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FRONTRVNNERS - VANCOUVER, CANADA
Frontrvnners entered our radar in 2016 as a start-up brand which seemed to be better thought-out than the other streetwear concepts setting up at the time. Through constant dedication, the team have built an international following from their unusual base in Vancouver. Their recent acclaim may appear to be indicative of "overnight success", however the Frontrvnners story reveals how easily the brand may have ended with a whimper on more than one occasion. I spoke with Joshua to hear about his tireless journey.
hs = HYPERSUPPLY – JJ = Joshua
hs: You’re currently in Vancouver, but started Frontrvnners in Hayward, California. What happened in between?
JJ: Hayward is originally where I grew up. I’m from the Bay Area, California. Just started it with some boys, some friends from high school. That was around the era of Nike SB Dunks, when Diamond Supply was killing it, and skateboard culture was making that whole transition to hip hop culture. I was into graphic design and playing with HTML to design blogs for fun. I got into fashion out of just being self-conscious. I would try to make my clothes look more expensive than they were by putting them together creatively, and I remember about 2012 there was a brand in our city called Imperium. I remember going inside the shop in Hayward and thinking, “fuck! We can do something better than this!” With three of my other boys I went to high school with, we all put in $100 and got 40 t-shirts pressed with the name ‘Frontrvnners’. We sold out the shirts in about a week or two, so we knew we really had something.
Within 6 months though, we started butting heads, because I was designing, while my other boy was also designing, and we were never able to agree on stuff. The other two guys were closer to him, so they just made a proposal to leave the brand to me while they started their own thing. With that, I took a four- to five-month break, because I didn’t know how I was going to be able to afford to run a brand by myself.
Going forward to 2013, I again had to put in on pause because I got a scholarship to a school in Vancouver. So, from 2013 to 2015, I didn’t do the brand at all. I would still post designs on Instagram, but I was focussed on football and school.
hs: When you started up Frontrvnners, what was the inspiration behind the name? You have branding elements such as the axe logo, the text ‘WCFRVS’, and the angel icon. What do these represent?
JJ: With the original guys that I started with, one of the first things we did was, we locked ourselves in a room, we all wrote down 10 names, brought the names together, narrowed the list down to 10, then to 5, then to 3. We would make votes; one of the guys came up with Frontrvnners, and that got the vote. Ironically, I didn’t even vote for the name Frontrvnners, which is crazy haha! it was just majority rule. From then on, we just ran with it.
‘WCFRVS’ originated when we first tried to legalise our name and register our business in California. We found out that there was already an organisation with the name ‘Frontrvnners’ elsewhere. One of the boys recommended, ‘World Class Frontrunners’. It was another thing I didn’t necessarily agree with, but I understood it was needed to just get going.
As far as the axe goes… it’s pretty corny, but back then we would always just drink Hennessey. That axe is actually the axe from the Hennessy logo. To avoid any legal trouble, we switched it up a little bit. Like the star, and messing with the hand and the axe a little bit. But yeah, that’s where the axe came from. We thought that was something we all had in common. When we were all just together, hanging out and vibing, that was something we would drink. That was a connector of where we came from. In the Bay Area, a lot of people were drinking that at that time.
The angel is something I came up with about 2 years ago possibly. It’s based on the Rolls Royce hood ornament. Growing up, I wasn’t a bad kid, but there were certain times my friends and I did stupid things, like taking our parents cars out for joyrides, or going out to parties in neighbourhoods that we knew we shouldn’t be in, like a rival school’s party. Just growing up in the Bay Area, there were situations with people pulling out guns.
I didn’t know if they were planning to rob my friend’s car or what, but one time we were in a drive-through getting food, and we saw in the mirror this dude pulling over, coming out of a van with a shotgun, walking over towards the car, pointing at us. Luckily, we saw him with enough time to reverse and get out of the parking lot. But also, just being young and dumb and letting friends drink and drive, or doing it yourself… we would hear the next day that someone we knew died for the same thing. It would never happen to us – I’ve never had a DUI, or been to jail, or had a serious injury. Even through sports, I’ve never had a serious concussion, or torn anything. I always thought I had a guardian angel. I try to put that angel on everything!
hs: I wasn’t expecting that answer at all!
