These 2 Chicago Streetwear Brands Found National Success By Keeping It Local

Fat Tiger and Chicago Native want to inspire the next generation of artists

'Designers really support each other here,' Freshgoods says of Chicago. Instagram: @fattigerworks
Headshot of Christine Birkner

Streetwear is more than just a fashion statement. It’s a culture, one that’s exploded in recent years. Fueled by social media hype, in-the-know fans line up for hours to score T-shirts, sneakers or hoodies when their favorite streetwear brands launch new lines. A 2017 Piper Jaffray study found that apparel preferences among teens is shifting towards streetwear brands like Supreme, which was valued at $1 billion when the Carlyle Group purchased a minority stake in it last year and whose recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton generated $117 million in sales.

But beyond the fashion capitals of the coasts, Chicago is putting its stamp on the streetwear scene with two of its own: Joe Freshgoods, co-founder of Fat Tiger, and Juan-Elias Riesco, founder of Chicago Native and owner of Nini’s Deli.

Freshgoods, whose Chicago friend Chance the Rapper wore his line on the Grammy stage, collaborates with brands like Nike, Adidas and McDonald’s, and his Fat Tiger store also serves as a workshop for young, local talent. Similarly, Riesco has built a community for young artists through his popular west side empanada shop, Nini’s Deli, and his Instagram account, juanyworldwide, where his Chicago Native gear is sold.

Although Freshgoods and Riesco’s paths to success were different, for both, their Chicago roots run deep.

The magic of social

Freshgoods started selling his T-shirts in high school, then learned more about the business and entrepreneurial side by working at Chicago streetwear store Leaders before launching his brand, Dope Boy Magic (DBM), now called Don’t Be Mad, which took off through YouTube and Facebook.

“I came up with Dope Boy Magic because I wanted to show people you can start a brand for 80 bucks,” Freshgoods says. “I’m a product of the internet. I wouldn’t be where I am now without social media. I learned the value of getting people hyped, before the hashtag bubble and before it got corny.”

In 2012, he really put himself on the map with a hat that said, “I Wanna F*** Rihanna”—a hat that he says he wouldn’t create now.

“I created that in my early 20s, and I’m 32, with a daughter now,” Freshgoods says. “It taught me about the cease and desist game [Rihanna served him with one], and it taught me about using the internet to sell a product. People wanted to buy it because I made it.”

The original Fat Tiger store opened in 2013 in Logan Square, and the current west side store sells the Don’t Be Mad line, plus other Chicago brands like Vita, Squad, Sensei and Chicago Over Everything. Freshgoods also sells his line and brand collaborations at pop-ups in cities around the globe.

The designer capitalized on another pop culture moment after Kanye West announced his run for president at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards by printing up “Ye 2020” shirts that were ready to sell on Wednesday following the Sunday night show. “I wanted to show how quickly I could get stuff made,” he says. “I saw the show, then said, ‘Watch what I do.’ I had the mock-up the next day, Twitter went crazy, and by Wednesday, there was a line outside of my store for it.”

Chance the Rapper gave his friend Freshgoods some love by wearing his “Thank You Obama” line, created to commemorate Obama’s last day in office, while accepting the Best Rap Performance Grammy in 2017—photos that were quickly picked up by Vogue, GQ and other fashion media. “I was there when Chance was bubbling still—we watched each other grow,” Freshgoods says. “The Thank You Obama stuff was a good message. Chance felt the same way, and it ended up being life changing for me.”

The Fat Tiger store has a barbershop community feel, with a classroom-based concept inside of the store that holds monthly workshops on the streetwear business. “Kids come in after school and take notes,” Freshgoods says. “People are watching us and using us as a case study.”

From empanadas to a streetwear empire

The next generation of Chicago artists is also following the example of Juan-Elias Riesco of Chicago Native, who grew up fascinated by graffiti art, but thought he couldn’t be an artist in his hometown of Chicago.

“I convinced myself that if I wanted to do art, I had to do it in California,” Riesco says. “Growing up in Chicago, that’s what you hear: if you want to do fashion and art, you have to do it in California; if you want to do journalism, you have to move to New York. In Chicago, we always fantasize the coasts.”

So, after dropping out of DePaul University in Chicago, Riesco headed for art school in San Francisco, during which time he had an apprenticeship with a screenprinter. Then, at 21, he was called back home to run his parents’ grocery-store-turned-empanada shop, Nini’s Deli.

“I left California thinking I was leaving my dreams to work for my family’s restaurant. I was a college dropout with no real portfolio, just a lot of interests and no true direction,” he says. “At the restaurant, though, I developed relationships with people who wanted to support me, whether I was making sandwiches or selling T-shirts.”

He credits that support system for helping to make his first Chicago Native T-shirt in 2014 a hit. “The slogan, Chicago Native, resonated with people. I was a messenger for this brand. My story of going to California to try to make it and coming back to be with my family hit home with my peers because they thought they had to do the same thing.”

Riesco sees Chicago Native as a vehicle to share the story of those who grew up here, and the clothing lines are a tribute to both Chicago and his family. “HerStory,” inspired by Sears Tower blueprints, is based on his mother’s memories of seeing the Sears Tower being built, and “Mental Compass” is a compass depicting the four directions that Chicagoans navigate by: North, South, West and Lake [for Lake Michigan]. Riesco also gives back to the community by hosting the Noble Street Swap Meet, a marketplace for young artists and designers to sell their work free of charge.

Built in Chicago

Both Freshgoods and Riesco have built an “insiders club” in Chicago’s streetwear scene that brands find invaluable, says Kevin McGraw, supervisor of creative strategy for Chicago-based experiential agency rEvolution.

“You’ll see Juany and Joe around town all the time, and it’s one reason that brands are reaching out to do activations with them—their appeal is so local, and they have ways of giving back and getting involved,” he says. “We’re hyper-aware on the agency side of how useful dudes like Joe and Juany can be because they’re selective about who they’re partnering with.”

Riesco says Chicago’s living environment is nurturing its streetwear boom and creativity, in general. “Chicago is in an artistic renaissance at the moment. We have a beautiful landscape, incredible architecture, a melting pot of cultures and it’s affordable to live in. It’s a huge reason that entrepreneurs can succeed here.”

Freshgoods agrees. “If you get the city of Chicago behind your back, the world is coming up next,” he says. “Designers really support each other here. When we have one of our own in the limelight, we’re gonna do everything we can to make sure that person wins. A lot of people get big and move to these other cities, but I’m successful and I still live here. I’m still trying to get it in Chicago.”

@ChristineBirkne Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.