At the moment, Edwin Negado and Sergio Hernandez are the two coolest-looking cats at Coffee & Tea Collective on El Cajon Boulevard. They sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a bench seat, swapping ideas for a short video promoting Hernandez's April 26 art show at Gym Standard, Negado's sleek footwear and design shop that opened last summer near the intersection of 30th Street and El Cajon.
Once the video is shot and edited, it'll pop up on the Gym Standard (@gymstandard) Instagram feed, a stream of images that Negado has grown into a reliable digital resource for cool art, design, literary magazines, events and music in San Diego. He has more than 4,000 followers, and rather than simply pimping the inventory at his shop— which he does squeeze in—he shares the bigger, more interesting story swirling around Gym Standard by snapping photos of his customers or going out of his way to capture things he thinks are cool about San Diego in general.
"For me, the strategy is: I put myself into the mind of the potential client," Negado says later, sitting behind the counter of his shop, which is filled with furniture and fixtures on wheels so he can roll everything out when it comes time to transform the space into an art gallery. "I don't just want to see 20 fucking photos of the same shoe. I want to see what goes on in the store every day—who's coming in or what this guy is eating. I feel like those are the type of things people fall in love with."
Negado doesn't use Facebook, and you won't see an email signup on his website or much in the way of marketing outside of Instagram, but the focused, minimalistic tactic seems to be working. He's gotten a good amount of press in alternative media, independent product designers contact him through his feed and customers who discover Gym Standard on their own seem to like the underground element. But while Negado, at least to an older generation, may seem like he's purposely trying to keep things relatively under wraps so he can maintain his cool-kid cred, the 30-year-old says he welcomes mainstream attention.
"I feel like Instagram is as mainstream as it gets," he says. "It's so intimate. I mean, I'm looking at Instagram posts in my bed in my pajamas. That's every media buyer's dream to get into where people don't have their walls up. That's way more effective than if I'm driving and seeing a billboard on the street. I feel like Instagram, it just is the new mainstream."
Negado was born and raised in San Diego, but he cut his teeth at W + K 12, a cutting-edge, experimental design and advertising school run by Weiden + Kennedy, an advertising agency in Portland, Ore., which accepts just 13 students a year into their competitive program. From there, he landed a job as a product-line manager at Vans, where he was the middleman between the marketing department and the shoe designers. He wrote design briefs detailing whom a particular shoe was intended for, setting specific goals and objectives for the shoe designers. While the gig taught him a lot about marketing and thinking about what customers want, he started feeling disconnected from the people he was hired to understand.
"The Vans thing was really cool because I got to see the landscape of business on a corporate level," Negado says. "But I didn't like the corporate lifestyle. I felt like I needed to be back in the wild. I needed to be with real people, not numbers and not behind a screen."
Negado says every penny he made at his corporate job went into opening Gym Standard, which he built with his uncle and dad, carving the space out of the huge storefront that formerly housed ABC Piano Co. Attracted to the energy of North Park and the new, creative businesses like Coffee & Tea Collective cropping up in the revitalized stretch of El Cajon Boulevard between 30th and Ohio streets, he wanted to take a chance on opening the shop before he got priced out.
"I didn't see the traffic quite yet, but I felt like I wanted to get in early before that transition happened," he says.
Shoes, ceramics, magazines, art books, clothing and products geared toward those with an eye for design are Gym Standard's bread and butter, but showing art was always part of the business plan. Negado has hosted several artists in his space since opening nearly a year ago, including Dolan Stearns, Julian Klincewicz and a recent poster-art group show benefitting the neighboring Media Arts Center San Diego.
While the young entrepreneur doesn't like to call himself a curator, he's managed to sell out most of the shows. That's because moving artwork and making sure his artists get paid is something Negado considers an integral part of his job. He agonizes over the marketing of every show and each individual artist, fussing over every photo or video that ends up online. For Klincewicz's show, for instance, he borrowed a friend's drone and enlisted the help of young filmmakers in producing a video for Instagram that includes compelling aerial footage; in just 15 seconds, it conveys the show details while making Klincewicz look like an artist you might like to get to know.
"We always need to be reinventing how we talk about art and how we market art, because, you know, you need more than just a date and a picture of what's going to be in the show," Negado explains. "I think there needs to be more storytelling, which is what I learned in advertising: You've got to get people to fall in love with the art before they even go to the show. If they're coming here April 26 and they have no idea what they're going to see, that means I fucking failed as a promoter of the arts. If you're showing art, you better be fucking working your ass off because your artists are working their asses off, right?"