When you sit and listen to the founder and creator of “Urbane by Charles Jay“, Charles Jay, not only do you walk away with a genuine knowledge of what it takes to build a fashion empire, you walk away inspired. Dealing with the difficulty of being diagnosed with a Wilms Tumor at the tender age of 2, it was evident that Jay was born a fighter. Dedicated to living his life the way he saw fit, Jay played sports (basketball) all throughout his middle school and high school years, despite doctor’s orders, leading up to broken records as the starting point guard at Rutgers. Now at the age of 27, Jay has implemented the memories of going through the “hardest fight” of his life, fighting Kidney cancer into his brand, making him an icon in his own right. “When I was going through my treatment, when I was at the children’s hospital, I would play with these building blocks. And I was inspired to use the same style of the building blocks on my products, It’s the staple point of the brand, it is the brand.”
Celebrating his 25th year of remission, the designer talks about the challenges of building his own fashion brand, while attending school and working full-time, witnessing his clothing on VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop: New York for the first time and meeting his idol Rapper/Producer and Culture Advocate Swizz Beatz.
Who is Charles Jay?
“So at age 2, I was diagnosed with a Wilms Tumor, that’s cancer of the kidney. I had my right kidney removed, I went through chemotherapy, I stand today a cancer survivor of 25 years. Looking back on that experience, the building blocks meant that I was taking everything that I’ve been through as far as the cancer experience, and using that as the foundation of how I wanted to live my life.
Growing up, I wasn’t supposed to play any sports, no physical activities of any kind because with one kidney, if I was to get hit too hard it could cause your single kidney to fail and you would have to get another transplant or you could possibly die. But I played basketball up til college, I played all throughout middle school with a kidney guard. It was very uncomfortable to wear. Once I reached high school, I told my doctors that I did not want to play with the guard anymore and they told me that I could at my own discretion. So throughout high school, I went through a lot of experiences of me being undersized and coaches would tell me that I was too small to play in college. So after high school, I was supposed to attend a university in Florida, but due to tuition being very high, I attended Rutgers, getting in two days before classes started. I walked into the coaches’ office and told them that I wanted to try out for the team. And I ended up starting since my freshman year, starting point guard. The school never had won a season in the entire school history, my senior year I had set five records.
But throughout my college years, I have always been into fashion. I was that guy that sat in class 8 AM in the morning, with a blazer and a bowtie on. (laughs) And I always helped people developed their brands, along with my schooling. I worked with photographer Devon Dooley, who has worked with Sneaker Villa, Ryan Leslie and etc. I also worked with some artists to help build their brands as well, but I wasn’t doing anything necessarily for myself. So when I graduated I knew it was the perfect time to start a clothing brand. And I had a tunnel vision of knowing that I was going to make this happen regardless of what anybody thought. The main goal of my brand has always been to tell my story, my cancer surviving story through the product. So whatever collection is released, Whatever product of mines that are released, they all do tell a part of my story.
My very first collection is called “the survivor” collection, an all-white baseball jersey with a big fist, a description of what a survivor is, on the back with the year “93”, which is the year that I was diagnosed with cancer. And the “93” is important and will be seen on all of the products. That jersey released for $300, out of the gate and I didn’t really care about what people thought in a sense, I just wanted to make clothing that I knew was high quality and that meant something to me. And from there I started dealing with overseas manufacturers, which that is a different realm than from anything that I have ever experienced before. When you deal with overseas manufacturers, you have to deal with minimum order quantity, you have to order from at a minimum of 100, 200 or 500 pieces of that one style or color. So the cost can be extremely high and the risk is also very high because you’re not necessarily there at the factory, so if there was something to go wrong with the production, you won’t know until the product comes in. So fast forward to this past February, we were featured on VH1’s Love and Hip-Hop. A stylist reached out to me and we sent some products to her and about two months later, I received a text message telling me that my brand was featured on Love and Hip-Hop on Rapper Jaquae. So after that, I had a new windbreaker that was set to be released at the end of March. Which would have been perfect after the LHHNY appearance, and the brand would have been able to elevate to its fullest potential. Unfortunately, that did not happen. I started production, I am taking customer’s preorders, we are about a month in and I receive a message from the manufacturers notifying me that they could no longer continue this production. I had already sent them money, I had to deal with explaining to the customers who had preordered what the circumstances were. So I was in the middle of negotiating with the manufacturer for over a month and a half, trying to get the order down from 100 to 80 because the order was already at $6,000. So in the middle of a negotiation, we agreed on a new release date of April. It got pushed back to June, and then July, August, and September and wasn’t released until October. So the brand went seven months without any social media push, no presence on the socials, no products, and no revenue to even generate any other type of products. All my money was tied up into my business and I had to go seven months without my products. So throughout that time, I had to find a new manufacturer, which is the factory that I used for my “Unbreakable” collection and I am currently using for my entire line.”
