Initially created by Toronto native Adrian in 1990, Too Black Guys is widely regarded as one of the pioneering independent brands in streetwear. Achieving prominence in the mid 1990s, Too Black Guys would eventually go on hiatus in 1999 when Adrian took a job with Canadian megabrand, Roots. The past few years, however, have seen a resurgence of the brand, with clever, political designs spreading throughout the Internet as well as the streets. Adrian takes a moment with Format to discuss the history of the brand, and where itâ€™s at today as a result.
â€œI wasnâ€™t comfortable having Too Black Guys defined by what artist was wearing it.â€
Format: Please introduce yourself and Too Black Guys.
Adrian: I am the founder of Too Black Guys. Too Black Guys is a brand that started in 1990 in Toronto. Currently I am designing the line and we have sales and marketing teams in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Canada.
Format: TBG resurfaced recently, but the line was initially launched in the early 90s. What led you to create TBG initially?
Adrian: The idea was initially born out of my ambition to have my business very much a result of â€œdo-for-selfâ€ sentiment that was prevalent in early nineties. The brand started out with the belief that tees could be a great way to highlight issues that were important to us and our community. Basically, I wanted to do with tees what Public Enemy and other groups were doing in music and Spike Lee was doing in film.
Format: Please discuss the first few years of TBGâ€™s operation.
Adrian: It started with an initial investment of about two thousand dollars. That was able to buy five different tees at fifty pieces each. Those sold quickly to family and friends and friends of friends. All of the money was re-invested and we started cut-and-sew production. We also started making caps and sweatshirts. Our sales and reputation were growing by word of mouth and the interest led us to the open a part time store in the basement of a very influential bookstore in Toronto.
With the demand continuing to grow, we soon opened a free standing store around the corner from our original basement location in early â€™91. We started getting attention in the U.S. when artists came to the store and then wore stuff in videos and on TV. Eventually orders came in from stores in North America, Japan and a few in Europe. In â€™93 we opened a store in New York City that stayed open until â€™96 when we consolidated the company in Toronto and started actively wholesaling. I stopped working on it in 1999.
Format: When and why did you stop working on TBG?
Adrian: I stopped in â€™99 because the business had reached a point where I couldnâ€™t continue to grow it without bringing on investors. I didnâ€™t want to give up that kind of control because that was the reason that I started it in the first place.
I also didnâ€™t like the direction that the market was taking. I wasnâ€™t willing to turn Too Black Guys into one of the type of brands that were succeeding in the market at that time.
Format: What was that direction and how come you didnâ€™t want TBG to go in it?
Adrian: When commerce took over and the urban market was born, brands were defined by celebrity endorsement and full page magazine ads. I wasnâ€™t comfortable having Too Black Guys defined by what artist was wearing it, and I didnâ€™t want to have to design the line to be about sales above everything else.
Format: What was your experience like at Roots?
Adrian: Working at Roots was a great opportunity. It gave me a chance to design for a much larger market and forced me to consider product from a perspective that was not necessarily my own. Up until that time, everything that I designed was pretty much designed with my taste in mind.
It also gave me an international stage especially with the Olympic product that I worked on. I designed the athletesâ€™ collections for Canada, the U.S.., and Great Britain. The collection was huge. A lot because of the extra attention that the games got being right after 9-11. When I was at the roots store I was signing autographs like a rock star. It didnâ€™t get any bigger than designing for the 2002 Olympics in salt lake city.
Format: When and why did you decide to relaunch TBG?
Adrian: Iâ€™ve been working corporate jobs since 1999 and itâ€™s been good but I started feeling that I wanted to do some stuff that I couldnâ€™t do for any brand other than mine.
I also liked the independent direction that the market was taking. I thought that the customer had gained control again and was driving the trends. I felt that I could re-launch in that type of retail environment and offer a different point of view.
Format: What are the most significant differences between TBG when it was active in the 90s and TBG now?
Adrian: Iâ€™ve learned a lot since I started and I think that is reflected in the line. I really think that this new line is better designed and there is more attention to the small details.
Graphically I think that it is more concise and there has been a lot of progress in the production process. When I first started we did everything with letraset. Now thereâ€™s Illustrator and Photoshop so there are no limitations.
But I think that it is pretty similar as far as the brand sentiment is concerned. I still think that the line pushes boundaries for apparel and I still want to use my product to start conversations. Also now I think that the line tries to ask questions more than answer them.
Format: TBG has commended for its use of high quality materials. How does TBG manufacture its clothing, and why is it important to you to maintain a certain level of quality?
Adrian: If you donâ€™t control your quality, then you donâ€™t control your brand. I donâ€™t know if there is anything that we do differently in manufacturing but I do pay close attention to fabric and sewing and fit. My goal is to make my customersâ€™ favorite sweatshirt or tee shirt or pair of jeans. And that means that I have to nail all of the little details that someone will notice when they are wearing the product. People tell me that they still wear TBG that they bought ten plus years ago. I want to make sure that people will be able to wear this stuff in ten years, too.
Format: One of TBGâ€™s designs was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. What is the story behind that?
Adrian: The museum was putting together an exhibition of Canadian fashion and they asked us for a tee to be a part of it. We were pretty hyped to be recognized as a designer brand and not just a t-shirt label.
Format: How do you respond to comments that TBG is exploiting slavery or black people with its use of imagery?
Adrian: I usually donâ€™t respond because I donâ€™t understand that comment. Was Alex Haley exploiting slavery with â€œrootsâ€ or did Steven Spielberg exploit the holocaust with â€œSchindlerâ€™s Listâ€?
I use historical images and references that have relevance today. I am addressing issues that still affect us and if we continue to ignore historyâ€™s lessons, will continue to affect us. Where is the exploitation in that?
Some people have had a strong response to the collections and I think that is because these issues are a lot closer to the surface than we would like to admit. I think that sometimes we need to make people uncomfortable in a society that believes that banning words that might offend people is a suitable solution instead of dealing with the under lying problems.
Format: Please explain why you have decided to place a great deal of the commentary on the inside of your garments where they are not visible to the general public.
Adrian: The use of the graphics to convey the theme is more about the overall design aesthetic of the product than it is about the public perception. I am designing apparel with a message and not a brochure on a tee shirt.