Monday night, in the cozy confines of the Hotel Americano basement, a rapt audience soaked up the wisdom offered by four influential young women, GHE20G0TH1K creator Venus X, eyewear designers and twin sisters Coco & Breezy, and Everyday People founder Saada Ahmed. In a panel discussion titled DIY Culture & Millennial Movements, presented by Hotel Americano and creative strategist Olu Alege, brand manager and consultant Jey Van Sharp moderated a conversation which included personal narratives chronicling how the four women respectively got their start, strategies for how grassroots initiatives and individuals can partner with corporate brands, and an examination of how culture, politics, and capitalism intersect. Contextualizing the event in the wake of the recent election, Van Sharp urged, “These chats need to happen more, especially over the next four years.” Below is an excerpt from the live discussion:
Breezy: We’re eyewear designers. The way we started was the definition of DIY. We made a negative into a positive. We were girls from Minnesota. We didn’t have a lot of friends. We got bullied in high school so we wore sunglasses because they gave us a level of confidence. Back in the day, when we were 14, 15-years-old, MySpace was the shit. We had hundreds of thousands of friends on MySpace. We realized people on the Internet liked our outfits and the glasses that we were wearing. So we started designing. We were punk and into studded belts, and we started embellishing safety goggles. We started wearing them not even with the intention of starting a brand. On the Internet, people really appreciated what we had to offer. We started meeting some of our Internet friends from New York. We came out here at 17-years-old and we realized people loved our art so we went back home. We quit our jobs at the mall. We sold our car. We moved to New York with less than a thousand dollars to sell safety goggles with studs on them. People thought we were crazy. But you know what? The mall was my last job. When we got here with our safety goggles, the first two years they were hot but then as soon as they were as hot, as fast they went down. So we had to educate ourselves on how to manufacture and develop real sunglasses. And now, we just launched a collaboration with Footlocker, Twizzlers, and Jolly Ranchers. We are the first eyewear company to collaborate with all those companies. Our company now, we not only have our own eyewear company, we also help other designers produce, design, and manufacture their own eyewear lines.
Saada: I initially started Everyday People because I thought there was a void in nightlife. I was going out, partying, wasting my time — kind of. At the same, I realized I wasn’t given the same opportunities as other people. I didn’t have the network or the net worth. I didn’t have the nepotism. I felt like I was making a lot of lateral moves, and I knew something in the community was needed to network. First of all, I wanted to do a day event because nighttime can get a little dark. I wanted to do something where you could wake up the next morning and go to work. I reached out to a few DJs over Facebook. Only one person responded to me and that was Mo [DJ mOma]. He was like, “I got a space for you. I’m down to do this brunch party.” And I remembered seeing these champagne brunches in Meatpacking. I wanted to do a brunch but I didn’t want it to be pretentious. I wanted people to vibe out. I wanted them to network. Roble came in. I told him, “You can be a guest host and curate the menu.” And Mo and Roble brought their friends which were a different group of friends than I had. It was interesting to combine our groups. We didn’t want it to be monolithic. We wanted people to feel like they had access to different industries, different types of people, and an opportunity to meet people to maybe get a job or build whatever. Initially it was very low key and chill. It was a sit-down brunch, and then people got kind of restless and it evolved into a party.
Venus: I’m from New York, and when I got old enough and I was in college, I was out looking for parties, and I was leading this multiple-consciousness lifestyle that was driving me crazy. I was a waitress at 40/40 so I had to listen to Hip Hop all night and then I was really rebellious and I was going to punk shows with my Black skater friends who were tokenized by the punk movement in New York. They were the only ones allowed to be there. Regular Black kids wearing a leather jacket would be maybe made fun of, but these guys had drunk and fought their way into the upper echelons of the lowest rung of society and I was right there alongside them, getting blasted and trying to figure out why we were all there, but listening to some great bands. And then I was going right back to school where I was learning about feminism and art history. And it was just like how do I make all of this make sense? It was such a segregated existence. I was definitely the only Dominican girl at those punk shows. I was definitely one of the only women of color in my classes. I was like, why don’t all these people hang out? Why don’t all these people party together? The reality was if I don’t go to multiple different places and act very self-aware to hold my place in all of those places, I’m not going to be able to experience this diversity. Eventually, that little thing inside of me that wanted all my friends to be friends and that wanted to be in one room listening to punk music and dubstep and techno, it slowly became me inviting all these different people together — House of Ladosha, a gay rap group that was amazing at writing rap and making beats; Hood By Air, a [then] defunct T-shirt line with an amazing designer behind it [Shayne Oliver] who was kind of depressed because no one really understood what he was doing; and this DJ I went to school with who had graduated with a graphic design degree but was better at making remixes [Daniel Fisher AKA Physical Therapy] — and saying, “Want to throw a party together?” There were rules: No one is excluded here but no one is supposed to be visible here. So there was no Instagram, no Twitter. There were no cameras allowed. The room was not lit. It was supposed to be totally dark, so if you want to be gay in a corner, by all means go ahead. If you wanted to be gay yesterday but you want to be straight tonight, go do your thing. If you want to get naked, go do your thing. If I want to play some gospel music and chop and screw it with Reggaeton, I’m going to do my thing. You can’t live life with the lights on all the time. Great things grow in the dark. Babies grow in bellies. They incubate. We knew we needed a space. We didn’t know how much it would impact the world around us. GHE20G0TH1K’s been around seven years and I get to travel the world doing this. We didn’t intentionally create a movement, but we had all the pieces: fashion, politics, music. And we realized after a while, if we keep doing this, and people keep trusting us and we keep doing our best, it’s going to be something.
