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Poet of Merch, King of Collabs: Joe Freshgoods Puts On For Chicago

Published December 17, 2020

Notre Interviews Adrian Octavius Walker 01

Westside Chicago native Joe Freshgoods is a “poet that makes merch.” A longtime fixture in Chicago’s fashion scene, 2020 has seen Joe reach a new level of notoriety off the strength of some of the hottest sneaker releases of the year and a growing awareness of his unique style of deeply engaged, on-the-ground practice. Back in February, during NBA All-Star Weekend, he teamed up with New Balance to release his “No Emotions Are Emotions” collection that featured clothing, his own rendition of Kawhi Leonard’s signature shoe, and a 992 that sold out instantly and has become one of this year’s most sought-after shoes. That 992 release would be the beginning of a memorable year for the New Balance shoe.

Joe has long been vocal about the importance of reaching back into the community, and tends to walk his talk. After the first lockdown earlier this year, Joe created the initiative Community Goods, where he called upon various companies he’s worked with in the past to raise money for those in need.

And Joe works with a lot of brands. He was collaborating with McDonald’s years before Travis Scott or J. Balvin did, designing a line of merch for the fast-food giant in 2018. In just this year, he’s worked with three major sneaker labels—New Balance, Adidas, and, now, Converse. At ComplexCon Chicago last summer, Joe sold out of the bootleg Converse he had made for the event. Outside of the hometown love Joe is accustomed to, his booth also garnered attention from the likes of Sarah Andelman (founder of legendary boutique Colette) and Takashi Murakami—just to name a couple. That bootleg helped advance conversations Joe was already having with Converse, and now, his first official collab with the brand has arrived.

Joe’s ability to foster relationships to ensure his community isn’t forgotten about is selfless and exciting. I wanted to pick his brain about all things community, sneakers, and Chicago.

Adeshola Makinde
Joe Freshgoods

What is a “poet that makes merch”?

Yeah, for the most part, I think I try not to put titles on myself because I think that kind of dilutes the type of artist I want to go down in history as being. But when I look at fashion and the lens of what I do, I just speak for certain people, whether that's a hat and I’m talking about the Midwest and how it goes hand in hand with black people and the great migration. That's a moment for me to pick the teams that don't always get the shine. I'm just using the items to speak for a demographic of people that appreciates it. So whether it's a t-shirt, whether it's a sticker, whether it's a hat, whether it's a shoe, I'm expecting certain people to not understand what it means. So I think “fashion designer’”, “streetwear owner’” and “entrepreneur” are too bland. Obviously I'm all of those, but I've always been intrigued by writing. I'm not saying that I'm a bad writer, but I thought I was going to be a writer when I was in high school. So a lot of that stuff is just the state of my work now. I found my lane. So it's really just attacking things like I'm a poet that just makes merch for myself. I speak for a large group of people, primarily my black and brown people that usually don't have stuff that speaks for them. So, that's my new position. I didn't realize I'd been doing that, but that's how I'm trying to convey my message to the world.

I feel like your clothing speaks to a different audience than what streetwear typically speaks to.

And that's what streetwear should be. That's what streetwear used to be about from my understanding and growing up being such a big fan of streetwear. There's not too many brands that exist nowadays where it's, "Oh, shoot, you got that tee?" Back in the day it was like a club you belonged to. It was cool. It was edgy. It was, "Yo, how did you...? Where did you get those Dunks from? How did you get that?" So, I try to run my brand like that when it comes to just having that community aspect. "Oh, you went to Joe’s pop-up in Miami to get that. Oh, you got that shirt when he worked with Notre Shop." I'm a fan of those moments.

I speak for a large group of people, primarily my black and brown people that usually don't have stuff that speaks for them. So, that's my new position. I didn't realize I'd been doing that, but that's how I'm trying to convey my message to the world.

Early on in the pandemic you reached out to various brands you’ve worked with in the past to donate some apparel so you could raise money to help those in need. This isn’t new for you and your team at Fat Tiger Workshop. Why do you believe in building and supporting communities in this way is important?

Well, we've always treated Fat Tiger like a barbershop. The barbershop where you can get anything. You might go get your hair lined up and somebody might come in selling DVDs. But that's just a community. I think right now it's kind of the norm to be about community and highlight people of color, but we've always done that. We never wanted to just sell things to people. We wanted to make sure that we always gave back to people as much as possible. The main goal of Fat Tiger wasn't just to shove product down people's throats. It was to try to educate a consumer. Kind of give tips on how we started—we started very unconventional. And it's always that misconception that you need a shit-ton of money to start a store. I think we kind of broke the mold. I tell people all the time, Fat Tiger is like Wu-Tang. We all are best friends, but we all run our businesses within our hub. There isn’t anybody still to this day doing it like how we did it and how are we doing it now. It's our third location in seven years, so we've been growing very fast in a short amount of time. Now we have a workshop room dedicated to workshops and panels.

