“There is strength in numbers,” is something we’ve all heard many times before. These days, the statement has become especially true when building a fashion brand in Africa; you need the backing of your people to make things happen. Going from grassroots influence to taking over the entire diaspora, clothing brands like Free the Youth (FTY) out of Ghana are proving how integral local community is to the success of a line. From their ethos to designs, marketing and promotion, FTY and others are inspired by and thriving in this growing sense of collective creativity coming out of places like West Africa’s Gold Coast.
Like most – if not all – African communities, it’s a known fact that Ghana is full of very opinionated elders who are quick to rebuke & scold any sign of disrespect or challenge of social norms by young people. It’s a tough space to experiment in. You could say then, the success of Free the Youth is a much-needed rebellion, helping the advancement for Ghanaian fashion and business in general. Powered by a team of relentless creatives since 2013 – including charismatic frontman and fellow co-creator Joey Lit – the brand, with their streetwear designs and DIY attitude, pushes a sense of freedom and inclusivity for young people. Clearly…since the name says it all.
With a tech boom happening in Ghana, Free the Youth are right on the mark (upon finishing up this piece, Twitter announced its African headquarters in the country). The brand relies heavily on their advanced and game-changing graphic design, from their clothing prints even down to their interactive, digital flyers. Essentially, they are a renaissance hub of creativity & design: growing, developing and answering to the community and their desires. Designing tees that commemorate Ghana’s independence and pay homage to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah definitely help with that. FTY are known to play around with screen-printing methods, fonts, colours, emblems and logos for their t-shirts in modern ways that could easily rival the likes of Balenciaga and Vetements. Call it unrestricted creativity, on their terms. It’s undeniably inspirational to anyone, not just African youngsters.
Most recently, their designs include “SHACE FOREVER” SS21 denim top and sets – cleanly cut and embroidered with “FTY” – in memory of Shace, one of their leading team members. Then there’s their previous collaborations with the likes of Daily Paper – that included shirts covered in graphic prints, honoring historic Ghanaian images and cultural references, including old postage stamps. No item ever seems to stay available for long…they usually sell out swiftly.
Co-founder Joey’s socials tell you all you need to know about what the brand represents (see for yourself – @joey_lit on Instagram). Scroll through closely enough, and you’ll soon realise he himself encapsulates it so well. He makes himself accessible on social media, always sharing what he’s working on, promoting his people and nation in the best light possible. He makes it his mission to capture Ghana’s essence. All of a sudden you realise it’s a lifestyle, one that goes way beyond the western idea of a clothing line. The result? He and FTY are followed by the big dogs like Virgil Abloh, all the way down to every need-to-know creative in Ghana and the rest of Africa. Who better to rock your items than Davido and Wizkid too? Free The Youth continues to capture the attention and interest of the global benchmarkers of fashion, including I-D, and Vogue. Not forgetting their partnerships with TikTok and collabs with Nike. What’s more is they now stand on their own two feet. Their online store will soon be shipping to 195 countries worldwide. The African Giant has awoken.
Like the brand itself, it seems Joey and the team have this sense of connectivity, an open two-way system that allows Africans globally to retrace their roots and tap in to the movement, and those in Africa to reach out and start influencing, taking from and revamping Western ideas of streetwear. It’s a reminder to Africans that design is profitable, and ideas that go beyond law and medicine, are still valuable to society. With their NGO and charitable efforts at the heart of what they do, the team are showing and proving this to be true.
Most importantly, they grasp the power of the pop-up shop. Ghana’s pop-up game is strong, and Free The Youth know how to hold great ones. They aren’t new to this either. Years on end, they’ve solidified themselves as excellent event planners. Pop-up events, day – or night – party hangouts and meetups have proven to be a hit for brands in Africa. You see, the combination of good weather, new music, shopping, flexible work routines & work spaces (and currently low covid cases and good precautions) means meet-ups are still the way to go in Ghana. Plus, the tight-knit community of creatives rely on each other’s gifts and resources, so meeting in person over drinks, good music and shopping strengthens the bond. Camaraderie wrapped up in enjoyment. How can you say no? In Ghana, events like these are almost calls to action. A rallying up of the troops for the greater good. It’s a vibe that’s hard to replicate back in say…the UK. This month even, from the 16th – 18th of April, the FTY team hosted a pop-up at Area Bar in Osu – the heartbeat of Accra.
Free the Youth are almost like the pioneers and yet students, of the youthful movement in West Africa – all at the same time. They lead the community, as they learn from the community. It’s sort of a symbiotic relationship between design and community. Like an endless cycle, you can’t see the end from the beginning…you can’t tell whether the chicken or the egg was there first. Who influences who? Regardless, it’s undeniable that both the FTY and the community movement are here to stay.