Justin Kern '03

Building social scenes
October 1, 2009
Justin Kern '03

Thomas Concordia/Wireimage

It's not much of a stretch to characterize Duke's Greek scene as a tangle of lifestyle brands, complete with logos, ads, events, and status symbols. So you might say that when Justin Kern and his friends didn't find a "brand" at Duke that suited their sensibilities, they decided to create their own. Kern and his housemates threw a series of invitation-only events, becoming notorious for the elaborate photo shoots and websites they staged to create pre-party buzz. Their guests represented a handpicked cross-section of the Duke and Durham communities; their vision a more avant-garde version of standard-issue college social life.

This may seem unremarkable, except that it happened to be perfect preparation for Kern's current line of work. Kern is the proprietor of Not To Be Reproduced (NTBR), an underground art, fashion, and event space that he operates out of his Los Angeles bungalow. The venue's exclusive soirees—playing host to the likes of actress Natalie Portman (Brothers, The Other Boleyn Girl) and fashion photographer Mario Testino—have become mandatory attendance for a particular slice of the area's scruffy-bearded, creative-chic crowd. Recent programs at NTBR have included an art exhibition produced with Shamim Momin, adjunct curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and an unannounced performance by buzzed-about Swedish singer Lykke Li.

"My concept for Not To Be Reproduced was to think about the brand as a new kind of living, three-dimensional magazine," Kern says. "Not just reporting what's new in fashion, art, music, etc., but actually creating new product out of it."

Kern dreamed up the idea in the midst of a thriving modeling career, which unexpectedly began during a semester in Florence. He worked for Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry, and Calvin Klein. "I got to overhear all the branding, marketing, and design talk between the stylist, designer, and heads of the brand," Kern says. "Being a fly on the wall for this process served as a sort of fashion school for me."

With an urge to explore another side of the industry, Kern set off for L.A., eventually launching NTBR out of his home. What began as a vintage clothing boutique soon expanded to a monthly event series with a distinctive set of guests, growing in scope as set designers, videographers, and other creative types joined his team.

"Mario Testino came to one of the events and said to me, 'You've created a sort of community that no one really thought existed in Los Angeles,' " Kern says, explaining that his guests are mostly creative leaders from industries like film and publishing that tend to self-segregate in L.A. "For sponsors who want to get involved with us, that's what is going to be the most attractive to them. They're going to want access to this group." (Even three-dimensional magazines need advertisers, after all.)

And just as editors create magazines in their own image, Kern has built NTBR around his artistic discernment. He partly credits the creative writing and literary analysis from his English major. In a sense, Kern says, managing NTBR isn't all that unlike writing a novel. However, instead of using language to create new and captivating fictional worlds, he's created a real one right in his own home. Now, in highlighting other artists' work in new contexts, he has created a larger, more experiential conglomeration of art and commerce.

Currently, Kern is trying to shift NTBR into a lifestyle brand not limited to homespun events—and to solidify his revenue stream. He still models occasionally, and alcohol companies and other brands have sponsored his events in the past, but it's been catch-as-catch-can. Nevertheless, he's started to expand beyond the walls of his abode, launching a film series in conjunction with WAM Films. And a major boutique hotel chain is courting the idea of having Kern cultivate a nightspot at one of its New York locations—essentially an NTBR East —that would satisfy both his financial and creative needs.

Bishop '07 is a freelance writer and Web producer based in Brooklyn, New York.