The pandemic, particularly the Black Lives Matter uprisings, inspired an identity crisis for Ng and the brand that’s an inextricable part of him. What was the point of merely making clothes? “We’re raising a bunch of money through charity-donation stuff,” he said. “That was really cool, but I was like, ‘What more can we do besides fundraising and selling T-shirts? For me, the idea of inclusivity and diversity had to happen through actually problem-solving.”
Ng did end up making a T-shirt that raised half a million dollars for BLM, and the brand ended up growing by around 200%, he said. But Ng threw the rest of the playbook out the window and decided that the path forward for Brain Dead was to double down on building real, physical communities—places where people from all walks of life can gather together.
“These places like movie theaters and punk clubs were closing down, [the owners] couldn’t afford it.” Ng said. “How do you save these things?
“I’m a for-profit business, but my business is built off culture. If we’re saying we’re a lifestyle brand, then we need to create culture.”
Ng’s life changed on the mirrored surface of a mixtape burned onto a CD. Like a video game protagonist, the disc appeared in front of teenaged Ng one day in the hallway of his middle school. It was filled with bands like the Get Up Kids, Alkaline Trio, and Saves the Day. Ng, who grew up in the Bay Area town of Orinda, just a short drive from Berkeley, started going to punk shows. He joined bands and attended shows in roller rinks. Eventually, he dropped out of high school to study film and came to LA when he was 18, in 2005. “Since I was a kid I’ve been obsessed with the idea of not fitting it,” Ng said. “Not, like, in a corny way.” (That, too, could be the Brain Dead ethos.)
He started hanging around 181 Martel Gallery, which is run by Dr. Romanelli, the artist famous for repurposing vintage clothes. Romanelli asked him to create a window display for a collection of patchwork Jordan jackets. The idea inspired Ng, then 22, to start making bags and T-shirts out of scraps of found material. He would bike around to retailers with his wares all stuffed inside a bag and started finding interested stockists. Levi’s wanted him to make bags, and the legendary Japanese retailer Beams called to place a sizable order. He christened his fledgling brand Farmtactics.
In 2013, Ng started working with Urban Outfitters on an outdoor concept that would stock brands like Fjallraven and Outlier alongside Farmtactics. Although the retailer was obsessed with Americana at the time, Ng saw its future. “I’m just like, ‘Kids don’t care about this, kids want to wear graphic T-shirts.’” He started work on a streetwear brand built specifically to fill this need for Urban Outfitters. “They canceled it because the owner didn’t understand it,” Ng said. UO was dead set against graphic tees. “So, I was like, ‘Fuck you guys. Let’s launch it.’” Brain Dead was born.