Freeing the young is a great mission statement. But in Ghana, a young brand is doing just that, one ironic piece of clothing at a time. âWe make clothes,â Free the Youth co-founder Maposh Richard Ormano tells me. âBut we don’t just sell clothes. We sell stories. We sell hope.
Coming from someone else, such a statement would seem ambitious at best, but truly, Free the Youth is our only hope. As the Ghanaian government propagates an increasingly conservative culture, stifling its budding young creative community, the Accra-based streetwear collective is pointing a fearless middle finger at the establishment with its quirky style, self-confidence and his singular point of view – to let their city, their country and the world know that it is the turn of African youth to shine.
Founded in 2013 by Jonathan Coffie, Kelly Foli, Shace Winfred Mensah and Ormano, the streetwear imprint is Wizkid and Vic Mensa as fans have collaborated with Daily Paper, Off-White â¢ and Footlocker. But that’s far from where it all began. When the quartet first joined forces on the streets of the Ghanaian port town of Tema, there was no big plan to start, just a shared passion for fashion. âWe know each other from the hood. Some of us went to school together. We used to sell each other clothes, âexplains Coffie (who is called Joey Lit). âSo in high school we just started taking pictures in cool clothes, watching Tumblr fly, Facebook – at that point we weren’t even on Instagram. This turmoil laid the foundation for what Free the Youth is today. âWe were different,â says Kelly. âI think because we wore loose clothes and weren’t doing what everyone else was doing, people were like, ‘Yo, you should set the kids free. Then when we posted on the Internet, we used hashtags, free young people. Free the young people on everything … And the people loved it. So we were like, ‘We should just put this on a t-shirt.’ “
Alongside their budding passion project, Coffie, Foli, Mensah and Ormano tried to pursue âreal jobsâ outside of fashion – I was told of aimless fights in the military, university, carpentry and accounting internships. In Ghana, creative activities are not taken seriously, explains Coffie: âIt’s a very risky industry to touch, you know. It’s like one in 100 people will do this shit and get it right […] But we had the courage to pose the model of African streetwear. Hope when we are done it will be a profitable industry for kids to admire and even have a career. [in]. âTheir sartorial intuition paid off. Today the collective has grown to include photographer Philip N. Boakye, event producer Prince Brefo, production manager Gilbert Quansah, design consultant Mecha Clarke and NGO directors Asia Clarke and Sunshine Duncan, and Free the Youth is at the forefront of the first wave of streetwear fashion in Africa.
While global brands from the US, UK and Japan – like Supreme, Palace and BAPE – wrote the book on streetwear, it’s safe to say today that the term has very little in common with what he was. We live in a world where Supreme is a billion dollar brand and there is a market just to return rare grails. An excessive reliance on hype and endless collaborations has watered down the culture, assimilating it into the realm of traditional fashion. If streetwear by nature is anti-fashion, then Free the Youth is as legitimate as it gets. Their influence on the streets does not come from the hype culture but from their own lived experience, examined and expressed through clothing like their âNo Taxis Allowedâ t-shirts, ridiculing the economic discrimination implicit in the familiar signs outside. many hotels and private buildings, or the â1000 woundedâ t-shirt. pay tribute to the victims of the Accra sports stadium 2001 disaster.
âThis is the most important thing, educating people about African culture through streetwear,â says Ormano. The clothes are authentically for the community that inspires them without the pretense of high fashion. And unlike some of their increasingly washed-out peers across the pond, the growing cult of Free the Youth’s die-hard customers is served at a relatively affordable price – the average FTY coin costs around $ 40 and is sells quickly. âWe need to make it affordable for our community,â says Foli. âMost of our supporters are young people, you know? Remember when we were back in high school and wanted to buy something, we had to save for months just to buy a t-shirt. We don’t want children to experience the same for us. Most of our clothes also tell a story and we can’t get that story out if no one can buy it.
