The titans of workwear are few but mighty. Levi’s, Carhartt, Dickies — generations-old brands with extensive track records of producing clothes built to withstand a hard day's work. Their garments have also weathered the test of time, becoming immortalized into the canon of men's style.
Darryl Brown, a former railroad engineer who launched his eponymous label in 2019, wants his name to be the next in the canon, but he knows it won't happen by simply regurgitating classics and raising the prices. Brown's familiar designs are informed by his experience working industrial jobs, but they carry a fresh feel and upgraded materials. In his words, Darryl Brown Clothing Company is what would happen "if Dries [Van Noten] and Carhartt had a baby."
We talked with the up-and-coming designer about the start of his brand and what authentic workwear means in 2020.
How did you move from the railroad to fashion?
I've worked for Chrysler and General Motors, working as an engineer and driving trains. But while I was doing that, a friend of mine, a guy named Zach Beebe, opened a streetwear boutique called Nex. He wasn't the fashion guy, so he asked me to come and help them run it — be the buyer, do marketing, brand activations, initiatives and stuff like that.
It took a while for you to start your own brand. Was making your own brand the ultimate goal?
I started off just wanting to be a stylist. I never really wanted my own brand. I was always more into helping other people grow their brands.
How did you get into styling?
My friends would tell me, “Man, you should be a model, bro. You should be a stylist.” And I'd be like, “Well, I'm not being a model. What’s a stylist?” “The person that gets celebrities and entertainers dressed.” And for me, that moment that was, like, mind-blowing. I was like, what? I never knew something like that existed.
So you started styling in your free time?
Yeah. We used to throw parties and events. We’d be booking Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller — rest in peace — all those guys. But at this time, none of them guys were even signed yet. We booked Machine Gun Kelly for, like, a hundred and fifty dollars and gas money. He came up to me and he's like, “Hey bro, what’s that hoodie? Can you get me one?” And that was kind of, like, the beginning of our relationship. He was my first official client.
Eventually, you ended up with Kanye West and worked as his head stylist for four years. How did that happen and what kind of influence did he have on you?
If anything, Kanye just helped me polish my skills for who I really am. You get what I'm saying? It’s like being a really dope basketball player, and being put on a team with Jordan or Lebron. You’re still a great player, and you’re still you. But you got to play with Jordan and win a ring. I look to Kanye like a real friend, like a big brother. He opened so many doors up for me and set me up so I could fly on my own.
Why'd you leave Kanye?
It was just time. I was ready to start my own thing. I had already put my first collection into the sampling phase and I was preparing to launch at Paris fashion week that January. We were kind of in a transition phase where we were living between Chicago and Los Angeles. And there were a lot of moving pieces, a lot going on. And I just felt like, okay, this is the perfect time because nobody gets to leave Kanye on good terms.
Any other influences?
My dad was an ex-military man, worked for Chrysler for, like, thirty years; truck driver. He's more like a manly man, workwear-inspired. Dickies and Red Wing boots every day for him. That's [how] you get Darryl Brown Clothing Co.
What about other brands? Who is doing it right?
I love Jil Sander. I love Lemaire. I just love The Row, how they just constantly deliver every single time. Their collections are like butter, like Uniqlo on steroids but more minimal. Instead of thirty-three colors, it’s five. It never changes, the quality is always good. And it's simple. It’s just simple.
I feel like those brands that we're talking about, they're going to live forever. They have such a huge fan base. They’re genreless. They don’t have to worry about going out of style. I want to be a Black designer living in that space. I feel like sometimes we're only allowed to come in if we're being over-the-top, we have to be so over the top and flashy and gaudy.
A lot of designers borrow from workwear, but you’ve said in other interviews that many designers are doing it wrong.
For me, I sat back and watched workwear become a trend. But none of these designers have ever worked a blue-collar, nine-to-five job a day in their life, you know what I'm saying? They don't always hit the mark and connect with people because it’s not them, it’s just a trend that they tried to capitalize on. There's nothing authentic about it and nothing authentic about the message.
So when the fashion conversation turned to workwear and [people started asking] 'Who should be making workwear?' It should be me. You know what I mean? I kind of took offense, and then I took it as a challenge. I want to own this workwear space, especially as a Black man.
What about Carhartt and Dickies? Do you consider those brands authentic?
We were just wearing those brands because that's what our parents could afford — or what we could afford. That’s what we were forced to go to work in, it wasn't necessarily about fashion. And then Wu Tang took that and they brought it to prime-time television. When you would see your icons walking in the room and they got their Carhartt hoodie on, it's not because they chose to do that. It was a product of their environment.
Your pieces are more expensive than the clothing from traditional manufacturers. Where is the extra cost coming from?
The expense of it being made in America. I'm also using a heavier twill — the best of the best. I'm still going tight with the price point. I could make stuff [cost] eight hundred dollars. I could sell hype if I wanted to, but I don't. I want things to last. I want repeat customers.
Where are you trying to take workwear?
I am creating affordable, sustainable, fire goods. I feel like it’s more about the uniform aesthetic — clothes that you don't have to think about. It's workwear, but it's, like, the new workwear, because [we’re] a whole new workforce. We’re out here, we're creating, we're taking meetings, we’re moving and shaking. We're still tying up our boots and putting on our slacks and our uniforms, but we're not necessarily going to factories every day.