True Religion used to be the denim brand of choice for rappers like Jim Jones—the jeans were a key part of his uniform during the "We Fly High (Ballin')" era—and 2 Chainz, who released a mixtape in 2011 named T.R.U. REALigion. According to Forbes, between 2007 and 2012, True Religion's revenues almost tripled, reaching $490 million in 2013. But then the line, best known for its horseshoe pocket embroidery and white stitching, fell off.
They are hoping Allen Onyia, who co-founded UpscaleHype in 2008, can usher in a new chapter for the brand as artistic director for the men's and women's collections. Onyia, who is based in Houston, has no formal design experience, but he's spent the last decade identifying what celebrities and athletes like LeBron James, ASAP Rocky, and Pharrell Williams are wearing—and building relationships with them.
"I wasn't necessarily looking for somebody who's got technical design chops because I've got a whole design team here that has that," said Chelsea Grayson, True Religion's chief executive officer, who joined last November and was previously the CEO at American Apparel. "For me, it was about looking at the person and saying, 'How does this person live every day authentically? How is this person dressing themselves?' Because if you're not dressing yourself in the way that I want to dress my customer, how can you possibly relate to my customer organically?"
Grayson and Onyia have come to the brand at an interesting time. Kym Gold, who co-founded the business with her then-husband Jeff Lubell in 2002, left the company in 2007, before it was sold to TowerBrook Capital in 2013 for $835 million. But by 2017, the company lost $78.5 million on revenue of $369.5 million and had to file for bankruptcy.
True Religion's decline can be attributed to industry trends like the rise of fast fashion, the increase of online shopping, and a downturn in the premium denim category. But True Religion also zigged and zagged with brand message. In 2015, it brought on NBA star Russell Westbrook as a creative director. In 2017, it featured The Get Down actress Herizen Guardiola and Tommy Lee in a digital campaign. And just last August, Bella Hadid was named the face of the brand.
"When you try to be everything to everybody, you're never going to be the right thing to the right person you want to target," said Grayson. "But during a podcast we did with Karen Civil, she said right off the bat, 'Look, you guys are one of the original streetwear brands.' And that's what I've always felt. I was born and raised in L.A., just like True Religion, and it emerged as a streetwear brand."
Streetwear means different things to different people, but in the traditional sense—T-shirt brands that typically target skate, surf, and black culture—True Religion isn't a streetwear brand. It's a premium denim brand that was embraced by hip-hop. But with that association in mind, True Religion is focused on targeting the consumers Onyia is reaching with UpscaleHype.
Before getting this position, Onyia worked with True Religion on a customization activation at Travis Scott's Astroworld Festival in Houston and a limited edition T-shirt drop.
Onyia, 33, remembers True Religion as a hot brand when he was growing up, but his plan is to elevate it and move it beyond denim. He does want to maintain some of the line’s signatures, but believes shoppers today are looking for novelty denim.
"They were interested in bringing me on to show that True Religion is more than just a denim brand. We will be more fashion... I won't say fashion-forward, but we will be more fashion-leaning," said Onyia. "Denim is still the foundation, but we will be offering just more of what you're seeing now in the fashion community or in the streetwear community."
These new designs will be coupled with limited-edition drops and collaborations. Onyia said UpscaleHype will continue—he has a team in place—but it will remain a separate business, and True Religion will only be integrated onto the platform if it makes sense.
"That's not something that's going to be forced. I mean, it's like UpscaleHype, for the most part, has always been an organic platform," said Onyia.
When Onyia started UpscaleHype, he said the goal was always to work with artists and brands, and the True Religion position offers him the chance to do both on a larger scale. Whether or not this tie-in will work has yet to be determined, but Grayson is confident about the choice.
“I think that my movement forward with the company is very nontraditional, and I wanted to pick a very nontraditional path,” said Grayson. “So it was just his eye, it was his own personal style, and it was how he styled his clients.”