Angelo Baque’s Creative Direction | In episode 44 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits talks to Angelo Baque, an influential figure in the streetwear industry who went from growing up in New York to being Brand Director at Supreme to founding his own brand AWAKE New York.
As Brand Director for Supreme, Angelo Baque worked behind-the-scenes with founder James Jebbia to create visuals that defined the brand’s identity as it grew into a brand valued at $1 billion. After the company was sold he eventually left to start his own streetwear brand with a focus on activism and equity for creatives of color.
Angelo joins us on Light Culture Podcast to discuss his journey, politics, hip hop, weed, giving back, Virgil Abloh and why he went off on his own to start Awake NY and Baque Creative.Read Transcript
which comes first? The business or the activism?
Angelo Baque (00:49):
The chicken or the egg?
David Hershkovits (00:50):
Angelo Baque (00:54):
The business comes first. I think I’m a kind of more like a lazy boy activist at heart. I have a fruitful business that allows me to actually bring some of my ideas or my ideologies I’m able to execute that. So for me it’s the business first.
David Hershkovits (01:14):
Well lazy is never a word I would think about in connection with you or your history. You’ve worked hard to arrive where you are today. How important was that in your evolution? Could you have started your own business before you were at Supreme, the way you are now?
Angelo Baque (01:45):
I was raised by a super hardworking immigrant mom, so she put me to work when I was 13 years old. So the idea of hard work wasn’t new to me when it came time to make my own paycheck. But definitely working for James and working for Supreme, let’s just say it upped whatever I thought hard work was. It smashed that idea and reconstructed it in the most positive way that there is. In order for me to have a successful business, there’s no such things as any days off.
David Hershkovits (02:24):
In my own experience, I’ve found that there have been several occasions when I said, I don’t think I’ll ever work this hard again. And then you topped it somehow later on. How do you find running your own operation now? Do you feel like you’re grinding as much as you ever were?
Angelo Baque (02:44):
Yeah, I think probably more. Working for Supreme, it was seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And it’s the same thing working for myself, but it’s a different kind of pressure and it’s a different kind of reward. I think it’s amazing to help build a company, and see it reach the height of something like Supreme as part of a team. Now I’m a coach and I’m playing all nine positions on the field and then on top of that, the first base coach, third base coach, and I’m the waterboy and I take out the garbage.
So it’s different. I wouldn’t say that I’m working harder or that I’m working less than when I worked at Supreme. I’m very grateful that James instilled that in me. It prepared me to get to where I’m at right now. Like you’re saying, each project gets 125% and that’s why we’ve been able to have our success.
David Hershkovits (04:40):
And as I mentioned earlier, you identified your brand as about giving back. Was that one of the reasons you wanted to go off and do your own thing because at Supreme I’m not sure that was really part of their brand identity in the same way?
Angelo Baque (05:04):
Well to answer that I have to give you a little bit of context. Growing up in the early nineties here in New York city. I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with some of these brands like Triple Five Soul and P & B Nation. You know They were really rooted and there was always some type of giveback and there was also some type of educational process through retail and design. And I feel like that has been lost over the last 25, 30 years. That huge element has been kind of taken out of the equation and for me it’s injecting that back, but with my own point of view on it.
I’m not the owner of Supreme. I wasn’t the creative director of Supreme. Supreme is not my vision. I was there to help to bring the best ideas to the table and elevate the brand to the best of my abilities. I knew what cog in the machine I played. I do have my own ideologies and I do have my own vision. If you go to Awake’s Instagram, you see it’s a reflection of how I feel, what I think, my beliefs. We’re birthing almost a new generation of kid here in New York city.
For me right now the objective isn’t to package it and then sell it for 50 million right now. My objective is for us to stay in business and to help create this platform where kids that look like me or my peers have a platform to get their ideas out or to be inspired.
In the mid nineties, you have all these businesses like Mecca and FUBU and Aniche, businesses that are owned by people of color, of African American or Latino, like Willy Esco. In the 2000s all that dissipated, all that disappeared. So where is this next generation, who are they being inspired by? They’re not seeing them. So it’s not Stussy’s fault that they’re owned by a white person.
That’s where I see myself fitting into street wear. My best friends Shaniqwa Jarvis, Tremaine Emory, Chris Gibbs, Owens Union, Los Angeles and I, we’re at the forefront of streetwear. We’re the ones that are on these corporation mood boards. Why are we not owning anything? The lesson to teach these kids is ownership. It is about the giveback, but I wouldn’t be able to giveback if I didn’t own my company.
