"Turn up. Turn up," Tunde Ogunnoiki deadpans, mindlessly pointing his index fingers in the air while rocking back and forth to A$AP Ferg's "Shabba."
Ogunnoiki, along with Onisha "Oni" Roman and C.Will, the principals behind art and streetwear-inspired brand +Fresh.i.Am+, have finally unmasked. It's about two and a half hours into their Creative Loafing cover shoot and they've just removed the black-on-black T-shirts and FUKK scarves concealing their faces. The on-camera look they want to convey now is "somber and introspective," Ogunnoiki explains to the photographer, "like we care so much, we don't care." The only problem is they can't stop joking and dancing and laughing.
C.Will starts to mock Ogunnoiki's go-to dance move, "the Tunde," as he calls it.
Ogunnoiki corrects him: "There is no 'Tunde.' There's only, 'the shoulder,'" he says, pausing for effect before proceeding to duck walk across the floor of their recently acquired 2,000-square-feet studio space while shimmying his shoulder and suppressing a smile.
All three bust out laughing along with in-house stylist Brick, friend and collaborator Daniel Disaster of Heroes x Villains, and apprentice Vincent Braddock.
"+Fresh.i.Am+ is about not having fun," C.Will says defiantly. His inside joke, full of intended irony, needs no interpretation in this room.
For six and a half years, +Fresh.i.Am+ has been a quiet storm within Atlanta's creative underground. What began as a sideline graphic design company for Ogunnoiki and C.Will to supplement their day hustles and a blog to curate their cultural predilections has slowly morphed into an international streetwear brand — something that has surprised even them. With +Fresh.i.Am+, they've successfully fused their interests in art, music, and culture into one incredulous fashion label that has come to epitomize streetwear's global underground, even as their movement goes largely unnoticed in Atlanta.
"Part of the reason why we've done so well is because we're more popular in New York and Japan than we are in Atlanta," says Ogunnoiki.
The story of +Fresh.i.Am+'s stealthy rise to prominence is indicative of both streetwear in general and Atlanta's burgeoning role in that multibillion-dollar worldwide market. The local players consist of a growing number of infant brands that take fashion cues from the likes of Versace, Givenchy, and Alexander McQueen while mining cultural influence from Kanye West, Andre 3000, and even Malcolm X. It's resulted in a far-flung mix: custom-designed graphic tees with neoclassical artwork and religious overtones; skater/BMX-inspired labels with an anti-fashion middle-finger attitude; street gothic prints that mesh hipster irony with hip-hop style; luxury street apparel that borrows from the world of high fashion; art-influenced designers that consider themselves auteurs more than entrepreneurs; labels with politically minded messaging; and sometimes all of the above.
What often sets these emerging brands apart from high-fashion labels, however, is their DIY ethos. Atlanta's streetwear labels, like their more established peers in New York and Los Angeles, tend to epitomize lifestyles more than mere style. They represent various aspects of the street, the club, and urban culture in general — whether aspirational or radical.
But achieving cult status is still a rarity, which is what makes +Fresh.i.Am+ the anomaly among Atlanta brands. Equally embraced by pop's reigning bad girl Rihanna and such subversive figures as the ATL Twins, the brand conveys just the right amount of cool rebellion. +Fresh.i.Am+'s signature piece, a $75 black snapback cap with the letters F-U-K-K in bold white letters sewn across the front, seems about as loud and obnoxious as fashion statements come. But behind +Fresh.i.Am+'s provocative product line lies something profound: a committed group of young creatives who genuinely give a fuck about the culture and the city they represent.
Like most artists, Ogunnoiki and company stress the messages behind their creations. But they also revel in the potential they're creating for cultural chaos: "We don't sell clothes," he says, "we sell ideas."
"Atlanta fashion sucks. Period," says Ogunnoiki. Like many things in Atlanta, the sharp divide between the attention-grabbing mainstream and the less acknowledged underbelly can leave a lot to be desired. What typically passes for the city's predominant fashion scene nowadays amounts to little more than reality-show spectacle and pseudo-celebrity vanity lines.
