Joseph Robinson — better known as JoeFreshGoods — is a longtime Chicago veteran of the game whose touring city pop-ups brought out crowds en masse. Recently his collaborations with everyone from New Balance to companies like Spotify and Snapple have put him and his Don’t Be Mad label in an even bigger spotlight.
But don’t get it twisted: It’s a family affair. And Robinson describes the rest of his Fat Tiger Workshop crew as the apparel equivalent of the Wu-Tang Clan. These days people supporting their locals may be stronger than ever, but in our conversation Robinson talks about how he’s been on that wave for a long time.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Jian DeLeon: What’s up Joe? How’s Fat Tiger Workshop doing after reopening?
JoeFreshGoods: You know what’s crazy? We’re just in a good spot right now because we don’t have no bills and shit. So we good, we have lines every weekend, obviously gotta practice social distancing — and it’s wild that some people don’t want to come in with a mask — but yeah, we’ve been on fire.
This is a really wild time right now. My heart goes out to everybody that lost a loved one, and a lot of people are losing their jobs. So to even be at a place where I can be selling out of a product and have lines out my doors still is very humbling, and it just makes me want to work even harder to make sure I continue to give back.
JD: It feels like right now people want to be more active in their communities, and part of that is supporting local shops.
JFG: Exactly. I think the industry, across the board is going to see more emphasis on community and the smaller mom-and-pop brands. If you’re able to survive all this, I think you’re going to be in good spot.
JD: Going on with community, Fat Tiger Workshop isn’t just JoeFreshGoods and Don’t Be Mad, it’s like an empire you built with your friends. There’s D, We All We Got, Vic Lloyd, and Chicago Over Everything stocked too.
JFG: I tell people all the time: We’re Wu-Tang. We are Ghostface; we are Method Man; we are RZA. We pretty much are really good friends that work together that decided we needed a store together. We all lean on each other. Fat Tiger is pretty much just Wu-Tang and we have our own store. We’re going to start slowly getting into wholesale. I have enough clout now where I can be like: “I want to carry this, I want to carry that.” So I think we’re going to start picking brands that don’t get no love in the Midwest and big brands that I’ve got a relationship with.
JD: In many ways the path to success is paved by the Ls you take along the way. You spoke to that in the unreleased adidas collaboration you posted. There’s a significance to the date on the paper in the box right?
JFG: Man, that’s a really difficult question. So I was a brand ambassador for adidas when I was 25, and I was in charge of going to different malls all over Chicagoland. I was doing that while I was running my brand. I thought that was a dream job…and I got fired. But the day I got fired is the day I decided to take everything a hundred percent more seriously and go full speed with my dream. Even before that, I used to work at NikeTown. I got fired from NikeTown and then 10 years later I got to have my face in front of the building via a football project with Nike. So I’m just all about turning Ls into Ws, you know what I’m saying?
JD: Tell me a bit about this project you have coming up with New Era.
JFG: I didn’t want to just throw a fucking crown or a weird object on a Yankees hat and call it a day. I look at myself like a poet that happens to make merch. I’m telling a story about Black people. If you grew up anywhere near Chicago, Ohio, Detroit, Minnesota, or St. Louis, you probably got relatives from somewhere from the South. I’m using this opportunity to talk about the Midwest and tell that story about the great migration, where Black people escaping Jim Crow were coming to different Midwest cities and adapting to life over here. My whole hat series is based off the great migration in the Midwest. I’m dropping a hat each weekend for seven weeks.
JD: How do you feel about ownership of ideas and letting things evolve? The smiley face was synonymous with a lot of your early stuff, then became a huge trend unto itself. Do you feel like you needed your roses for helping push that trend, or is it more about moving to the next thing?
JFG: I know the history of the smiley. I would be a complete weirdo if I sat here and was like, “I did that first.” But me having a deep history of streetwear and knowing my personal story and where I pulled my inspo from, the original name of my brand was Dope Boy Magic. I was even carried in like 25 stores around the world. I was popping in 2009; I had everybody in Chicago wearing that. I had to change my name, so I just switched it over to “Don’t Be Mad” and I adopted the smiley face.
It wasn’t because it was cool. It wasn’t because I was trying to be a hippy brand. It was just turning a negative into a positive. As a young. Black brand from Chicago — I’m not supposed to be here. A lot of brands were sent cease-and-desists and they’re out of business. So to be here at this moment shows how hard we worked. Fast-forward to the last two or three years, when I saw a lot of brands adopting the smiley again, and that’s streetwear. At this stage of my career, I could care less about blog posts and shit. But two years ago I was a little hot, like: “Damn, everybody going to mention the smiley and ain’t going to mention my brand?”
But now I just made an effort to go away from that. Even with my New Era collab, I put a little wink. Everything I do is storytelling. It’s how I wake up and feel. I literally design like a poet. It’s just one big puzzle. I’m more into storytelling than do a season of [smiley merch]. I’m not doing that shit no more. That’s dead.
Stay tuned for new episodes of Vibe Check every Tuesday and Thursday.