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This year you’ve worked with New Balance, Adidas, and most recently Converse. How have you navigated working with various sneaker brands so close in proximity?

It's a combination of a bit of luck, rolling the dice on myself. Because a lot of people can't do what I did. Sometimes these brands pigeonhole us to make a decision, and one thing that we've got to understand is we hold all the power. I'm cooler than you, brand. You genuinely need me more than I need you. Especially in this time in life where everybody is searching for Black talent. I have a very authentic voice when it comes to designers speaking their mind—I believe I'm one of a kind. And I’m outside—that's the biggest thing is I'm actually outside. I'd be at the bars getting fucked up. I'm trotting around the world, actually at my pop-up shops. So I know what the community looks like. I know what the community needs. I go to different communities around the world and talk to the people that support me about things in their community. I'm learning on the go, that's why I think a lot of the things I'm doing now is I'm just getting information. I signed with Adidas in a hotel lobby in New York. I did that without a lawyer. Now, looking back, it's terrible to do that. That's why I'm in a super group chat with a lot of my Black brothers about contracts. We got to be honest about stuff. I highlight my relationship with brands. I'm trying to normalize us sharing information so we can kind of know how to attack these brands.

I ended up leaving Adidas for New Balance and I didn't predict New Balance was going to have this year. But you can say I kind of helped usher that in with what I did for them for All-Star Weekend. I like working with smaller teams and this is stuff I'm just learning. Every company I work with, they're all built differently. As I work with these brands, I'm starting to take notes on what I like and what I don't like. A lot of people that work with these brands, they're not really honest. They’re just happy to be in the room. I'm never happy to be in the room at this point in my career. My biggest thing as a Black man is, you can't tell me that I can't do this when you let these other brands get 7000 sneaker collabs. I don't think people are used to that energy. You can only buy my stuff in Fat Tiger, online, and when I come to your city. I did so much by myself. And then data is what data is. There has never been a line for New Balance in Chicago for All-Star Weekend. Out of respect for every partner I'm working with, I bring something different to the table that you cannot deny.

We never wanted to just sell things to people. We wanted to make sure that we always gave back to people as much as possible.

I ended up leaving Adidas for New Balance and I didn't predict New Balance was going to have this year. But you can say I kind of helped usher that in with what I did for them for All-Star Weekend. I like working with smaller teams and this is stuff I'm just learning. Every company I work with they're all built differently. So it's like, as I work with these brands, I'm starting to take notes on what I like and what I don't like. A lot of people that work with these brands, they're not really honest. They’re just happy to be in the room. I'm never happy to be in the room at this point in my career. You got to treat these brands like they're your girlfriend. You just gotta make sure you're honest, make sure you love the product while you love the product. My biggest thing as a black man, you can't tell me that I can't do this. When you let these other brands get 7000 sneaker collabs. I don't think people are used to that energy. You can only buy my stuff in Fat Tiger, online and when I come to your local city. I did so much by myself. So I treat all these brands like I really don't need you. And then data is what data is. It's just like, there has never been a line for New Balance in Chicago for All-Star Weekend. So it's out of respect for every partner I'm working with, I bring something different to the table that you cannot deny. When you go to joefreshgoods.com, it starts off by saying “I'm crazy, I randomly collab with friends” and that's really me. That's on brand for what I like to do so I'm just trying to really show kids that you can still live in your hometown. You can still be your true self and you can still fuck these brands up.

But I say no to a lot. I say no more than I say yes. I don't want to be known as the person that's the collab man. I'm kind of getting tired of collabs. But at the same time they are putting me on a platform to do what I want to do and help people out. I got some really big announcements next year. I challenged a few brands this year. Like, "Yo, don't give me no Black people check. This is what I want you to do." Some stuff you got to let happen to see how it goes. It's a few things I'm very proud that I was able to convince brands to do, but we're not going to see it for another year or two.

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Anyone looking at your work might think you say yes to most collaborations that are presented to you, but I imagine it’s the opposite. How important is it for you to choose the right collaborator?

I'm smart and calculated with my yeses. I'm super aware of what I bring to the table. I'm aware of what I mean to the community. And once you've worked with me, it's a level of trust now that you have with a certain community. "Oh, y'all work with Joe. Okay. We see." I only really take 30 percent of the things that's offered to me—especially this year with everybody trying to rush and sign somebody black. I've been telling motherfuckers no all fucking year. I think people won't really understand me until my career is relatively finished and I can write my tell-all book about how I was able to work with certain brands. This is the biggest thing. Every time I've worked with a brand, I'd be like, "So, this is what I want you to do for Chicago." As much as I'm transparent, I'm a good partner. That's all I'm trying to do, man. I love to give back when I get something. I was able to help my friends get Adidas collaborations before I left Adidas. I got my friends signed and left Adidas to go to New Balance. All I do is just try to help out my community, and my group, my friends. Challenge brands' belief and what they're doing for the city.