"I feel like Atlanta fashion is more based on how rich you are and how big your pull is than it is about the product you're actually putting out there. It just sucks, man," he says.
When Ogunnoiki and C.Will started the blog in 2008, they envisioned it as a forum for their eclectic interests or, simply put, "shit that we thought was cool," C.Will says. "Atlanta always was shown as mad hood, you never got to see the cool part of Atlanta." A Jamaican native who spent time as a strip club DJ while attending high school in Columbus, Ga., C.Will eventually studied art history at Oxford University in England for two years before meeting Ogunnoiki at the original Sloppy Seconds parties held at the now-defunct Downtown club the Royal.
As the first post-millennial party in Atlanta to pull together a seemingly disparate mix of cool kids, Sloppy Seconds helped dissolve the boundaries between high fashion and streetwear, graffiti art and graphic design, EDM and trap rap. That shared aesthetic found a home on freshiam.net.
"The good thing about the blog was that it was giving Atlanta people a platform to the outside world, because Atlanta has a tendency to be a bubble," says Roman, a fashion design and marketing graduate of American University London.
The blog also gave the rest of the world a dope close-up of a rarely seen side of Atlanta, and led to ghost jobs for Ogunnoiki and C.Will producing local party fliers and eventually their first unofficial product: a do-it-yourself sticker they still make fun of today.
"You couldn't even stick it on anything unless you had some double-sided tape," C.Will recalls.
One year, one T-shirt line, and a popular pendant design (Lok & Ki) later, they debuted their first collection, State of Mind. It featured their first rendition of the FUKK hat, along with nine others, each spelling out a different "state of mind" in white letters, including BORD, C•V•L, EVOL, FRSH, and NOPE, an upside down M * A * D, even an image of a third eye. In the three years that followed, the FUKK hat would take on its own identity.
Ogunnoiki, Roman, and C.Will make for a peculiar trio. Though longtime Atlanta residents, all three originally hail from various spots abroad: 27-year-old Ogunnoiki from Nigeria, 31-year-old Roman from Puerto Rico, and 27-year-old C.Will from Jamaica. While they may not scream cool at a glance, their mix of nerdy but worldly sensibilities makes an immediate impression when we gather for an interview at their new live/work digs, where Ogunnoiki and Roman reside together with two black cats. Roman joined the team in 2009, after Ogunnoiki talked her into leaving her job at Spelman College's campus bookstore to become their production manager.
During working hours, the couple shares the space with three apprentices and up to five interns. Ogunnoiki casually sits in a black leather office chair at an executive-size desk. In the black bookcase behind him, tomes on art history and cultural shape-shifters share space on the shelves: Alexander McQueen: Genius of a Generation; The Dada Painters and Poets; Pharrell: Places and Spaces I've Been.
As creative director, Ogunnoiki's responsibilities include marketing and communicating the brand's look and language. A visit to freshiam.net pulls up an auto-play look book video for the current FUKK collection. The stark black-and-white treatment features a sharply appointed male model of ambiguous ethnicity posing in the shadows while wearing different looks designed in white with bold, black lettering — the FUKK hat, the FUKK tank top, the extended FUKK shirt, the FUKK jacket. An ominous but seductive luxury trap track from Heroes x Villains plays in the foreground.
Ogunnoiki labels +Fresh.i.Am+'s design aesthetic "minimalist, with a sense of style and a taste of rachetness," but it's the brash attitude inherent in the FUKK collection that offers a peek into his background as a trained artist.
About four years ago, the former design major was suspended from Georgia Southern University after submitting a controversial art project in which he attempted to voice the anguish he and his classmates felt over what he characterizes as the professor's misuse of power. The piece, which featured a silk-screened hand flicking off the viewer, had the professor's name secretly embedded in it.
He got kicked out for a year, and ended up couch-surfing with friends while picking up freelance jobs here and there. "I never went back [to school] after that because I felt really betrayed," he says. Though he admits it wasn't the most mature move at the time, "it helped me understand visual art can still move people to action. It was a turning point for me that led to what I'm doing now."
