A basement might be the last place you'd think to start a revolution. But a group of young adults have started one — a clothing revolution in the basement of an Austin apartment building.
The motley crew of seven 20-somethings wants to create a brand of street wear that reflects Chicago's arts and culture scene. That mission led to the creation of the Forever Fly street wear label.
"In L.A. they have a T-shirt brand named The Hundreds, and their brand represents the skateboard culture," said Mike Gibson, 24, Forever Fly's creator. "That's what L.A. is big for. We really don't have that staple brand to say for sure that's Chicago. I just want Forever Fly to be that."
Gibson wanted the brand to reflect the city's vibrancy and diverse ethnicity. Often the city gets a bad rap, he said, because of violence and political corruption.
"We got much more to show than just that. This city has a culture and it's like a mix of certain things," Gibson said. "A lot of people say 'it's country,' a lot of people say 'it is straight Midwest.' But you know it breeds different artists. I just wanted to show the artistic side."
Gibson partnered with former school and neighborhood friends to bring his idea to life.
Theartis Clary, 24, Travis Wilbourn, 26, and LaShion Reed, 26, went to Steinmetz College Prep High School with Gibson. The other Forever Fly crew — Robert Wheatley, 24, Precious Wright, 27 and Tiffany Avery, 26 knew each other from the neighborhood.
"I knew Mike since we were real young, and I wanted to support him, plus I like the logo. It caught my eye," said Wheatley, who serves as vice president and was an early devotee of the T-shirts.
"Rob," Gibson quipped, "was like one of my first big customers to purchase in bulk."
The team jelled because everyone brought something unique to the table. They even pooled their money together to buy $2,500 worth of equipment, including a screen print, heat press and a flash dryer.
"Theartis worked with a brand before," Gibson said. "He was good with numbers and operations. Rob was good with logistics and Shion was good with marketing. It's like everything happened at the right time. I had this brand and I needed a team to work with."
The brand caught fire because of its distinct logo — it's two inverted "Fs" that come together to form a shield. Gibson, who designed the logo, wanted a logo that was classy, not trendy, but would transcend age, class and race.
"All ages can really rock our clothing, and they won't feel ashamed to rock it," said Gibson, who attends Illinois Academy of Design and Technology.
Building a 'fly' brand
The brand features T-shirts, hoodies, tank tops, snapbacks (baseball hats) and colorful rubber wristbands embossed with the Forever Fly logo. Gibson and co-designer Wilbourn take cues from their surroundings to come up with designs.
One design features an assault rifle with the city's skyline rising from it. Underneath is scrawled the word "Chiraq," a moniker the city inherited because of last year's high murder rate. A tank top designed by Wilbourn infuses the logo with the American flag for the Fourth of July holiday.
The group relies heavy on social media, especially Instagram and Twitter to promote their brand, which has amassed a cult-like Internet following since its debut in 2011.
The brand has followers in the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada. They use customer feedback on social media to tweak designs. That interaction has led to more than 1,000 units sold since the beginning of the year.
"Any time we drop a shirt we take over Twitter," said Wilbourn, a 2007 graduate of Lincoln Tech College. "The customer has a big hand-on in what they wear, which is cool. You can actually come to us and design your own outfit. It's exclusive."
Forever Fly, however, did not start off as a T-shirt line.
The idea started in 2009 when Gibson originally wanted to open a shoe store. He was advised, however, that the best way to launch a shoe store was first to develop a brand and then build upon it.
"The easiest thing to start when you are starting a brand is T-shirts," Gibson said.
He started making T-shirts with the logo on it, but when a client requested the logo on a hoodie Gibson knew he had something.
"I laid it out and looked at it and I was like 'Man this might be a hit,'" Gibson recalled. "I put it on Facebook. From there it just spread."
That growth has garnered the Forever Fly brand some famous clientele, including Melrose Park native and San Antonio Spurs forward Corey Maggette, Indianapolis Colts defensive back Sergio Brown and a slew of artists from Chicago's rap scene, namely Chance The Rapper, YoungChop, and DJNATE.
And rumor has it that Chicago Bulls Forward Carlos Boozer will be in the brand's forthcoming hoodie release. But the group admits success came from hard work.
"It wasn't nothing given to us," said Clary, a 2010 Quincy University graduate and the brand's treasurer. "It wasn't nothing handed to us. Everybody had to get out and work and hustle and grind. That is what makes our company strive now."
Wheatley added: "To be honest, sometimes we don't see us taking off as much as other people see it because we consider it as working."
Low key about their success, the group is big about giving back to their community. They've conducted a toy giveaway as part of their No Child Left UnFly campaign and have even given away T-shirts instead of candy for Halloween — the goal is to reward kids for doing well in school.
"I never really had a father," Clary said, "so I feel like we are just doing daddy duties for the community. If not us than who?"
On the horizon, the group wants to open a store, have their brand shelved in big retail stores and have Forever Fly branded drinks, like flavored water.
"I fully expect everything that is coming to us because people worked real hard to make things happen," Gibson said.
All of them grew up in the Austin area, staying away from the pitfall of the streets that often ensnare young black men. They want to model behaviors that will inspire youth to "work hard, reach their full potential," which is Forever Fly's motto.
"Why look up to the drug dealers when you could look up to someone rocking their own clothes," Wilbourn said. "They're the cool kids. They are designing their own clothes."
Gibson added: "A lot of kids don't think 'I can start a business or I can do that or I can do this.' But in reality they can because we did it; why can't they do it?"
The Enterprize Zone is a regular business feature in Austin Weekly News.