I can’t go to James when I was working at Supreme, “Hey, we should do this giveback to Standing Rock or do a giveback for you know migrants stuck at the border.” Like you said, that’s not their mission and that’s fine. But for me, that’s why it’s important for me to have Awake New York. So I’m able to teach. Three and a half years ago, when we did our first sale of hats and hoodies, most of our proceeds, any profits went back to Standing Rock.
I’m not trying to take responsibility for giveback and street wear but now it’s common. I don’t want credit for that. But for me, that’s the fulfillment I get with the work that I’m doing right now. By being able to lead by example. To walk the walk and talk the talk and I feel like that’s why we are attracting this new younger kid that’s like 18, 19, 20 years old. They’re not the millennial, it’s someone younger than the millennial. They’re kind of tired of listening to the perfect MP3 recording. They want to listen to a record. They want to make a mix tape. They want a magazine. These kids actually want to feel and they want to buy into a brand that they truly believe in.
David Hershkovits (10:05):
And is that what Baque Creative is all about? Every brand right now has to think about something like that because the kids, they have a choice. But some represent something more than just a design. Is that something you’re helping your clients to understand? “How do I connect with these consumers who care more about these issues?”
Angelo Baque (11:11):
That wasn’t the original objective, the reason why I started Baque creative. But the truth be told, I try to see where my predecessors fall short. And when I mean predecessors, I’m not talking about black or brown or yellow or green or Martian, I’m just talking about street wear, cool guy. Like the guy that was “the hip or cool guy” within the company and then they leave and they want to do consulting on their own and most of the times, from what I’ve seen, like nine times out of ten they fall short. It’s not sustainable without the big machine behind them.
So the objective with Baque Creative was to be organized first and foremost. To be organized and to be professional. And to be able to package myself, not as an individual, but as an actual company. You’re hiring me for a service so you’re not hiring the individual, Angelo Baque, but you’re actually hiring the company, Baque Creative.
Fast forward three and a half years later I think some companies, for example, Stock X are smartening up. They see the work that I’m doing and they know they can’t buy–And it is going to sound contradictory but, they can’t buy their way into philanthropy. They need to have good people internally for this to feel genuine, so they decide, “we should be working with Baque Creatives. To help us you know speak that language and it come from a genuine place.”
So yes, it’s like a yes and no because most of the work that I’ve done through Baque Creative isn’t for philanthropy. It’s just ideas. It’s being able to continuously do the work that I did for Supreme, which helped build the visual identity of the brand, for bigger brands. That’s what I wanted to do when I left Supreme. I had no idea that Awake was going to do what it’s doing now. That was not the goal.
When I left Supreme I just wanted three clients. I wanted a big sportswear brand, a luxury brand and to continue working freelance with Supreme. And just kind of sit back and just have this easier lifestyle than I had working at the brand. I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be at where I’m at today. It’s all been manifested on its own and it’s just by keeping my head down and picking the right projects and the right people to work with that I’ve been able to have some sort of success.
Well, what’s the difference now? Is it that you have more clients than you expected and are doing a lot more work or having a bigger staff?
I definitely have more of a staff. I think that the difference now is to be able to find my flow and let go of fear. Because when I first left Supreme, I was in this fear that I was going to be eating cat food within the first six months and lose my housing and not have a pot to piss in. So a lot of the work I was doing was based on, it was just really reactionary and fear-based. Whereas now, I finally found my rhythm with the agency and I found my rhythm with Awake. My goal right now isn’t to sell the company within a year, or to continue to just work with luxury brands on Baque Creative. I just want to work on cool projects, as simple as that sounds. To continue working on cool projects and projects that make me feel good.
Well, it’s kind of surprising that you would start a company with those kind of fears, considering that you had this prominent position in Supreme that became a billion dollar company while you were there. That moved from the private into a company that had big investors behind it. And didn’t you have that as a possibility as well to get some support, so when you went off on your own you wouldn’t have to worry about those things? Or was that too much of giving up your own control?
Speaker 1 (15:43):
How can I say this without creating any controversy?
That’s not the goal.
