Joe Freshgoods’ name is well known in Chicago. But he’s perfectly OK knowing that you may have never heard of him if you live outside the area. He’s even cool with the idea that you may not be privy to the fact that he designed the “Thank You Obama” T-shirt worn by Chance the Rapper when he accepted his first Grammy Award, and you only recently found out who he is through his New Balance collaboration.
For Joe, that kind of notoriety is secondary to the importance of being the dude who holds it down for the people who have had his back in the Windy City. Through exhibits at Fat Tiger Workshop, a cultural hub in which he is a co-founder, and his Community Goods initiative, a nonprofit organization that sends 100% of its proceeds to small Chicago businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe is able to be there for his supporters. As long as Chicagoans are good, his mind is at ease.
Those kinds of community-centric efforts don’t go unnoticed. Least of all by us. That’s why Joe was a shoe-in candidate to be featured in our Stadium Goods Block by Block series.
With so many starts, stops, and spinoffs, piecing together Joe Freshgoods’ career is like playing a game of Connect the Dots, and the object you’re drawing is a Google Maps view of Chicago. So it’s best left to him to explain it all in detail, as he did so well in a recent video call with us.
Before we dive in, please introduce yourself. What is something we should know about Joe Freshgoods that only Joe Freshgoods could tell us?
This isn’t something that people can Google. But as I go into my career, I just want to continue to speak through my art. I don’t really like doing too many interviews. It’s not like I want to be mysterious like The Weeknd, it’s more like I find it easier to just give back through my art, speaking up for my community through my clothes. It’s about using my platform to give back.
Your website (joefreshgoods.com) reveals you to be “crazy and all over the place.” How has moving at your own speed in today’s fast paced culture been an important part of your story?
My business plan is having no business plan. I’ve been able to take notes from my peers, and from just being in Chicago. I come from a legendary shoe store called Leaders 1354, which is one of the first streetwear stores in the Midwest. I learned a lot from my time there, and that’s followed me through my career. In terms of how I’m moving now, I’m able to shift and adapt. I don’t have a huge team, so when I work with a brand it’s actually me working directly with the brand. And I’m very mindful of my customer base. Because of my store, Fat Tiger Workshop, I’m able to communicate directly to my customer. I can see what they like, see what they don’t like, and go from there.
How has growing up and living in Chicago influenced your work?
Man, my work is all based on how I grew up. Shopping experiences, how I dealt with certain adversities growing up, my neighborhood. It’s all part of the equation. And I express that through my work. I think nowadays I see myself as a poet that makes merch (laughs), as opposed to a fashion designer. It sounds a little sexier, but all I do really is just communicate through my clothes. References like first time riding a bike, going outside, getting in trouble. First time shopping in my neighborhood, buying fake throwback jerseys. Everything that I experienced growing up in the city, I just articulate that feeling in different mediums. Even if you didn’t grow up in Chicago, you’re still able to identify with a lot of those things that I grew up doing.
You’re associated with a prominent creative outlet, Fat Tiger Workshop. How does working as a collective differ from doing a solo project? Do you have a preference for either?
Yeah, I mean, Fat Tiger is like Wu-Tang. We all have our different brands, and we’re just best friends that have a store together. And we’re lucky enough to be able to operate our brands independently. It’s never really been done before. But it works for us. It’s a business model that absolutely works for us. Because there’s no manual on how to do all this, we just kind of “wing it” for lack of a better term. For example, the name of our store is Fat Tiger Workshop. What do you see popping up all over now? Workshops. We came up with that. And it was honestly just about giving the customer an experience other than just coming into the store to shop. So I’d say I’m lucky enough to have the best of both worlds, really.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide range of brands and companies. How do you approach collaborations with AT&T, Hennessey, McDonalds, New Balance on a brand-to-brand level? Does your creative process change or remain the same?
It’s been interesting. As my career grows, my worth grows. When I was younger I was doing a lot of things just so I could get my name out there. I was happy to be in meetings, happy to soak up knowledge, and get the exposure. If you really look at it, I was sort of like the guinea pig for a lot of brands. I was the first person in the streetwear industry to work with McDonald’s. The famous Golden Arches were on clothes that I designed, and I had lines outside of five McDonald’s in the US. I also think that brands looked at it like, “He’s the young kid in Chicago that’s making noise. He’s probably a little more experimental with it than someone who’s established.” It’s not even about bragging. It’s just about gaining experience, trying new things. Now I’m able to gauge what’s worth my while, and what’s not.