“Whether it is a financial or a personal situation, anything that I have endured now is just a minor stepping stone because I already overcame the biggest obstacle of my life.”
How would you say your four years at Rutgers impact the way you wanted to express your mission statement of Urbane Clothing?
“Being a full-time athlete, full-time student and working full-time, it was an experience in which I had to grow up fast and it put me in a position where I had to make things happen. For example, my financial aid was dropped and I had to pay my tuition on my own, so I went through a lot of adversaries in college. Whether it was personal, my athletic career or with family. So I want to instill that into the story behind my brand because being born with cancer, I am not supposed to be here today. If you look at the statistics, I am not supposed to be here. And with anything that I go through in life, I always look back at that experience with the mindset that anything of the present time is minor. Whether it is a financial or a personal situation, anything that I have endured now is just a minor stepping stone because I already overcame the biggest obstacle of my life. And that’s what I live through with the brand. And at Rutgers, I was tested. I had to go into school full-time, I had my basketball team full-time, and I had to pay my tuition, by working full-time. It tested me mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. So when I move into my collection, I literally take everything that I have been through into consideration when I am picking the fabrics, I make sure that the quality is up at a certain level, I literally put everything that I have ever been through into my products.”
When you speak of your collection, how did you come up with the three unique pieces, “The Rugby”, “The Cloak”, and “The Set”? What sets the three apart from one another?
“So growing up, I was and still am a huge Harry Potter fan. I literally live, breathe and sweat, Harry Potter for like the longest time. I read all of the books and I watched all of the movies. And with “The Cloak”, the inspiration kinda stems from Harry Potter, especially when he would put on the invisibility cloak on when he didn’t want to be seen. And I know that may sound super, super corny, but I am a Harry Potter fiend. But from a clothing and fashion standpoint, Panchos has always been around, but they haven’t necessarily been developed to a point where it is considered as a high fashion statement piece. Which is what I wanted to bring into the market. I designed the cloak back in March, which is crazy because Northface did a collaboration with a japan streetwear company and comme de garcon just dropped a cloak as well. So as far as being intuned with where fashion is heading, I kinda know where things are going. And that has been the inspiration behind the cloak. The capsule collection is called, “unbreakable” because everything that I have been through could have broken me. But I haven’t been broken yet, I went from beating cancer, seven months with a product, it just shows the resilience of me and the resilience of the brand. Even down to the material used for the cloak, it is completely water-proof and weather resistant. So the fabric behind the collection actually speaks to what the collection is about as well.
“The Rugby” is made from a material that is simply amazing, we use a 300GSM french terry. Most people don’t exactly know what GSM is. GSM is pretty much the weight of the fabric, like grams per meter. So 300GSM for a shirt is extremely heavy. Most french terry shirts are anywhere between 140 and 180, and on the occasion 200GSM. But a 300GSM polo or rugby shirt is not necessarily seen a lot. It is more so in high fashion, like the Gucci or Burberry brands. And the inspiration behind the design is the Rugby looks like a referee shirt. I played basketball my whole life and that was the inspiration behind that whole look. And even with cultural differences, like for instance, China where my clothes are made, they don’t use vertical stripes because it is not something that their culture has not brought into. And a lot of the designs that you see you rarely see vertical stripes because most people don’t want to do it because it is not common. I am literally that person that would go off into the deep end and do something completely different from anyone else has tried and I will try to find ways to make it work. So that was the approach when it came down to the designing of the Rugby. Even with the design on the back, we did a digital print onto the fabric, which again, digitally printing onto the fabric of a 300GSM french terry cotton, it doesn’t normally happen. The ink could bleed through the fabric, but the design came out amazing. We did a drag logo, so that is like seven different colors, 93s on top of each other. And then, of course, we have the color blocks that is embroidered on the front of the shirt, and we have a cancer ribbon on the right sleeve of the shirt. So again, as far as putting the story into the products, every single symbol means something.
