Joseph Robinson is embarking on one of his biggest collaborations to date.
The founder of Joe Freshgoods and Don’t Be Mad, independent streetwear brands based in Chicago, received an e-mail from McDonald’s requesting that he design merchandise for the fast food behemoth.
“I was hesitant at first, because I’m such an independent brand and when you start partnering with companies like McDonald’s sometimes it’s like you have sold out,” said Robinson. “But at the end of the day I thought it would be inspiring to other kids who want to start brands and show them that they can do it, too.”
To build buzz around the launch of Mix by Sprite Tropic Berry, a new soft drink that will be exclusive to McDonald’s, the company recruited Robinson to design a capsule collection of racing-inspired merchandise that will be available at locations in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York on May 25.
Starting at 2 p.m. local time, customers who purchase the Mix drink can take their receipt to a line to receive a piece from the assortment, which includes a short-sleeve T-shirt, a long-sleeve T-shirt, socks and a wool and leather varsity jacket covered in McDonald’s, Sprite and Joe Freshgoods logos. Customers who don’t want to purchase the beverage can fill out a “free method entry form” and enter to receive an item from the collection. McDonald’s has added a music element to the launch by premiering an exclusive song and video from rapper Kyle that will take over Spotify. This collaboration follows Telfar’s popular tie-in with White Castle.
Robinson has spent nearly a decade building a fan base in Chicago with his reactive and timely collections. He started with Dope Boy Magic, a brand he founded with a friend and later had to shut down after receiving cease and desist letters from Dope Couture. Under this brand he produced a popular beanie in 2012 covered with “I wanna f— Rihanna” — the pop star eventually sent a cease and desist letter. Following that, he received another cease and desist letter from Kanye West after producing “Ye 2020” T-shirts right after West announced he would run for president in 2020 at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. He had an arrival of sorts with his “Thank U Obama” collection that was modeled by Chance the Rapper and released in 2017 under his Joe Freshgoods label.
“I’m like the hood CNN of clothing,” said Robinson, who works with printers in Chicago who can turn around T-shirts in one day. “I took the model of doing quick flips after something big happened and the product went viral. But after the Obama collection, we grew really fast overnight.”
Robinson runs a concept space in Chicago called Fat Tiger Workshop, which opened in 2013 in Logan Square, but has since moved to a bigger location at 836 North Milwaukee Avenue. Within the store he sells clothes from his two brands, Don’t Be Mad and Joe Freshgoods, along with Vita, Squad, Lost Paradise and Chicago Over Everything, which are owned by his friends who are all Chicago natives. He’s modeled the shop after Colette, holding events, rotating retail spaces and hosting workshops on entrepreneurship branding, design and retail.
Robinson, who also worked with the Chicago Bears on a merchandise capsule that sold out in 20 minutes, doesn’t wholesale because he doesn’t have to. Instead he travels to cities and opens weekend pop-ups with core pieces from the assortment and a few pieces exclusive to the region and the shop.
“I can either take a $4,000 order from a store, or I can go to L.A. for two days and make $10,000. If I wholesaled I would have a lot more attention, but with the pop-up shops it’s too easy. I can look at my top 10 cities with online shipping and open up a mini store. I have never not had a successful pop-up.”
He usually announces the pop-up a couple of days before it’s open on social media and bases the temporary stores around big events. For example, he just held a pop-up in Miami on the same weekend as Rolling Loud, a popular music festival. He has used social media to gauge interest in a permanent shop in another city, but said if he were to open a store, he would opt for inner city black markets with more affordable rent.
Joe Freshgoods doesn’t have the same following as, say, a Kith or Anti Social Social Club, but his fans are loyal and not only connected to hype surrounding the physical product, but what it represents. Robinson knows that he would be more widely recognized if his brand wasn’t based in Chicago — for context, he has around 47,000 followers on Instagram while Chinatown Market, a comparable brand based in Los Angeles has around 83,000 followers — but he has no plans of moving out of the city and believes his strong home base and Chicago pride have helped create an ethos for his brands and make them more appealing in other cities.
“I would never leave Chicago,” said Robinson, who has worked with Nike and Adidas on brand activations in the city. “If you are a company and you want to have a big impact here, who else are you going to go to? Now I just want to build a more loyal following and help brands connect with this market and expand outside of it.”