Pop-up Retrospective: Avi Gold Reflects on Nepenthes New York
Sep 7, 2023
The Better Gift Shop pop-up concludes its run at Nepenthes New York. This project, the culmination of years of dedication and creative energy, shares many core elements with Nepenthes. It uniquely introduces products while crafting an immersive experience to deepen the connection. Recently, the store sat down with Avi Gold, the brand's founder and driving force, for a retrospective on the pop-up and his career. This conversation uncovered the parallel currents guiding both Better Gift Shop and Nepenthes.
Nestled in the heart of Toronto's vibrant Chinatown, steps away from the intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West, stands an intriguing storefront. Inside are a modest collection of clothing racks, a smattering of art adorning the walls, and an assortment of odd objects for sale. The storefront proudly bears the name "Better Gift Shop." Despite its seemingly eclectic offerings, this store is a vital hub for Toronto's creative scene, serving as a conduit for emerging artists, designers, and artisans. It's the satellite dish that broadcasts Avi Gold's visionary creativity to the world.
The concept of a physical store has been central to Gold's journey. Growing up in Toronto, he encountered some of his earliest cultural experiences at 431 Richmond Street, a collective of interconnected stores. "Matt brought the culture to Toronto," he recalls, referring to owner Matt George. "When he created Good Foot, Nomad, and Ransom, he transformed the city's landscape; it was a gold mine." Gold began working at the store around 2004, describing it as a place where ideas converged and blossomed. It was where he crossed paths with influential figures like Paulo Roldan, Drake, and the Weeknd. These encounters conveyed a crucial message to the people of Toronto: "You can do it too."
However, the fashion landscape transformed as the late 2000s saw the arrival of the Great Recession and the bursting of the sneaker bubble. Colorful Nikes and graphic tees gave way to a more understated style. Gold reflects on this period: "It was a strange time because sneakers crashed, and suddenly everyone was sporting Converse and Engineered Garments, finding a new style." His colleagues at 431 Richmond played a pivotal role in expanding Gold's fashion horizons, particularly their enthusiasm for Nepenthes. Gold recalls, "The people I worked with, my OG's, were obsessed with this Engineered Garments Vest with a shawl collar. They all wore it. I remember Oliver El-Khatib from OVO came back from New York with these insane gel-printed Nepenthes gloves. What really triggered me were those Nepenthes leopard print jeans. I had seen a few people that I really looked up to - style-wise and just community-wise - wearing them, and I thought, 'What are those?!'"
Although Goodfoot eventually shut its doors in 2010, Gold remained active in the Toronto creative scene. "Sneakers were kind of dead, and fashion stuff was picking up. Everybody nearing 40 moved on to bigger and better things, but I stuck around. I'm the guy that never went away," he chuckles. He continued to evolve, working for Stussy, serving as a contributing editor for Sneeze magazine, and cultivating an extensive network. "I was learning through all the crazy work I was doing, growing as a person. It reached a point where I realized I could do this on my own. I was assisting others, working various jobs, and helping people out. I thought, 'If I can work for someone else's shop, source products, and connect with the right people, why not do it for myself?'"
Gold's first independent venture, Bootleg is Better, was a collection of T-shirts featuring bootleg designs. This project allowed him to bring to life the ideas that had percolated in his mind for years, drawing inspiration from hip-hop album art, television, sports, and more. For Gold, graphic tees were the entry point. "T-shirts are the gateway drug to everything," he declares. "You can buy a silk screen kit at a hardware store if you're really dedicated. Not all of my T-shirt designs were hits, but the successful ones, like the Woody Allen T-shirt, catapulted me to where I am today. It was my platform to showcase my vision."