And finally, the Anorak is simply a pullover that is a half zip. And the idea behind the Anorak was me wanting to create a sweatsuit but I didn’t want to use the traditional cotton material, I wanted to do something completely different, and that it follows the guideline of the collection. So the Anorak is made of Pu, it’s not real leather but it is a substitute of leather. But it is completely weather and water resistant. Also on the joggers, there are velcro straps at the bottom that allows you to adjust the size of the pants at the bottom so you can change them from joggers to a wider fit at the bottom. We really wanted to implement the customization aspect of fashion because that is where the fashion industry is going. Everything is going to customization, functionality and tech wear. And this is to take place within the next four to five years, so we wanted to get on it as early as possible to start implementing new techniques to our products.”
You just recently released the BTS visual of the “unbreakable” collection, what inspired the aesthetics of the visual?
“Earlier this year, I linked up with a photographer by the name of RooCastro, an amazing photographer. And he actually tracked me down and he told me “I want to shoot for your brand. I feel like the way that it is being shot now is not necessarily doing the brand justice.” And I am the type of person if someone approaches me with an idea about my brand, I am going to entertain it. I am never going to shut anybody out. I always listen to everybody’s opinion. So I ended up meeting up with him at a networking event and he was like, “listen, man, I’ve been trying to get in contact with you for like forever and now that I’ve found you, we got to shoot.” He told me that the direction of my brand is awesome and he felt like I could do more high fashion in my photo shoots because that is the quality of my products. So after linking up with Roo, we did our first photo shoot and we killed it. The whole aesthetics of the brand changed from one single photo shoot. We went from an urban streetwear company to high fashion brand just from doing one photo shoot differently. And with this campaign, Roo and I sat down with the products and bounced ideas back and forth. We just felt that the vision for this campaign has like a futuristic kind of feel. And we want to do something down to the way that the models are styled. I linked up with two of my boys, who are brothers, and they run their own styling company called, “A gentleman’s journey”. I added them to the project because I trust their fashion sense and gut instincts on how certain pieces should be styled. So we ended up finding a location, an empty warehouse, and we all just put our heads together to make this very edgy, high fashion, rugged looking campaign. And we also wanted to implement something completely different to where models are moving past each other and just selling their clothes through the photo shoot. But also getting people to see and feel the concept behind the capsule collection. The ruggy, that darkness into lightness kind of feel. And that was the whole vibe of the shoot. And I also have a young kid that I met at a mall, four days prior to the shoot. He told me that he loved the brand and wanted to shoot for me as well. I explained to him that I couldn’t pay him at the moment, but if he still wanted to work that was cool, but if not that is also cool. He ended up coming to the shoot and producing the whole campaign video. He directed and edited it all on his own, without any direction from me. He literally killed the BTS video.”
So I understand that you just came back from Art Basel. What was that experience like? Was it your first time and will you go back?
“Well, that was my first time attending Art Basel. The crazy thing is I wasn’t even supposed to be there. The only reason why I even went was that I had sent Swizz (Beatz) a direct message and in the message, I sent him an article that was on Philly.com, about me playing basketball at Rutgers, beating cancer and starting a clothing line. The dude gets like a million DMs a day, people sending him music and etc, did I think he was going to read it? Probably not. But I took a shot and sent it to him. He actually had the opportunity to not only read the article but to also send me back a short message, “This is really dope. Keep going.” He is not the kind of person to give you full on sentences, he is going to give you these short statement but they will mean a lot. So fast forward to two and a half weeks ago, I sent him the pictures from the “unbreakable” collection, he sent back a couple of the fire emojis and a target emoji. From there I told him that I wanted to get some products out to him. I shared that he has been a huge inspiration since day one and I follow his story since forever and how involved he is in the culture. He sent me back the invite to “No Commission”. The invite was completely VIP, where I did not have to pay for anything, I got full access to every event for “No Commission”. I literally called my job, which I am still a manager in retail and it is really hard to get time off especially on weekends and during holidays, and I called my District manager and told them that I have a once in the lifetime opportunity and I can’t miss it.
