FUKK what you heard 

+Fresh.i.Am+'s streetwear-inspired movement proves the South has something fashionable to say

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ON THE LOW: Roman and Ogunnoiki couple off at the last dance. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • ON THE LOW: Roman and Ogunnoiki couple off at the last dance.

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."

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