A Conversation With Caleb Flowers, a New Kind of Cultural Creative

Salt Lake City isn’t the first place that comes to mind when people think about the cutting-edge of creativity in the United States. Placing an ear to the ground, however, reveals a different story. A number of unconventional thinkers call the capital of the Beehive State home including publisher-meets-brand Actual Source and Caleb Flowers, the mind behind Hathenbruck, a platform that operates as a catchall for Caleb’s creative and entrepreneurial spirit. I connected with Caleb over Zoom to learn first hand how he went from operating one of the city’s most exciting brick-and-mortar spaces to auctioning off ideas via live stream and collaborating with HBO’s We Are Who We Are.

I first met Caleb Flowers on a snowboarding trip to Park City, Utah in 2018. I’d known of him and his store Hathenbruck for a while, and we had a few friends in common. Located just 40 minutes from Park City—and 15 minutes from the Salt Lake City airport—I stopped by the shop to meet someone I knew to be bringing a world-class curation of streetwear and luxury to the Mormon metropolis.

What I expected to be a 10-minute meet-and-greet ahead of a flight back to LA turned into an hour-long musing on everything from turning local skaters on to Acne for the first time to how burgeoning technologies like Instagram Live could help foster deeper connections with customers across the world. Looking back on that first meeting now, it’s the perfect introduction to someone as resourceful, inventive and, most importantly, original as Caleb.

Growing up skating and snowboarding, his background combined with his passion for culture and product made him the perfect candidate to open a retail destination at a time where streetwear-meets-luxury curation was booming. The difference between Caleb’s store, Hathenbruck, and countless others was how closely it mirrored the owner’s vision, a rarity at a time when retail was increasingly about competing with the cold, faceless Amazons of the world.

The furniture was made by NorthNorth, a designer that lives around the corner. The store itself was designed by Caleb and his wife Brynne. I bought a silver ID bracelet Caleb had hand-hammered just weeks before. All of this in a 200 square-foot space behind a juice bar, carrying Rick Owens, Dries Van Noten, and Stone Island, among others.

From the time I first met Caleb to our Zoom just a few weeks ago, he hand-painted a grip of Nike VaporMaxes, selling out of them instantly (they can still be bought on StockX for $800), teamed up with Benjamin Edgar on a long-sleeved tee (the same Benjamin Edgar that runs The Brilliance with Virgil Abloh), and streamed a pop-up in the Bonneville Salt Flats. He also designed and dropped distinct footwear silhouettes, including the nondescript Hyker and the Chillbies, a pair of clogs that took the internet by storm, earning a writeup in every cool person’s go-to product recommendation website, The Strategist.

Caleb closed Hathenbruck the storefront in early 2020 but Hathenbruck the brand lives on. Not being bound by a physical location has even allowed Caleb to expand what Hathenbruck is, applying his singular perspective to big-budget entertainment projects and giving him the opportunity to reassess what a product is in the first place.

Of particular note is his work with HBO’s We Are Who We Are, a miniseries co-created and directed by Luca Guadagnino, the award-winning director and producer of Call Me by Your Name, as part of BIGDATA(TM), Caleb’s ongoing curation of digital artifacts he finds valuable. Complementing the collaborative digital content is Caleb’s equally conceptual product series, IDEAS. As the name suggests, IDEAS sees Caleb take to livestream to auction off ideas he believes have potential but hasn’t yet pursued.

He’s also begun indulging an obsession with vending machines, thinking of them as a way to bring his brand to people that don’t have access to such specific products, showing up himself to offer an activation in the form of a keynote.

All of this speaks to a certain kind of cultural creative I’ve been writing about recently on Elsewhere. The kind of cultural creative that doesn’t need endless SKUs to reach customers and instead leverages their unique point of view to attract a fanbase that’s looking for something different. It’s what Shopify is aiming to do with Jon Wexler and it’s the basis for Jesse Lee’s Basic.Space.

In order to better understand the mindset of this emerging cultural creative, I caught up with Caleb over Zoom.

Let’s start at the beginning with your retail journey. Give me the cliff notes on Hathenbruck.

Yeah, so I started Hathenbruck in 2012. The first five years were mostly trying to figure it out what it was and what it wasn’t. Four or five years into it, I got a new space and had my brand list dialed in. It probably was the truest form of the mix I was going for, which was kind of this high-low mix of skate brands and designer brands as well as local brands.

The overhead was low enough that I could dedicate enough time to cultivating that conversation I was looking for. I wasn’t stressed out about selling a bunch of stuff for Black Friday so I could really get to know my customer and have fun with it.