So the week before that was when the “Unbreakable” collection was supposed to start shipping out, and I had to put out like $8,000 for that order and the shipment on top of that around $1,200. The product reached the HUB in Cincinnati and with some new tax laws, I had to pay an extra $1,500 to get the product out. And if I didn’t pay that $1,500 within seven days, the product would get shipped back to China. I was literally down to my last dollar and I had to put that money towards getting the product out. So I didn’t even have the money to get to Art Basel, I was literally on my last dollar. So my girlfriend was like, “Listen, I will book the trip, you have to go. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you have to go.” So she booked the trip for me, we left Thursday morning and landed just in time for the first event. It was a panel discussion, featuring Tyler Michelle (Beyonce’s VOGUE photographer), a couple of other very prominent photographers within the industry. So I am at the panel discussion, I did not have any of the product with me, just the Intype of the photographers about branding and everyday life as a creator. Of course, Swizz was there and I got to talk to him for about a minute. I caught him on the way out, I shook his hand and I thanked him for the invite and he thanked me for coming down. And that was the only conversation that we had that day. So later that night, there was a concert with DJ Black Coffee, two other DJs and then Swizz had a set, I sat in the front of the concert for four and a half hours with the Rugby shirt in my hand. He came up for the last statement of the evening and I placed the shirt over the gate and his security guards grabbed it and he shouted me out over the microphone. The next event was the following day, the paint and sip and it was completely VIP. There were about 40 people there, photographers, videographers, just people getting footage of the event and Swizz literally walks in wearing the Rugby shirt that I had given him the night before. And Swizz is the type of person that if he wasn’t feeling something or didn’t rock with it, he is not going to support it at all. So for him to come to the event with my product on, that was one of the most mind-blowing experiences ever. Because of the night before when I passed the shirt to him, I didn’t think he was going to wear the next day. The fit was perfect on him to the point where he just threw it on with a pair of sweats and it still came across as elegant.
So I spoke to him again at this event, this time was wearing the Anorak and he jokingly asked me “So you weren’t going to give me the pants too?”. It was at that moment that it became clear to me that he really rocks with my brand. And about two-three days ago, I posted a picture on my (personal) Instagram and he commented, “Yo, when are you going to send me my box?” with some laughing emojis. He is a very genuine person and when you are for the culture, he will rock with you. He put me on with a lot of people that were in attendance, like Akon’s little brother and Busta Rhymes. There were so many creatives from all around the world that saw my shirt and when I wore it to the concert the next night, at least 40 people stopped me, complimenting not only on the shirt but also telling me that they saw it on Swizz. And it was such an unreal experience. I went from the bottom of the bottom with my finances, my mental capacity and dealing with all of this the week before meeting him. Fast forward to the following week, I am at Art Basel with Swizz Beatz. And it just showed me that with my faith and trust in God had literally shifted to a 110% faith.
It does appear that Swizz is a huge supporter of your brand, wearing one of your shirts to his Son’s soccer game in South Africa. So of course, the question on everybody’s mind is can we expect a collaboration between yourself and Swizz in the near future?
“Yes, in South Africa. It was absolutely crazy because he had just worn the shirt the week before. As for a collaboration, I am not one of those people that will press an issue or an opportunity. If it happens, that would be amazing, because I know creatively, we can create something that would be completely off the wall. But to me, the business relationship is cool, but being able to have that personal relationship with somebody like that is ten times more important to me. I can learn from someone like him and I can learn so much. I would cherish that so much more rather than from a business standpoint on how can I maximize this opportunity. When things happen, it will happen. I am not going to press an issue, because I feel like that can damage a relationship. When you have access to these type of people the moment you start to press them, is the moment that they will see you as someone who is just trying to get up off of their name. I am the complete opposite of that type of person. But a collaboration would be fire.” (laughs)
“Finding the people was hard. I had to learn how to trust people and understand that given the opportunity, people can flourish and do well.”
