Joe Freshgoods Is Carrying Chicago’s Creative Torch

Chicago’s got quite a list of creative and cultural icons: Michael Jordan, Ye, the late Virgil Abloh, even Barack Obama. One would think that an emerging designer from the Windy City would feel heavy pressure to fill their shoes. However, it’s the exact opposite for Joe Robinson — better known as Joe Freshgoods — a Westside Chicago native who’s motivated to put the city on his back, on his own terms and with his own flavor.

Every designer’s creative journey is ignited by something different, and for Freshgoods, it all began with a fascination for the color pink. Having grown up in the late ‘90s and early 00’, he was struck by how rappers like Cam’ron flipped the narrative around the rosy hue — the “Dipset Anthem” music video where Cam sported a jacket with pink bandana lettering is seared into his brain — and made it acceptable for men to embrace. And since pink men’s apparel was hard to come by in Chicago at the time, he set out to solve his own problem by producing pieces that aligned with his personal taste.

“I remember being a teenager in high school and printing Pink Panther-inspired tees and customizing Chicago White Sox hats in pink. That’s what inspired me to become a designer,” he says. Tyler, the Creator serves as a modern parallel to this example, as he’s expressed how Los Angeles style was once concentrated around wearing all black even though that’s not what he was into. And, just like Freshgoods, if you examine Tyler’s artist’s GOLF WANG and le FLEUR* labels today, pastels — especially pink — often take center stage.

Freshgoods worked an array of fashion-focused jobs after he graduated from high school. He started out as a sales associate at now-defunct Chicago staple Fashion Geek in 2005, worked at the Chicago Niketown for a short stint before being terminated for giving his discount away too frequently, (one of many little-known gems he shared on the Business of Hype podcast in 2019) and interned at Leaders 1354 — a city streetwear and sneakers staple that’s been in business for 20 years. It was at Leaders that he started to forge relationships with some of the city’s hometown heroes like Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and Rockie Fresh and began working with his longtime business partners Terrell Jones, Desmond Owusu and Vic Lloyd.

“I feel more responsibility to design with greater intention and a deeper message.”

During the summer of 2012, Freshgoods opened the doors to his first storefront in the Pilsen neighborhood where he sold products from his brand Don’t Be Mad (formerly known as Dope Boy Magic) and in 2014 he opened Fat Tiger Workshop. It was a community brick-and-mortar space in Logan Square that he opened with Jones who ran a tees and jerseys imprint centered around Chicago slang called Vita, Owusu who owned a brand by the name of Squad which often featured reworked Nike logos and Lloyd who helmed an Asian-inspired streetwear label called Sensei. It was a hub that functioned as a retail space and creative hub that was unlike anything the city had never seen before. Releases like his “I Wanna F*ck Rihanna” beanies garnered him attention while capsules like his “Thank You Obama” range earned him respect, and he’s continued to evolve as a designer into other categories such as outerwear, cut-and-sew and more. “The city has watched me grow up in fashion”, Freshgoods said. “I’ve gone from a teen making tees with profanity on them to making my way into the streetwear spotlight and now I feel more responsibility to design with greater intention and a deeper message.”

When Freshgoods started, he was producing clothes to make money on the side and get his ideas out. But over time, growth and maturity have taught him to develop a more clear, community-minded vision of how to go about his business. Now, Freshgoods prioritizes storytelling, shines a light on Black culture and uplifts his community. It’s typical for someone with Freshgoods’ clout to move away to a destination like Los Angeles or New York where fashion and pop culture are acknowledged on a grander scale, especially since Chicago doesn’t often receive the respect it deserves despite its alumni list being rich with culture-shifting legends. However, as a Chicagoan through and through, he recognizes the value of staying home, being present at local events and offering underserved kids the education and tools to flourish in creative spaces. “When colette was still around, I remember seeing this BAPE city tee series that had Paris, LA and New York, and immediately asking myself why Chicago is always left out of the picture”, he says. “From that point on I realized how much I wanted to put my city on game and also show the kids that you can be successful without leaving.”

In the latter half of the 2010s and early years of this decade, Freshgoods’ commitment to his craft has been validated by big box sportswear brands and led to a cornucopia of collaborative efforts. Converse knocked on his door for a project that paid homage to Chicago’s ‘70s disco culture. New Balance has tapped him for 992, 990v3, 9060 and 993 collaborations as well as appointed him the creative director for its “Conversations Amongst Us” initiative. And most recently, Vans has linked up with the Midwestern creative to produce two collections, the latest of which was the “Chocolate Valley Resort” capsule, featuring dessert-inspired takes of the Sk8-Hi Reissue Platform VLT LX and Slip-Hiker LX colorways with matching apparel.

These projects are all executed with different brands and involve different footwear models, but there’s a common thread: It’s never just the products with Joe Freshgoods. Expressions of Black and/or Midwestern culture are always present in his work. Through each campaign, Freshgoods underscores a nuance of the Black experience such as the use of inside voices, the joys of summertime in Chi-Town or traveling during a Midwestern blizzard. He puts an emphasis on crucial dialogues that connect his community with the products, and implements his signature design language of whimsical color-blocking and attention to detail. “When brands come to me, they know that I’m not here to put a funky colorway together just to put it out,” he says. “I put so much work into making sure that I get the story right and finding a balance between allowing the canvas to do its thing and bringing in my own design language”

As our conversation comes to an end, Freshgoods takes a moment to reflect on his next moves. He’s aware that his work is starting to become more recognized, but his goal of putting Chicago and its community at the forefront of fashion remains steadfast. “I’m proud of what I’ve built so far, but I’m not done yet”, he says. “These next few years, you’re going to see a lot more from me, like runway pieces and ventures into luxury goods, but I want everyone to know that they’re still growing with me and that I’m bringing them along for the ride.”

As the old saying goes, “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” Joe Freshgoods is a living embodiment of that. In a world where the collaboration space is saturated and most of the products feel half-hearted. Freshgoods’ down-to-Earth ethos ensures he can continue propelling the culture in the right direction.

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