Get to know the owner and creative director, Jefferson Ellison (JE) of a wonderful brand, Jawbreaking where we discussed about his inspirations, plans for this upcoming year with Jawbreaking and his passion for female empowerment!
You started out as a freelance stylist at the age of 16. Where did your sartorial passion come from?
JE — I grew up in the South where appearances are everything and everyday is an occasion. So I was taught at a very young age that when I left the house I needed to be presentable and appropriate. I’m also the world’s biggest mama’s boy so I spent a lot of time hanging out with my mom and her friends, going shopping and picking out outfits. I used to sketch ball gowns in my parent’s empty bathtub while my mom did her hair and makeup. I spent much of my adolescence thinking about how I could incorporate my love for aesthetics into a proper white collar job— a well dressed lawyer, the worlds chicest doctor, etc.— and then one day at a Sears, I ran into my godmother who spent the next two hours (still in Sears) convincing me that I was a fool to not to go to school for fashion. She said to me, “no matter what happens in life, people will always need something to cover their body” after that, I was sold.
Along with being a designer, you also do editorial work. Your creative portfolio is multifaceted with past clients such as Cotton Incorporated, COVERGIRL, and HGTV. What piece of work are you most proud of and why?
JE — I’m proud of all my work. Not because it’s great but because the struggle was real. I used to pay my assistant in hugs and prayers and any designer clothes we used were found at Goodwill. Also, that COVERGIRL job was a collaboration for InStyle magazine and I just happened to run into the right person. Literally, the day before, I ran into Joy Adaeze in the elevator at Hervé Léger and helped her hail a cab. We exchanged numbers— because real recognizes real— and later that day she texted me and said “I have a shoot tomorrow and need some help, come.” If I had to pick the work I’m most proud of, I’d probably have to say this most recent campaign with Jawbreaking. It was just such a full circle moment. We shot in North Carolina, at my old college friend’s house, with models I used to work with all the time.The hair and makeup was done by this super talented artist who I hadn’t seen in four years. And then to top it all off, we were shooting with my own brand! When the day was over, we just sat on the couch like… how is this real? Don’t get me wrong, it’s still just t-shirts and we aren’t changing the world but to know where we came from and to see the possibilities, I was like… Ok, this works.
Who were some of your biggest creative influences growing up? How have they changed over the years?
JE — I have a deep, deep love for André Leon Talley. Like, he’s my Cher. What I love about him is that he is brilliant and he takes an intelligent approach to fashion. He speaks on history and theory and when you hear him speak and read about his process, you believe in his grandeur. My goal in life is to have that level of conviction in my work but also just in my everyday life. Growing up, I was a fan of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix— I’ve always been dramatic. Now that I’m a bit older and live in NYC, I’ve become obsessed with ironic cool and city grit… a lot of Andy Warhol, Basquiat and John Waters. My influences and “inspirations” are tied to where I am and what’s around me. Now that I’m surrounded by less debutantes and more hipsters, things are starting to change.
You’ve recently received the new title of Creative Director of clothing label; Jawbreaking. How did this transition come about?
JE — Aly and I are friends, so we didn’t make this announcement as seriously as we should have and we just posted two images on Instagram and left it alone. I purchased Jawbreaking from Aly in late 2016. She and I have known each other for about four years because Jawbreaking was based in Raleigh where I went to college. In early 2016, we met for coffee and discussed the possibility of growing Jawbreaking and agreed to work together on taking it to the next level. Eventually, she mentioned to me that she thought the next step for her was to do something else. After eight years, I think she just wanted a change and to test herself at a new task. Once we began prepping to sell the company, my godmother (the same one who convinced me to go to school for fashion) says to me, “Why don’t you buy it?” I thought she was mental. She pauses for a second and then says “Look at the numbers, find a way to make it work, if you can’t talk yourself out of it, buy it.” After praying with my mom on the matter for about a week, I couldn’t see a reason not to do it.
What about Jawbreaking appealed to you and what are you most looking forward to in this new position?
JE — It’s just a really organic brand. Who would think that clay jewelry made in NC by a 15-year-old could grow into an actual brand worn by people and celebrities across the globe? It’s the quintessential American dream and I love that. I’m also really excited for the opportunity to elevate the brand. Obviously, we’re known for out t-shirts and accessories but I’m really interested in taking the idea of “casual apparel” and transforming that into ready-to-wear for casual people. Surely, I’m not the only who’s interested to see what the Jawbreaking girl is wearing to her wedding, or her job as a publicist at Warner music or on her first date. Right?