And while we talk about making streetwear accessible to everyone, it’s no secret that it has traditionally been aimed specifically at men, dealing with female consumers after the fact. Well, according to Coffie, Free the Youth wants to do things a little differently: âAs Free the Youth became more popular, we realized that everything we did was male, we favored that part of our community. And you know, we’re feminists, women run the world, so Free the Youth had to have a collection for women, that’s how baby YOUTH started. It’s an introduction to our feminine side.
Launched in June with its own pop-up babe YOUTH, the sub-label aims to give ‘galdem’ a trendy place at the table, with tiny handbags, provocative ‘BLOCK HIM’ crop tops and a tribute t-shirt to the ultimate girl of the year 2000, the late Ghanaian actress Suzzy Williams. But Free the Youth does not see this as a one-off collection, women’s fashion is an integral part of the brand’s vision. âNext year we are going hard for Baby YOUTH for real,â Coffie continues. âWe are going to have collection after collection, we are going to treat it in a very special way. babe YOUTH is going to grow up like crazy, I think it will even explode more than Free the Youth.
In an age where every brand strives for authentic community engagement, Free the Youth demonstrates that the formula is pretty straightforward: Start by genuinely caring about the people you make clothes for. The way the brand operates in Ghana, where the infrastructure for creatives is lacking, shows you that ‘Free the Youth’ is not an empty name. The brand’s latest “Up N Coming Graduate” collection features pieces inspired by retro exercise books – anyone who’s been to school in Ghana or Nigeria will recognize the unnamed young man with his graduation cap – is linked to a charity initiative where every purchase sponsors a workbook for a child in Ghana. “This government of ours is really going mad,” said Ormano emphatically. âWe think we need to draw attention to these issues, as with this collection we say to the government, ‘You should invest more in education and children stay in school because you are the future. “”
And that’s not even the big picture. As the world realizes the cultural and commercial importance of Africa through its musical phenomenon Afrobeats, the disruptive voice of Free the Youth joins a chorus of young African creators who are leading the moment. Just as hip-hop gave birth to streetwear labels like FUBU and Patta, Free the Youth also revel in its close ties to Africa and the rising diaspora music scene. Take a close look at the key players in the now international genre, they all rock FTY; from Ghanaian hip-hop collectives La Same Gang and Asakaa, from South African sensation Amapiano Uncle Vinny to British afropop group NSG and Afrobeat superstars Davido and Wizkid – Joey Lit even designed the merch for the Made In Lagos tour by Wiz. âWe are entitled to more than fashion. Fashion is just the beginning for Free The Youth, âsays Foli in a neutral tone. âWe are putting Africa on the map. That was the vision when we even created the logo, which is why we put the globe. Because we are doing something around the world.
But we can’t say all of this about Free the Youth without talking about the loss of Shace Mensah. None of this would have been possible without him. And when he passed away in March, everything changed. There is a gaping hole in Free the Youth where Mensah was and Coffie, Foli and Ormano (as well as Ghana’s wider creative community) are only now beginning to accept moving forward without his strength. “If I really wanna talk about Shace, I would go on and onâ¦ I would go on and onâ¦” Ormano searched for words. “When Shace left, nothing was the same. He was a go-getter, he was a motivator, he helped many young people to get to where they are today”, continues Foli, “Everyone loved Shace, he was our soldier.
Grieving sometimes involves inventing a new world where the dreams of the deceased are as alive as they once were, which is what Free the Youth wants to do for Mensah. âShace is someone who stood up for his values ââand beliefs. When he believed in something, he looked neither left nor right, âCoffie said solemnly. “I want everyone to know that there is someone like that who motivates a bunch of guys who do great things in the world.”
And these guys are just getting started. With their country and Shace behind them, nothing is impossible. Free the Youth has already become Ghana’s flagship hub for streetwear collaborations and local youth trends. Now their eyes are on world domination and they are taking everyone with them. âIn everything we do, we remember Shace,â says Ormano. âHis mother, his family and everyone he touched should watch us, we are going to make them proud. We will not forget it. We are still in the pipeline. We are still working so hard to make his vision a reality. Whatever he wanted, we will do it.