God's Plan: How Jerry Lorenzo Went From Sports to Nightlife to Fashion's Cult Favorite

Jerry Lorenzo talks about the challenges of launching Fear of God, how Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” inspired him, and what's next for his brand.

Jerry Lorenzo
Complex Original

Jerry Lorenzo

Jerry Lorenzo

When Jerry Lorenzo was young, he and his family read daily devotionals together. His mother owned 30 to 40, but they frequently studied My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, one of the most popular religious hardcovers ever written.

“Reading about the fear of God and the clouds and darkness around His kingdom if you didn’t know Him, but [having] that same fear out of respect and reverence for Him if you did know Him…” Lorenzo explains in his warm, dulcet voice. “That juxtaposition was so awesome to me.”

Years later, My Utmost for His Highest inspired the name of Lorenzo’s clothing brand, Fear of God, which he launched in 2013. “I always wanted to do something around Christianity, but it seemed corny,” the 39-year-old says, sitting in his showroom in a renovated warehouse in downtown L.A on a March afternoon. “But when I read [My Utmost For His Highest], I knew I had the foundation and the base to keep me going. It was enough for me to build on. I knew I had a name for the company.”

A devotional book may be an unusual source for fashion creativity, but not for Lorenzo. Everything about Fear of God—the sleeveless flannel with side zips, BMX jersey (inspired by a similar one he found at the Rose Bowl Flea Market), bomber jackets, and military sneakers influenced by religion, hip-hop, grunge, and Allen Iverson—is rooted in who he is and his wildly diverse interests. He listens to Kurt Cobain and the Migos. He inherited a love for vintage from his mother, who often went antique shopping. In his showroom, there’s a smaller room that has brick walls lined with dozens of framed, original rock concert posters he bought from Italian photographer Henry Ruggeri. Even right now, Lorenzo, who has tattoos that snake down both arms, a boxed beard, and cornrows braided evenly across his head, is wearing a vintage Tina Turner T-shirt with random holes that look moth-eaten, white basketball shorts and basketball sneakers from Fear of God’s upcoming fifth collection, gold chains, and a diamond-encrusted cross drop earring that hangs from his left earlobe.

“What you see in Fear of God is an organic carryover of how Jerry dresses on a daily basis,” says Chris Gibbs, owner of menswear boutique Union Los Angeles, where Fear of God is sold. “Jerry has a very specific point of view. There’s nothing out there like it. That’s why the brand does extremely well for us.” (Fear of God is one of the top five brands in Union, according to Gibbs.)

"At some point, you have to be about something."

Since launching a capsule of short sleeve side-zip hoodies and extra-long tees, Fear of God—which has been called a streetwear and contemporary brand, though Lorenzo prefers the term luxury or designer—has developed a cult-like following. Its designs are everywhere. Justin Bieber has been photographed wearing Fear of God drawstring trousers while out in L.A. Last year, Kanye West defied the Met Gala’s theme and wore a pair of the brand’s ripped jeans. Retailers like Barneys and RSVP Gallery can hardly keep the product on its shelves. Fast-fashion retailers, like H&M, and other labels have even sold imitations of Fear of God’s designs.

“It bothers me when you take my exact ideas and try to say the same thing I’m trying to say,” says Lorenzo.

That demand has led to collaborations with Vans on sneakers and PacSun on a younger, more affordable line called FOG. Lorenzo even designed Bieber’s Purpose tour merch. “Revenue is consistently more than doubling with each Fear of God collection,” he says.

But unlike most other successful brands, Fear of God doesn’t have a machine behind it. Zero investors. No sales or marketing team. Up until six months ago, Lorenzo and his small team of four employees worked out of his home in Glendale, California. Lorenzo doesn’t follow a fashion calendar, instead releasing collections when he believes they’re ready. He refuses to do a fashion show. “That’s luxury to me,” he says. “Luxury is making your own schedule and being your own boss. It’s like Jay Z said: ‘Until you’re on your own, you can’t be free no matter how much money you’re making.’”

He may want his clothes to be classified as luxury or designer, but he doesn’t like being called a “designer.” “I have a lot of respect for Raf Simons, Ralph Lauren, or Rick Owens, these conceptual designers,” he says. “It’s similar to what I do, but I feel I’m doing it from a place of solution. I’m more so trying to tell a story than design a collection.”

Lorenzo is comfortable being outside of the fashion world. Clothes aren’t his only focus. “At some point, you have to be about something,” he says.

Jerry Lorenzo

Jerry Lorenzo Manuel didn’t always envision a career in fashion. He was born in Sacramento, but moved around quite a bit—to West Palm Beach and then to Chicago—so he and his family could be with his father Jerry Manuel, a major league baseball player turned minor league coach. His father eventually managed the White Sox and the Mets and is now an analyst for MLB Network, but growing up they didn’t have a lot of money. “We were paycheck to paycheck until I graduated from high school,” Lorenzo says. As a kid, his mom would drive him and his three siblings for 23 hours from West Palm Beach to Montreal every summer to be with his father, who was coaching for the Expos at the time, because they couldn’t afford to buy plane tickets. He remembers being around Major League families, who had millions of dollars, but living in a studio apartment with his parents and siblings for months during training camp.