Listen, once you leave Supreme, you leave Supreme. That’s it. There is no going back. And I was able to have a healthy relationship with them where I freelanced for two years for the brand. But I also realized that it’s like the mafia, you can’t have one foot in one foot out. It’s either you’re all in or you’re all out.
But couldn’t you go like, I’m the guy that was at Supreme for 10 years? I need some support from … there are all these venture capitalists and other companies, agencies, God knows what that, I would think, would be ready and willing to help you or work with you.
Yeah, I thought so too.
Oh shit, okay.
But that’s not the reality. Well here’s the thing too, a lot of the work that I did for Supreme was kept quiet. So I couldn’t go banging the pot or waving the flag that I did an X, Y and Z project, because that’s not the Supreme way. And I’m also highly sensitive to maintaining the relationship that I have with James in a very healthy place. So that if I ever do need help, that door is open and it’s never closed to me. I’ve seen other people burn that bridge for no reason.
When I came out, I was on my own all over again, starting from scratch. And I’m also not going to be delusional, because everything that you’re saying is true. So certain doors did open for me that normally wouldn’t open for other people. Like being able to work with Nike right off the bat. Working with Converse. I worked with Timberland. So all these relationships I was able to build while working for Supreme definitely transcended post Supreme. But at the same time, my talent, and my creativity has to speak for itself. So there’s only so much that I could do, like you’re saying, I could get the door open by saying, “Hey, I was the brand director for Supreme for 10 years. Give me a shot.” I get the shot, now it’s on me. I can’t blame it on the stock guy or I can’t blame it on, even James.
Well James you know is a unique individual and personality, very quiet behind the scenes guy. I would think he could go into the store and most people wouldn’t recognize him. He’s not a public figure in that respect. What did you learn from him that you feel is most important for what you’re doing today?
Speaker 1 (18:16):
Just that hard work. I watched that man work night and day. He would call me 11:30 at night. I would have to pick up my phone and we would go over whatever it is that we needed to go over. It’s just that hard work. He really hammered that into me. It wasn’t like he would tell me to work hard and then he would go vacation in Miami or Brazil or whatever. He was right there in the trenches.
So I’m able to instill those same kinds of ethics into the people that work for me now. They see that I don’t stop. I’ll literally jump on a plane, take a meeting in Paris with such and such, come back, make sure that I make this meeting back in New York. And you know, they’re millennials. They’re 28, 27, they haven’t witnessed anything like that. So they’re just like, “Holy shit. We can’t believe you worked …” It’s very eye opening for them. Very, very eye opening for them.
Well, with the COVID virus and the world we’re in now, Jumping on that plane to Paris is not going to be that easy for a time as we see it. A lot of retail is certainly going to be suffering. In some respects you were well prepared because you didn’t go into opening a store. So overall, how do you feel about that? If it’s possible to even talk about it.
Speaker 1 (20:05):
Listen, we have to roll with the punches and we have to evolve as creatives and as brands. What I’m coming out of COVID with is that there is no room for mediocre anymore. Whatever t-shirts I put out, whatever graphics I put out, whatever jacket or whatever collaboration I do with brand X, it has to be the best. Because in my mind, we’ve never been in competition … Because Awake, to me, we’re a very mom and pop operation. We do not compete with Palace or Supreme. But now like the kid that we kind of share that normally would have a thousand dollars to spend a month, might have 400. So, in a way, we are kind of competing now, by default. So it just means that, for me, it just pushes creativity. And now this is where the rubber hits the road and I don’t know.
I really don’t know what that means for us as an industry. I think these bigger brands, or just brands in general, have to re-evaluate like ‘who are we, what are we doing, what are we saying, what are we about?’ For us we’re in a position, we’ve been doing that shit since day one. So in a way we’re good. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing. We don’t have to hammer the narrative or convince these kids that were into philanthropy or that we’re into giving back.
You’re very much identified with New York as part of your personal story as well as your company Awake New York. So, with New York having been the epicenter of this whole Coronavirus, are you planning any specific activations or ways to connect with New York directly as far as going forward?
Speaker 1 (23:54):
When it comes to us financially giving back, about four weeks ago now, we did a COVID archive sale. It’s just thinking like, what can I do? I’m an asthmatic, so I have a compromised immune system. I can’t go out and help out at a soup kitchen or at an emergency room. So, there’s always power in money.