Speaking of transition, a contemporary collection will be released this year. What was your inspiration for taking the brand in this direction?
JE — Like I said before, I want more fashion! I’m interested in the idea of being effortless and taking a casual and cool approach to life as a whole. It’s the idea of streetstyle and workwear but through the context of millennials who thrive off music, internet and life experiences. As you know, we just released the spring collection. It’s basically just a continuation of traditional Jawbreaking products with a hint of things to come. As the year progresses, we will continue to transition and expand leading up to our NYFW debut in September.
What does the creative process look like?
JE — 55% research and 45% ego. When I’m not trying to better understand the design process or look into a certain type of product— my degree is in fashion marketing not design— I’m obsessing over what my ideal customer is. Taking the brand in such a different direction requires a lot of planning and a lot of mistakes. I do a good amount of twitter polls and small batch orders to see what people respond to. I’m not sure if you saw my Christmas capsule collection that used real fur… it didn’t go well. Our customers were pissed and I got in a lot of trouble. Luckily, it was a small order and now I know, they don’t like real fur. My customer is very vocal and possessive of the brand and that’s fine with me. I’m attempting to treat designing the same way I treat getting dressed in the morning— take an idea, find my reference points and keep trying shit until strangers validate me.
You have a passion for female empowerment and an attitude for inclusiveness. Why is this important to you and how would you like to give purpose to an often shallow world of fashion and social media?
JE — I’m a black man and the son of a black woman. I am an uncle to a little black girl and the godfather to another equally beautiful little black girl. I grew up in the small town South and lived majority of my life in predominately white spaces. When those are the pieces to your puzzle, you become extremely woke extremely fast. I subscribe to the idea that it is the responsibility of the privileged to uplift the marginalized. So as someone in fashion, if I’m going to take money from people, take up space on their social feeds, and time out of their day, the least I could is make them feel beautiful and equal and respected. At the same time, as an underrepresented person, I know what that path looks like and at times, it’s difficult. Not everyone is pulling from a pool of underrepresented models and bloggers and photographers, etc. However, Jawbreaking was created by an Asian-American millennial female and was sold to a young black man, that’s what the future looks like. Anytime I have a chance to work with people who look like me, or people who lack opportunity but exude talent, I’m going to. I was really happy that our latest campaign used majority black models and black talent behind the scenes. That doesn’t always happen and people don’t always respond well to it. It’s a big change for our customer. We have lost followers, we get less engagement and the Twitter shade can be real. But that’s fine. As a creative person, what matters to me is that when people look at what I’m doing and when my loved ones— especially my niece and goddaughter— look at my work, I want them to feel represented.
Speaking of empowerment, recent social movements have inspired small clothing companies to cultivate merchandise such as tees, pins and patches that display phrases like “Resist” and Girl Power”. How do you feel about the rise and impact of these movements? And do you see yourself drawing inspiration from these creatively in the future?
JE — That’s not really me. I have a lot of respect for the brands that take a literal approach to empowerment but for what I want for Jawbreaking, I find it limiting. Every type of person needs and buys clothing. All people deserve to feel beautiful. I want my clothes and this brand to be seen as great because we were able to give everyone a seat at the table, make our customer feel and look amazing and know that we didn’t sacrifice our fashion for politics or our politics for sales. I don’t need to wear a shirt or a button to ensure that the future is female. I need to pay my female employees equally and push my future daughters to work in STEM and politics. Black Lives Matter and so does black talent and black representation. So for me, using our platforms to increase the visibility of people who look like me and bringing people from different perspectives into the brand will help normalize the conversation and promote change in a way that people on different levels can understand it and embrace it. I say all to say, what other brands are doing to uplift marginalized people across the world, is fantastic. I embrace that and I’m here for it but I also think the tactic needs a partner (me) that focuses are implementing the ideas that are being shared.
If Jawbreaking as a label, were to convey a certain message, what do you think it’d be?
JE — Bad. Boujee. Blessed.
Connect with Jefferson Ellison: Jawbreaking