Bootleg is Better fielded orders from stores in Japan, Supreme L.A. and held an installation at Dover Street Market in 2016. However, Gold's creative journey led him beyond T-shirts. The concept for Better Gift Shop emerged as he pored over magazines, artbooks, photography collections, interiors design, memes, and fashion archives. "I thought, 'What if you could buy these things?' I am a curator, so I know that I just need to put things together. I don't know how to make army pants or a jacket, but Nepenthes and Marmot do. I knew I needed a physical place to group it all."
Spending time with Gold reveals a mind in perpetual motion - constantly on the move, taking calls, or organizing projects from his iPhone. He acknowledges this, stating, "I'm curious, I have a lot of visions in my head, and I don't stop talking. I think that's why I've managed to get these opportunities." Gold is undoubtedly well-connected, wielding an impressive roster of contacts ranging from NBA players, musicians, designers, and CEOs. "I've been connecting people for as long as I can remember; it's second nature to me."
Launching something new in a relatively small city like Toronto can carry an unspoken pressure not to deviate from the norm. Paradoxically, there's also intense competition for limited physical and creative space. Gold, however, challenged this notion, using doubt as a driving force to create a storefront unlike any other in the city.
The creation of his storefront was guided by Gold's personal experience, both as shop staff and as a customer. Nepenthes New York played a formative role in his conception of the store experience. "To me, it was this legendary store that people in Canada always talked about. I would take the bus to Penn Station and walk over. I never understood why this store was in the middle of nowhere, but it left a lasting impression," he recalls, "I was mesmerized by everything. On one of my early visits, Deadly Dragon hosted an event. I couldn't afford a mohair sweater or EG pants, but I did splurge on a T-shirt that Deadly Dragon made. I had to feel like I'm part of this thing."
Gold also mentions his friend Nihar, the creator of The Senate and Bedlam in Tokyo, as another source of inspiration. "He spent his days at the store, educating people, and sharing insights like 'This is made in this region of Japan, and this individual was doing that.'"Gold brought Better Gift Shop to life to deliver these kinds of moments—a physical manifestation of his vision, nostalgia, and dreams. "The retail experience is important; I want you to leave with a feeling. That's why I always burn incense in my shop - the customer will remember that. I still remember the first song I heard in Supreme. That's the seed, that's the acorn that grows. Before you know it, it takes root in your soul."
Gold meticulously arranges the store to resonate with people, filling the space with products and art created by friends. "I see certain combinations," he says, "like having Nathaniel Matthews' graphics next to embroidered hats and a DoBeDo photobook. It's like that Raekwon line, 'Yo, son, I had crazy visions."
The collaboration between Better Gift Shop and Nepenthes New York was a natural progression, merging two unique perspectives with shared values. Placing sculptor Shaif Farrag's mugs and Blackfoot Nation tribe member TwoSmudge's keychains alongside Engineered Garments and Needles allowed fresh viewpoints to emerge on both sides. Echoing the Nepenthes ethos of delivering the unexpected, Gold discusses his approach to the pop-up, "I wanted the products to be stimulating. For the collaborative T-shirts, I aimed for a non-traditional approach. I wanted the 35-year-old who doesn't typically wear graphic tees, the 40-something who wears Barbour, and the 21-year-old who listens to NBA Young Boy to all want that tee."
As Better Gift Shop continues to evolve and expand its product line, Gold strives to define the brand more clearly. "It's a way of doing things, although it's challenging to pinpoint exactly what it is. There's a nostalgic factor, there's like the art factor, there's the doing things other people don't do factor. It operates on multiple levels. Better's got to be better, man. It has to become more. People are hungry for something that breaks free from rigid and formulaic templates. The focus is shifting towards community and experience."
Ultimately, Gold shares a common goal with Nepenthes: to offer products that people can form a deep connection with, products that teach them something new, including the experience of where they acquire them. Gold encapsulates his perspective, saying, "You have to go deep. When people visit the store and encounter these weird products or f***ed-up art, I don't expect them to grasp every detail immediately. They should intuitively connect with it. I want my work to unfold over time. Even if a customer leaves without making a purchase, they should depart with a lasting memory."