As much as Jerry Lorenzo operates outside of the fashion industry — he doesn’t hold shows, doesn’t present in line with the seasonal calendar and has no formal training as a designer — he’s managed to infiltrate the system by producing special product he believes is missing from the market.
He’s also managed to create and profit from an aesthetic that works in luxury settings and more mass environments — see the merchandise he designed with Justin Bieber and his collaborations with PacSun and Vans.
In a conversation with WWD style director Alex Badia, Lorenzo spoke about why he thinks his line has been able to break through and what he thinks the future holds for the luxury streetwear category. Here, excerpts from the conversation.
WWD: How did you start your business?
Jerry Lorenzo: I was living in Los Angeles. We have a Garment District downtown and you can make anything you want, whether it’s a couch or a long T-shirt. I was trying to find solutions for my own wardrobe because there were things I couldn’t find on the shelves and I figured why don’t I go downtown and make what I want. Before that I worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers and I went to grad school and got my MBA. My dad is in baseball and I figured my only way of life was to work in baseball. I was in the front office, but all through grad school I worked retail part-time. I worked in the Gap and Diesel during undergrad. Even when I had a corporate job I held a retail job on the weekends and to supplement income even further I had a nightlife business. So a lot of my relationships with celebrities and athletes and influencers were organic and natural. I thought if I could influence someone to come out and party with me two or three nights a week I can also inform what they wear.
WWD: How did you come up with the name Fear of God?
J.L.: I grew up in church and I’ve been blessed to have that type of covering in my life. But we were talking about clouds and darkness around the Kingdom of God and for the first time I saw God as a cool, dark figure. Not necessarily darkness in terms of a demonic type of darkness, but more so darkness as the layers to him and the depth of him. And I was at peace with that image because I know God and have a relationship with him, but I can also see how you can see that image and have a real fear of God. So it was the play of that that I like. How that translates to fashion is about four or five years ago there was dark, religious symbolism in fashion, but none of it was rooted in anything that was real. And I said, “Hey this gives me a foundation to build on these solutions that I found downtown and gives me a foundation to create a collection and offer something deeper than a problem-solving piece for their closet.”
WWD: How did you start to work with Kanye West?
J.L.: I have been friends with a lot of the guys around Kanye for a while. I knew Virgil [Abloh], Don C and Ibn [Jasper] because my dad was working with the White Sox for a while. So it was this network of kids who were influencing other brands and now this same network has their own houses and are speaking in a more direct language to the consumer. I had given Virgil some of the things I was working on for Fear of God and he showed them to Kanye who liked my T-shirts and asked me to fly to Atlantic City. I fly to Atlantic City and I bring all of my samples. By then we had done presale on my first collection. I showed him a video, I walked him through every piece and he was shocked. He held up my T-shirt and said, “I can see all of the thought and design that went into a simple T-shirt.” That validated a lot for me and my beliefs turned into convictions. I knew you needed a T-shirt like that under your trenchcoat. He asked me to come to Paris with him and work on this APC collaboration, and so that’s how our relationship started. We worked together on APC, we worked together on the Yeezus merchandise and his Yeezy line for Adidas. It was a tremendous learning experience. The DONDA school that all of us creators come through, I can put that up against my Loyola business degree the level of thought that we put into and integrate our culture into these products that are influencing fashion and other realms.
WWD: What’s your aesthetic?
J.L.: The concept is me living in Los Angeles for 12 or 13 years and it’s a city where you try really hard to look like you aren’t trying. You want to look appropriate for what the day brings so, hey, if I’m going to end up at Equinox, or if I have a lunch meeting I want to look appropriate, but I also want to be fashionable, elegant and chic. Fear of God is this effortless, elegant approach to streetwear. One of the parts of the story I left out was when I was doing nightlife all of my friends had streetwear brands, whether it was Crooks and Castles, The Hundreds, Diamond & Supply, Black Scale or Supreme, so it was a reality that you could have an opinion in clothing. My opinion was not really about logo and not a fashion house, but somewhere in between.
WWD: There are so many brands trying to break through and you were able to break through quickly. Why do you think that is?
J.L.: It’s based on intuition, it’s based on instinct, it’s based on life and culture. It’s not based on seasons. We released our first collection and we didn’t know we had to release it at a certain time of the year. I went to Barneys and they told me I was off-calendar, but they would still look at my stuff. I didn’t know there was a calendar, but I knew that what I had what was missing from their offering. I know how to speak to the kid you are targeting and that’s the kid that’s influencing culture. You look at Virgil, and if I put myself in that category, we’ve been the kids that have done the research and found the designers and found a way to make it ours and influence culture and then culture followed the influencer and the brand is now reaping the benefits of this kid that was able to take the brand and make it their own. Now that kid who was putting trends and ideas into place is making those pieces.
WWD: In this world that’s very ruled by speed and data, you drop the collection whenever you feel like it or whenever it’s ready. You don’t do pre-fall, you don’t do resort, you don’t do fashion shows. Why?
J.L.: I’m kind of blessed in a way. It initially started from ignorance because I didn’t know I had to. But because I’ve never done it before, it takes me a long time to get my idea from a corduroy, alpaca-lined volume hoodie from sample one to the following sample. Having to do that with one development process is long and I can’t really afford to be on the calendar because my design process takes a while. I see what I’m doing as a gift from above and I want to honor that. The gift isn’t in the product, but the proposition. The gift isn’t in the business of it. I believe if I focus on the product and focus on the story, I’m more of a storyteller than a designer, the business will come.
WWD: What’s your fascination with vintage?