The world's most successful streetwear brands are cultish in their appeal. Like secret societies, they become synonymous with the indie subcultures they help cultivate. And the emotional connection formed by die-hard fans often acts as brand mythology more than brand marketing. It's why Berlin culture magazine O32c called 19-year-old New York-based urban skatewear leader Supreme "the Holy Grail of high youth street culture." Certain founders, like Nigo of Japan's über-influential sneaker and streetwear label A Bathing Ape (BAPE), even become countercultural celebrities of a sort.
In five years time, +Fresh.i.Am+ has already started to garner its own bit of legend and it has everything to do with the ambivalence surrounding the word that Ogunnoiki refers to, without a hint of sarcasm, as the "polite" spelling of the well-known profanity.
The marketing copy accompanying the video look book swells with innuendo: "The FUKK hat has gained so much attention that its hashtag has been banned from instagram, multiple images of it have been tumbled and when you search 'FUKK' in google you actually get the FUKK image from the original look book instead of porn ... ."
The idea for the FUKK collection came about just as +Fresh.i.Am+ was reaching "a point where our stuff was getting bootlegged," says Ogunnoiki. They saw the 2013 spring/summer collection as a way to reclaim ownership of that word. While it certainly has its enthusiasts, it's drawn detractors, too.
"People either love us or they hate us," C.Will says. "'Why would you ruin that beautiful design with that ugly word?'"
Ogunnoiki chooses to see the word as a blank canvas that reflects "whatever you're thinking. It's a transparent word," he says.
But it also reflects his worldview as an immigrant.
"What was weird about coming to America," he recalls, "is that violence [gets exploited on TV all the time] but when it comes to something, like sex, that everybody does, and needs to be talked about, it becomes [taboo]. What we do is to create these conversations — to make people think more and step outside their comfort zones a little bit."
They've hit a nerve. +Fresh.i.Am+ currently moves approximately 750 units of apparel per month, with overseas sales accounting for 80 percent of that total, according to business manager Rico Rodriguez. He declined to divulge earnings, but with a price point that ranges between $30 and $130, you can do the math.
The prices can also be misleading, says Ogunnoiki, who admits he couldn't afford to buy his own product when they started out. But it's not because they're price gouging, it's because each piece is meticulously handcrafted in-house.
"What sets +Fresh.i.Am+ apart from other street brands is the quality of the craftsmanship," says Kwassi Byll-Cataria of Buckhead's upscale menswear boutique Moda404, the exclusive carrier of the brand in Atlanta. "Most people nowadays don't know how to be cool. They try too hard to fit into modern-day society. When someone is wearing +Fresh.i.Am+, you know they are an independent individual. That makes it cool."
Cool happens to be Omar "Chilly-O" Mitchell's middle name. The man behind the Chilly-O brand, Mitchell is known as the "O.G." among Atlanta's junior crop of creatives and emerging streetwear entrepreneurs. He became this city's definitive figure largely because he prided himself on "liv[ing] the culture," he says. But it was Chilly-O's signature product, the ATLien tee, that made him and his business partners mainstays.
Endorsed by the original ATLien himself, Big Boi, the exclusive shirts, hoodies, and caps became staples in the mid-to-late aughts, when the rest of the city's streetwear pioneers, including Convertible Bertt, AP, R World, Clothing Kosher Classics, Sol Munki, Dap Rugget, Exclusive Game, and others were beginning to make a name outside the city via apparel trade shows like Las Vegas' Magic. Today, Mitchell marvels at the proliferation of Atlanta-based urban wear startups, which he estimates to be well over 100.
"These kids are making their own brands for their own movements," he says.