JJ: Yeah, people ask me, and I don’t want to give off the vibe that we are just a bunch of alcoholics! I don’t even drink like that anymore, it’s funny thinking about it.
hs: When you relaunched in 2015, were you were still at college?
JJ: I was still in college, but my eligibility was up with sports. I finished my last football season in fall 2014, and being in Canada, my friends would see me wearing the old stuff, some of them would end up seeing the Instagram, ask me what is this, and where they could purchase. It got to a point where people just kept asking me, and I decide to try and see what it would take to do things in Canada, spending a few months doing all the research.
I found a local screen printer who had the best prices, pressed up about 20-30 tees. I remember the product didn’t hit as fast as it did in the Bay area, and I realised that the culture was slightly different here in Vancouver when it comes to streetwear fashion, and also in terms of people supporting entrepreneurship. It’s not necessarily the traditional thing, especially when it comes to fashion, in college a lot of these kids are used to progressing to going to work in ‘corporate’ jobs like in tech, or in medicine – they’re not really focussed on fashion. So yeah, I kinda had to relearn the culture of Vancouver, and I remember in the Bay Area, I could make louder designs, and bigger prints. In Canada, I learned that people in Canada like more subtle imagery, like small messaging on the chest, or the small logos that we have on our hats. So, I just started doing that, and started to finesse my network; finding people in the city, people I knew through sports that had really good networks, and getting them to be the first people who would wear the gear, get them to take pictures for social media. I kept doing that to grow the Instagram. I already had my own camera, so I started taking photos, and it started to get traction, and then 2015 I would say by the end of the year I had a kid approach me at school.
He saw me taking pictures one time, caught me in the computer lab the next day, and told me how much he like what I was doing, and that he would love to help me out, even if for free. Now he’s one of my business partners, his name is Buck. He was my first real help in Vancouver, and it was pretty for him too, cos he’s from Zimbabwe, so it brings a new cultural mindset. At my school and in Vancouver, there’s a pretty good African community that come here to study and work, and he opened the doors to that demographic for me. I knew a few people, but he was more deeply embedded in it. That was a whole other network, because I was African American and just hung around with the athletes, and not much beyond that.
I remember that fall we put in $600 each, and got our first cut and sew garments made overseas. I remember when we got it, it was nothing like how I designed it…they fucked it all up! [laughs]…the sizing was wrong, the fitting was wrong, they embroidered our logo 10x as big as we designed it...It was crazy because those items still ended up selling; I don’t know how, but we still found a way to make it work, and people actually liked it too! But that taught me a lot as far as manufacturing overseas. Because I would get hats made overseas, but as far as garments, that was my first time doing it. We made profit on it, but not as much as we should have made. It was a crewneck sweater we were planning to sell for $80, and we ended up selling it for US$35-40. It cut our margins a lot. We made a little bit back on top for us to stay afloat, but then that happened, but then I ended up making another mistake with another manufacturer. We made the mistake of not getting a sample made first. That order would have made us $1300 to $1500. We placed an order for cut and sew shirts. They arrived, all messed up, the size XL came up to my belly button. The fabric was a faded black. The cotton was terrible. The screen printing was a shiny silicone, when we wanted a matte finish.
