Boston’s street apparel boutique Bodega is a bit like Narnia—it’s got all kinds of cool stuff inside, it’s full of colorful characters, and it’s hidden behind a seemingly ordinary portal, which, in this case, is a Snapple vending machine rather than a magical wardrobe.
Tucked away on Clearway Street in the Back Bay area, Bodega looks like an old, unmarked 7/11 to the casual passerby. Toilet paper rolls and Brillo cleaner are displayed in the windows, and canned beans, shaving cream, and jarred pickles are stacked on the shop’s shelves. For those who know no better, the space is just a normally functioning convenience store, but for Bodega’s followers and sneaker fans worldwide, it’s the place to get the freshest kicks and threads—as well as a peach iced tea for the road.
Bodega, founded by Oliver Mak, Dan Natola, and Jay Gordon, has been around for nearly a decade now, building its almost mythical allure by taking a “less is more” approach when it comes to advertising. There’s no sign. There’s no phone number. And for a while, there was no real website. For Bodega, those things don’t quite matter so much. What does matter is the product and the culture that inspires it.
Opening a new business, according to Mak—who DJs, makes pancakes and stir-fry, and ran the now-closed 4th Wall Project art gallery—is a slow process, regardless of whether it’s content or gimmicks driving traffic. “It takes a little while,” he said. “If we bought a back page ad in one of those magazines in the giveaway porno boxes on the street—even if we did that, it would take a long time.”
Bodega has gone from a relatively unknown store where, Mak said, a homeless man fell asleep on its first day open in 2006, to an infamous boutique where even celebrities like Pusha T and various Patriots players frequent. Bodega has matured and changed with the times, remaining a cornerstone of street culture both in Boston and beyond. With a popular pop up shop in Tokyo just ending, Mak said that the company hopes to continue expanding internationally in the next 16 months.
New locations are only a few of Bodega’s plans for the future. “We’ve got some more super duper, ultra, level 5, alpha, top secret projects that we can’t even think about discussing yet,” Mak said, “because we’re afraid of people reading our minds.”
Although it’s Bodega’s limited edition, co-branded sneakers with Adidas, Saucony Elite, Reebok, and others that have helped it to make a name for itself, Mak said that the company is about more than retail. Bodega is about giving individuals, such as local artist XSM whose work is currently on display, a platform to do interesting things. It’s about fostering innovation and creativity. “There are a lot of sneaker-head people who are the opposite way,” Mak said, “but for me, the shoes are just a means for expression.”
Mak attributed a large part of Bodega’s success over the last nine years to the company’s honest understanding of its market. Rooted in graphic design, Bodega conveys a specific worldview through everything—from shoes, to sunglasses, to t-shirts—that it designs and sells. “I guess that’s what comes out when you’re making the product,” Mak said. “You’re trying to communicate an idea or tell a story.”
Fashion is always a collaborative process, Mak said. Bodega believes that its product is made as much by the kids wearing its sneakers as by the people designing, marketing, and selling them. “Nothing is created out of the ether—out of nothing,” Mak said. “Street culture and the product that comes out of it is built by a community.”