That’s around when I met you, too. It’s when I felt the most comfortable in my space, inviting people in to spend an hour and a half in conversation, selling a bunch of stuff or not selling anything.

Tell me a bit about the brand/product mix you were going for.

It was interesting because I started to curate these brands and designers three or four years into Hathenbruck. By the time that kind of curation hit mainstream, I had been doing it for a minute. So I started getting more into the conversation around that kind of curation and getting more into making weird stuff and my own stuff. Regarding the high-low mix, that was something that was just interesting. There were a handful of stores doing it, like Très Bien, which was and still is my favorite store. Supply Store in Australia, too. This was all before Dover Street Market started piling on the skate brands.

So there were a handful I was channeling, but I fell into my own kind of rhythm when I started adding a little bit of my own stuff and going a little bit weirder. I wanted to go a little bit lower and a little bit higher because I wanted to try to get a reaction. Because I was in Salt Lake City, I needed to go a little bit further in both directions to show people what I was doing.

The extremes is where I found a fun space and that led me to start making my own stuff once I realized I could break the rules a bit. It was a really fun time.

What about all the pop-ups you’ve done over the years?

Right, so I spent a lot of time in the shop, like every day, and I realized the conversation between myself and customers was the reason a lot of people were coming to the store. So if I did a pop-up, they were still mostly coming for the conversation and the product was almost a souvenir of the conversation and it didn’t even matter if the conversation was with me.

It was mostly that kids felt comfortable realizing they’re going to have a conversation with somebody that was like-minded and had similar interests whether it be a designer, skater, artist, musician, whatever.

I started getting bored hanging out in the shop every day and the idea of taking it to a weird spot and being part of the environment sounded more fun to me. Since my shop was small, it wasn’t like I had to recreate a 5,000 square-foot pop-up. I was working in a 200 square-foot space so it was easy to set something up that was half the size in a park.

Also I had all these cool-looking people coming into the store and no one—besides me and a few others that were in there—would see them. I wanted to take them to a place where they could be seen. So going to the park and doing the vending machine out in the open gave a new scene to all this cool style.

And the Basic.Space pop-up in the Salt Flats?

I’m constantly, for better or worse, trying to further the shopping experience. With Basic.Space, the idea was to do a pop-up that’s represented online, but still has the feeling of something visual or artistic that would resonate with the viewer or hit the senses in a way that is like going into a retail store.

One of the things that makes you want to buy a product is the design of the store, the smell of the store, giving that point of reference of what the brand is about without saying anything. Website design has been a large part for people, but for smaller creatives, it’s really hard to do. Basic.Space is letting creatives show their creativity to the world and I thought I could go even further with it. The same way I would go higher than the highest of brands and lower than the lowest.

It was a lot of fun because it felt more like an art project. From the standpoint of actually selling stuff, people could see what the products looked like, see me, and catch a vibe for the brand, but still have the functionality of shopping a website and ordering online. They could do it all from their couch but still feel like they were part of that.

You’ve referred to the products you’ve made your own through different processes as “extended production.” Tell me about some of them.

I started seeing behind the curtain of how stuff was made, how it was shipped, and I started to get more confident with my own design skills. I don’t have a background in design, so it was mostly transforming it and recreating it in my own way.

With the Nike VaporMax, I’d never seen anything like it and I thought if I could give it my own spin, what would it look like and what’s something I would find interesting that I wouldn’t see Nike doing?

I liked the idea of things having a patina or being worn over time because it feels real and flawed in a way, so we dipped it in paint, which would crack off over time.

We started with that as a fun thing where I was like, “I’m going to do some of these for my friends, myself, and release them and see if anything happens.” I also was curious if the community would go down that rabbit hole with me. It took off in a really cool direction and ended up bringing people back to the narrative of this high-low mix. More than anything, it gave me an opportunity to have dialogue with people.

That led me to the Hyker and the Chillbies because as I did the Nikes, I realized, “Oh, this is super fun but I need a product I can make myself and scale.” I ended up basically hanging out with a shoe cobbler for a couple of months. The tradeoff was helping him film videos for his YouTube in exchange for showing me how to make shoes—and I was lucky because he’s one of the best shoe cobblers this side of the U.S.

“I knew that embracing and making a good product, but not making it perfect by the confines of what we perceive as perfect, is much more fun for me.”

What inspires you creatively? Everything within the Caleb/Hathenbruck universe, from the site to the pop-ups to the products, feels unified somehow.

It’s changed over the years. I didn’t really get confident going in the direction until, maybe, five years ago. I started being like, “Hey, let’s take some of these risks and go all in, if not, what’s the point?”

