2021 marks FN’s fourth year of presenting its Black History Month Spotlight series, which shines a light on some of the remarkable executives, entrepreneurs and designers in the shoe industry. As part of our ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business, we will continue to amplify the voices and stories of Black movers and shakers who are worthy to be recognized all year round.
Likening himself to a poet more than a designer or collaborator, Joe Freshgoods has used footwear and apparel for years to tell the stories he knows best — ones that are deeply personal and rooted in authenticity.
“These are buzz words I hate, but we are the culture, so it’s important for us to make sure we have representation and make sure these stories continue to be told from our lens,” the creative, whose real name is Joseph Robinson, told FN. “This is just me. When I’m picking colorways shoes and s**t like that for stories, I’m just like ‘let me pull from the hood, let me pull up from where I’m from.’ That’s all I know how to do.”
Like many prolific designers, Robinson has a tough time nailing down his best career highlights. But the Chicago native — who also owns a store in the city called Fat Tiger Workshop — said he tends to remember most fondly the “Thank You Obama” apparel collection he released in 2017. Another Chicago-born talent, Chance the Rapper, was the face of the campaign.
“That gave me a lot of capital. That was the most successful drop I had at that time that wasn’t a collaboration,” Robinson said. “And Chance the Rapper — that was the first time he and I really broke bread together. It was a very cool full circle moment — just him modeling that for me and pushing it for a minute. It did so well, I had to hire more people. That changed how I looked at all of this, that it can be a real job that I can actually get good on. And I learned more about production.”
But in the four years since, Robinson has delivered well-received collections tied to compelling stories — many with footwear at the center.
For instance, during 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend, he delivered his two-shoe “No Emotions Are Emotions” collab with New Balance, consisting of a new-look Made 992 and a reimagined OMN1S basketball sneaker, which was the on-court style of NBA star Kawhi Leonard. “‘No Emotions Are Emotions’ is my game face. It’s for people in the world that don’t speak loudly about what they are going to do; they just do it,” he said at the time via statement. “This is my way of connecting Kawhi’s personality to the collection and to my personal brand during All-Star weekend.”
Robinson followed with another hit project in December, this time with Converse, channelling 1970s Chicago soul to reinterpret the Pro Leather and the Chuck 70 shoes. “I wanted to approach the collection like a reader scrolling through a book about love, Black culture, soul and art. Each piece is a history lesson,” Robinson said in a statement.
With his story now well-known in the worlds of footwear and fashion, and with recent successes still fresh in people’s minds, Robinson finds himself uniquely positioned to help others tell their stories and find their paths. In fact, he admits he’s taking requests for advice now more than ever — and, perhaps unsurprisingly, most askers want his best tips for navigating partnerships with brands.
“Get hot before collaborations. Nobody should start off their whole career doing collaborations. I have 10 years of me just working and hustling and grinding, and now I’m doing it,” Robinson explained. “You’ve got to be hot by yourself. ‘So Joe, how did you get brands to recognize you?’ I just made myself hot. And there is something very attractive about trial and error. You’ve got to fail. Failing is what makes people successful because you’ve got to see what you’re doing wrong so you can move on and get past it.”
In that same vein, Robinson said he’s also interested in helping people take their first step, offering insight to those who want to work in footwear and fashion but don’t know where to begin.
“We don’t even know the jobs that exist. You can specialize in color story and the whole division can be that, your division could be archives,” he said. “As I climb up and meet more brands and fly to different headquarters, I’m like ‘holy s**t, it’s all these different jobs that exist in this space that ultimately people don’t know.'”
He continued, “These roles need to be identified so people understand that they can get into this. There’s a one-track mind when we talk about getting into footwear. What does that mean? What is your passion? Are you a color person? Are you a storyteller? Are you in love with archive pieces? Do you want to be a sales rep?”
This kind of guidance and mentorship, Robinson believes, is hugely lacking from some sweeping corporate efforts at diversity and inclusion. To that end, the designer said he’s more interested in offering his community something tangible rather than performative.
“Just pouring money into the Black community is a very blanketed statement. When you see certain brands saying ‘We’re going to pledge $200 million to the community,’ what does that really mean?” Robinson said. “My goal for my organization is being able to communicate to Black and brown folks exactly what’s available and how you can do it. It’s a big system and some stuff is still over my head. And the whole idea of certain roles being positioned off to people with a college degree, I don’t subscribe to that because I don’t have a degree but I was able to pivot and understand. I’ve been learning as I go. It’s just tough, man. There’s a lot of stuff I’m still learning now.”
One of the those lessons for Robinson of late is the value of slowing down.
“COVID made me slow down a bit, take my time and really be more prepared. Now, I don’t want to focus on printables; I want to do some actual seasons,” Robinson said. “I’m not just waking up and talking to my printer about what I need tomorrow. Right now, mentally and creatively, I’m on spring ‘22, which is the first time in my life I’ve been this prepared — and I love it.”