While entertainers like OutKast and Dallas Austin, respectively, led the city's foray into the business with OutKast Clothing and Rowdy in the '90s, today's rappers prefer to leave the streetwear designing and marketing to the independent professionals. But Instagram endorsements from homegrown hip-hop acts such as Future, CyHi, Ludacris, 2 Chainz, and Trinidad James have helped level the playing field for local streetwear-meets-high fashion brands such as Cease and Desist, Jeanocide, Antique Society Homme, and too many others to list. Atlanta may not have the infrastructure of fashion capitals like New York and L.A., but with social media the city's players have the ability to nurture a global consumer base via word-of-Web.
"Atlanta's growing so fast," Mitchell says. "Music's here, movies are here, and fashion has to come next."
Ogunnoiki gets noticeably giddy when talking about +Fresh.i.Am+'s next project. Samples from the label's forthcoming collaboration with major West Coast street goth brand Black Scale include two ski masks, one black-and-white and covered in the logos from both brands and the other designed to resemble an American flag. The concept was born out of a revolutionary idea Ogunnoiki initially got in the midst of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. He envisioned ski masks, featuring the flags of every nation in the midst of civil uprising, being worn en masse, so media reports shot from above would look like the country was reclaiming itself.
When 13-year-old Ogunnoiki arrived in America from Nigeria in 1997, he'd already "lived a lifetime," he says. "I've seen riots, I've seen people get burned alive, I've seen a lot of shit." But his homeland also gave him an intrinsic appreciation for art. Ogunnoiki's mother and grandmother were both fashion entrepreneurs in Nigeria, and he describes his aunt as a "dope artist." In Nigeria, "art is life," he says. "It's intertwined in the culture."
Applied to +Fresh.i.Am+, that philosophy illuminates why the brand's approach to fashion is rooted in local underground culture. As a DJ, C.Will, aka BlkkMorris, spreads his tentacles throughout Atlanta's nightlife trenches. He's the founder of the DJ/party promotions collective Cobra Corps which reigns at MJQ's monthly Sloppy Seconds, among other parties around town. He's also one-half of Vavlt Boyz, his luxury trap production duo with Heroes x Villains' Daniel Disaster, a pioneer of the Atlanta-bred EDM trap sound. Though C.Will missed the scheduled trip earlier this month to Paris, where Vavlt Boyz were slated to play club sets during Fashion Week, Daniel returned with stories of the EDM trap takeover in full-swing in Paris and the kids he spotted wearing FUKK apparel while shopping in Givenchy's haute couture store. "It's crazy to see stuff we started in Atlanta reach the other side of the world," says Daniel.
In addition to making it the soundtrack to his brand's movement, Ogunnoiki feels a sense of kinship with the sound derided as the stepchild of dubstep. "I feel like trap EDM is like what we're doing, but in fashion terms," he says. "What we're doing is validating Atlanta culture."
That same point-of-view is infused in the clothing. Ogunnoiki continues: "It's more of an idea that we're selling. When you see it, when you wear it, when you feel it, you feel the idea. It feels very dark, but it's really about changing people's perception and the world around them."
If it seems a tad deep for something as fleeting as fashion, that's because it is. "We're not really a streetwear company, we're an art brand," Ogunnoiki clarifies. "We don't sell fashion, we sell art."
Former Halo nightclub manager Orlando Ramirez agrees. A longtime supporter of +Fresh.i.Am+'s movement, he says it's not the FUKK hat itself that matters most, but "what's underneath the hat" that makes the brand meaningful. "Culturally, they want to take a stand to think individually. And they're not yelling that statement, they're actually whispering it: 'I don't give a fuck.' It's a welcome rebellion. 'Are you listening?' is the question to the world."
When C.Will met Kanye West backstage at last year's Watch the Throne Tour stop in Atlanta, West, who was already familiar with +Fresh.i.Am+, told him, "Yo, I fuck with the brand," C.Will says. Due to the constant media scrutiny West faces, however, he chose not to rock any FUKK apparel, rapper CyHi of Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music label later relayed to C.Will. The thought that anything, fashion statement or otherwise, would be too contentious for Kanye, who got ridiculed by hip-hop's consensus makers for wearing a leather Givenchy kilt during that tour, almost seems headline-worthy in itself.
