It was a beautiful Sunday morning and the guys of men's streetwear boutique Urban Assault, Daniel Gonzales, 32, and David Ruiz, 26, opened their doors for me to see their pride and joy.
"I guess you can say that we are a specialty boutique that caters to the young man that prides himself on being different and wearing clothes that are stylish, modern and are not mass-produced," Gonzalez said when asked to explain what set the shop apart from the mountain of retailers in Houston.
The two have been best friends for 16 years growing up in Pasadena, and for the past two years have built a name for themselves in Houston streetwear.
In 2006 Gonzalez found himself incarcerated and looking to make a change through his inherent design talent. With help from his mother and Ruiz, he was able to produce a T-shirt line and begin marketing it to various stores.
But no one wanted his designs.
The initial rejections served only to strengthen both Gonzalez and Ruiz's resolve. If others didn't want their work, then they would create their own space for themselves.
"We took a shot when no one else would give us one," said Ruiz.
Leasing a store in the more populated southwest area of Houston was considered, but Ruiz and Gonzalez wanted to keep their vision in their backyard. Southeast Houston isn't known for a robust retail industry, but that served to set Urban Assault apart, in their minds.
Store renovations in the space at 12260 Gulf Freeway were a DIY job and were completed without any traditional funding sources. Everything in the store, from the rack installations to the paint on the walls, was done by Ruiz and Gonzalez, with the help of their community of support. Well-known graffiti artist Eric Delrio, a.k.a. Color, a friend of the two owners, created an impressive wall mural as a finishing touch.
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At first no brands were willing to take a chance on this new operation built by two friends with no retail experience. But veteran streetwear brand 10 Deep, based in New York City, saw something genuine and gave them their big break.
Now they're turning down investors and fielding daily calls from brands wanting to get in their store. Major streetwear names like Black Scale, Dope, Popular Demand and D9 fill their shelves, and UA also offers guaranteed pre-orders on the latest sneaker collections. No waiting in line with a ticket for their customers.
Because of or thanks to the lack of bank loans and investors, Ruiz and Gonzalez opened the store with zero debt and complete autonomy. They maintain that model to this day.
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Their self-sufficiency has proven to be the strength of the company. It frees them to maintain the high-demand, hard-to-find inventory they like and explore new ventures as they see fit. They answer to no one, and their community benefits.
"We carry brands that you can't find anywhere else in southeast Houston and, in some cases, nowhere else in the city." said Gonzalez. They are so dedicated to this model that if a brand goes mainstream, they move on to new territory. You will never see your new UA tee on five other guys at the movies.
They also use their store as a platform for others looking to see their dreams come to fruition. "We focus a lot on brands that are still making a name for themselves. Other than family and friends, we didn't have a lot of support in the beginning, so we want to give others what we didn't have," said Ruiz.
As for future plans, a store expansion may be next on tap to make room for new types of merchandise, including more shoes, womenswear lines and perhaps kids' clothing.