Coco: When we first started our brand Coco & Breezy, for our first five years, we hardly made any money doing photo shoots but it built our brand. We modeled in an H&M campaign that was all over the world. How much did we get paid for that? Zero dollars. But guess what? Now when other clients hire us, they say, “You were in that H&M campaign, you must cost X amount.” And we wore our sunglasses in that ad. We told H&M, “We’ll only do it if we can wear our sunglasses.” Long story short, brand partnerships are big thing right now, and when brands contact you they obviously need you. So for example, we are working with this company called Transitions. They said, “Can we use you guys to be the face of our campaign and do our lookbook?” This is one of the biggest lens companies in the world. We thought how can we use them to help our business? So we said we’d come back to them with a proposal. So originally they wanted us to do the lookbook, we offered them a proposal to whole one-year marketing partnership. We created a plan and a partnership and almost quadrupled the number they were initially offering us. So when companies reach out to you, they obviously need you. Don’t be afraid to push.
Breezy: Know your value. We are the culture. All these brands need us right now. Realize that they can’t do it without you.
Saada: One of the big issues I had with Everyday People and working with corporate brands was exploiting my community. I never wanted to be the person to do that. I always wanted to be inclusive. Recently, we worked with a specific brand that brought us to different cities. People kind of forget about those communities. People get all excited about New York City, but I get to North Carolina and I’m like, “Woah, here’s a community that really needs this. There are queer people here that want to have a safe space.” It might sound capitalistic but I don’t give a fuck. If I can get the money to help those people, then why not?
Venus: I was so anti-corporate for so long that people just stopped coming to me because they knew I would just be like, “No, you need a lot more than that,” just to be ridiculous. I was such a bitch in developing the ethos of this movement, I was like, “No, this is not for you.” But eventually those $2,000 offers from brands turned into $20,000 talent budgets. And I’m older now and I realize that saying no is cool when you’re young but it’s not when you realize that you cannot get around the world. And these brands are like McDonalds. McDonalds is bad for so many people but if you can, for a second, have every child that looks at McDonalds with bright eyes look at you — I was that little girl once who didn’t know any better than to eat McDonalds — that’s a lot of power. And that’s power that we need to take. And, I’m constantly challenging myself to make sure the money is being recycled back into the community because the reality is that brands prefer a girl who is mysterious, queerish, who might suck dick, might lick pussy. They prefer me over that very flamboyant gay Black man, so I need to take that money and pay him to DJ the party so that he can have a salary.
Saada: I want to create opportunities for other people. My goal in life is to uplift people. I also want people to realize that it did not come easy. It is not what it looks like on social media. Fuck social media. It makes people feel like everyone’s living this life. Everyone is struggling and it’s ok to struggle. Now that I have this platform — as much as I hate it because I have social anxiety — I feel obligated to share my story and share my anxiety and my depression and share how I came to where I am. It’s not cute outfits and avocado toast.
Venus: I want to be the person that makes you feel really comfortable to do whatever you need to do. Stand up for what you believe in. Make hats that say, “Fuck America.” Get a tattoo on your forehead that says, “Fuck America” with three Ks. I bet you you’ll be in Times Square in an ad for Givenchy by next fucking season because people like politics. It’s what we’re made of. To sit here and pretend it’s all about consumption and pleasure, it is about those things, but those things are ultimately about politics. Those dollars that we have, that is power. As consumers, we have influence. When when you recognize that you become less afraid to speak your mind. I want Jordans that say “Fuck Trump.” Please Nike!
Selfies courtesy of @venusxgg, @cocoandbreezy, and @saada___
Photography courtesy of Sofia Geld