When Rihanna wore her FUKK hat to a Miami Heat playoff game in April with a custom Givenchy T-shirt and a pair of retro Jordan's, she did make headlines: "Rihanna wears the most charming clothing," one celebrity gossip blog blathered. An apparent fan of Rihanna's, who ordered the hat online direct from +Fresh.i.Am+, gifted it to her, says Ogunnoiki. He's since established direct contact with her camp.
+Fresh.i.Am+'s experience with celebrity endorsement has proven that organic relationships work best. Determining which high-profile celeb to align with requires forethought — no bona fide streetwear enthusiast wants to look like a hypebeast who bites styles just because they're popular.
Other boosters of the brand have included Harlem rapper Vinny Cha$e, Wiz Khalifa, 2 Chainz, Trinidad James ("our spirit guide," Ogunnoiki calls him), and Theophilus London, whom Ogunnoiki sought out at Art Basel in Miami several years ago. It led to their much-hyped LVRS hat collaboration, which gave London his signature look long before Karl Lagerfeld took notice of the fashion-forward MC. But Ogunnoiki contends that their collaboration went sour because London began slutting out the design by using it in collaboration with other prominent brands — a strict no-no in the streetwear world, where exclusivity is everything. (London hadn't responded to CL's request for comment at press time.)
Ogunnoiki admits to learning a valuable lesson in the process.
"Just because they're indie doesn't mean they're not assholes," Ogunnoiki says. "I'm not phased by hype anymore. We don't do individuals anymore."
Perhaps the one person who best embodies +Fresh.i.Am+'s FUKK aesthetic — and all of its inherent contradictions — is Ian Connor, the self-proclaimed King of the Youth. Even his tweets are epic: "I Don't Give A Fuck About Paris or Fashion Week." "The Streets Been The Runway." Those are just the examples safe enough to print in an alt-weekly.
Originally from Stone Mountain, the 20-year-old model/brand consultant has already achieved fashion icon status on the Internet and in New York where he now resides. The perfect role model for an ironic generation of youth weaned on Odd Future and Tumblr porn, he's been credited with making ugly the new beautiful due to his villain-next-door looks. His face has even become fashion thanks to an allover print jersey and short set designed by well-known graphic artist/fashion provocateur Wil Fry featuring Photoshopped images of Connor's creepy mug. But the piece that took him from virtual anonymity to Internet infamy was the FUKK hat.
"Like, I trademarked that hat for a while. It became crazy, I guess, like with my culture, or whatever, the whole youth culture," Connor says. After learning of the +Fresh.i.Am+ brand through London's LVRS collab, he saw Vinny Cha$e rocking the FUKK hat and ordered his own.
"I had a big role on the Internet at that time, especially Tumblr, and I took it up," he says, waxing nostalgic over his early affinity for the snapback. "It just stood out. It wasn't like the rest. It was derogatory. It was in your face. It was just straightforward. Like, you knew what it said, but it didn't just flat-out say it.
"That's how I came up, anyway, like, standing out — from getting made fun of to, like, the same people who used to make fun of me, like, dressing like me and asking me for style tips."
That sense of individualism and self-expression inherent in the name, +Fresh.i.Am+, lies at the heart of the brand's movement. And its founders wear it well, even if reservedly so.
Two weeks ago at Union in East Atlanta Village, +Fresh.i.Am+ threw its final FUKK party. Typically paired with a preceding pop-up shop, the occasional monthlies allowed the team to party with supporters and bridge their digital identity with their analog selves. Chilly-O and rapper/musician Spree Wilson served as the night's hosts.
Around midnight on the compact loft-space dance floor, Roman was all rhythm and limbs. Ogunnoiki, however, stood quietly behind the DJ booth, next to DJ Ira G, looking more focused than the moment required.
"Is he DJing?" I yelled to Roman over the bass.
"No. He just likes to stand back there," she responded with a laugh before adding, "We're so socially awkward."
It was a funny admission from the proprietors of a brand so seemingly comfortable with their increasing notoriety. Then again, that could be a gross misinterpretation.
Great piece, thanks.
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