So instead of donating money to a big organization, this for me is about connecting locally. So for us, proceeds went to Make the Road New York and the New York Immigration Coalition. For me it’s all about local, really supporting local organizations, local brands, local restaurants, local supermarkets. That’s how we are trying to connect back to New York. We’re doing our best to be just a positive light throughout this time, because you’re right. Right now the city is down, we’re down. These times remind me of the late 80s or the early 90s, 9/11, but this is different. There’s a lot more I think at play and there’s a lot more, I would say, psychologically that’s being done to the city. Financially, what’s being done to the city, that goes all the way up to the government. So I think more now than ever it’s really important for us to exist, for this brand to exist. Once again to just spread this information and spread knowledge.
What keeps you awake at night and how do you fix it?
Angelo Baque (31:01):
Bills are probably the biggest one and other fictitious scenarios that are going on in my head late at night. And for me the remedy right now is meditation. First thing in the morning I meditate anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. I have to meditate each morning.
After you meditate what do you do?
Angelo Baque (31:52):
I’ll read a passage. And it just helps ground me. It helps me get back into reality. Because dude, the truth is that everything is fine today. I have a roof over my head. My company is fine. There’s money in the bank. I got food in the fridge. That meditation helps me really connect with gratitude.
So do you still have plans for a book store, publishing, all these other kind of ventures that you were thinking about?
Angelo Baque (32:47):
Well, I think you can relate to this, but I figured out that there’s no money in books.
Angelo Baque :
Yeah. There’s no money in printed matter. So the two books that we published through Baque Creative Press were really just love letters to my best friends, Shaniqwa Jarvis. I was in a financial position where I was like, “I’m going to print your book.” I just wanted to support her as much as I could at that time. And it felt like printing her book was about the best thing that I could do. And I find that another big problem my community has had is that financially we can’t compete. What I learned, specifically in photo history, when I went to SVA is that photo history was comprised of the rich. Only the rich can go and pick up a camera during the Great Depression and travel the world. So you have all these beautiful black and white images that basically were created by the rich.
And that transcends to today. You have all these beautiful books that these photographers will put out, their one-time books. And it’s amazing, they’ll get art director X to do it, and they’ll get it printed in Belgium. I told Shaniqwa like, “Fuck it. I got the money to be able to do something like that for you. Let me do that.” Because the objective for Baque Creative Press is whatever body of work we print, I want it to stand it with a Stieglitz. I want it to be able to stand next to a Bruce Davidson book. Why not? Why do our books have to be cheap? Why does it have to be printed cheap? Why does it have to be art directed cheaply? Why should we cut corners? So that was really the objective when I printed Shaniqwa’s book.
And then a year later, I printed Rafael Rios’ book who’s my best friend. We met at SVA, and we literally were the only two brown kids in the whole fucking school. And that’s part of the main reason why we connected back in 2001. And the same thing, he was about to self-publish and I said, “I’m doing okay. Let me publish this book for you.” And yeah, that’s where I’m up right now. So the idea to open up that book store was to start a little community center based around those two books. Once again, that takes money. And then Awake started taking off. There’s only so much that I could do on my own.
Are you still photographing?
Yeah, I’ve been shooting most of our campaigns. I shot our look book yesterday. I shot my friend Malukah’s album cover last summer. I honestly only want to take pictures if I really believe in the project, for me. I’ve been able to, over the last six months, fall in love with photography again. Because I stigmatize myself because I fucking hate art directors that take pictures.
No names. If they’re offended then, I must be talking about you. But I cannot stand art directors who take pictures. So in my position at Supreme I was very comfortable with not being behind the camera and helping create the picture. But now I’m at a point in business where I know what I want the picture to look like, everything. Because 10 years working with Terry, with Ari, with Tyrone Lebon, helping birth careers.
So I had that experience as an art director and I have the technical experience as a photographer. So now I’m able to come back to it. When I first started at Supreme I was taking pictures. I had just actually dropped out of school. So it’s been nice.
So who are your heroes in photography?
That’s a good question. I love Bruce Davidson. I remember I got shitted on for liking Avedon in school. I remember my fine-art printing teacher was just like, “Oh, you’re one of those?” Yeah, but Avedon, Davidson, Helmut Newton. I know I’m forgetting a bunch.
David: Davidson and Newton are two opposite ends of the poll aren’t they?
Yeah. Well, Davidson it’s not pretty. Well it is pretty in it’s own way.
