Words by Jesse Serwer
Marrying U.S.-style streetwear sensibilities with the energy and aesthetics of dancehall’s colorful dance crews, clothing label RepJA has created signature T-shirts for Tek Weh Yuself, Skip To My Lou and Nuh Behavior, among other recent dance crazes. For the less footwork-minded, the Atlanta/NYC brand has expanded its palate to represent a broader perspective of dancehall culture, with a “Girls Dem Sugar” T based on the Domino sugar logo; a Monopoly-inspired “Free Buju” shirt; and yin-and-yang Gully (see above) and Gaza designs. After catching their new looks at last month’s Caribbean Fashion Rocks show in New York, Large Up spoke with RepJA’s Prince Graham and Omar Thomas.
Large Up: How long has RepJA been around?
Prince Graham: You could say the end of ’06 but we didn’t really push it. We’d say we’ve been doing it serious for two years.
Omar Thomas: The name RepJA came about in a dream. At that point, I didn’t have an idea what the name was for. It was myself, my brother and another friend, and the song I was playing at the time was “Willy Bounce,” and the thought just came into mind that it would be really cool to have on a T-shirt while you were doing the Willy Bounce that said “Willy Bounce.” We just started kicking it around and then I went, “Oh snap, that’s what the name is for.”
LU: Had you all been doing anything in fashion before that?
PG: I was a marketing assistant intern for Rocksmith Tokyo. I went to school for graphic design and Omar was in school for web design so it was something we dabbled in but not something we wanted to do full-time.
LU: Did you see a niche for yourself with streetwear brands being ubiquitous in the U.S. at that time, but there not really being a brand culture for that in Jamaica at the time?
PG: Not at the beginning. We did four shirts but it wasn’t until we did the Tek Weh Yuself for Black Bling, and we presented that to them in Jamaica, where it got to the level that this was something serious. Because people were going crazy for that shirt. After that we went alright, this is something that we can do different. And we started gettng input from dancers in Jamaica like Ova-Marz and Ding [Dong] and those people, and we started creating certain things off of that. In the beginning a lot of our shirts were dance-oriented but now we’re trying to take it where it’s more of a lifestyle line. There’s too many dances coming out but if it’s a dance we know is going to be big, we’ll work with an artist and do something with it.
LU: Do any of you dance yourselves?
PG: We’re Jamaican, we dance but it’s not like we go to the clubs and want to be the dudes in the middle of the dancefloor.
OT: When we first started Rep JA, we knew the videos, knew the songs but we didn’t have any direct connection with the dancehall scene until we started linking with Latonya Style from Jamaica. She was basically our foot soldier to get it into the dancehall and get us more familiar with the dancers on a personal level where they can actually call us and give us input. The first dancer we worked with was Ova-Marz. Their manager, Donna, kind of lined up the whole thing. We did the Raging Bull shirt and from there we bussed the Footloose, Nuh Linga. Now we do know them on a personal level where they recognize the name and we’ll say, “Boom, we want to do something with you.”
LU: How have you fared as far as getting your clothes into Jamaica?
OT: We’re trying to approach it at a level where we keep it a little exclusive, so when we do get it into the market there’s going to be a demand for the product itself. It’s also getting our stuff to the point where stores would believe in the brand because it’s not coming directly from Jamaica where we can go up to certain stores and say hey this is what it is and it’s manufactured from here. No, it’s coming from overseas and our price point might be a little higher than what they want it for in the stores. That’s what we’re working on at this point: to get the product in Jamaica where certain key stores are carrying the product. Not every store.
LU: Are there stores selling your clothes in Jamaica right now?
OT: No. Right now it is only on a grassroots level that the product is being distributed there. It’s not in any physical stores where anybody can walk up and pick up the shirt. That’s one of our main goals for the summer: to get the product in Jamaica itself.
LU: What’s been your biggest market?
OT: The biggest market has been overseas. Italy, France, Japan, Sweden Germany, the U.K. The international market, as we know, they gravitate towards the Caribbean culture.
LU: The biggest fashion right now in Jamaica is Clarks, which is a classic style. Do you see Jamaica going more in the direction of classic style than the punk/streetwear thing that’s been happening the last few years? Where do you see dancehall fashion going next?
OT: We started with the punk streetwear vibe, but we don’t really follow a norm. The stuff that’s coming out for the summertime, we’re going to do one or two pieces that are typical RepJA but the other pieces will totally flip the script on a level where if you see it you will swear that it’s an American brand but once you look at it, you’ll know that it’s not normal. It’s not a matter of toning down per se. There’s a lot of trends like the Clarks and everything, you can still be who ya be with the Clarks the same way. It’s a lifestyle thing, this is how we dress. Even if we beat some Clarks, we can find a colorful Clarks to go out and wear. It’s just a matter of putting out what we believe that the people need at the time.
LU: Where do you see dancehall fashion going next, though?
OT: Dancehall people always push the extreme. Even if you tone it down, their toned down is always on another level. Their toned down is still something bright: you gotta see me. It’s all about a fashion thing whether some Gucci, some Prada, it’s always to an extreme. Dancehall people don’t buy Caribbean clothing lines, they buy whatever people are wearing in America. They might be the H&M, the Rocksmith. So even if they do tone it down, it’s pushed to the extreme and I think that’s where we have to personally understand that market. We still have to make sure that even if somebody busts some khakis they can wear this type of T-shirt, to complement something they have on. But not too toned-down, because the people themselves as a culture are not toned down.