The Mis-Education of Aaron Levant
How a dyslexic kid with a 10th grade education spun his love of street art into an improbable success story - and why he’s leaving it all behind.
If you attended ComplexCon in Long Beach last November, you’d be forgiven for feeling a few pangs of insecurity upon first walking in. Everywhere you looked there were beautiful people of all shapes and sizes, dressed to the nines in the latest street gear and fully accessorized as if they were about to enter a beauty contest. I should’ve paid more attention to the invite…
For weeks, people had been buzzing about this music-festival-meets-fashion-mall celebration where kids line up for hours to be the first to get in – like a Black Friday with an admission fee. Except once inside, you get treated to exclusive high-end sneaker and streetwear drops unavailable anywhere else; panel discussions with top designers, artists, and influencers discussing everything from process to playing unreleased beats; live performances from marquee artists like Gucci Mane, DJ Khaled, NERD, and MIA; and a giant playground of art activations and meet-and-greets with A-list creatives like Steve Aoki and ComplexCon Creative Director Pharrell.
Weaving through the seemingly endless maze of designer booths and giddy fashion-forward fans, it’s nearly impossible not to draw parallels to that other famous Con we all know so well. According to ComplexCon co-founder (and WORLDZ Master) Aaron Levant, rabid fanaticism was all part of the plan.
“When you look at ComicCon’s audience, it’s not just something they are passionately engaged with, it’s part of who they are. It’s something they use to define themselves. Street culture is just as fanatical as that.”
Which makes it all the more curious as to why Levant, one of streetwear’s most well-known names, announced in January that he was saying goodbye – not just to what he calls his “crown jewel of achievement” in ComplexCon, but to his other iconic company, Agenda – and the entire street culture/live event industry that he improbably helped to build. It was an announcement that caught many off guard and something that Levant is still trying to explain.
“I wanted to put myself back in that position of being hungry and starting from the ground up in something else. It’s always humbling and ultimately, interesting things often come out of it.”
To understand Levant’s mindset, it helps to a know a bit about his background. First, it’s been a while since he’s been hungry…
The Origin Story
Levant first launched his own bootstrap trade show out of a Thai restaurant in Long Beach, CA in 2003 at the tender age of 19. Eventually Agenda would go on to become a six-show, four-city behemoth, attracting the biggest lifestyle brands in the world and toppling industry giant ASR in the process. Not bad for a high school drop-out with a learning disability. He credits his internship at streetwear brand GAT with changing the course of his life.
“Everyone has their own way of learning. For me, getting thrown out of school and landing in this internship – I was passionate about street art and graffiti which then turned into a passion for graphic design. Like anyone else, when you finally click with that one thing you’re passionate about, it changes your life. And for me it was design and entrepreneurialism thrown into a blender.”
When you are passionate about something it shows, and people resonate with that.
Still, it’s a far cry from being a streetwear intern to founding your own trade show. To fully grasp that leap, you have to understand Aaron’s inability to sit still. He’s been starting companies – successful and otherwise – since he was eight years old. “I’m not the type to be allured by sitting on a beach. I don’t have that ability to unplug, I have to keep moving like a shark at all times. Sounds nice in principle though.”
While making the rounds at the ASR trade show, an 18 year-old Levant famously schmoozed up-and-coming vendors one by one and convinced them to ditch the established show the following year to set up shop at his OWN trade show across the street – which of course, didn’t yet exist outside of his own imagination.
“I didn’t know if it was going to be a failure. Fear didn’t enter my psyche until later in my career – and I struggle to get back into that original mindset.” He laughs, “What did I have to lose?! I already lived with my parents! I had no reputation to speak of…. no angel investors, no nothing. Agenda was a completely self-built organic enterprise.”
He credits the willingness of those first thirty brands to participate (and all those who came after) not to his inherent salesmanship, but rather to a shared vision: to create a community of like-minded artists and business people who stand for something more than simply commerce.
“When you are passionate about something it shows, and people resonate with that. A lot of the guys we were talking to in the beginning were founders. What I noticed about a lot of the big companies is that employees or sales people are interchangeable Whoever we were dealing with, no matter how good that person was, in a couple years they’d be gone. Whether I was the most sophisticated on the subject or not, at least I was passionate, authentic, and consistently there.”
The Next Level
As the years rolled by and his reputation grew, Levant got restless again. He started a brand management company to help numerous young apparel brands like Fresh Jive and Herschel Supply – a company Slate described as “a global phenomenon.”