And it’s street, very often.
Yeah, very street and raw, like Jamel Shabazz. I love Ari’s work, too, Janette Beckman. Those early ’80s photographers are the pictures I grew up looking at in Paper, or the Source, or Lap Pages, ID Magazine, Dazed. That’s what shaped me as a creative was looking at those pictures.
You spoke earlier about how few people of color are in the industry, but at the same time you’re part of a new group of people or not so new necessarily, but an influential and important new group of people of color in the industry like Virgil Abloh, Shane Oliver, Heron Preston, who are all of your friends and you have worked with them and affiliated with them. Do you feel there is a resurgence or a greater acceptance today for people of color in the street wear world? It seems to me if there’s a place that you can find something of positive impact that’s one of the few places.
I would say yes and no. I’ll tell you why. We are needed because it’s a necessity because we’re cool. Okay. That’s why I stress ownership because we will be used until we’re not. That’s why I stress ownership so much because the truth is that the industry is really the kids. If the kids decide next year that we’re not cool this is over.
That’s why I say yes and no. Is there a change? Yeah, but there is a big catch. Virgil and Heron work for two really big machines. At least Virgil owns Off-White. Heron has his own brand. I think where our predecessors have fallen short is, there’s this fear, if I show you how to do it somehow is going to take away from what I have on my plate. You know?I’m a big believer in strength in numbers.
When this Covid shit hit, I hit up Virgil, I hit up Spanto from Born and Raised, I hit up Tremaine Emory, Chris Gibbs. I hit up all my peers to be like Yo, what do we do? Melody Ehsani. Because once again somebody has to initiate that dialogue. There’s still a lot of bravado in this industry. There’s still a lot of machismo. There are a lot of egos. For me, when it comes to needing help, I’m ready. I push my ego to the side. This is the only way we’re going to be able to really succeed.
Do you feel fashion and streetwear have come together to such an extent that there is no real difference between the two? I had Aaron Levant on talking the other day about how watching this progression from street wear completely underground to mass where it is today and now being embraced by fashion. Has streetwear lost its identity?
I think there’s a certain sect of street wear that hasn’t lost its identity, it’s just become part of mainstream pop culture. That’s all. Here’s the thing, until those big houses start looking to people like myself and like Chris Gibbs or like Melody, they’re not going to be able to catch up. They’re only capitalizing on a certain sect and a certain look and a certain feel of street. I think back in January, Virgil said something to the effect of like, streetwear is dead. This was during men’s fashion week, and all these reporters were coming to me trying to get me to say something against Virgil. I don’t not disagree with him because prior to this becoming a street wear, it was something else. It wasn’t really categorized. It was called urban or urban wear. This is an evolution of that.
I’m talking about early two thousands. From Rocawear and all that stuff. It goes from that, to this. That was part of mainstream culture. The only thing is that it was never adapted or adopted by luxury. Luxury continued to be luxury. It kept profiting, whatever it needed to in order to sustain. Whereas now, that … 50 plus consumers are irrelevant. They’re not moving the dial financially for these companies. It’s really the 13 so 40 year olds. That’s really like dictating financially how these companies move. You look at a case study like Supreme, they’re like, Oh shit, we want to be like that.
Before, it used to be the other around. We aspire to be a luxury brand and now it’s the other way around. They’ve lost their identity. It’s the other way around. Street wear hasn’t lost its identity. Street wear is going to continue being streetwear. For example, with me, the best thing you ask me about Covid is that it’s brought me back to my DIY roots when I didn’t have a fucking pot to piss in. You know what I’m saying? I need to figure it out. Yesterday, I had to figure out how to shoot my look book. How do I make this happen? Normally, I have an assistant, I got all of these things at my availability, at my disposal. Now, it’s back to me, literally $20 in my pocket, how do we make this happen today and still make it look like a $10,000 lookbook.
Those big companies don’t know how to move like that. The people that are in those companies, don’t know how to move like that. Those presidents don’t know how to operate like that, but James does. James comes from those roots. James, he started in the flea market on Spring Street, Spring and Wooster. James knows how to make something from nothing. You know what I’m saying? That’s why Supreme is able to move differently. That’s why Awake moves differently. We are able to adapt to what’s happening right now.
Likewise and continued success with you and thanks for all the work that you’ve done in the past. Thanks for inspiring us.