But I say no to a lot. I say no more than I say yes. I don't want to be known as the person that's the collab man. I'm kind of getting tired of collabs. But at the same time they are putting me on a platform to do what I want to do and help people out. I got some really big announcements next year. I challenged a few brands this year. Like, "Yo, don't give me no Black people check. This is what I want you to do." Some stuff you got to let happen to see how it goes. It's a few things I'm very proud that I was able to convince brands to do, but we're not going to see it for another year or two.

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Your first time working on a pair of Converse was the bootleg way. DIY. What was Converse’ response after they saw the impact of them at Complexcon?

I look at myself like an underground rapper. Where if you know, you know, if you don't, you just don't. I’ve enjoyed being underground. So with ComplexCon with both Chicago and LA, I fucked them up, both cities. The streets will always talk for you. The internet is cool, you can pay for ad space, you can pay for whatever, but that doesn't mean they're actually buying. When you go to a physical location and you see a Black man moving and grooving with a blunt in his mouth, with a line out the door, multicultural staff, it's just like, "Wait, what's going on right here?" So, I think I just got on everybody's radar after these ComplexCons. Power and respect to Nike and Adidas for being the first to put me in little projects. But I think overall when ComplexCon came to Chicago like I said, I've been doing it for a few years now, but I was like, "You know what? I need some extra stuff to sell at my booth. Let me print up some more Chucks.” I think I did like 17 pairs and made a little cute display. I sold out in a few minutes, and I put my heart into it, too. I'd been talking to Converse, a few people that I know from there, so I think my name kept spreading. I created the hype and that hype got me the position it got me with Converse.

I've been able to do so much damage, influence so much stuff, raise money to help people out, just off t-shirts. T-shirts have changed my life.

I’ve been noticing a bit of 70’s inspiration with your Converse collab. Particularly the clothing. Could you dive deeper into the inspiration for the collection?

This is a fun collection for me. I'm often put into the urban t-shirt category, so with this collection I wanted to make something a little bit more raunchy. I wanted to make people excited about Converse clothes. And as I started building everything out I just started feeling 70s and funk. I think ultimately this year there’s been so much hardship and so many serious projects, so I just wanted to show Black people having a good time in the 70s. I like when you have certain pieces in your closet and you just feel good. I made a Black collection, but not, like, shoving it down your throat, so everybody can digest it. That's the art about this. I am going to give you all of my culture as a Black man from an educational point of view. I hope people like it. It's the first time they're going to see some of this type of stuff from me.

Everything is a true feeling for me. I just want to make sure that while I'm in this room, let me kind of shake the table a little bit because I'm in here.

Different parts of your Converse shoe consist of t-shirts you’ve made in the past. Why does that canvas mean so much to you?

Because t-shirts changed my life, man. Bro, I've been able to do so much damage, influence so much stuff, raise money to help people out, just off t-shirts. T-shirts have changed my life. From making my first t-shirt, to living in the white tee era. Like why were we wearing 3X white tees? Getting an airbrush t-shirt made in the mall, and even the shoes. But a lot of stuff I do has hidden messages to my daughter. I want her to get old and be like, "Yo, my dad crazy! How does he have thousands of people wearing my name on a shoe?" When I create, I try to have five different storylines into one product. Where it can go in so many different directions. But t-shirts changed everything, man. Again, this is one of those things where if you don't get it, you don't get it. I put a piece of my bootleg Chucks from last year, a vintage t-shirt, I put my first family reunion t-shirt in there—and in Black culture family reunion tees are a big thing. I couldn't have hit people with like a regular, cute colorway. I didn't want to just hit y'all with like a New Balance colored Chuck, because the New Balance colorway popped for me. That's too easy. Once you look at my career and all my sneakers are out, there's not going to be a trend. And I'm all about that. Everything is a true feeling for me. I just want to make sure that while I'm in this room, let me shake the table a little bit because I'm in here.

Every shoe I've ever dropped, every shoe that I'm dropping, it's always a message to my daughter. Nobody knows that, but it's something that I can't wait until I'm super old and I tell her, "go look under the tongue and right there is your name right there."

Unlike others you’ve chosen to stay home in Chicago and create from here. What do you want the world to know about Chicago?

Chicago's beautiful. If you can make it in Chicago, you can make it anywhere. I think Chicago gets a bad rap sometimes in the media, about the violence and everything. And while some things are true, man, the beautiful part of Chicago is we are so rooted in our beliefs and we are so creative. There's nothing more powerful and dangerous than a Chicagoan that has the mic. I travel the world with pop-ups, but there's just something about Chicago and our creatives from every industry. My biggest thing is just trying to tell these young Westside kids that there's a lot of powerful things and movements and people coming from the Southside, but where I'm from it's a little different. We don't really have a lot of heroes that are doing the things I'm doing. I don't know how long I'm going to stay here as my career blossoms. Continuing to make things that make sure I get bigger so I can continue to help bring stuff back to the crib. But Chicago is beautiful. We have our hand in a lot of parts of culture—then, now, in the future.

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