Barriers founder Steven Barter has big goals.
The streetwear fashion designer created a winning formula for his brand, celebrating and educating the masses through product featuring Black history-makers like Mansa Musa and Haile Selassie to Angela Davis and Assata Shakur and even Fred Hampton and Jackie Robinson. The brand teamed with Converse to release a capsule collection that continues to celebrate and share stories and details of the African diaspora.
“They were excited about the ideas we talked about,” Barter said about the collaboration. “Converse is a heritage company that has been in everyone’s childhood and I want the same for my brand. I’m pushing Black history and culture and telling the truth from my point of view.”
The capsule is comprised of two sneaker styles and apparel. One sneaker is a brown high-top style with a cotton logo and cowrie shells, which have been used as currency in African countries and for spiritual practices; the second pair, the classic Chuck Taylor, is in dark denim with colored laces and a Pan-African flag, and the Big Dipper on the sole, a nod to Barter’s belief in the stars. Both pairs share the words “wisdom,” “courage,” and “vision” on the sneakers’ ankle and heel.
The shoeboxes have a constellation pattern and a graphic of a young Barter, his sister and brother looking at star patterns that also appear on graphic T-shirts and hoodies with the brand’s signature phrase “Live Free Barriers.” Barriers and Converse are supporting the launch with a short film starring model and singer Selah Marley, daughter of Lauryn Hill and Rohan Marley and granddaughter of Bob Marley, with voiceover from Damon Dash.
“Before the internet, people looked to the stars for answers, [they paid] attention to signs,” Barter said to explain the use of constellations in the collection. “The slaves used the North Star to navigate to freedom, but with Converse we ask, what’s your North Star? As a creative, we have to find something we want to achieve. What’s the goal that’s guiding you?”
Barter followed his own North Star on his fashion journey. He began promoting his brand Barriers in 2013, but things started to click in 2015 when he produced a T-shirt featuring figures he considers heroes, like Huey Newton after reading the Black Panther party founder’s book “Revolutionary Suicide.” Barter said the T-shirt didn’t sell well at the time when people weren’t as into representing these figures, but it opened his eyes to past heroes’ journeys.
When Black Lives Matter protests began in the country in response to the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, Barter pulled away from the idea because he didn’t want to his designs to profit off of the movement.
“The movement is much beyond money,” Barter explained. “It seemed as if it was a trend for people to start profiting off of these histories, even companies that have never highlighted the culture in the past. However, after talking to a mentor, he gave me good advice and said I have my own vision and lane. I realized that I can’t let that stop me from getting my message across. I know what my brand represents and it goes much beyond following a trend. Going forward when you work with these companies they see it as a Black thing and I see it as doing it the right way. I’m grateful [Converse] took the time to do this, because a lot of brands aren’t trying to tell a story like this.”
Barter explained his journey to where he is today, making a connection to rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z who said he had been writing his debut studio album, “Reasonable Doubt,” his whole life. Barter feels the same about Barriers, as he too has leaned on his life experiences to create this art.
His inspirations come from either from his own experiences, like traveling to countries in Africa or dealing with racism as a child in Long Island, and from stories from his family and peers, including his aunt, Desiree Barter, who is the principal at the El Hajj Malik El Shabazz Elementary School, who Barter said inspires him to educate the next generation on the people he features in his clothing.
Before Barriers, Barter worked for Nike for six years. He then took the leap to Los Angeles with only $800 to focus on the brand, and lived with photographer and filmmaker Aiden Cullen for a period, and with A$AP Nast and A$AP Bari during the latter’s rollout of his Nike x Vlone Air Force 1 sneakers.
As the brand grew, Barriers hosted installations in New York City, London, Atlanta and Los Angeles, and again in New York City in May 2022 where he offered his Women’s Month capsule featuring Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks, a collaboration with late reggae musician Peter Tosh and a jazz collection featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Also in 2022, Barter hosted a pop-up with brand Who Decides War led by designer Ev Bravado who he grew up with. “I never thought we’d have a collaboration in stores like The Webster,” he said.
Featuring these figures has yielded connections with the estates of Jackie Robinson and Public Enemy, among others, which will work with Barriers on collabs in the near future. “I want to be part of the families’ journeys,” he said. “It’s super meaningful because I’m speaking to the lifelines of these heroes.”
But this is all chapter one to Barter. He has big goals for his brand and where he wants to take it, beyond fashion and product.
“Ten years from now, I don’t want to be known as just a fashion brand,” he said. While he’s tight-lipped for how on where he wants to take his self-funded, direct-to-consumer company, Barter said, whether through fashion, media, music, books or art exhibitions, the future will include doing even more to celebrate Black heroes and educate more children about the lives and legacies of those figures — he’s dreaming big and following his North Star.