Growing up in Hawaii and Western Bay, Jake Pyne never did things by the rules. He'd rather surf and skateboard than study, he enjoyed underground culture and music, and, at one stage, owned 70 pairs of Nike shoes.
"That was a measure of how much you were into the (streetwear) culture by matching shoes with certain outfits," said Jake, who first followed his interest by becoming a disc jockey in Mount Maunganui.
"It was the youth against establishment culture; it stemmed from skateboarding, becoming bored and listening to a hip hop type of music. Many of my friends ended up working in the music industry."
True to form, Jake went in another direction. He and his wife, Stacey, established their streetwear fashion label called Lower (based on underground) and, 10 years later, are turning over several millions of dollars, have 50,000 Facebook fans and are opening their fourth store in downtown Tauranga.
The real dude
The Pynes - they have three young children - have grown their business on cash flow, without having to call on outside investment.
For Jake, it began as a hobby - Stacey was working in the Nevada Denim-Surf-Skate store at Bayfair - but, in the last four years, the business has tripled and he's now busy running a team of 23.
"We have lived the underground streetwear culture, it wasn't a pretend thing," said Jake. "People saw we weren't 'fraudsters' but the real dude, and we made Lower our thing.
"Our T-shirts had the message 'Underdog is my dog (friend)'. It sums up the underground culture - anti-corporate, anti-establishment. But we would do it in a creative way."
The Pynes formed You Know We Ain't company in 2003, and it operates out of a Matai St unit in Mount Maunganui.
"I didn't know what a limited company was, we weren't limited, we were taking it to the sky," said Jake.
Designed here and made mainly in China, the Lower label has a range of denim jackets, hoodies, T-shirts, sweatshirts, vests, shorts, dresses, beanies, hunters' hats and backpacks.
The label is distributed to 65 retail outlets, skate streetwear stores and fashion boutiques in New Zealand and 10 outlets in Australia, and 50 per cent of sales are now online. Shops in California, Japan and Berlin are also selling Lower gear after finding the label on the internet.
Grow and have more stores
The Pynes opened their first Thanks store in Matai St three-and-a-half years ago, and it sells fashionable clothing, shoes including skateboarding sneakers, jewellery and sunglasses.
"Customers have sniffed us out and found us," said Jake. "We are being selective and the brands we buy in have appeared at Fashion Week. It's a mixture of streetwear and fashion, and we are quite unique in what we do. The kids are getting older and graduating into fashion."
Two years ago, the Pynes opened Please Tees store in downtown Mount, specialising in T-shirts; six months ago a Thanks Outlet shop at Fashion Island, Papamoa; and, at the end of next week, a second full-scale Thanks store alongside Davidsons Womenswear in Spring St, downtown Tauranga.
"We want to grow and have a few more stores. The city centre was a natural step for us," said Jake. "The new store will have a mix of our own brands and others such as Huffer and Stolen Girlfriends Club."
You Know We Ain't has introduced two more labels, Five Each and On & On, to broaden its retail offering.
Five Each, which goes to 45 retail outlets, is a set of five pieces for men and women - for instance, a singlet dress, long maxi dress, cotton pants, cropped T-shirt and long T-shirt. The T-shirts are mainly plain colours as the fashion trend moves away from prints.
On & On is an exclusive men's range with an emphasis on leather as well as chino pants, drill kona shirts - it includes leather satchels, iPhone cases, laptop bags and strap caps.
Led by Tam Reeve, You Know We Ain't designs all items and keeps a close eye on the manufacturing in China and other countries.
Make sure everything is correct
The design team creates a technical pack for the Chinese factories and asks for samples, to check the quality, before signing off on a salesman's pack used to collect orders.
The clothing company also asks for pre-production and shipping samples. The whole process from design to delivery into retail outlets takes six months.
"We need to make sure everything is correct," said Jake. "We have to maintain quality or else you can get caught out. We are mightily creative compared with other companies."
You Know We Ain't is also getting some clothing made in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh which has better fabric, especially cotton - while its big runs of T-shirt screen printing is done here by Diffuse in Aviation Drive.
Six months ago, You Know We Ain't became the first company in Australia and New Zealand to import a Japanese-made Brother digital garment printer that replaced the traditional silk screening.
The machine is used for sampling, top-up runs and one-off designs. The company has created a Please Tees website where customers can design a T-shirt and You Know We Ain't will have it made on their new machine.
"Even if the T-shirt has 80 colours, we can print it," said Jake.
Born in Gisborne after his American parents followed the surf and moved there in the early 1970s, Jake shifted four times between the US and New Zealand, and spent five years on the Big Island in Hawaii.
At the age of 15, he arrived in Te Puke with his parents who bought a kiwifruit orchard and ran horses.
Emphasis on values
After attending Te Puke High School, he "lived the good life" flatting at the Mount.
"I became friendly with the Maketu Boardriders Club and got up to a bit of trouble.
"Then overnight I did a full 180 and became a Christian," said Jake.
He went back to the US, working as a bellboy in a Santa Barbara five-star resort. He returned to the Mount in 1998, met Stacey and followed his dream of starting a clothing label.
As Billabong and Quicksilver became corporatised and mainstream, Lower, Huffer and Federation became the new breed of independent streetwear labels.
Billabong recently bought the Nevada store at Bayfair and approached You Know We Ain't to sell its streetwear.
"That's like selling out," said Jake. "Part of the underground culture is that getting too big is not cool. If we sell products to Billabong, they would dictate what we do and take the creativity out of it. We want to control our growth and continue to be a brand that people love to wear.
"Just about all of the staff are my friends, and we place a lot of emphasis on values. And having fun."
Lower's latest winter collection is called: Surf is dead. That's Jake's sense of humour - surfwear is no longer cool, but streetwear is alive and well.