I was devastated because at that point we up almost $2000. We had forecast that to make $1500 in profit. We had just wasted $500 that we couldn’t get back. After that lesson, I made it a ritual that we always order samples first. No matter what, even if it costs an extra 100-$200, or an extra month on our timeline, we can’t afford those kinds of mistakes. That was a big, early death-cheque. I was using my student loan money. I was getting about an extra $1200 to last me 2 or 3 months through the semester, so that shit hurt me, it really hurt me! But yeah, we made it through, and we kept doing the same thing, finding people who have good networks in the city and thank God I still have friends back home who were supporting, and we were getting orders from all over the place. Later that year I also brought on my other boy Atif, who also went to our college. Him and Buck also worked together on the events group on campus. That was 2016 that Atif came on, and I had my, I remember the end of 2016 definitely, I was in a very bad place, just with my personal life, and even with Frontrvnners… I have very high expectations; we were growing as a brand, and we were still selling. I was feeling very depressed at the end of 2016, because I had put in a lot of work without a lot to show for it, and then on the personal side I was with a girl for like seven years, and then she broke up with me around that time. That was the girl I thought I was going to marry. I was just in my darkest place fall 2016, and when the whole thing happened with her, I remember just sulking every day.
I tried to study a lot more. It made me really dive into workaholic mode with the brand, and made this big plan for where we would finish 2017. And 2017 was crazy. We had actually got samples for our first collection. We normally drop 1 or 2 pieces at a time traditionally, just because honestly, I couldn’t afford to drop a full collection, but luckily it worked out in a business sense, because it created scarcity…we’ll drop of 1-2 items, 100 pieces at most, and we don’t restock ever. It actually plays in our favour…Doing photoshoots for that first collection, that’s when we came up with the 'Death Before Disloyalty' bombers, and these different long-sleeves we also had, and hats, and we started to get a lot more notoriety in the city. I don’t know how… we just kept doing what we were doing. We started linking up with the dope photographers in the city, and started doing photoshoots for Instagram.
About February 2017, Atif mentioned a competition at our school. Every year they have this entrepreneurship competition. We ended up entering – I didn’t really want to enter because our brand was a streetwear brand. People entering were tech companies, you know the traditional types of business that banks are used to investing in, or lawyers are used to dealing with. There were almost 70 applicants. We had a preliminary 90 second pitch, out of which the top would be selected to go to the final round for $5000 grand prize. I remember going in to pitch. There were our old professors, plus people from banks and local leaders. I remember just telling them what we were about, and how much traction we had so far. I walked out thinking that was terrible, and there was no way we would progress.
The next day I went downtown to study. I got a call from one of the girls who worked at reception and she told me that Frontrvnners had been chosen as one of the top six. They invited us to do the final pitch at a law firm downtown. I couldn’t believe it, I think I cursed on the phone I was so shocked!...
We ended up going to the law firm, pitching, and winning the $5000 grand prize! That was good validation, because at the beginning this was just a hobby, and to see that our financials, our marketing, and our business, was judged to be the best by these society decision makers. It was amazing for us. I noticed after we won that competition, all of our peers – from college or those who knew us from outside of school – they all started drawing to us more. Ever since then, we’ve just been thinking on a larger scale in terms of what we design, how we make it, how we market it, and who we look to associate the brand with.
hs: How would you say that your brand’s style has evolved over time?
JJ: It’s really the trends that you see today. The tracksuit look is back, and that prompted us to release the ‘Rvn With Us, or Rvn From Us’ tracksuit. When these new trends come, find a way that we can put our identity on that. That has usually been the way that we have been able to stay relevant. I’m a social media head, a very big observer. Whenever I see a trend that people are starting to adopt a lot more. That’s when I mess around with a new design.
hs: You said in Vancouver, consumers prefer subtle messages to big graphics. Did you first introduce the ‘Loyalty Initially, Royalty Infinitely’ tagline around 2015, when you relaunched?
JJ: That has actually been around from the beginning. That was one thing that I did come up with in the beginning. I didn’t really think too hard about it. With my friend who was doing most of the designs at first, I think he put it on our first garment, but it didn’t feature too much on our other garments. I noticed with branding, there’s something that’s always constant – Nike have “just do it” for example – so I wanted that to be our model. With me designing a lot more, I try to find ways to implement that in our garments somehow. Whether using just the word royalty, or loyalty on a piece somehow, to now having the phrase printed on all of our size tags. We’re putting it on garments here and there, but sometimes it doesn’t always fit with the design, so I always put it on the neck labels to make sure it’s there at least.
hs: Looking back over everything you’ve learned, if you were to start again, what would you do differently?
