Interview: Diwang Valdez
How did you get started with your clothing company?
At the beginning, I was a street merchant and I was looking to transition from that role. I figured I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life, so in the process I learned that if I called your house, you would buy and form emotional connections. So, I just saw a lane for me to do my own thing in terms of fashion.
I got my inspiration from the local brands, like DC back in the 90’s, and how they were self- sufficient brands. I figured this was probably the perfect market to duplicate that process here in Atlanta. We came from an urban perspective, with an alternative twist to it. We dealt with the urban guys and wanted to set ourselves apart from the average guy just kicking it on the block. They might have other hobbies or interests that are alternative: like dirt bikes, DJing, or music. That was pretty much the premise – to do a positive movement based around urban-alternative culture.
How did you come up with the name?
I got that name back in 1991. I went to college in Virginia, Norfolk State University. I lived on a wild ass block. Most HBCUs are based in the hood or the ghetto. Looking for residency, it’s always going to be somewhere in the crazy parts close to school. So, I met this guy, and I had Sega Genesis at the time. I had Madden – the first edition of Madden. So all the dudes from the block used to always be in my apartment. I had walked in from class one day, I was pimpin’ across the living room – if you don’t know what pimpin’ is, it’s a cool strut that men do – so I was pimpin’ across the room in a house full of basically trap dudes and college dudes in my apartment playing Madden. And my man was like, “Man, you always cooled out man, I’m going to call you Chilly-O, man.” That’s how I got the name. It just popped. Everyone busted out and started laughing.
Everybody just started calling me Chilly-O. You know, you have to be given a nickname, you can’t just create your own. So, in a nutshell, I was given that name by a Virginian trap star.
How would you describe the brand’s style?
Initially, when we started Chilly-O, we wanted to be bold because the first T-shirts were hand- painted, one-of-a-kind tees. We wanted positive quotes on our shirts. This is before Nike, before Diamond,10 Deep, or anybody doing this. Back then they were still on Rasta, Army fatigue earth tones, go green. And we came up with this concept of bright colors from our paint aesthetic. I knew that individualism was coming in the future. Back then cats in the hood were in black tee/white tee. It was like a uniform type situation. Everybody dressed the same. I wanted people to distinguish themselves with a positive statement. That was the initial premise and then we somehow absorbed into the streetwear community, and they adopted us to that world and felt more comfortable in the street wear world because it’s diverse, and they embrace creativity and art and just uniqueness.
So, Chilly-O became a hybrid company, which I designed it to be because I have been riding BMX and skateboarding since I was 11 years old. I always wanted to incorporate the variables that I went through as a kid going through all that adversity of going state-to-state, hood-to- hood, or city-to-city. As a creative/loner type of dude, my interests always tried to embody that within Chilly-O.
Chilly-O is a team of people. Icon 1, he was from New York City, but he’s been living in Atlanta since ’94. We actually lived in the same apartment complex – Embarcadero of College Park – and he always used to tell me that he drew. When I first started Chilly-O, I would reach out to people who were from my community. Then I bumped into my business partner, we did business on a street merchant tip. We just formed a group, Chilly-O. I didn’t know my business partner from a can of paint, but we had a good run.
I’ve known Icon from the neighborhoods. He used to design for The Mighty Shirt Kings out of New York City. They just dropped a tabletop book, The Mighty Shirt Kings. They used to basically do tees for Rakim, Jay-Z, Salt-N- Pepa, and Heavy D. They were like us, but back then. We always had bold colors as a part of our aesthetic, subtle graffiti, positive
energy coming off of the shirts. At the time, we got criticized by Greedy Genius saying that we were a novelty brand. They were on that go green shit back in like 2004/2005. LRG and them were all spinning off of that green shit. The aesthetic of the trade shows were like jungle – go green, green turf and shit. We came in with all this color. We were always influenced by Asian art, the Japanese art style. We mashed ups a lot of concepts that always interested us.
We got hated on for a couple years. One year at the campground, they stole our samples. Nobody else’s samples got stolen except for ours. It had to be someone in the community. But, we got samples shipped and got right back out there the next morning. We ended up missing a Digital Gravel account because we got our samples stolen. We had to pull the shirts off our back and throw them on hangers. As time progressed and they would see us put in work, a lot of celebrities used to come through and say “hello” to us at our booth.
Who are some of the artists that were early supporters in Atlanta?
