Introduce yourself and explain your visual identity to those who may be unfamiliar with you and your work.
My name is JJ and I’m the owner and creative designer behind streetwear brand JJGRANT. JJGRANT is a love story told from the hearts of 3 robots - JJ, Ella, and Amigo. Each robot was designed to express their individual experiences with love. Through their expression, you can see how their experiences shaped their perspective on the significance of love.
Each robot encounters love at different stages in their existence, resulting in three different stories we can all relate to based on our own experiences navigating love. It’s a universal love story that resonates with us all regardless of age, race, gender, etc.
Where did the idea to combine narrative storytelling with a fashion brand come from?
I knew that if I went around venting about my views on love or my friend’s experiences with love, I would be viewed as “just another girl crying about heartbreak”. The story wouldn’t be as cool if it wasn’t attached to an attention-grabbing product. Me and my friends love fashion. It’s how we express ourselves, so I figured why not wear our hearts on our sleeves. These are real emotions and stories living on these shirts and I intentionally avoided ever becoming the face of the brand because I didn’t want JJGRANT to ever be about me. I wanted this to be our collective unapologetic story. Even if they call us cry babies at the end (we cried in satin and we cried in the best cottons is how I see it). This is about emotions and we all have them, men and women. This is more than just fabrics, these are years of suppressed, unhealed, raw, emotions spilling out. Why not combine them with the finest fabrics we can get our hands on?
Can you explain/give more background on the development of your robot characters? Is each character rooted solely in your experience or are you pulling from other sources as well?
JJ IS A HOPELESS ROMANTIC. Although he’s never had luck with love, and his relationships always fall a part, JJ still believes that somewhere in the world his soul mate is patiently waiting for his arrival. Born to love, his power is extracted from the flower he holds. As long as the flower he holds is alive, JJ maintains hope that his true love exists and soon he will be able to love freely.
ELLA IS A JADED BROKEN-HEARTED SOUL. The failure of her past relationship left her pessimistic and bitter. Ella is no longer in search of love. The thought of being vulnerable terrifies her. Instead she chooses to value material possessions and power over love. Her power is extracted from the toy gun she always has in her hand.
AMIGO IS THE EMBODIMENT OF COMPASSION. Amigo, JJ’S BEST FRIEND, represents patience, peace and empathy. Through self-assessment, he has uncovered the true concept of love. Amigo is the supportive friend to both JJ and Ella, constantly reminding and teaching them about matters of the heart. Amigo’s relationship status is with himself. His power is extracted from the globe he is holding. Only when the globe is attached to the staff can Amigo feel the pain of the world. He tries everything in his power to relieve the enduring struggles of humanity, but the results of his efforts remain to be seen.
These stories are not just about me and my personal experiences. They’re also about my friend’s experiences, my mother’s heartache, my brother’s commitment to love, my sister’s blind devotion to her son’s father, etc. It’s about all of our shared experiences navigating love. Some days you wake up feeling super vulnerable and need a hug, some days you need space. One minute you and your partner are together, the next you’re breaking up. It can get chaotic like that, but to love and be loved is the point of it all. Even in the chaos.
Can you explain how your upbringing influenced your designs and fashion sense?
My upbringing gave me the courage I needed to start JJGRANT. I come from one of the most impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods in the Bronx. There weren’t any fashion designers on my block growing up. I didn’t even know designing clothes and owning a fashion brand was an option. You either wanted to play ball or be a drug dealer, and as a woman, your options were limited to being their girlfriend. I wanted something different. And because of that now it’s common to see people where I’m from wearing shirts and hats with “I LOVED YOU” in bold puff print, not feeling self-conscious about being vulnerable where before it was dangerous to show vulnerability.
How many iterations and ideas did you go through before settling with what is now the existing concept for your brand? Walk us through your “cutting room floor.”
When I first started JJGRANT I didn’t have a logo or a brand identity. I just had a name. My name. It took me maybe 3 years to figure out what JJGRANT would be. I was at a very low point in my life. I just got fired from my job at NYU medical center. I had to move out of my apartment because I couldn’t afford to pay the rent and I was not happy in my relationship. I remember I was down to my last $500 and I paid my friend Jay West to design my first robot JJ. Designing JJ took us 2 months. We went through maybe 4 iterations. The first two versions, JJ had the bandana covering his eyes, but he didn’t have a flower in his hand. I sat with this version of JJ for about a week and I remember telling West something was missing I need this robot to be vulnerable. The third version came back with JJ holding a flower, but that still wasn’t enough. So I told West we need to see JJ’s heart and all of the wiring. This needs to remind me of me because I’m about to tell real stories. I need a real character. The brand had to be a love story because love is core of all of our lives. What else would this be.
