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Dec 17, 2020
Michael Carmago, aka Upscale Vandal, has been a friend of SANDALBOYZ for some time, and the collab had been in the works for a minute. To be honest though, we really didn’t know what he did or who he was, so we came to New York to find out.
Mike asks us to meet at a barber shop deep inside Brooklyn, right outside of Ozone Park, where he was raised by his mom and sister — mostly by his sister. We arrive early to a historical establishment that has been keeping the people of Brooklyn looking crispy for decades, Madd Cutz Barber Shop (established in 1997). As we wait for him, the November sun dances across lowriders blasting music as they make their way down the one way street. We were in New York, but it definitely was not Manhattan. Mike arrives humbly on the scene in a cozy outfit. On his head, his recent collaboration with New Era, a black fitted with “VANDAL” across the front. He is wearing an Advisory Board Crystals hoodie and Needles velour pants. Completed in Puma sneakers.
Carmago was born in Cali, Colombia. He spent a little bit of time in Chicago with his paternal grandmother before finally spending the majority of his younger years in Ozone Park with his sister and mother. It was around this time that his father was locked up for 18 years. Mike’s vibrant past is made more meaningful by the surroundings that he was raised in.
As we walk and talk towards Mike’s house in Ozone Park, he shows us that just a few minutes south are the Louis Heaton Pink Houses (housing projects notable for crime and drug use), and just a few minutes north towards the Queens side of things sits a community of middle to upper middle class Italian families — some of which are just one or two degrees of separation from the mob. “Teamsters, unions, construction labor, mob ties. John Gotti is from six minutes that way,” he tells us. It is in this cusp between Brooklyn and Queens that influences a lot of Mike’s younger upbringing.
Mike lets us into his home, which also happens to be the house he grew up in. When they were younger, his family lived only in the upstairs unit, but since he and his sister purchased it, Mike has renovated the entire building to be a single family home. Purchasing and living in the place that he grew up in is important to him. Because he grew up adjacent to drug use, crime, housing projects and the influences of John Gotti and the Ozone Park Boys, he feels the need to give back to a place that’s been stricken with notoriety without positivity. He doesn’t win without giving back to the community that raised him. Mike tells us all of this as he is pulling out a “one of ten” Chanel trolley bag. We ask him if he’s broken it in yet, and he replies with, “Na, this might be for the archives.” We also find out that he has the 2017 Dior BMX bike among a plethora of other pieces of equal rarity and value — enough rarities to open up a museum with.
Next stop is a trip to the jeweler with a few errands along the way. On the car ride over, we chop it up about the differences between the American east and west coast. We conclude that for some reason, New York breeds a “tougher” type of person, possibly due to the close quarters that they are raised in; vying for space in an inclement-weather city seems to be the main ingredient in making east coasters. In Los Angeles on the other hand, the space and weather makes for a more chill demeanor. The conversation takes its way to Mike’s Instagram and platform, @upscale_vandal. He tells us that he initially started an IG, although reluctantly, to uplift the people that had a similar upbringing as his. He wanted to show the youth that there is mad bread out there to be made by not just becoming an athlete or a famous rapper. His forte was in the burgeoning streetwear and fashion industry.
Mike's mission to inspire the youth to find their talents and achieve their potential was something instilled in him by DJ Clark Kent. We learn that Clark Kent, who saw talent and potential in Carmago, played a large part in motivating him on to the right track. However, when speaking about himself, Mike remains grounded in humility. He recognizes the luck and the blessings that are outside of his control.
“I don’t have any particular talent that I was born with. I’m just a guy. I’m just a guy that’s blessed to be able to see something and try to capitalize on it. Connect people through it,” Mike explains to us. Kam, Mike’s business partner, tells us stories about how people will come up to Mike and say they’ve been following his career. When these followers are asked about what Mike does, they don’t have an answer. “I’m a puppeteer, and a good puppeteer doesn’t show the hands or the strings,” Mike tells us. Mike gets credit for the rise of J. Balvin as a fashion and pop culture influence. He was able to put together a repertoire of people with Balvin including, but not limited to, the likes of Kim Jones and KAWS. His ability to connect dots also expands beyond people. ComplexCon and Coachella’s involvement of Balvin were among the many things that Mike helped the Latin artist with.
We realize that we don’t even really know how to answer the question of “what does Upscale Vandal do for a living?” Mike helps clarify, “I create a language between consumers and products. When someone has an idea, I bring it to fruition and turn it into a revenue stream. I create a connection between people wanting a product and that product. Whether it is in music, fashion, Instagram, or whatever, I make that connection.”
The insightful car ride takes us to Rafaello and Company, Mike’s jeweler. While getting a few of his pieces cleaned, he's on FaceTime with Pusha T. The rapper/record executive is held in high regards when it comes to Carmago's position on what is a highly contentious topic. "Pusha T is the greatest rapper dead or alive," he declares. We leave from Rafaello, and Mike comes out with one more piece than he walked in with — a new iced out cuban link bracelet. We head towards the new Moose Knuckles flagship in SoHo. At the Moose Knuckles store, we are taken down to their secret VIP room where Mike is laced up with some fresh gear for the winter that us Californians have no experience with. Once again, Mike steps out of Moose Knuckles with more than he came in with — four new winter jackets: one for himself, one for Kam, one for his sister, and one for his brother-in-law. From there, we head to our final destination at Mr Chow, a popular Chinese restaurant notable for its posh space, good food, and white-jacketed waiters. In the middle of our dinner, Mike is interrupted with a visit from Steven Victor, music executive with a rather large resume. When he returns, we continue to discussing a wide range of topics as Mike gives us advice on various aspects of life including our business. We soak up knowledge from someone who has been in the game for so long.
We conclude our first day shadowing Mike with an endless run of delicious New York style Chinese dishes. If there’s one thing Mike knows how to do, it’s ordering at Mr Chow. The team and I head back to Sister City Hotel in the Lower East Side to turn down and prepare for the next day.
We spend day two out and about, not too different from day one. The most notable errand, however, is the high school parent teacher conference. Mike doesn't have any kids of his own but he does have a strong relationship with his sister's son, Sebastian. While Mike knocks out errands in the car on the phone with Kam, Mike mentions to us that he is very serious about his nephew's performance in school, illustrated by his offer to get Sebastian any shoe he wants if he got straight A's. We arrive at the High School of Fashion Industries where Sebastian is following loosely in Mike's footsteps.
Mike and his nephew pop out of the building in high spirits, and Sebastian takes advantage of Mike's offer by redeeming a pair of Travis Scott 1's.
To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure I have a better handle on what Mike does now, but I do know for sure that our partnership with him makes sense. He is the epitome of the beauty in the struggle. His hustle inspires. He seeks to inspire the youth and build confidence in them. Although our upbringings are worlds apart, we share the experience of being raised in immigrant families with little means. This shared experience compels us to instill confidence in those raised similarly. The SANDALBOYZ mission has always been to urge people to be comfortable in who they are — no easy feat for any type of outsider. Mike, a true outsider by any means, is an amalgamation of Colombian heritage and New York grit and has found an untrodden and uncanny path to success that we hope inspires not only us but the masses as well.