“I’ve always had two to three other companies that I’ve actively lead, advised or owned or any combination of those things simultaneously… I enjoy helping younger entrepreneurs,” says Levant.
So it was only a matter of time before Levant began to think about ways to bring Agenda and its carefully curated brand-base direct to the consumer. But for this he would need help.
“For many years I thought Agenda would pivot into this kind of street culture ComicCon. But as much as we had a lot of the formula and knowledge on events and relationships with brands, retailers, and media companies, we didn’t have a relationship with the consumer, the end purchaser. And even though I felt like we could build it over the years, like we did with Agenda, I didn’t feel like I had another 10 years to incubate Agenda 2.0.”
I get burnt all the time, but I just keep pushing forward.
Enter Marc Eckō: “Before he was one of my mentors, he was one of my idols. If you’re a kid growing up and you’re interested in graphic design, graffiti and entrepreneurialism, then Marc Eckō is your Michael Jordan. I had always been watching what Marc was doing.” Levant had gotten to know the legendary Complex founder after inviting him to speak at Agenda Emerge, a TED-like conference founded by Levant for streetwear entrepreneurs and designers.
“Complex is an amazing organization that only speaks to the end consumer and has a huge digital reach. When I approached Marc with the idea he immediately resonated with it… brought his own trademark energy to it – bringing in Pharrell and Takashi Murakami to take it to a whole new stratosphere.”
The State of the Industry
Of course Levant is well aware that speaking directly to the consumer is important now more than ever, which is likely one of the primary reasons he was so anxious to create an event that would bring Agenda to the masses.
“In ’03 when we started Agenda, almost 100% of brands, their business plan was to create products and sell to 3rd party retailers at wholesale. NOW 50-80% of new brands entering the market are totally focused on direct to consumer via their web channel and wholly owned retail subsidiary. It’s such a dramatic paradigm shift in the business model – the timelines, the cycles, the staff that’s needed, the job positions – the whole historical process thats been going on for 100 years is totally turned upside down and will never be the same again.”
Ultimately he attributes his success in such a turbulent industry to holding a lot of different positions early on and learning as much as possible. “My whole business has been interacting with other brands – I’ve been inside every retailer, media company, and every brand so I’ve gotten a good window into how people operate and move around inside companies. Nike has a practice of moving people around – to a new region or position even if they’re excelling in what they’re doing – to hone that practice of understanding the entire business from end to end. Being strong and being a great executive really involves mastering the entire field.”
This may be at least part of the reason for Levant’s sudden departure. “I’d kind of reached my lifetime learning for what I can do with this space,” he tells me during our follow-up conversation after news broke of his imminent departure. “At each step of my career I’ve combined these skill sets together to create unique products or services or events. For me to continue to do that in an impactful way, I realized I needed to get a new experience.”
True to his roots, Levant credits a talk given by famed street artist David Choe for guiding him in the right direction. Choe moved back in with his parents while in his mid-30’s, sleeping on a cot in their garage even though he was worth millions because he felt his art was suffering from his lavish lifestyle.
“It was an eye-opening talk and it always stuck with me, “ says Aaron. “When you’re uncomfortable is when you do your best work… [Right now] I’m not just comfortable but very handsomely rewarded, I’ve got great job security, I’ve got an amazing team – everything here is great. So to be in that situation and say I’m going to go somewhere else where everything is an unknown variable… It’s an enormous risk. But I believe that when you put yourself in those situations great things can happen.”
He pauses for a moment. “Or horrible things can happen… but that’s the risk I’m willing to take.”
Levant is not yet ready to go public with his future plans but says he’ll have something to announce as soon as late March. In the meantime, he’s using the education he’s gained along the way to inform his next endeavor. “When you talk about the world’s best brands – the one common denominator they have is trust – a lot of brands have a hard time developing trust with a community and with an audience. ComplexCon was an overnight success via 15 years of trust I’d been building with Agenda and leveraging that into something new. [In the beginning] we definitely had an inferior product to ASR, inferior industry knowledge, inferior capitalization, infrastructure, everything – you name it. But with just those core values – passion, persistence, trust, and consistency – we overcame pretty astronomical odds.”
And with those core values, Aaron Levant is ready to beat the odds all over again.
• Be generous with your knowledge and focus on building meaningful relationships.
• Hold a lot of different positions within your industry and strive to understand the entire business end-to-end.
• When you push past the point of no hope and everyone else wants to quit, that’s often when the best things happen.