Glen Infante recalls the first time a major hip-hop artist wore his hand-designed threads like it was yesterday. When he speaks of it, you can almost see the excitement levers in his brain start to churn; his eyes rotating their sockets like a broken slot machine. It was 2010 and Infante's label I Love the Hype (ILTHY) was no older than a shrieking newborn.
"It was Wale," he boasts, referencing the dreadlocked rapper signed with the "it" label of the moment, Maybach Music Group, headed by rap behemoth Rick Ross. "We didn't know that was going to happen or how he got the shirt. Someone showed it to us on Twitter and was like 'Holy shit, Wale is wearing ILTHY!'"
Sure enough, the promotional video A Day in the Life of Wale shows the rapper clad in designer shades, expensive jeans, and one of Infante's earliest ILTHY designs — a shirt emblazened with a cartoon eggplant complete with hands and feet. Infante immediately dedicated a blog post to the event and put screenshots from the video on his website.
"That was wild man. So wild," says Infante. "That opened our eyes like, 'Holy shit, we might be actually pretty dope and not even realize it.'"
ILTHY has grown exponentially since that day, culminating with the opening of their first retail store last year. Its success has certainly been fueled by the quality of the clothing and the design talent of Infante and his team, but the brand wouldn't be where it is today without the support of both national and local hip-hop artists. In fact, the strong bond between hip-hop artists and locally made streetwear has been essential to the rapid growth of other brands too, like Akron's Blessed Label and Cleveland's Another Enemy and Boosters Brand.
Streetwear is an amalgam of surf, skate, and hip-hop culture believed to have started in the late '80s when Los Angeles surfboard designer Shawn Stussy began putting his "tag" on T-shirts. Stussy is now one of the most prominent streetwear brands in the U.S. Skaters and hip-hoppers adopted the premise and made their own lines with brands like Billionaire Boys Club (BBC), a Bathing Ape, the Hundreds, and Diamond Supply Co. becoming household names.
Each streetwear brand has a signature logo, always intertwined into the design. BBC, for example, sports a guy in an astronaut suit. A bomb with eyes and a mouth is synonymous with the Hundreds.
Adding to the appeal, each item is usually made in limited quantities and double the price of a regular T-shirt or pair of jeans. Rabid fans even have a name: hypebeasts.
Cleveland has caught the wave. While Blessed Label has been around since 2004, the real renaissance of streetwear here began in 2007 when three young Cleveland Heights natives opened Heart & Sole, a sneaker boutique on Coventry. Two years later, Another Enemy began producing its line, followed shortly by ILTHY. Heart & Sole began stocking their gear alongside the major national brands.
A few years later, Coventry suddenly became a mini streetwear hub when another urban clothing supplier, N.E.X.T., opened across the street. At one point or another, both stores have housed Another Enemy, while N.E.X.T. carried ILTHY. These days, both brands have their own stores and the demand for Cleveland streetwear seems to be at an all-time high. At least part of the thanks goes to the rappers who enrobe in the local threads every morning.
Antoine Franklin, one fourth of the Cleveland hip-hop group Keyel, says hip-hop's love affair with streetwear stems from the genre's origins.
"When hip-hop first started out, people had specific styles," says Franklin. "People came out and they were wearing crazy leather tight pants. People were wearing the gold chains and Adidas and all that jazz. So hip-hop is really not just music, it's a multitude of different things."
With the national rise of Cleveland rappers Machine Gun Kelly and Chip Tha Ripper, as well as the growing popularity of locals likes Tezo, Ray Jr., and Keyel, streetwear and hip-hop have been able to cement the bond between the music and clothing style. Machine Gun Kelly has been spotted wearing Another Enemy in his music videos. Chip Tha Ripper has worked with ILTHY on multiple T-shirt and mixtape cover designs.
When national acts like Wiz Khalifa, Cory Gunz, or Curren$y come to town, they usually leave fully outfitted in a local brand, which becomes part of their national wardrobe. When they are seen wearing a Cleveland brand, a picture of them in that outfit will surely surface on that brand's website not long after.
Click over to Another Enemy's homepage right now and the first image you'll see is R&B singer/occasional rapper Chris Brown donning one of their shirts. But locally, it's a relationship that blossoms because of the pride these artists have for their city, and the benefit goes both ways.