Shortly after landing home in Toronto from a trip to Montreal, designer Spencer Badu is already at his studio working on his 2019 summer collection for his apparel brand S.P. Badu.
“Right now I’m just getting back into the groove of work,” Badu says.
His visit to Montreal wasn’t just any regular degular rendezvous. Badu partnered with Red Bull for its annual music festival to create T-shirts inspired by the merch that artists sell on concert tours.
“I pitched an idea of having on-site screen-printing. We designed four different graphics and then people had the chance to pick a graphic and then we’d put it on a T-shirt right away,” Badu says.
For the T-shirt’s promotional photos, two emerging Canadian musicians performing at this year’s Red Bull Music Festival, Ebhoni and Casey MQ, were selected instead of traditional models. They were styled by Badu’s friend and collaborator Bobby Bowen. Dripping in S.P. Badu swag, Ebhoni’s look included red lounge trousers and a matching bomber jacket while Casey rocked a pair of loose-fitting track pants with elastic cuffs and a pocket that can be unzipped and turned into a bag. The artists-turned-models’ outfits were completed with Badu’s Red Bull collaboration tees.
The venture was Badu’s first time using music as a medium for his creations despite already nabbing two celebrity co-signs from the hip-hop universe. A$AP Rocky was spotted on the streets of NYC in a pair of S.P. Badu embroidered joggers while rapper Young Thug fashioned the same design at a performance in Norway last year. The exposure helped propel Badu’s designs to a broader audience and has only continued his success as an emerging trendsetter.
“What I feel is that [gender norms] are very restricting to the natural process of humans.”
What makes Badu’s signature in fashion so unique is his emphasis on creating clothes that showcase both masculine and feminine components. His pieces are designed for inclusivity. They go beyond gender norms and push the boundaries on what is acceptable to wear.
“I guess the ultimate goal is freedom, complete freedom,” Badu says. “What I feel is that [gender norms] are very restricting to the natural process of humans. . . . For me it’s really about breaking down those things and moving away from conformity in any form. Whether it is popular culture, trends, gender, I’m just kind of pushing an idea of freedom.”
For Badu there were many instances growing up where he felt he was expected to behave in a certain way as a young man in society, especially as a Black man born to African parents who he says have traditional values. When he first started making clothes in his room at the age of 18, a lot of people simply saw it as a hobby he’d eventually grow out of. It was when Badu finally decided to turn his hobby into a career that his father began to interject.
“In a perfect world [for him] I would be a lawyer or a doctor,” Badu says, “and when I told him what I wanted to do, his exact words were ‘that’s a woman’s job.’ . . . My dad not been born here, coming to Canada and working his butt off I think, as with most parents, their biggest fear is that you’re going to go into the arts and not be able to sustain yourself or your family.”
This era in Badu’s life was especially significant to his brand mandate of diminishing stereotypical gender norms. “Now I’d say he’s proud,” Badu says of his father. Though the designer says his parents aren’t very vocal when it comes to praise, Badu has noticed a shift in their perception of his work as his success continues to eclipse their initial expectations.
Prior to the Red Bull Music Festival partnership, earlier this year, Badu had the opportunity to showcase his 2018 Fall collection “Mother” at Toronto Fashion Week and currently the line is sold Canada-wide at The Hudson’s Bay.
“It was called “Mother” because I was looking at different gender roles. A lot of masculine jobs are considered corporate culture. They tell you that it’s a ‘man’s world,’ it’s a ‘man’s job’ and a woman does this or that in the house,” Badu says.
“Whether it is popular culture, trends, gender, I’m just kind of pushing an idea of freedom.”
Badu looked at the different contrasts in his life as inspiration for the collection. He says that as he started to analyze the way gender roles are imposed on people from birth he realized that a lot of what he was taught growing up was untrue.
“My mom is probably one of the strongest ladies I know and I think a lot of things that she goes through and maybe a lot of the things that other women go through some men wouldn’t be able to go through . . . For me mother [equals] strength.”
The young designer created garments that took uniform elements from traditionally masculine professions like construction or the military and added feminine details, while still keeping the pieces unisex. One piece Badu presented at Toronto Fashion Week was a business-inspired suit made entirely of pink wool. It was one of few instances where Badu experimented with a colour besides black.
Up until this year Badu remained predominantly behind the scenes developing his designs and learning the business side of fashion as his brand grew. He’s slowly trying to change that. First with Toronto Fashion Week. Then the Red Bull Music Festival collaboration in Montreal. Now Badu will follow that up with a similar event in Toronto where guests will be able to have custom tees printed on site or buy them pre-designed.
“I think prior to our fashion show we haven’t done a lot of interactive things, things that give us an idea of what customers like, what they wear and who they are as a person. I want to interact with them and show my appreciation for supporting us.”
Badu hopes that his clothing can be a kind of common denominator for people who share similar thoughts on progression and style when it comes to fashion.
S.P. Badu’s Red Bull Music Festival Toronto event installation will be held on October 25 at his studio Ace5 (285 Manitoba Drive).
Photos courtesy of Manny Dark, supplied by Red Bull Canada