The Online Magazine about New York Designers


Jakuan El Haseem represents, for us, one of those "only in New York" possibilities. Transforming himself from the self-described ghettos of the Bronx to sought after designer in Japan, he really hasn't uprooted that much at all; he's still a New York creation.

Jakuan's store, 360 Toy Group, is an odd at first mix of hard to find action figures and his own clothing line. The lines include "Rock Hard," which he describes as mountaineering with a hip-hop twist, and "Oh, Snap!," a line of Tee shirts incorporating photographs by Ricky Powell, a cult favorite who has documented the rap and hip-hop scene for almost two decades.

360 is in one of our favorite neighborhoods (we happen to live there): the Lower East Side. It's at once a showroom, gathering place and, as you'll read, formerly much of the contents of his living room.

LG: I know that you've made toys and you sell toys; you design clothes and t-shirts, you design the graphics for the t-shirts. What did you start with?

JEH: I started with graphics basically, working in retail stores, buying, merchandising, and then, the magazines, especially Japanese magazines, would approach me to do styling. They would want me to style, say, a hip-hop section. That became a thing where I kind of saw the market and saw what was out there and I saw what was missing and I saw what people wanted, I saw what people were doing, what they weren't doing, so I just decided to do something myself. And that's what basically started me on clothing, and designing the graphics, and then from there, it just turned into other things.

window display
click above for larger image

DB: How do the toys figure in?

JEH: When I designed in my apartment, I had my drafting table in my apartment, I also had a lot, a lot of toys, just everywhere. For me, toys at first were very inspirational.

LG…Me too!

JEH: …They would bring me into a different realm of designing, and I'd look at toys and I'd see the way they were made, and their clothing, and so toys were a large aspect of me, designing, even before I got into the whole aspect of toy designing myself. And, that's a big reason why I opened a toy store as well, because it filled up my apartment. There was a point, where everything was displayed, and my floor was filled with soldiers and vehicles, and you had to step around everything…

DB: …So the contents of this store used to be your living room…

JEH: My walls were filled, thumbtacked with carded figure, and now I've gotten to a point where all of my toys are boxed up and stockpiled.

Rock Hard Clothing

Rock Hard clothing

LG: This space is very "gallery-like," and it feels so organized. But I know, when it's in your space, where you are working, the toys just take over…

JEH: Definitely.

DB: You spend a lot of time in Japan…is it mostly researching toys, buying things for your store, is it about the clothes…

JEH: I have distributors in Japan for the clothing, that buy a certain amount per season, and it's their responsibility to spread it out in the good retail stores in Japan, so I go there a lot to meet with them, approve design, look at stores, things of that nature.

DB: Are your designs sold here, or there?

JEH: There, mostly. I'd say 95 percent.

LG: It's interesting. Do you think it's about Japan's sensibility, or the way that the clothes are marketed there?

JEH: It's very easy for someone like myself, to make it there, rather than here, because I'm from here. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I'm from New York, and a lot of it has to do with a certain market; a target market. I'm kind of a minority/street designer.

DB: That's interesting to me, because your product sells largely over in Japan, but it's important that you be from here, and you actually work here, and it wouldn't make any sense for you to be working there.

JEH: New York does have a lot to do with me, [with] selling my work in Japan. And the fact that I worked in clothing stores like Union and Surplus, managing those shops, has a lot to do with it, because the Japanese follow those type of markets, and they know who I am because of that. And that's why it was a little easier for me to start something and cross over into clothing.

DB: So, are most of the toys bought in Japan, or are they from here?

JEH: Well, both…

DB: …It's interesting, because your trips to Japan are dual-purpose.

JEH: …And it's also inspiration. Definitely multi-purpose. I do business over there, it's pleasure, but it's also inspirational. That's how I first got into collecting toys, going to Japan.

DB: So, while the inspiration for the toys is from Japan, inspiration of the other things you work on, like the clothing, is from New York City?

Tupac & Biggie figures

JEH: A lot of toy stores in Japan are like my store, in the actual look of the store. The stores there are very clean, very gallery-like, because the toys in Japan are going for hundreds of dollars, so they want to make it seem like it is worth that.

LG: But, it is also interesting that you find the toys in Japan, you get your inspiration here, and yet, your biggest market is Japan. You've really sort of combined everything. It's an interesting circle. What else motivates you? What do you think it is about New York that contributes to your work, and inspires you, and what do you think it is about New York that hinders your work?

JEH: I was thinking about that from your sidebar questions. New York has it all; it has the positive and the negative. I mean, you turn one corner and it's different, from where you were just at. I find certain areas that influence me more than others, like the ghettos, and things like that. I tend to get much more inspiration out of that, then going to Soho, or a shopping district where there are certain things that are looked at as: "that's designer wear," or, "that's how couture should be."

LG: Is it the way people are dressing?

JEH: Yeah, it's the way people are dressing, and what the shops are stocked with, and it's just kind of formula.

DB: In the non-SoHo neighborhoods, what are the inspiring things?

JEH: Just the ghettos, and the kids and what they are wearing, and the aspect of not having money and putting stuff together very originally and creatively. That's actually how and where a lot of the trends start.

360 Toy Group

LG: Do you ever collaborate with anyone?

DB: One of the things that we are curious about are collaborations -- New York collaborations -- and how the collaborators met each other , how they came about.

JEH: I've collaborated on the toys, on a new project: the Biggie Smalls and Tupac figures. I collaborated with a friend of mine named Masa, who is a sculptor. Those are the first two figures that we are trying to put out, and produce. We're working on licensing right now. I know Masa from Brooklyn, and mutual friends, for about eight years. Masa is like me; he pretty much does everything. He paints, he sculpts, he also does music, he's working on some music now in Japan. Like most of the people in my circle are artistic whether it's drawing or fine arts, or singing or dancing.

DB: Does being in a community of so many designers influence your work? Is the design community a big part of your work?

JEH: I'd say it's motivating, not influencing, especially when someone is successful, and being productive, and it shows, that motivates me. That's why I do what I do. A lot of it has to do with money, because of how we need to live in society, but a lot of it has to do with creating something and taking it from that thought to the actual finished product, and having people enjoy it. That's one of the main reasons that I do it. Let's say that a friend is having an opening of his work; that motivates me to get my stuff finished. As far as too many artists, well, everyone in their own way is an artist, whether they are smacking spoons on their knees…It's very motivating; everyone else sees the same things but it all depends on how you see it, which makes you the artist, which makes you more original or more creative. A lot of people tend to get influenced by other artists…but it's more motivated by what you see. It's how you take it and how you flip it.




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