JJ: My biggest regret is not starting earlier. Also, I wish I would have delegated things a little more, assigned specific roles, and been a little more structured with our strategy. At every stage that I’ve hit, whenever we don’t sit down and organise, there’s always a bumping of heads. The people that I initially started with, they were actually my friends, my boys. When we ended up going our separate ways, we were never friends again; it broke a pretty close friendship. That’s never happened again. Buck and Atif were my business partners first and then they became my friends, which is fortunate. Now, assigning roles is huge because when it comes to knowing who has done what, it avoids any unwanted conflict as it is clear who is carrying their weight.
hs: What are your roles?
JJ: I find myself doing a bit of everything – I cover design, manufacturing and social media. I’ll even set up some of our photoshoots. But I know my weakness: I’m not as social as Atif and Buck when it comes to reaching out to new people:
Buck is great at networking and handles building new relationships. So, with Roy Woods and Baka from OVO wearing our stuff, that was Buck reaching out to their management, and in general just finding a way to establish a relationship with people when they come to visit our city.
Atif actually built our newest website, he handles a lot of the web development, and also builds relationships on the institutional side; more the traditional business people. If there’s somebody that we need to be able to sit down with, Atif will make that contact.
Because we’re not big enough for one person to focus on sales, all of us bring in sales from our networks, but those roles outlined are the main focusses for each. Even Buck does a lot to arrange shoots. As we grow, I’m still trying to make our roles a lot more specialised, to make things more sustainable.
hs: Talk me through your design process.
JJ: I’m not the type of person that you can just tell me design something, and I can just do it. Random thoughts come to my mind, whether I’m reading a book, travelling somewhere, online scrolling, or thinking about a lesson I learned in life. That’s when I’ll write down a note, go on adobe illustrator and start playing with the message. For all of my pieces, I try and have some message on them; streetwear with a meaning. I try and figure out what I’m trying to say first, then, “what do I want people to feel when they see this.”
Usually I will also keep an eye on what’s trending, and how I can incorporate my message into a garment. There will be times when I will go a month or two without designing, and then next thing you know, there will be one day I will push out ten or twenty designs. I also wonder, “if somebody were to decode this, or learn what I’m trying to say, would it empower them? Would it be something they could live by?” I try to make all of the messages timeless. I want people to realise that they don’t need anything but themselves and ambition to achieve their goals.
hs: I like the message in your ‘Thou Shall Stay Loyal’ hoodie - the Black Panther symbolism. I remember you saying you were inspired by one of the founders of the movement. How do you go from that inspiration to the graphic, and what does the Japanese text there mean?
JJ: It’s cool that you caught all that! That’s my favourite design, because it’s so personal to me.
Starting with the simplest part, the Japanese writing says ‘Frontrvnners’ in katakana [the Japanese writing system usually used for importing words from other languages]. In high school I took two years of Japanese. All my friends asked why, and I told them that everybody was learning French or Spanish; I didn’t want to simply do what everyone was doing. And also, because I loved Dragonball Z!
On the black panther, it really just stems from my roots, especially what it stood for. People tie the black panthers just to black people, but if you do your research, they were standing up against the government not taking care of people who really needed the help. Huey P. Newton would go to poor neighbourhoods and bring people groceries. And when the cops weren’t acting correctly, they were the ones who would come back and retaliate against the cops, whether the victim was black, white, Hispanic, Asian. They just stood up for what’s right. That kind of radicalism… I feel that any time you see that kind of shift in the world, it usually comes after bloodshed. That was my tribute to that mindset. When it comes to fighting the norm, making things right, the way they should be, you should really be able to believe in yourself, whether people support you or not.
With the wave, it’s like the Japanese wave painting [by Hokusai] that you see a lot. That is linked to 2016 fall where I felt like I was going through hell. Then somehow 2017 hit, and it was the best year of my life – I made it out of all of that turmoil.
