When hordes of Beliebers tuned in for Justin Bieber’s performance at the Billboard Music Awards last month, they watched the singer take the stage in a look that was a slight departure from the oversized plaids and metal-inspired gear he’s been wearing on his Purpose Tour this spring. Instead, the Canadian singer rocked a cream-colored bomber jacket and T-shirt that coordinated with his dancers, meant to evoke a bohemian, cult-like vibe. The clothing was the result of a special partnership between Bieber’s stylist Karla Welch and New York-based label Baja East.
“It really came about because we have a very close relationship with Karla,” explained Baja East co-founder John Targon. “She called us up and was like, ‘Let’s have a Baja moment with Bieber.’” Creating the custom T-shirt—available for purchase today for the first time—was a no-brainer for John and his partner in Baja East, Scott Studenberg, who’ve dressed Bieber in their unisex gear for some time now. But even with the impressive roster of A-list fans who’ve flocked to the label since it was launched in 2013—like Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Miguel—the Baja boys were still stoked to see the rising style icon on TV in their designs, even if they had to grapple with spotty Italian wifi while on vacation to see it themselves. “We got to Rome, and we had no Internet. We were sitting there, getting an espresso, fucking refreshing, refreshing, refreshing,” says Scott. “It was worth the wait.”
First, how did you two meet?
John: Scott’s from Michigan. I’m from Chicago. We actually met in an Equinox abs class on Tuesday nights [in New York]. Scott thought I was a total bitch, but somehow we ended up bonding over margaritas every Tuesday night. And then it became a thing, and we started hanging out.
It was abs straight to margaritas?
John: Abs to margaritas.
Scott: $4 Happy Hour.
John: We were students and we were broke. And also, our bodies were banging, so we could eat anything and do that.
Scott: My body is still banging.
And so then you eventually got the idea to start this collection together.
John: Yeah, we both worked in sales and strategy. We did everything from merchandising plans and product development to selling collections to luxury stores.
Scott: We really got to know who the client was, men and women who shopped at Maxfield, at Barneys, at Bergdorf. We saw a void in the market for this idea of loose luxury, which is what we launched the brand with. We launched with this core ambisexual vibe, where every single style went back and forth on men and women.
Which is a huge movement now anyway, genderless dressing.
John: Yeah, we call it “gender obsolescent.” It’s kind of crazy…
Scott: You can say it.
John: Two and a half years ago, nobody was talking that way, and it was part of the excitement around telling our story—not only did we have a sales background and a cool concept around our brand, but definitely the fact that it was gender obsolescent. There were 25 pieces, and we shot every single piece on a guy and a girl.
Scott: One of the reasons we did that is because we were able to have that access to store owners and people who worked in the store, and a lot of them were just like, “It doesn’t fucking matter. As long as the clothes are cool and they look good, people aren’t caring as much.” A guy’s not going to put on a dress, because he’d look like an idiot, but he could put on a tunic and wear it with a pair of jeans and look super dope.
Or if you’re Jaden Smith, you could put on a dress and look cool.
John: Yeah, and that’s the whole thing: It’s about your own comfort level and confidence in what you do.
Now, we’ve seen your designs on everyone from Gaga to Bieber. That in itself is a huge range. Does that reflect your normal, everyday customer, as well?
Scott: It’s about the person wearing the clothes, and what they do with it and how they style it. We have a super wide range. Miguel wears us, Jared Leto wear us. Bieber. We have Gwyneth Paltrow and Cameron Diaz shopping and buying us. Bieber actually buys our clothes, and Gaga buys our clothes. We work with their stylists, as well, but they’re two of our best clients. Bieber shops at Maxfield, and Gaga buys direct from us. A lot of celebrities don’t like to pay for things.
John: But that’s another point to the things that we’ve learned along this journey. Yeah, celebrities can wear your things, but we’ve also now been around for a little bit, and we’ve met a lot of them, and we actually dress people who we love. And people who love us wear our clothes. It’s not some forced thing happening; it’s actually organic. The way Gaga wears our handloom parka and our cut-out jumpsuit, she’s stepping on the bottom of this beautiful knit. It’s in this nonchalant way. It’s also kind of a fuck you. It’s like, “This is super expensive—”
Scott: “—And I’m gonna cook lasagna in it.” Bieber has worn our knit harem pants and posted a photo of himself chilling by the pool. Miguel’s performed in us a lot. Jussie Smollett has performed in us—or fake performed in us [on Empire].
Do you need to have celebrities wearing your clothes in a visible way as a fashion brand right now?
John: Ultimately, no. If you have amazing product, it’s going to move anyway. Our core clients discovered us in our early stages before celebrities were wearing us. Do I think the celebrity thing helps? I think it’s the biggest compliment when another celebrity loves your art and it increases visibility. A lot of times, the things [a celebrity] wears, not everyone can actually afford. We’re a luxury brand.
Do you think the same about your own personal social following? You’re both pretty active on Instagram.
Scott: If John or I are wearing a T-shirt or something that’s more accessible, definitely.
John: People love all the shit we wear. I think people are surprised that the handloom parka we just threw on on the street is $4,000. We do have these special pieces within our collection. What we’ve learned is [Instagram] is a way to access our brand, because we can’t afford those [more expensive] things either. But, we love creating them. They’re special.
If you can’t afford your own stuff, you’re not in it for the money? What is the takeaway for you?
Scott: Oh, we’re in it for the money.
John: We would love to make money.
Scott: We’re doing this interview in our office, which is kitchen-adjacent. I live there and John lives in the other room.
Is the goal to make enough money to afford your own clothing?
Scott: I think a step before that is we’d like our own office.
John: At the end of the day, we do have some responsibilities, people to pay. But as long as we’re able to enjoy our lives while this thing goes on, we can’t complain. We’re doing what we love. This is our passion.
And it does seem like you’re doing what you love. I went to the show in February, and you both came out from backstage dancing while you took your bow.
Scott: That song was really good.
John: If you think about a lot of the people that we dress—Miguel, Jared Leto, Gaga, Bieber, Beyonce—they’re all involved in music. We love music, finding new music. Scott’s obsessed with Motown. I’m obsessed with a lot of R&B. We’re both obsessed with R&B in a lot of different forms.
Scott: His [favorite music] is, like, “slit your wrists.” Mine are more, like, vocals.
John: Music is an undercurrent in what we do, and that’s probably why a lot of musicians are registering with us, as well.
And a lot of musicians are the ones setting the trends. So, I need to ask, since you have your own fur slides: Did it kill you when Rihanna launched hers?
John: You know what was so fucked up, is that we put them out before those came out.
Scott: We showed our pre-fall in November. That’s when buyers were buying them. They’ll be in stores in a month or so. Ours are very different. Ours are our collaboration with Fila.
And her's sold out anyway.
John: We’re on-trend at least. And again, maybe we set that one, so…