From a creative standpoint, I’m a bit rejection-breeds-obsession. My workspace is a mess and I used to hate that. I always wanted to strive for perfection but then I just embraced it. That’s when everything got really fun because I knew that embracing and making a good product, but not making it perfect by the confines of what we perceive as perfect, is much more fun for me.

I’m able to have dialogue around it, still look at it in the morning, still want to wear it, and push it. That’s not for everybody and that’s okay. At the very least, it’s interesting.

You closed the store a few months ago. Why?

The shop was at a high point and getting a reputation for doing weird stuff. It felt like a good time for me to pause on brick-and-mortar, so I edged out of that. I’d planned on taking a break for a bit, but didn’t realize that all my traffic that used to come into the store would just pivot and go online. The Salt Lake community started hitting me up and buying stuff. It continued that way and I was like, “Shit, I might have something online here.”

It was actually more fun because when I was a full-blown retailer, I couldn’t find time to design and do the things I wanted to do. That’s what turned it into this spot to not just do tangible things, but to create films, music, digital downloads, even ideas.

Let’s get into some of those things. Tell me about BIGDATA(TM).

The BIGDATA download was like, “Could I build out a vibe of things I’m into and let people be part of it and make it something different than what I would see on Instagram?” So with BIGDATA, the goal was, “Could we find things that would inspire us or send us in a different direction design stuff compared to what was happening on social media, which was pushing us toward things we already knew we liked?”

I know I like skateboarding. I know I like music. Social media is showing me more of those things, which is fine, but if that’s the case, then there has to be an alternative. I was looking and I couldn’t really find something so BIGDATA became this audio/visual collage of everything. It was like what you used to be able to find on forums, but all in one spot.

And what about the We Are Who We Are BIGDATA collab?

I had a couple different people I was trying to get for the third BIGDATA and they ended up working with We Are Who We Are. Once we started talking about the themes of the show and what I was going for with BIGDATA with different points of view and diversity of thought, it really just happened organically and then turned into this full-on package of ephemera-meets-digital-content-and-narration.

“The customer now is smarter and looking for interaction that feels more real.”

I asked this question to Jesse Lee at Basic.Space but feel like it makes sense to ask you too: do you differentiate between the physical and the digital in terms of product anymore?

Yes and no. They fill different voids. For example, I grew up skateboarding. I have skateboard videos I feel nostalgic about and I watch them constantly. As I’m watching them, I feel nostalgic about corduroys, so they navigate back and forth.

I don’t think digital has been used that way in the past, especially with regards to the fashion world. We’ve seen it done in the form of fashion shows and lookbooks but that feels outdated. The customer now is smarter and looking for interaction that feels more real.

Whether it’s in-store, online, or some sort of data package they have to download and delete themselves; they have to actually do something. Because of that, there’s an emotional attachment to the product they’re buying.

Going back to physical product: why do you think the Chillbies resonated so well with people?

I was staying inside a lot and just going to the grocery store; living more of a downtown lifestyle, and wearing clogs and messing around with them. I got inspired by taking something industrial and editing it, and I found this cool factory making rubber boots but they felt just like industrial boots. So how could I make them warmer? How could I make them more artistic? How can I make it feel like I touched on them versus just printing these things out by the masses? So this was really just about building my own little world around the product.

Sometimes they hit, sometimes they don’t. I was lucky because it’s unisex and it’s versatile no matter where you live or what you’re into, and based on the year we’re having, everyone’s looking for something a bit more downtempo.

Lastly, what’s the idea behind IDEAS?

Once I started doing BIGDATA and the Chillbies, I realized Hathenbruck wasn’t a retail store that existed online, but more of a concept space for me to try new things. I started to think farther and farther outside the box of like, “What else can we sell? And does it even matter if it sells?”

So in that sense it started similar to BIGDATA, like it might not be a good idea, but it’s something that I’m interested in and might point me in a different direction. Also I was always trying to create dialogue and conversation, and one of the greatest activators for conversation that I found in the store was ideas.

At the same time, I realized I love auctions. Everyone sets values on what they think a product is worth and seeing what people find value in is fascinating. I also thought maybe it doesn’t matter if the winner receives anything tangible other than the idea of winning the auction.

It’s a fun gladiator match between good and bad ideas, but instead of me doing it myself while pacing around, I can bring in the community and let them have fun with it. That’s my favorite thing right now and I’m wondering where it will lead to.

Probably what will happen is I’ll build the platform out too much and come back to where it is now, which is pretty raw, kind of confusing, kind of fun.