I felt like this is something that a lot of people can relate to. That’s why I turned it into a design. It just brought together so many aspects of my life. That’s where the message on the chest, ‘Thou Shall Stay Loyal’ comes from: you’ve got to stay loyal to what you believe in; stay loyal to your mission. That’s my most personal design to this day.
hs: Is the sporty look of your clothing a reflection of your own background, or the current trend?
JJ: I remember coming out with a pink t-shirt carrying the phrase ‘move in silence’. When I made it, I assumed women would be the main buyers, but I was so wrong; it was men buying it. We also produced pink hoodies in just a run of 20 because we weren’t sure the demand would be there, however we sold out, with 80% of the buyers being men. After that I realised that pink is truly a unisex colour now. From our numbers, men buy pink more than women when it comes to streetwear.
That influenced me a little bit, and I also remember seeing a picture of Drake in a pink soccer jersey, and that’s when I started looking at that product category. When I saw the photo, I could see myself wearing it; it looked sick! I wanted to test out something beyond hoodies, t-shirts, and bomber jackets.
It’s also tying into a trend. Even in Vancouver, you’re starting to see a lot of people wearing soccer jerseys for fashion now, so we wanted to capitalise in that way.
hs: What would you like to launch that you haven’t yet?
JJ: We already started in a small way with the leather jacket, but I would really like to launch that fully or a varsity letterman jacket. One of those pieces that you know is expensive just by looking at it. There’s another thing: I remember growing up not having much money, seeing the price tag of certain things, and just thinking “oh fuck, no way!”, if it was like $80.
Now, actually charging $100 for a jacket, and people still buying it… I want to create that garment that is expensive, but people still want to pay for. Aside from that, I want to make a garment with a symbol that really means something. It’s not just a fad, or a brand that’s worth a lot because of the brand name - people don’t wear Louis Vuitton for the story, but for the social value. With our leather jackets we’re charging a few hundred dollars.
It took my whole life to come up with the values that I now put into my clothing. To have someone feel that something I’ve made is worth that much, it blows my mind to see that! I still feel like a kid; I’m still in awe, and it never gets old to me. Just like how you decoded the design on the ‘Thou Shall Stay Loyal’ hoodie, that shit is crazy to me!
These are our luxury items. We previously never charged over $100 for anything. For us to be able to sell items at several hundreds of dollars, that’s something I want to do next, and also have people feel like they got their money’s worth – or that it should have cost them a lot more money.
hs: When I look at that leather jacket on your site, it’s three times as expensive as the next most expensive item. At which point do you feel that you can take such a risk on a product? Was it different designing and prototyping it?
JJ: That’s one thing we need too. I remember undercharging for the first shirts we brought out. I knew that the average person around my neighbourhood didn’t have much money, and I didn’t expect them to help me out if I charged more. I remember as price points started going up to $100, the team wasn’t too sure if people would pay that much, but I was sure. We’ve built a powerful enough brand.
I’ve heard people actually sound surprised at our price levels several times, and so many people who have seen our garments in person have told me that we could actually be charging more. I want to be able to create these types of pieces, without forgetting our day one customers. It’s a leap of faith coming out with the leather jacket now.
hs: But why do you feel you need this type of product?
JJ: What really influenced me to do that? I remember watching a Dame Dash interview, and he was talking about luxury brands. He used Mercedes as an example:
It wasn’t the Maybach keeping the lights on at Mercedes, but when you put the Maybach as the top item – this high-status thing that everybody who knows luxury would aspire to have – and then you release a C-Class or an E-Class Mercedes, people are gunna eat that up, because it’s a more affordable version of the Maybach which also bears that valuable Mercedes symbol.
