the clothing that you sell now?

In middle school, I bought my first pair of [Air] Jordans with my mom, and it was super dope because I was like, “I see all my friends wear Jordans.” That started my path to paying attention to what I was wearing, what other people were wearing, especially in high school. I started to increase my own collection. I bought two, three pairs of Jordans from my own paycheck for my first job in high school, and I would flip/trade those Jordans until I got a bigger collection, so that's how I got into the business of it.

Vital Chinatown’s mission is to bridge different communities. How did fashion become involved?

Because of the family I was raised in, there were lots of messages and discriminations and biases [against non-Asians] that weren't the best. When I got the opportunity to pop up in Chinatown, I checked myself many times where maybe a bias snuck into my own mind when a new client walked in and or had a certain tattoo on their face. I was like, “You know what? Out of all the pop-ups I've done, this is the best one.” I wanted to call it Vital Chinatown to pay homage to the culture and community that we're in, but at the same time, we want to break what's acceptable and not.

Can you share a few of your favorite clothing designs that connect to your mission?

Image courtesy of Vital Chinatown

Andrew Hong is the owner of We Each Belong, which is a restorative justice brand, but he focuses on creating healing circles. Maybe a school wants him, and he'll go to the school and the students will be put in circles. He uses the apparel that he creates to fund that. We found the commonality of our passion for education in Chicago public schools, so doing an event together was a no-brainer. We designed this hoodie together, so instead of “We each belong,” it’s “We each are vital.” We had a panel discussion where we invited four Asian educators. We were intentional to also invite other educators, so there were both Black and Asian educators in the space.

What are your favorite memories from your events?

The coolest for me is the footwork competition. We had many rounds of footwork competitions, and just to be in the room was amazing. The passion, the beef, the shit-talking, the love – all that lived in that seven-hour event. We had about 100 people in this space. We had people out the door. It was like 20 degrees outside. We had the AC on 60. Not only was the art of it amazing, but this is what truly brought chills to the room.

What communities did you reach during that event?

I think the organization is mostly Black, so the reach was mostly Black. We also did our own promotions, trying to pull in different communities that follow us. I think that is the beginning of breaking down historical divides.

So would you say that moment is one where you saw your mission coming to life?

Yes, a turning point not only for our mission and what it impacted, but also the team and myself for us to realize we're on this path, and people are rocking with this mission. We shifted our lens a little bit to, “How will we start gaining some Asian love?” So we started posting on Little Red Book. It's like Tik Tok, like Instagram, but specifically for the Chinese community. We started thinking about WeChat.

What comments about your impact resonated with you?

What's most fulfilling and impactful is when they say, “I haven't been to Chinatown in 40 years. This is my first time in Chinatown.” That means volumes because by being here, we're bringing in a new community and hopefully spreading love and business across Chinatown. But hopefully other businesses break down their own biases.

Photo by Sammi Li / North by Northwestern