How big is your current team and how are they incorporated into the process?
JJGRANT consists of a small team of 3. They’re incorporated in everything we do because we have no choice, we all wear multiple hats. I’m still trying to find the right people to invite in and grow, but it’s difficult because the brand is so personal. I think it’s important to focus on having the right people on your team versus just growing a team to alleviate the pressures of operating a business. Outside of my team, I do have a great support system that motivate me and keep me grounded. I’m beyond thankful for them.
How does the seasonal cycle of fashion affect your process and storytelling, if at all? Does this play in to how you approach the structure of the established narratives?
The seasonal cycle of fashion doesn’t impact my production process or storytelling at all. Of course, when it’s warmer I design shorts and when it’s colder I design sweats, but I always told myself I would tell this story on my time and in my tone regardless of the season. In addition, as a small black-owned brand with no investors and limited resources, it’s difficult to produce and keep pace with the seasonal cycle of fashion.
What other media and creatives do you look at for inspiration or appreciation?
Don C, Nipsey Hussle, Ralph Lauren, and Pursuit of Happiness by Kid Cudi. Cliche answer with Don, but I’ll explain. When I heard him speak at a Footlocker event in NYC earlier this year, I was inspired by his story around having limited resources to create the finished product he wanted, but not letting that stop him from producing it anyway. Lack of access to resources didn’t force him to sacrifice the quality of the finished product he wanted. I find myself in that position often and used to wonder if not having access to resources to produce more cost effectively was holding me back. Hearing his story and seeing where he landed inspires me to continue to prioritize the art and quality and not focus on what I don’t have or let it hold me back creatively. Nipsey Hussle because I can hear the hunger and desire to make it in his music. I feel he was taken from us while he was still ascending and striving to realize his potential, so we never had a chance to hear an “I’m comfortable, I made it” tone in his music. It’s all hunger. Ralph Lauren because I love how he built a brand that transcends clothing. Ralph Lauren is synonymous with quality no matter if it’s associated with a tshirt or a towel or a bed sheet. I want that for JJGRANT. Pursuit of Happiness because it’s a reminder that this is a journey. Don’t take the lows too low or the highs too high in pursuit of your ultimate happiness.
How did you first become aware of RSVP Gallery and how did that progress into this
I first became aware of RSVP in my early 20s when I wanted a Pyrex Vision shirt and couldn’t get my hands on one. At the time I didn’t know who Virgil was, but when I found out the shirts were only available at this store in Chicago and that the store was cofounded by the designer behind the python Just Don hats (Don C), I knew it was a store I wanted to pay attention to. Fast forward to 2022, I was invited to attend a panel where Don C was speaking about his experience in fashion. During that discussion he said a lot of things that resonated with me and my experiences. I decided to approach him and introduce myself and thank him for the information. We had an opportunity to talk further and fortunately it turned into an residency in RSVP.
Is there a particular concept or narrative-arc that you’re expanding on with this
The intention behind this build-out is to introduce Chicago to JJGRANT. Have you heard the story? If not we’re here to tell it. We’re bringing wooden cut-outs, 3D foam sculptures, eccentric canvases and blending them into an authentic introduction to who JJGRANT is. What I love most about this activation is the hologram of our main character JJ literally falling. People viewing the activation won’t know if he’s falling in love or out of love. The ambiguity of the hologram will spark conversation and intrigue around what’s going on and what the brand stands for and what the other robots represent. It’s very important to me that people know who these three robots are and what they represent because they are a reflection of our shared experiences and drive connectedness.
What has been your most “teachable moment” running your own brand and what advice would you give others based on that?
My most teachable moment operating JJGRANT was on the business side. You don’t know what you don’t know, but you want to scale your brand and sometimes that puts you in a position where you trust someone that may not have your best interest at heart or may not be aligned with your vision. I learned this the hard way and it cost me a lot of money , so if I had to share a piece of advice with others based on my experience it would be to slow down, educate yourself on what your brand needs, and evaluate the integrity, intentions, and qualifications of any additions you’re considering making to grow your business.
Is there a particular item or collection that resonates with you the most? Why?
“PETER PAN” shirt was personal to me. It reads, “ONCE UPON A TIME I FELL IN LOVE WITH A HOE SHE TREATED ME LIKE SHIT BUT SHE SMELT LIKE ROSES”. I designed this shirt a few months after I separated from an ex who I was in a relationship with for about 6 years. Her favorite fragrance at the time was Chloe Roses which is where the “smelt like roses” reference comes from. We date people for different reasons, but a common reason is physical attraction. I was dating this woman who looked good and smelled good, but she wasn’t really a good person. What did that say about me? That’s it. That’s the message of the shirt.