Arena embroidery is just getting started
The north star for many creatives is finding a career that manages to balance fine art with technical application. Rocco Arena has gotten as close as possible with his Brooklyn-based studio, Arena Embroidery. As an embellishment studio, Rocco and his team of five are in a unique position where they have the opportunity to help brands and high profile clients bring their ideas to life – through sampling, actual design and large-scale production.
Rocco and I met at an event we hosted for Siegelman Stable; Arena does all the embroidery for the beloved brand of Kylie Jenner, Justin Bieber and more. So I headed over to his Brooklyn studio to learn a bit more about how Rocco got into embroidery and eventually founded Arena.
Rocco is originally from Philadelphia, went to film school in New York, then moved to LA to try his hand at breaking into the world of music videos. “But I had no more money and I needed a work work. And I didn’t get a job in the film industry, I got a job at Nike sportswear, making unique clothes for Nike athletes and the public too. I didn’t know anything about embellishing clothes at all,” he tells me of his first job in space – a very good concert. He worked with Nike from 2012 to 2015 before a myriad of personal reasons prompted him to return to the East Coast to be closer to his family.
It was during this time that he used the skills he had learned with Nike to do freelance embroidery work for clients he met through friends in space. “I continued to do embroidery, odd jobs. There were a few brands I made files for,” he tells me. “Creating files” is a big part of what sets Rocco apart from other embroideries, and it’s one of his main responsibilities with Arena to date.
“And then I slowly moved on to working for artist Borna Sammak, who was mostly a videographer, an old friend. He came and saw the machines and everything I was doing for Nike and wanted to incorporate that into his art. So I started working for him as an artist’s assistant, making paintings and sculptures, using what I had learned and these machines,” he continues. After working for Sammak for a few years ago: “Four summers ago, I decided to go into business and created this company.”
Arena embroidery was born
“Arena” isn’t just Rocco’s last name, it’s also a Latin word, which translates to “sand”. He tells me a funny anecdote about how it became the English word for a stadium: “Arenas are so called because everyone was singing for more sand to clean up the blood during gladiatorial matches.” Singing for the sand, in this context, was singing for the next event to begin. You learn something new every day.
As someone who was already deeply rooted in the world of Brooklyn fashion design, the clients arrived pretty quickly. “It was all word of mouth at first,” Rocco tells me, then explaining how longtime friend Alex Dondero (whom he calls an “older brother”) runs popular screenprinter LQQK Studio. studio and brand in the city. “Many of these customers were looking for embroidery. The news has just spread.
“One of the first things when I got the machine was some Yeezy runway work, just stamping sweatshirts and stuff with logos. It was exciting. Like the second I got a machine embroidering, I was doing stuff for the runway,” Rocco recalls of some of his most exciting early clients.
“There was a client who helped me build what it is today,” Rocco tells me, beginning a story that culminates in his proudest achievement to date. The aforementioned client was a fairly underground rapper from Toronto named Aubrey Graham.
Aubrey Graham, or Drake as you may know him, found Arena through his director of picture at the time, Mellany Sanchez, and commissioned Rocco to do some parts for a giveaway. “It started as a giveaway for the Scorpion tour. They pulled out a basketball hoop and you shot a half court for like $20,000 or something. Whether you shot or not, you got a jersey basketball. Drake loved the pieces, so he ended up having Arena make the majority of what he wore for the Scorpion Tour. You can see Drake in a vest concocted by Arena in the legendary SICKO MODE video below.
But that’s actually not the climax of this story. “The Raptors won the NBA championship, and he needed a jacket and Air Force Ones to wear for the parade. We made him an MA1 flight jacket, decked out, embroidery everywhere. And then white AF1s with the Canadian flag knocked out on the swoosh.
Image credit: Getty Images
And while the most successful NBA teams of all time have a dedicated designer ready to create championship merchandise, Toronto’s first-ever championship meant this was an opportunity for a studio like Arena to get involved. “There was no protocol for… You know, the Lakers like to have a guy do their jackets,” Rocco laughs, recalling how what he considers his proudest work came to life. “[The Raptors] were like, ‘Well this jacket is sick, can this be the team jacket?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ So we installed a bunch of 5XL MA1s and got everyone on the team to wear the jackets.
“I consider that to be my greatest achievement. I made Toronto Raptor championship teams their championship jackets, just in this space. One by one.”
“That was great,” Rocco smiled at me as he finished remembering the project.
They also worked on commemorative hats for the Philadelphia 76ers, a special project for Rocco as a Philadelphia native and lifelong fan of the team. You can read more about this collaboration between Lapstone & Hammer and the 76ers here.
Since then, a significant portion of Arena’s business has come in the form of sampling. “We do a lot of sampling. Sometimes we make our own art, but mostly they give us samples of art to see faster than the factories can, so they can show it off at meetings. the computer image can’t go any further in a meeting,” says Rocco. They currently do a lot of sampling for Supreme, among other brands. It is a major goal of Rocco to intensify this kind of work even more.
“My main job in the business, apart from advice and discussion, is to create the embroidery files. A lot of shops don’t do this at home. There is very little back and forth between testing and success. It’s pretty unique in what I and the company do. That’s pretty much why we have this niche in the industry,” Rocco tells me.
When we look to the future, there’s a huge range of things that Rocco is excited about. They plan to open the basement of their studio as an archive/material library. He might also want to use the space for retail purposes in the future.
“As far as the project, I’m working on courting more fashion houses to do sampling. Making an effort to steer the business towards more consulting and sampling. And having a space that celebrates that is what which is the most exciting for me right now.
They are working on merchandising for Korean popstar BI with a brand called Ojeito. ” It was really fun. We embroider all kinds of things, but it’s mostly sweatshirts and caps. So exploring their silhouettes and turning pop star branding into merchandising has been fun.
When I ask Rocco what he likes best about what he does, the answer flows naturally. “I think it’s easy for me to answer. It’s a skill that’s the perfect mix of digital, mechanical, manual. It has a bunch of different components of a skill or profession. It’s always exciting to watch the thing sew, after you’ve meticulously sequenced your file and drawn the shapes and everything, to see it come to life,” he says, and I can tell he really means it.
I was curious if Rocco and Arena intended to create their own pieces. “We don’t have a brand, but we’re having fun,” he laughs at me, before telling me about a hugely silly project: a gilly yarn suit they produced for a magazine ad called LILY PAD, directed by Bergen Hendrickson, an artist from the Arena Embroidery universe.
Image credit: shot by Chris Kennedy
In its most basic form, Rocco has a clear vision for the future: “I want us to be excited about what we’re doing.” After spending time in the studio with the team, including Lorenzo, Rocco’s dog, it’s clear they’ve stuck to the philosophy so far.