Prime Time Clothing: “Cork Has to Be in the Background”

Cork’s streetwear mecca Prime Time has long been a part of the fabric of local hip-hop culture. As the shop looks to the future after 26 years and counting on Washington Street, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks to director Niall Hassett.

An undeniable part of the appeal of Cork City is the gems of its independent culture and homegrown entrepreneurship, embedded in the city’s layout and grid of side-streets. As the city slowly gives way to an encroaching monotone in the form of seemingly-endless chain stores and ill-considered installations, the value of the city’s community of independent traders, and the value they offer in local service and knowledge, is drawn into ever-sharper focus. For shops like Prime Time, right at the top of the Washington Street ‘student superhighway’, recognising this value is key.

Established in 1992 and still resident in its original premises, the shop has long been a supporter of local music and youth culture, with its co-founders developing an interest in street fashion amid the plurality of teenage tribes that lay at the foundation of youth culture throughout, according to director Niall Hassett. “(Cork) would have been very ‘High Street’ at the time, so your main drags would have been what they were. One, you could call it following the crowd, but two: no other choice. That’s where we came in, at the right time. We were at the bad end, I suppose, of the ‘first’ recession in my lifetime. There was just a greyness, a deadness to the town at the time. That, in its own regard probably helped us. You can feel the same thing going on now, there’s a lot of monotone fashion, everybody on the one thing, which is where we differ. When you do something different, that helps you stand out. Once you get people in the door, the clothes speak for themselves.”

The shop’s first few years of business were a formative experience for the people behind it, with the aforementioned plurality of youth subcultures providing fertile ground for Prime Time to put down roots. The process of getting a shop together and developing their interest in street fashion into a business presented a profound but vital learning curve. “One of the things was finding a shop. There would have been loads of empty doors, but at our age, late teens/early twenties, you weren’t probably being taken seriously. So if it wasn’t for Andrew Moore, who would have been from O’Sullivan-Moore at the time, we’d probably never have got off the time. Louisa (Heckett, owner) would have been travelling a lot at the time, and would have seen bum-bags in Camden Market, picked up a couple of dozen of them, brought them home and tried selling them at shops around the city. One of the responses was ‘they’ll never take off’ (laughs). I suppose Lou felt that if this was the struggle to get places to stock what she wanted, was there other people that were in the same spot?”

The changes happening to Cork’s music scene at the outset of the Nineties, including the rise of current fixtures like Stevie G, made for perfect timing. Attending gigs and club nights on the regular anyway, Louisa and Niall found it easy to leverage their enthusiasm for local music into a bottom line of support, a relationship that continues to this day. “It’s because we were part of it. We were more the retail, than the fashion end of it. We used to be trying to get into clubs around Cork, in our clothing, and we’d be turned away the whole time. ‘Nah, nah, nah’. The first thing we had to try and change was to get the bouncers on side, and that helped us allow more music events to go on. We used to have DJ contests when we were a smaller store, fashion shows, things like that. That helped us blend in. It’s trying to break barriers down, of other people’s perception of what you were. We looked different, we were a bit noisier, a bit loud. That would have invited (hip-hop people). When they came in, we didn’t look at them, or follow them around the shop. Plus – on Friday and Saturday, we would have been in the back bar, listening to Stevie, in Sir Henry’s. We were part of it, we were enjoying it like anyone else. We gave the understanding that we weren’t whoring the scene, or the music, we were part of it.”

Fast-forward to this year, when the shop led an expansion in social media reach and scope, with a marketing campaign that placed Cork hip-hop personalities centre-stage across a series of videos, including the likes of wordsmith Spekulativ Fiktion. Striking a balance of community and putting its message across was a priority throughout the campaign. “It was more the artists’ idea, to be fair. We have a studio above us where we could shoot it, plus then we could obviously help to dress it, and give it an edge. Most of the things we’ll do will come from brainstorming, I suppose, it’s just people starting to talk. It’s someone coming to us with an idea, and us going ‘we have the ability to do this, fuck it, let’s give ‘em a platform’. What is it? An evening in your life? It’s Cork, it’s local. One of the big things with our Instagram campaigns is, Cork has to be in the background. How did Brooklyn become Brooklyn, how did Fifth Avenue become Fifth Avenue? Because people saw their iconic places. So that was always one of our big things: to do Cork, in Cork. Local music, local artists, local people. We’ve got some great stuff here.”

As the years have worn on, those relationships to an ever-changing youth culture have passed through the hands of waves of young staff and managers. Trusting new people with the direction of the shop and its identity has been a key part of Prime Time’s longevity, but so too has been its relationship with the city itself. “Being local. We never opened another door. We’ve had opportunities to open in every town in the country. We got it all the time, we still get it. Somebody opens a new shopping centre, and they ask us ‘will ye come, will ye come?’. We always felt we couldn’t replicate it, because we’re from Cork. People feel that, whether they’re tourists or a local. I wouldn’t go to Dublin, I think it should be Dublin people speaking their locality, their youth culture, what growing up has brought you to.”

After 26 years at the forefront of streetwear and new brands, the shop maintains a steady trade, change being a constant, as the brands they once stocked exclusively slowly became main-street staples. Staying ahead of the game is foremost in Hassett’s mind, however. “We’d love to do our own brand, it’s something we’ve been tip-toeing around. Obviously we should be selling online, but it’s not as easy as people make out. You’ve got a whole new business in delivery, returns, etc. We did it twice in the past and got stung badly, but we did it wrong. We piecemealed it. We would like to get into that. And the new wave (of staff) do want to open new shops in new towns. Maybe I’m a bit longer in the tooth, but I suppose, if I’m to follow through on leaving the youth do their thing, maybe we should. But the brand is the next thing, and perhaps that will give us the opportunity to sell in different place without having to open new doors.”

Prime Time Clothing is open Monday-Sunday on Washington Street in the city. For more info, check out prime-time.ie or find them on social media.

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