Big Boi, Killer Mike. Killer Mike was actually the first artist to wear Chilly-O. But Big Boi was probably the most notable and biggest supporter of our campaign, Big Boi and his little brother, Little Brother James. I think Little Brother James, on the industry side, has the biggest Chilly-O collection. I custom made 2 Chainz a shirt for Birthday Bash that said “We Got Next,” when he was Titty Boi. Kelis called me once and wanted a hand painted shirt for Nas, so we sent some stuff up to him. DJ Mars was like, “I want you to talk to someone...” She got on the phone and was like, “Hey honey, this is Kelis. We’re out here in Poland freezing our asses off on tour, and I want to get a shirt for my baby.” I already knew who it was. I was like, “Yo, that’s Nas.” So she had me ship it up to New York to their little office. I don’t know if he ever got it or not, but, it blew my mind.
But everybody really, from the street stars to the rappers. After a while, I started to feel complacent in that mainstream world because it lacked creativity. The mainstream is more about status, materialism, classism, it’s about the haves, the have-nots, and I’m not like that. I did social work in Atlanta in all the impoverished neighborhoods for about 9 years, so I always had a human cause about myself. Then I got into a second demographic, which is the alternative community: Skaters, BMXers, DJs, beat makers, graffiti artists, and muralists. I just started hanging out with those guys and never really went back to the mainstream after that. I just got another education... A lot of personal growth happened for me. I wouldn’t say financial growth, but a lot of personal growth happened for me, which allowed me to do what I do today: Freelance creative services.
It’s cool because I’m able to displace my energy into more people. Even though I may not necessarily get the credit, it’s good to see that my product is still standing strong in terms of creativity. Lately, I’ve been working with an Indie theme. They don’t have a lot of resources like the mainstream. These guys are super talented, super cultured, no resources. If I can get them to budget their weed money, I can convince them to invest that in themselves [instead of] the stuff that they buy, like sneakers and jeans and getting little sacks. Hold back on that, save that for me, and invest in yourself so I can give you a quality product, that way you can be with the mainstream. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, like a big $20,000 budget video. But it will be simple, clean, creative, and enough for you to get that exposure.
In time, the bigger picture is building the ecosystem up. We are getting more content out from the unseen part of Atlanta, which in turn, people will want to take a look into that world. And money circles will want to get involved with the creative team, because they think, “Hey, this shit’s cool.” I didn’t go and hit up all my industry friends who manage all these big guys. I went straight to the dirt, the underground. I just have an ecosystem kind of premise. If I can help build an ecosystem to a quality standard, in time that will give Atlanta a better look, which will provide more opportunity. It’s a simple concept. It’s just hard because you do a lot of work.
What’s special about Atlanta?
Most of the cities I have lived in, African- Americans don’t do really well. They do well, but t’s certain industries they do well in. One of the pluses for me as an African-American young male was to be able to come somewhere where I can synergize with other business interests. I left from Stanford, Connecticut, and there was no black entrepreneurialism outside of a barbershop and maybe a restaurant. But here in Atlanta, those come a dime a dozen. People have other careers or business interests here in Atlanta, so I just felt like that’s probably the place for me. Atlanta gets a bad rap because African-Americans do well here compared to other cities. If you go to Los Angeles, they are isolated in concentric zones. You hardly even see African-Americans in Los Angeles. Atlanta, for me, it felt like I wouldn’t face all the barriers that I would in a New York City, or a Los Angeles. I felt like I would have a stronger foothold by synergizing with people who are like me.
Then, once I get to a certain level, I can diversify myself because I would have a product to offer.
I felt like there would be less roadblocks here. I’m entrepreneurial, so I didn’t want to go up to New York and face all types of blockage. You know how it is in New York. Once you get poppin’, then they want to rock with you. But if you’re just trying to come up, from the bottom up, it’s hard. I have entrepreneurial peer support that I can cross reference ideas with. I just learned to love Atlanta. It’s a beautiful place to me.
What advice would you give to someone trying to do what you did?
There is a lot of power in the people. Never underestimate the people. The people can either make you or break you. A lot of people, especially in business, have a “forget about him” type of attitude. I realize that Chilly-O wouldn’t have been in a position, or even had the opportunities placed in front of us, if the people didn’t place that power on us. Never judge people. Never underestimate a person. You never know who they are. They may not
be fashionable, or stylish, or have an image that you’re accustomed to being around. In Atlanta, I’ve been around all nationalities, all kinds of people; old, young, fashionable, and non-fashionable. You never know who can help you in terms of supporting your product. You never know...You could be at a restaurant, and the cashier could be the future little me. Always treat them with respect.
But if you go into that same restaurant and you’re being rude and acting like they are just a helper... Then you bump into them in a room with Future, and you’re trying to get an account with him... They could remember that you were being rude with them. Then they can turn around and say, “We can’t rock with him.” Never underestimate the power of people. The young people get into that mode where if you don’t look like them, dress like them, talk like them, listen to the same music, they don’t mess with them. You are just opting yourself out of opportunity.