J.L.: Fear of God is our take on American classics. It’s the overcoat, but with short sleeves, it’s a luxury take on a flannel that’s something you can find at Wal-Mart. It’s taking these American pieces and modernizing them. So vintage shopping is important for me because not only am I finding pieces I can build from, but I’m also finding solutions to how garments are made. I don’t have the knowledge of knowing how some of these things are constructed, so it’s important for me to see some older pieces so I can see how they are built.
WWD: What do you think about collaborations?
J.L.: I think from a business standpoint, for people who are leading the industry, I don’t think it’s necessary. If you have a point of view, a collaboration isn’t necessary unless they have a point of view and something they are trying to do is stronger than what you can do. I look at Supreme and Louis Vuitton and I’m like, “That’s what we are.” We are luxury and street without bringing a fashion house to the street. We are that. We represent that.
WWD: Why did you want to sell at Bergdorf Goodman?
J.L.: I feel like my pieces are pieces that would be attractive to a guy who isn’t necessarily into streetwear and I felt like it needed to be in Bergdorf to speak to someone that I’m not necessarily speaking to. I speak to a younger demographic through social media, but I do believe that there is a shopper at Bergdorf Goodman who hasn’t heard of Fear of God who would go there and stumble upon it and say, “Hey, I can integrate some of those pieces into my closet.”
WWD: How do you think celebrity has impacted your business?
J.L.: I don’t get caught up in it. When I’m making pieces I know that these are pieces they are going to want. I’m not making pieces in hopes that someone is going to wear it. I’m making it with the intuition that I know that this long sherpa-lined denim coat Gigi [Hadid] can pull off. I know the piece is going to work. I think the power of celebrity is great for awareness. It magnifies what you are doing, but unless you have the product to withhold the hype, it can also be detrimental.
WWD: Talk about your collaboration with Justin Bieber.
J.L.: It was great. To be honest I was just coming off working with Kanye and at that time Justin wasn’t at the level of cool fashion influencer at all. But I was really drawn to his message of purpose and I felt we had a collaboration based on a communication that was bigger than fashion. I saw a kid that was changing his ways and becoming mature and I was a closet Justin Bieber fan like everyone else who was playing his music but the aesthetics and visuals didn’t match. And with merchandise, it’s the only physical piece around music today. Kids are downloading CDs. They aren’t buying them like they used to. It’s the one piece you can buy and take home. We are really treating merch as an extension of the album.
WWD: You are also working with Janet Jackson, right?
J.L: Yes. That came out of the blue. I received an e-mail from our firstname.lastname@example.org address and it said, “Janet’s team is trying to get a hold of you” and they wanted us to style her for this tour. I came across this picture and she was wearing this oversized Levi’s denim jacket and it looked so timeless. I told her I would love to do something that speaks to what you did in the Nineties and make it feel timeless. With Kanye, we did hundreds of fittings and with Janet she chose the first outfit she tried on. I was humbled by that.
WWD: Are you interested in doing women’s?
J.L.: I’m pretty good at men’s proportions and silhouettes and I also believe that girls look really dope in guys’ stuff. It’s more of an honest approach for me to put a woman in my pieces than to try and pretend as if I know a woman’s shape and proportion and propose something in that area. I used the girls in the men’s collection to show them that this is for you also, but the only thing we did differently is create an XS.
WWD: You’ve said before you don’t have a five-year plan. What do you mean by that?
J.L.: I care about the current feeling. I care about honoring what it is that I’m trying to say. And if I don’t have anything to say, it’s not necessary to say anything and I don’t want to say anything for the sake of a business plan or sales goals. I want to say something for the sake of having a message, having a solution and providing the perfect piece that’s missing from your wardrobe. And as long as I have something to say, we will continue to make things. I’m my own research and development. I will buy a winter coat in July. I don’t care about seasons. I don’t care about a lot of things that run the business of fashion. I just care about making the best pieces that I believe people will want and taking the time to get to those solutions.
WWD: Who is your customer and what’s your relationship with them?
J.L.: I’m thinking of a kid that probably has two grand to his name and is going to spend $1,200 on a bomber, because I was that kid. And every piece, whether it’s a pair of jeans or a bomber, I’m trying to make it that special. I believe that in America we find a way to get the things we want. For me, having never made clothes before, it was a very expensive process and for me, wanting to honor the ideas that I was given I needed to do it at the highest standard and my price point reflects that. I will never compromise a price point to change the product to reach someone who maybe has less money, because I know the kid that has less money. If they really want it and believe in it they will find a way to get it.
WWD: What do you say to people who think luxury streetwear is a fad?
J.L.: It’s an opinion and everyone has an opinion. It’s taken me a while to be able to sit here and be comfortable in the seat because of my process. Because I’m not sketching and I don’t know how to do it all. But I’m now here at this seat comfortable because I know my proposition is just as valid as Givenchy’s proposition. And my idea of clothing is just as valid as whoever else is on the designer floor. I think a lot of that comes from resistance of people not wanting to believe what’s really happening before their eyes, but the power has kind of shifted, you can see it in retail and the kids who are making the decisions on what to buy, some of those same kids are making the clothing also. I believe that’s the direction. I believe American street culture is the culture that validates everything. If people believe it’s a fad then that’s cool.
WWD: What do you look for in employees?
J.L.: I don’t have any backing. I am my own ceo. I’m not looking for investment, but I’m open to it. I’m looking for a selfless team. The last thing I need is another cool kid and I’m looking for people who want to be a part of something that’s disruptive and challenging. And the only thing we are here to do is disrupt. And as a ceo, I’m looking for people in business who can disrupt on the business side of what I’m doing the same way I can creatively. I think we see fashion differently. We aren’t blinded by some of the archaic frameworks and structures within it.