Gianni Lee

If you’re from Philadelphia, or follow sports, you’ve heard the phrase “trust the process.” It’s a reference to the 76ers and former general manager Sam Hinkie’s tanking strategy, which, in basic terms, was to do so horrendously, the team would get more picks in the NBA draft. That would then, in theory, allow the 76ers to piece together a championship-winning team, thus bringing long-awaited glory to the City of Brotherly Love.

The phrase has been widely embraced by Philadelphians and is now applied to things outside of the realm of sports. The Eagles winning the Super Bowl? A result of trusting the process. Applying to jobs straight out of college? Trust the process. Abruptly taking your celeb-loved brand off the Internet for two years without any notice? TTP.

“Me, I’m a process, I’m a late bloomer,” says Gianni Lee, founder of cult-favorite streetwear brand Babylon Cartel. Known for its jackets printed with Japanese writing, Lee’s brand has been worn by the likes of Rihanna, Kelly Rowland, Jaden and Willow Smith, Young Thug, Kyrie Irving, Kehlani and Jhene Aiko. Lee, who hails from West Philadelphia, started the label in 2008, but took it off the Internet in April 2016, a few years after he moved to Los Angeles.

He feels pressure to relaunch, but Lee’s focus over the past two years has shifted to modeling — he’s signed to Los Angeles-based agency Photogenics. He has also been painting and held his first art show with the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition in April 2017. Next month, on May 12, he will follow that up with 10 to 15 new pieces to be displayed in an exhibition at The Dock, a recording studio-slash-creative space in L.A. where producer Sweater Beats and DJ duo Two Fresh have both recorded.

Gianni Lee  Maddie Cordoba / WWD

Lee’s art exhibition comes less than a year after a wrongful arrest for an alleged assault that landed Lee in jail for three nights. The incident, documented in a Fader article, was traumatizing on multiple levels, but Lee found solace in painting.

“I feel like I’m put on this earth for a reason and I can’t keep hiding myself from everyone else,” he says. “I didn’t trust anybody [following the arrest] and I was hiding myself from people. I can’t do that because if I’m the artist that I say I am and the person that I say I am, people need to see me, people need to experience me outside of my art.”

His upcoming show, titled “They Sat Back, They Let It Happen,” draws on the current political and social climate in America, and what Lee perceives to be a general lack of action to better the state of either. He also names slavery and consumerism as recurring themes.

“It’s about the idea or concept of slavery, but it’s about everything around it. The business of slavery, how it’s affected everyone — it hasn’t just affected black people,” he explains. “How we view human interaction has changed because of the concept of slavery.”

Two persisting images in his work are eyes, which he says represent “the idea of capitalism and everything wrong with the world,” and blue-painted skin, which to him signifies ancestry.

When asked about his preferred medium, the artist insists he can paint on anything and usually uses whatever is available. He likes canvas because it’s light “and easy to ship” (he is trained to be business-minded), but most of his latest works are done on large wooden boards, recycled from a mural he had been working on in his former studio. That studio had been shut down due to a zoning conflict, but Lee’s work was saved. He took that as a sign to keep painting — and even paint on top of what he had already created.

Gianni Lee, wearing the Nike Air Force 1’s on which he painted.  Maddie Cordoba / WWD

Separately from the art show, Lee has been painting his signature eyes motif on Nike Air Force 1’s. He was asked by Nike to create a piece of art for its annual Air Max Day on March 26, but says the custom Air Force 1’s have zero to do with that.

I just painted on those [sneakers], but that’s gonna open up doors for me,” he says. “My whole idea is to end up doing a sneaker with them, which I know I will cause of the way things are happening.”

His painting was displayed in Nike’s Air Gallery in L.A. the weekend leading up to Air Max Day. Works from Bijou Karman, Brandon Land, Dear Giana, Gabe Gault and Meryl Pataky were also featured.

Gianni Lee  Maddie Cordoba / WWD

As for the state of Babylon Cartel, Lee says he’s still figuring things out. “We’re in a weird place right now, just trying to get inspiration again and see where we want to go and talk to the right manufacturers,” he adds. “We’re trying to make more of a splash next time because we know so many stylists out here in L.A., New York, where it’s really easy to get it on people. People still pull from us, and it’ll be stuff that we just make in our crib.”

Since taking down its dot-com, Babylon Cartel has made many announcements declaring a new online experience coming “soon,” if not “very soon.” Its social media accounts are still active, sharing new celebrity photos and editorials thought to feature upcoming pieces. Fans reply with things like “What is your web site???” and “Y’all gonna bring back black emperor? I’m 3 years late and I’ve never seen such a dope collection in my life. Such a meaningful and impactful message.”

The demand, as Lee knows, is there, and until Babylon Cartel comes back in the fullest sense, people will continue to ask him questions about it. But evolution is a process that comes with time — the amount of which we often don’t know.

What we are left with, then, is trust.

Gianni Lee  Maddie Cordoba / WWD

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