“We just do what we want,” Legion co-founder Michael Kao says.

It’s this unblinking poise coupled with his understated humility that makes Kao such a distinctive player in streetwear — a game rife with ego (What it do, Kanye?), confidence’s redheaded stepbro. Maybe it was his slim-fit heather gray John Elliot hoodie with vertical side zippers to hide a kangaroo pocket beneath. Maybe it was the monochromatic walls in his 205 N. Main Street space, which he shares with partners Jay Tiempo and Dan Marvin Cabreros. Simple, clean.

“Black and white sells,” Kao said.

Legion is a contemporary lifestyle menswear boutique and art gallery in Ann Arbor. Kao and his team at Legion have built a Jobsian simplicity in their offered threads that’s hungry to feed Ann Arbor a dish that it — and the Midwest — has yet to consume.

The gaping higher-end streetwear opportunity in Ann Arbor was no surprise to Kao, who says trends oftentimes “start in Paris then move to Milan then London then NYC then West Coast then through the South and finally to the Midwest.” He mentions his close ties with the few like-minded shops in the Midwest, like Revive in downtown Birmingham and RSVP Gallery in Chicago, and how they motivate each other to spread awareness about these handmade, heart-in-every-stitch collector’s items.

As Kao would repeat often in his description of the store’s beginnings, it wasn’t easy.

“Retail in Ann Arbor is not that good,” Kao said. “People here like to spend money on food and drink while they stick to what they know when it comes to retail.”

Playing the devil’s advocate, it’s difficult to convert someone who has relied on safe American brands their entire life (The North Face, L.L. Bean, J. Crew) into someone who drops $75 on a tee, hand-tugged stitching or not. And Kao is the first to recognize this.

“If guests don’t latch on to our product, that doesn’t define us,” Kao said. “If it’s not for you, it’s not for you.”

And the financials? It’s not unfamiliar to hear boutique owners puke out tired meme-like mission statements that essentially say “We do us, fuck the bottom line.” To be frank, I expected nothing more substantive from Kao.

He cracks a smile, then jokes, “When two Asian kids walk into a bank saying ‘Hey, can you give us a bunch of money so we can sell clothes?’ they think we’re crazy.”

As the Internet will narrate, the credit crunch made it near impossible for small business owners like Kao to raise capital. He wouldn’t have it any other way, though, crediting these financial troubles as fuel to work “that much harder”.

“It made us more creative, more adaptive,” Kao said, “And we’re stronger because of it.”

That creativity shows in his curated selections of tees, headwear, hoodies and boots whose origins span across the U.S. But even more personal is his own line, CHIEF, which he co-founded in 2010 with Jay Tiempo. Well-read in their respective heritage history, Kao and Tiempo decided to bring to life a brand that led “through wars, trials, tribulations,” like those before them.

The CHIEF line of tees, hats and hoodies play with mostly monochrome colorways, mood, satire, history, icons. One tee, in particular, features a black Japanese Oni mask (“The Japanese don’t consider all demons evil,” Kao said) over a plain white silhouette. It communicates “Not everything is as it seems” with great subtlety and historical heft.

Like all art, true originality often derives from other people, places and things. At some point, something is borrowed. Kao, a creative director himself, nods, “It’s hard to truly invent something. So the question becomes, “How can you do something differently?”

Sometimes, though, difference-making can get caught up in fleeting trends, especially in streetwear. Kao alludes to camo and leather as recent hot trends that, like all things short-lived, cause countless “pop-up” shops to try to establish themselves. These brands seldom survive because their model depends too heavily on the short term, the ephemerality of so much style.

“A tastemaker will rather recognize a trend and say, ‘OK, I get this. Now, let’s create our own.’” Kao said.

Streetwear has not been around for long and “is such a broad thing,” Kao said. It got its start in the late 1970s by surfboard designer Shawn Stussy, whose seminal titular brand Stussy paved the way. From there, it navigated and grew through osmosis within DIY skate culture, punk aesthetic and the hip-hop lifestyle. It embodies anti-authority with a beauty in its boldness.

To further complicates things in the best way possible, Kao and his team draw inspiration from more than just skate and hip hop.

“Everything from ‘The Art of War’ to the Bible to Steinbeck and Hemingway and even movies like ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Drive’ ” Kao says before he cuts his list short with an anecdote. “I will be walking someplace with my wife and see an interesting color. Then I’ll come up with an idea and bring it back to store so we can talk about it.”

Kao recalls a line from the Bible that is their vision’s lifeblood. In Mark 5:9 when Jesus encounters a demon who will not be bound by chains because “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

We are many. Legion’s selections are not typical in Ann Arbor, but somehow that disparity urges us all to look inward, thus generating a collective oneness.

I realized that feeling a part of something special in a retail store was new to me. It certainly didn’t happen at Macy’s with all of my post-holiday gift cards throughout teenhood. Instead, department stores peddle you not the sales and narrative expertise of a craftsman but rather the billboard of a removed celebrity, a facade.

Maybe the threads at Legion aren’t your style. And Kao is content with that because “what you wear is a direct way to express yourself as you are,” he says. His boundless knowledge on the burgeoning industry and his local-feel humility, his amity, are well worth stopping by.

The dudes at Legion are far less concerned about what you think of them or their shit and much more concerned with you investing time, energy and study into uncovering the finer brushstrokes of your identity through their medium of choice: fabric.

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