Dope. Innovative. Educated. Worldly. These four words are the first that most people think of after talking to two best friends hailing from Philly who took a risk of flight to L.A. to fully live out their dreams of becoming a hit in the fashion, music and design industry.
It was only eight years ago that Gianni Lee and Aaron Ramey decided they would not only work for themselves one day, but attempt to change the Black fashion, music and art conversation through Babylon Cartel. And at 27 (Lee) and 26 (Ramey), they’re on the road to doing just that. So much so that last year, Rihanna posted an Instagram picture of herself wearing their signature camo jacket (more than once).
It’s evident these Black, Fresh and 20somethings are on their way to true success, defined by their own rules.
EBONY: Babylon Cartel is known for its fashion, events and design collaborations. But what does Babylon Cartel actually mean?
Aaron Ramey: We are collective of artists with different, yet complimentary taste pallets. Babylon Cartel is the representation of youthful expression in fashion, music and culture. We pride ourselves on our influences and experiences, and it shows in our products.
Gianni Lee: Babylon was an ancient city that was beautiful but was plagued with many evils. Babylon is no different than what we are living in today. The “Babylon Cartel” represents the resistance against Babylon. Historically, most regimes or factions always fall at the hands of a resistance. I feel like we are that resistance, that movement.
We hope to inspire folks to reach for their personal goals, to be able to separate themselves and unplug from this matrix that we live in. We want more creators and fewer consumers. We want people to be happy, and people are not happy right now. They are dying. Working at places they don’t want to work, nor being afforded the same luxuries of education as people in higher tax brackets. It’s unfair.
EBONY: You have a very special journey together from Philly to L.A. to follow your dreams. What was the biggest fear moving to the west coast?
GL: I can honestly say that my only fear was failing. When I moved, I only told my close friends. I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. Failing and having to move back to Philly would have been my ultimate letdown. I want to be able to show people there are opportunities out here. I have to be fearless.
AR: The only fear I had was resistance and complacency. If I had stayed in Philly, I would have been giving in to my natural ability as a human to do what is most comfortable.
EBONY: What is the biggest lesson you both have learned about being young Black entrepreneurs?
GL: We have learned that, historically, many of these industries are not built for our race to make any real dents in culture. We are more in line with what I like to call “modern slavery.” And even though its not entirely the end of the world, I have definitely learned I have to work harder just to prove myself and my worth just because of the color of my skin.
On the contrary, I have also learned the power of my race, and how at times America is getting to an evolutionary stage where race soon won’t matter. Hopefully I will be alive when that happens. That being said, in the time being, Black entrepreneurs should all work together and build more relationships.
EBONY: What did growing up on the streets of Philly teach you about business and partnership?
GL: Growing up in the streets of Philly taught me hustle. It taught me the idea of “grind”: working until you couldn’t work anymore. Many of my close friends that lived on my block were drug dealers. I was good at looking at the bigger picture when I was young, and I would apply their situations to my ascension and evolution. I took their concepts of hard work and applied it to getting off of the block so I wouldn’t have to be around that negativity.
AR: Philly is a city that breeds hustlers. Hustling is part of the culture. It’s in our DNA. No matter what you’re creating or selling, if you attack it with a hustler’s approach, there’s no doubt that someone will like it.
EBONY: What is your theory on art and design in the aspect of your fashion?
AR: My disposition is that art is an expression. It’s a language that interprets what we want to communicate to whoever is out there. When artists create, we feel it’s our duty to give the world something it’s missing. And it’s no different when it comes to fashion. It excites me to see someone wearing an idea we’ve created. Without them, our pieces would never come to life.
GL: Art plus design is nothing but a constant projection of the world. A continuous inspiration from wonders of the world. An artist at anytime can be inspired by relationships, social and political events, a sunrise in Dubai, a basketball team, just anything. I believe the true essence of art comes from these experiences that we shower ourselves in.
The best thing we can do for ourselves is to keep our eyes open. One of my fashion inspirations, Anna Wintour, says: “Always keep your eyes open. Never go sleep in the car or anything like that. Keep watching, because whatever you see out the window or wherever, it can inspire you.”
EBONY: What is your biggest fear about being a Black-owned fashion and design company during a moment where cultural appropriation is trendy?
GL: Wow, what a great question. Actually that is my fear. Cultural appropriation is real in 2014. I’m watching our culture get stripped down, our sisters get overly sexualized, etc. It’s disgusting, but it’s also something we have to take responsibility for. Black people are a dynamic and creative group of people, but we in some ways allow cultural appropriation to happen.
EBONY: What do you both think is the biggest misconception about our generation?
GL: The biggest misconception is that we are immature and not ready. We have proven time and time again that our generation holds the keys to the biggest transition of power in gate-keeping the world has ever seen. CEOs are getting younger and younger because of their radical ideas. But people who sit in their boardrooms that have no idea about what’s going on in culture right now strip us of our talents and sometimes opportunities. That’s our biggest misconception. We are smarter than they think. If Kanye West is going through it, just imagine what the youth is going through.
EBONY: Babylon Cartel is a fashion company owned by two Black men. Do you agree with Kanye when he said that Blacks are limited in the industry to only creating limited types of products, like T-shirts and sneakers for another company? If so, why do you think that limitation has been placed on Black people?
GL: I totally agree with Kanye West. But we have to take a responsibility for it also. I believe the problem with some African-Americans is, we get lazy and content with mediocrity. This may be [historical] in our nation.
But we have minds. Since we have minds, all minds have the ability to think and rebel, to create something devastating, thought provoking and totally evolutionary. We can’t worry about limitations, because honestly, we are awarded the same amount of air as any other human being. So while our progression may be harder and more humbling, we have a chance like anyone else.
AR: Not totally. I agree with a lot of what Kanye said. He’s a martyr for creatives everywhere. As Black people, sometimes we create the glass ceiling ourselves. By thinking that because we are Black that our designs are limited is a counterproductive mind state we need to free ourselves from. Pharrell created a 24-hour music video! Jay Z rapped for hours as a performance art installation in a museum! These guys have blown off the ceiling of expectancy for all artists, not just Black. It’s all about thinking outside the box and surrounding yourself with people who help you bring your vision to life.
EBONY: Can you put into words Babylon Cartel’s underlying mission or mantra?
GL: Babylon Cartel’s underlying mission is to promote radical and innovative ways of thinking. It is already apparent that we are African-American, but we are trying to promote a radical way of thinking that can in turn uplift our generation. It’s deeper than the clothes and parties we throw.
EBONY: What’s the bigger vision beyond dope clothes, deejaying and throwing good parties?
AR: We want Babylon Cartel to be an umbrella of design and creative services. I want to collaborate with other brands and people to apply our design aesthetic to things as farfetched as labels on lotion bottles to music videos. I want to leave our artistic imprint on the world.
GL: I see Babylon Cartel being a global force. Most importantly, go beyond anything we can do through fashion, technology and art. I want to be able to help the youth. I want to make BC a brand that travels the world lighting fires in the hearts of youth all around the world to continue to contribute to humanity.
EBONY: If there was one thing you could get through to young Black men about success, what would it be?
GL: I would tell Black men not rely solely on conventional education to find answers. Use the world as your classroom. Read books, meet people, and visit places. Take risks. Open your minds. Don’t reject a concept or an idea until you’ve tried it. The biggest thing you can do to help your chances in business is to be impressionable. Meet a lot of people and make new friends. Share your ideas and collaborate. Get up and make it happen, because nobody will make this happen for you.