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MANIA MAG article

MJ Cloutier

Posted on June 28 2015!el-kartel/c10z2

Since I was 14 years old and coming downtown from the suburbs, El Kartel was my favourite place to go. I would buy local mixtapes from their collection and groove around the store cruising the selection. From Robson street to Granville, and now the Chinatown location on Pender, El Kartel has been a staple in Vancouver’s street wear and culture scene since 2003. El Kartel has always been more than a shop- a main focus of the space is collaborating with local artists to exhibit work and throw events that bring out in the best in Vancouver’s art community. 

In the past they have worked with Red Bull to curate a painted mini cooler exhibition and have done similar shows with painted shoes and beer growlers. As a street wear store they are always innovating and taking risks, supporting local and international artists and brands on the come-up. When we asked them about how they started El Kartel, the shop owner Pablo shared:

“From day one we have always been very passionate about art, music, clothes and design. It just happened- we never planned to have a clothing store, we never planned to do art shows, we never planned anything. It just all happened.”

Originally a skateboarder and visual artist From Mexico, Pablo came into the fashion world by fluke and brought with him a passion for art and parties that is at the core of El Kartel. I grew up skateboarding and I was fascinated with all the different old school graphics in skateboard, surf and snowboard culture. I started drawing and doodling, and then I started showing all my artwork and doodles to different people. I came across my ex-business partner that I started El Kartel with and I started doing some graphics with him. We became best friends with this owner of a skateboard shop, and I just started meeting people. We started doing graphics for Option NFA, for West Beach, and I used to sell my paintings; we were like the biggest trippers. Next thing you know my friend invited me to become a part of El Kartel.”

 Why the name “El Kartel”?

“We pretty much started El Kartel all freestyle. I had to come up with a name in one day, I was thinking of all these names and a logo and I came up with idea of a wrestler because I grew up watching wrestling movies.”

How has art played a role in El Kartel?

"Next thing you know we just stopped selling skateboards and then I started bringing my artwork and hanging it on the walls and it was selling. After a while I was so busy I started inviting other people to bring art and to try to help and sell it. We had our first party and it was crazy, so we said ‘Okay let’s have another party and let’s bring more artwork, and more party and artwork. So it was very natural everything that happened.”

El Kartel closed their Robson location this spring to focus on the larger Chinatown store. When we asked Pablo and his wife / business partner MJ about the new space, they both lit up.

“We found this amazing Chinatown space. We are so happy here, such a big space, so beautiful, this is like the dream. We always dreamed of a space like this, where we could have bigger events, art shows, live bands and we just want to focus all of our energy on this space.”

How important is curation and the vibe of the space?

“Its like our home. That’s why we care so much about the artwork that we hang, our music and the people that we hire. We don’t really plan things it just happens”

When did art shows become of staple of the El Kartel legacy?

“We have been doing art shows since we opened the store. We have had amazing shows, like crazy, some with 100 artists. We always give all the money back to the artists- always, always, always. Up until now we have never taken any money, but its getting really tough trying to sell art. It’s been great because they decorate our walls.”

A traditional Chinese dragonhead used in parades from the late 30’s /early 40’s sits in the back of the El Kartel Chinatown shop. It was found in an alley and brought to the store by a friend of Pablo’s who runs the shop Space Lab. People from the community often remember the dragonhead when they come into the space. Opening up shop in Chinatown at the moment is a very trendy venture but El Kartel’s approach is a considered one:

“In order to get this space we had to have 3 interviews with the Chinese society upstairs because they own this building and they were totally cool. They were so happy when we told them what we did, that it wasn’t just clothing – that we do art shows and get people together.”

The art, staff, curation, and atmosphere at El Kartel make it a distinct and vital space in Vancouver’s cultural and artistic landscape. El Kartel has been able to sell some of the most unique clothing and street wear in the city as well as give opportunities to various artists and designers for over a decade. The transition of the store into the larger Chinatown space opens up El Kartel to even more exciting collaborations in the years to come. 


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