The other luxury car makers like Lamborghini do the same thing, always promoting their most expensive model, so when somebody gets the lower-grade model, it has that social value. People will still want to get that lower model, because of what the brand means. Looking at a brand more in context like Off-White, you see these crazy jackets all over the internet, costing a few thousand dollars. But when you step out of the house, kids are mostly wearing their t-shirts or the straps. I see with the leather jacket and the letterman, that’s our Maybach. From a strategic view, that’s why I felt that we needed to put up a product at the $300 level.
hs: Given the numbers involved, how do you minimise the risk of a product flopping?
JJ: Surprisingly, it was one thing I did learn at school. It’s called the lean business model: You put out a prototype, and test out the demand on the market. If the market shows a lot of demand, you then go and invest into getting the actual product made and selling it. For example, if you look at the product photos that I put up here and there. Those are actually thing’s I’ve made on photoshop. I make those before we have samples or the real garment. I post these to get feedback on our social media accounts. For example, when I posted the white bomber jacket the feedback was so huge I knew we had to make it. So then I got samples made, then placed the order. We’re at a point that our orders cost $10k, so we need to make sure we’re hitting certain goals.
hs: There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask: I don’t see Frontrvnners collaborating with other brands. When I see you guys collaborating, it’s more to fundraise, or bring awareness to an issue. Is it a conscious decision to not collaborate with other brands?
JJ: I’m challenging myself a little more to do collaborations. It’s weird because a lot of the times I’ve tried to do collaborations, we couldn’t get on the same page. I’ve designed a bunch of collaboration pieces; I think only one of them ever came out. Things just didn’t work out in terms of agreeing on a design.
I remember one time working with an artist who kept complaining that he wanted his logo to be much bigger than ours on the garment, but we were actually the ones taking the bigger risk in terms of time and money. We were not going to sacrifice the aesthetic of the garment just to make a logo bigger. It was also the case that their profile was much lower than ours, and it felt like they were trying to use us for free promo. Maybe one of my partners needs to negotiate these instead haha! But yeah, it would need to be a partnership where both brands bring something to the table.
As for the charity side, that has just been our way of trying to give back. It also helps our friends. In our city, there are people we know on a personal level who are trying to do things. We recognise that we have a decent-sized audience. We’re always open to helping people build an awareness, whether it’s a local artist, a charitable cause, or a mental illness. At the end of the day, it just takes one post from us. It doesn’t take hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s just us playing our part in something that ties into what we believe, but also just helping people around us.
hs: To close, is there anything extra that you would like to put out there?
JJ: We’re constantly just working on bettering ourselves. We’ve had some success, but our main goal is to make this a global brand. A brand that preaches a mindset to people. I want a kid who has never met us before to be inspired by us and know what we stand for, and become successful by embodying our mindset. When I look at where we are versus our goal, it humbles me. I realise there is so much work to be done.
I want this business to be something that I can pass down to my child. Eventually distribution in other countries in Europe and Asia. Domestically, we want to get a lot more traction in Los Angeles, as streetwear is quite big there. I also want to be able to empower other people: I want to help two other brands to start this year. Last year we helped one brand start. This year, I’m challenging myself to help two brands start. I just really want to help somebody else pursue their passion, pursue their dreams, and build a viable brand.
My favourite rapper when I was in the Bay Area was Gucci Mane. I think he kinda embodies that same mindset of doing shit your own way – even though that guy was reckless as hell! I really think he was radical though. When it comes to the numbers and business side, and how many people he introduced to the world and empowered - and he wasn’t even trying to take money out of their pockets! He just wanted to put them in positions. Also, going through all of that, he still was a workaholic. He had mixtape after mixtape dropping while he was in jail because of all the work he had done. He came out even bigger than he was before.
That’s a true testament to his work ethic and the energy he has put out into other people who are now successful like the Migos. He really inspired me. When I looked at him, and listened to his music – even though I wasn’t selling drugs, I looked at my clothes as if they were the drugs he was talking about in his music haha! Just flipping it and making money off something, and just working, and bringing through these people around you who are now some of the top artists in the world. It’s amazing to be able to do that, and it’s something that I would love to be able to do.
Check out Frontrvnners' range here: www.frontrvnners.com