You once said that you have built an “amazing team” around you, and in your experience, what is the key to developing a great team?
“That was exactly one of the most difficult things that I ever had to do. The reason why is because I am one of those people who believe that I can do everything and although I can do a lot, it is when I try to do everything I become overwhelmed. Finding the people was hard. I had to learn how to trust people and understand that given the opportunity, people can flourish and do well. But if I don’t give them the opportunity to flourish and be fully creative, they won’t have the ability to get out of their comfort zone and grow. So that was one of the biggest things that I had to overcome. I think the biggest thing is having trust in people and believing that they can deliver. I learn that I can’t do everything and be effective at the one main thing that I need to be effective at.”
What advice would you give a young creative that wants to leave a footprint in the fashion industry today?
“One of the pieces of advice that I would give them is to never conform to the fashion industry. I think that is one of the biggest things that I have learned from day one. I don’t care about what is going on in the fashion industry. From a business aspect, I care about what is going on behind the scenes, the business of fashion. But as far as the designs, the trends, you have to stay true to your vision and trust it 100%. The moment you don’t fully trust your vision or you don’t trust your process, you will start to conform to what everyone else is doing. If you are in it for the creative aspect and you really want to be different and leave your stamp in the fashion industry, you have to do some things that are not traditional and test the waters. You will have to try different designs and think outside the box. If you are designing based on trends, that is what your brand is going to be. Your brand will become a trend. I have seen a million brands sell 100K in their first or second year, and by the following year, they are nonexistent. The reason for that is because they haven’t done the work to build a brand, therefore there is no brand. Their company is based on the people that wear their clothing, which is the influencers. If you choose to only work through the influencers and not build an actual brand and have a story behind your brand, your brand becomes reliant on the influencers.”
Finish these statements:
When I get dressed in the morning, I think about…
I don’t even think I think in the morning. (laughs) I literally just throw clothes on and run to work. When I get dressed in the morning I think about I am constantly thinking about my next design. That is just kind of like where my mind goes, it immediately travels to what’s next? What is the next step? What is the next design? What is the next project? What is the next thing that I am doing to help get my brand to the next level? Yeah, that is pretty much what I think about. (laughs)
The soundtrack of my life is…
Victory lap [by Nipsey Hussel]. That is the soundtrack of my life right now. Granted I am not a drug dealer and I haven’t sold drugs (laughs), from the figurative message behind it, I feel like I have had it [the album] on repeat for the last six, seven months. Just from everything that I have gone through over the past seven months, with everything that Nipsey talks about on that album speaks on how I was feeling throughout that entire process.
If you could recreate a capsule inspired by one album, what would it be and why?
I can’t remember the name and I feel like I am going to get yelled at. (Laughs) It’s an Outkast album. Why am I having a brain fart right now? [This is when I look up a list of Outkast albums and came to the conclusion, Jay was thinking of Speakerboxxx/The love below] Speakerboxxx. Yes. The creativity on that album was through the roof, down to the visuals. Most of the visuals had a high school or college inspired theme, so I would take that and create a varsity, very sporty vibe.
The most treasured thing in my closet is..
Would be the first design that I ever made. The ‘Survivor’ jersey. It’s white on white, all embroidered, the material is amazing. It is the staple point of my life.
I could never travel without my…
Well right now, I can’t travel without my girlfriend because she will kill me. (laughs) That would definitely be the first thing, but the second thing would be my laptop. I get so much inspiration from the things around me, the environment and the energy, to the point if I do not have my laptop on me, I will drive myself crazy.
The last thing that I googled was…
Something about google analytics. (laughs) I was looking at it this morning. I’m a cornball, but it’s alright though.
I will always be excited to work in Fashion because…
I get to express myself. And I don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks, I don’t need confirmation from the fashion industry. When you are a creator and you get to that space where nobody on the outside truly affects the way that you create, there is no ceiling. You can literally reach as far as you want. I am so obsessed with my own progression and I continuously want to outdo myself with every single thing that I do. That motivation is always in the back of my mind.