Kids are coming up to me and saying “So-and-so just reached out to me, what do you think?” To be the “big homie” or whatever you wanna call it is gratifying. It’s a passion of mine to talk to the up-and-coming brands. But to really answer your question, every brand is different (laughs).
Being that you’re from Chicago, we have to ask you this—what was your favorite Air Jordan as a kid? Do you have any memorable sneaker stories to share with us?
My favorite Air Jordan as a kid was probably the Jordan 9. I feel like nobody says that so I’m proud of that (laughs). The Jordan 9 “Olive” is probably my favorite colorway. With the olive nubuck. That’s my grail. It’s something different. I always like to be different. I’ve always liked boots, and the Jordan 9 just looks like a military boot to me.
Speaking of sneakers, our readers may be familiar with you because of your “No Emotions Are Emotions” collaboration with New Balance. How did that go down, and why did you choose the 992 and Kawhi Leonard’s OMN1S models? It seems like the 992’s popularity skyrocketed after you worked on that shoe.
That’s low-key. But really, some people who are into New Balance shoes don’t want to give me any credit (laughs). I had the opportunity to pick the 992, and again, I felt like it was something different that no one else was really on at the time. Being able to drop that collaboration with New Balance over NBA All-Star Weekend was a blessing. It’s dope because it was an opportunity for me to go against those heavy hitter brands and sneaker releases (around NBA All-Star Weekend.) As for the shoe itself, I wanted to add a different flair to the design. A Black man’s flair (laughs). Let me go funky with it one time.
And in regards to working on Kawhi’s model, it really came down to connecting with the dude himself. I pitched the “No Emotions” idea to him and he loved it. It really describes his demeanor on the basketball court. He’s going to ball on you, and he’s gonna do it without showing much emotion. The shoe came out around Valentine’s Day, but it’s not a Valentine’s Day shoe. The story just kind of connected together, really.
Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us. In April you launched a fundraising project called “Community Goods.” What is the mission of “Community Goods?”
Community Goods basically started from me just wanting to use my platform to not talk too much. You know what I’m saying? Just do some work, and do some good for the community. When you start seeing money being spent, like so-and-so donated such-and-such amount to the Black community it’s just like, I don’t even know what none of this means or where it’s actually going to. Personally, I just wanted to challenge myself. “What’s my purpose?” And at first I think it was a bit challenging. I was getting uninspired sitting at home. I needed to get off the couch and find a way I can help. I figured out a way to use the relationships and resources at my disposal in Chicago. These people have always had my back, it’s only right that I return the favor. We were able to raise money to donate to the Food Depository. I linked with New Balance again to design a T-shirt so we could send that money to a Black-owned bookstore in Chicago. It started off small, but we were able to quickly get the ball rolling. Community Goods was initially a side project, and it’s since blossomed into a nonprofit organization.
Community is also a big part of your personal success. You co-founded Fat Tiger Workshop, which has been a streetwear and cultural hub in Chicago for years. It’s a welcoming environment that accepts everyone. What is it about the “barbershop vibe” that resonates with you and the crew?
I mean, it’s what streetwear should be about. That sense of community. When we started Fat Tiger, we were just some kids who had a store. It was the true essence of streetwear. Chicago really messed with the vibe. Part of it was because we used to have a big backyard to our store, sort of like the Midwest version of Alife. People would come to the shop, not necessarily to shop. Maybe you had a bad day and just want to have some good conversation, you just want to be around good people and just chill and get away from whatever’s bothering you. Maybe you went to walk the dog and ended up in the store for four hours chopping it up (laughs). It’s happened, believe me.
We’re interviewing you as part of our Block by Block series, which focuses on People of Color doing and creating great things in their community. What advice do you have for a kid from Chicago that might be marginalized or from an underprivileged background to succeed in the creative world?
Keep believing in yourself. As cliche as that sounds, it’s all I really did. I was able to move around a bit and travel early. I was able to see that the world is much bigger than the West Side of Chicago. I wanted to redirect the negative energy around me and turn it into something positive. Black people are beautiful and talented. We start a lot of this cool shit. Even if you don’t see the bigger picture right now, just know that it’s there. I’m proof. I believed in myself, and I’m still believing in myself today, because the journey is nowhere near over. So yeah, just keep believing in yourself, keep trying to be as different as possible. Get off the internet. Drink water. You’ll be straight, man.