August is officially National Black Business Month and PAPER is showing love to some of our favorite Black-owned businesses throughout the entire month. Our dedicated series, Booked x Busy, is all about shining a light on the entrepreneurs and brands that embody Black excellence.
Founded in 1989, streetwear brand Cross Colours has always used fashion as a form of protest. With its bright dynamic designs, social messaging and hip-hop influence, the brand was created to unite Black and brown communities during a time of national unrest, fighting racial injustice, police brutality and the war on drugs.
Rooted in producing "Clothing Without Prejudice," the Cross Colours mission proves just as pivotal today as it was three decades ago.
The brainchild of creative geniuses Carl Jones and Thomas "TJ" Walker, Cross Colours dominated the late '80s and '90s, with their signature baggy pants, baseball caps and oversized shirts making appearances on Black cult-favorite films and TV shows like In Living Color, Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Menace II Society. The brand was quickly embraced by notable names including Will Smith, TLC, Muhammed Ali, Mary J. Blige and Raven-Symoné and now it's seeing a resurgence with younger celebs including Rihanna, Cardi B, Billie Eilish, Drake, Jhenè Aiko, Dua Lipa, Bruno Mars, Diplo, Zoë Kravitz and more.
PAPER chopped it up exclusively with Carl and TJ to find out what it's like to be the godfathers of streetwear, how they're remixing their old school aesthetic for the new school and why the Cross Colours legacy will go down in fashion history.
Cross Colours started during a time when race relations in the US were tense, the war on drugs had begun and the AIDS epidemic was taking a toll. Tell me what it means to have launched during a time when so much healing was needed?
TJ: Cross Colours was established in turbulence. The drug abuse, the AIDS epidemic, the gang violence — those issues were an integral part of why we thought Cross Colours was necessary. Carl and I have gotten comfortable navigating turbulent times. Honestly, that's when we do some of our best work. When there are issues to address, that's when we're inspired.
Carl: Things have always been turbulent. And in my mind, things were always a bit stressful and turbulent. It comes with the territory when you're doing something new. Trying to carve out space for our clothing line and our message, it wasn't easy. Everything about what we were doing was considered controversial; everything we said, everything we did. You learn to navigate that space.
What specific nuances from Black culture inspire you and the design process for Cross Colours?
Carl: All of them! Black culture is the DNA of the brand — it's what we are. Black culture. Black point-of-view. Black attitude!
TJ: It's the culture and it's the Blackness as well. It's the street. We've always been inspired by the street — how people are wearing their clothing, what they are listening to. Cross Colours is a product of Black culture. That's what keeps us inspired.
What does it mean to be a Black-owned business, especially when the Black Lives Matter movement is getting so much attention?
Carl: Yes, we are Black-owned. And yes, we're proud of that fact, but our attitude has always been that we're not interested in being categorized or labeled. I like to compete period. Put me on the same playing field and give me the same opportunities that you're giving my competitors regardless of race.
TJ: We continue to be moved by the force of the Black Lives Matter movement and the work they're doing to confront the injustice against our community. They embody the energy of the brand.
Is there a Cross Colours design, piece or slogan that didn't make it to the masses? If so, tell me a little bit about it.
TJ: The way our process would work, I would sketch dozens of designs, but knew everything wouldn't make the cut. It never had anything to do with the slogan or the design, it was just impossible to send that many pieces to market.
Carl: There were a lot of styles. Back then, TJ was a creative machine; he was turning out 25-30 designs a day. We'd be halfway through the day and he's already built out 10 collections! But it was a white buyer's choice at the end of the day.TJ: There were no online sales at the time — none! Compared to today, where Cross Colours has a website and can release merchandise directly to our customers. And even then, there's still a number of looks that never make the cut.
Countless celebrities have worn and embraced Cross Colours. If there's anyone who you would love to see rocking the brand, who would they be?
We would love to see Yara Shahidi and Zendaya rocking Cross Colours. They've both developed into such powerhouses; talented, well-educated and vocal about issues impacting their community and generation. They are the essence of Cross Colours women.
You've built a legacy within Black fashion. Who are some of today's Black labels or designers that you're tuned into?
Looking at your current music playlist, who from hip-hop embodies the "Clothing Without Prejudice" ethos?
Looking at our current playlist, it would be Chika. She has this dynamic sound and effortless flow, but she also says what's on her mind. There's this hustle to her and some of these other new artists out now that we respect.
How have the two of you managed to work together as co-founders for all these years and maintained relevance?
Carl: Somehow, TJ and I have always been able to maintain a mutual understanding and creative state of mind.
TJ: One thing about the both of us is that we surround ourselves with young creatives. We were inspired by young energy, and that's what gave life to Cross Colours. To this day, he and I make it a point to stay connected with the youth through our college mentorship program, Common Ground.
What fashion trends are you currently digging? Which are you not feeling?
Carl: The beauty of fashion is that it's all cyclical. So, a lot of the trends that TJ and I are seeing right now are an iteration of trends we saw in the '90s. The oversized fit, the bold colors, big logos and the reemergence of HBCU apparel in pop culture.
If you all weren't in the fashion industry, what would you be doing instead?
TJ: I would be teaching.
Carl: I can't even answer that one. I can't imagine not working in fashion.
TJ: I think you'd be doing something with cars or something; something that allows you to design.
Carl: Maybe architecture, furniture. Probably in that realm.
There are so many designers who aspire to be the next Cross Colours. What's the secret to your success?
Carl: Originality! Especially today, because what hasn't been done at this point?
TJ: Be more than just a clothing brand. You have to have a message; some type of foundation or purpose for your brand. Having a purpose that goes beyond the clothing is what helps a brand attain staying power.
The fashion industry has come a long way, but there is still so much more work to be done. What issues do you think the industry needs to address head-on and tackle?
TJ: There needs to be more education around how to run a business for fashion students and up-and-coming designers; those things are not addressed when you study design.
Carl: There are just too many successful designers thriving right now for there to be no pipeline for those who want to learn and to attain key information. You typically don't get a course on how to run a business as a student, yet that insight is crucial to developing a successful brand.
Fill in the blank: Our Black is...
Our Black is CREATIVE!
Thanks to you, the world's a little more stylish and aware. Where do you see Cross Colours in the next three decades?
Carl: In three decades, I see Cross Colours as a worldwide brand. We're more involved in community advocacy, our direct-to-consumer business is thriving and we've solidified Cross Colours as a positive brand that continues to reflect our community and Black culture on a global scale.
Photos courtesy of Cross Colours