After college, Lorenzo finished his MBA at Loyola Marymount in L.A. “I always felt like L.A. was a city of opportunity,” says Lorenzo. “So I came out here, was in grad school during the day and worked at Diesel at the Promenade at night.”

His first real jobs were in sports—handling corporate sponsorships for the L.A. Dodgers and later head of player marketing for Chicago-based sports agency CSMG, whose client roster at the time included Dwyane Wade, Matt Leinart, and Donovan McNabb. “I thought I was going to be a sports agent,” he recalls.

But in 2008, Lorenzo moved back to L.A. and started throwing parties he called JL Nights. “There weren’t any parties I could go to to hear hip-hop and see people that dressed like me,” he says. “So we created that.” On any given night, you’d see celebrities like Pusha T or Kid Cudi or brand owners like Don C. “The parties were legendary,” Lorenzo says.

Fear of God's new basketball sneaker.

JL Nights eventually took off and became a full-time job. He shuttered the party to focus on Fear of God, but Lorenzo insists he doesn’t miss the parties. “I’m 16 months sober. I have a family. My life is in a different place,” he says. “So much of what I thought was socially important just isn’t important to me anymore.”

Lorenzo says he realized he wanted to make clothes after he started managing former Dodger all-star Matt Kemp, who he began working with in 2008. “I did all of his off-the-field marketing, his endorsements with DIRECTV, Big League Chew, and Beats by Dre,” he says. “I was also doing his styling and helping him with his image.” One day, while shopping for Kemp, he realized that there were plenty of things he wanted for his client that weren’t available.

So, he decided to design them. “I did it for him, but also for me,” he says. “I felt like there was something missing in my closet, and if it was missing in mine then it must be missing from yours, too.”

Without any formal training in fashion, Lorenzo learned the ins and outs of launching a brand on his own. Sometimes, he drove to downtown L.A. and paid someone to help him with his production needs. “I literally knew nothing,” he recalls. “I didn’t know about production, seasons, how to make a pattern. I took all the money I made from the clubs and put it into this conviction.”

He admits the early days of Fear of God were rough. “I got stolen from and taken advantage of,” he says. “I think I lost like $30,000 by people saying I needed to give money up front. People would tell me, ‘I need $10,000 to book this fabric and if you don’t book this fabric then you can’t make your T-shirts.’ There were a thousand instances like that. I even had a lot of product managers who were stealing from me.”

"The best thing Kanye did for me was make ‘Jesus Walks.'"

But he didn’t let that break him, even though he was trying to support a growing family; his wife Desiree had just given birth to their twin daughters Liv and Mercy. (They also have a son, Jerry Lorenzo Manuel III, who’s now six.) “As much money as I lost, I never lost the conviction that I knew I had something to say or offer,” he adds. “There were plenty of times I should’ve let go and given up, like, ‘Hey, my wife just gave birth. I have a son at home. I’m trying to get out of nightlife, but maybe this isn’t the right way. But I just knew what I was going to do in the end was way bigger than what [people] were taking from me.”

The first piece Lorenzo designed was a short sleeve hoodie with side zippers, which was one of the 12 pieces he released as part of his first collection. “I remember I used this super cheap fabric I found in downtown L.A. and put these expensive gold RiRi zippers so it could feel luxe,” he says. From there, he made Fear of God’s version of the extra-long tee that, much like all of his designs, came from a need to fill a void. The arms on the long tee from Romance, a brand Lorenzo often bought, were too fitted; Rick Owens’ was too drapey. “I wanted something else that felt masculine,” Lorenzo says. He perfected his silhouette: long, but not drapey, with sleeves that aren't skin-tight and a neckline just wide enough that he could let his gold chains show.

Fear of God Fifth Collection

It wasn’t long before celebrities became fans. Lorenzo recalls Big Sean’s stylist, who is friends with his wife, pulling the long tees for the rapper. “I had all these tees in my garage with no labels and she was like, ‘I think Sean will like these,’” he says. “He ended up liking it and wanting more pieces, so I gave him the short sleeve hoodie.”

A few weeks later, he received a call from West, who asked to see the rest of his first collection. “He was like, ‘Yo! I just got this long tee from you. Can you come to Atlantic City and show me your collection?’” Lorenzo remembers. “When I got to Atlantic City, he looked at the T-shirt and was like, ‘Man, I could see all the thought that went into this simple long tee.’” Lorenzo was floored. “At that time, I looked up to Kanye so much,” he says. “There hasn’t been anything after that, for the past four years, that’s surprised me, because the person I looked up to saw what I saw. It helped me further believe in myself. So now, when someone else sees what I see, I’m like, ‘Oh, of course you’re going to see it.’”

That same day, West offered Lorenzo a job to work on his A.P.C. collaboration and, later, other projects for his creative company Donda, including the Yeezus tour merch, Yeezy Season, West’s wardrobe, and more. “What he gave me the first time I met him…” Lorenzo says about West, a smile creeping onto his face. “I believed in myself after that first meeting. And I’m forever grateful to him for that.”

West had a tremendous impact on Fear of God. “The best thing Kanye did for me was make ‘Jesus Walks,’” Lorenzo adds. “Fear of God wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a ‘Jesus Walks. I was working at Diesel in Chicago at the time, and hearing this dude rap about Jesus, the way that he did, his delivery… ‘Jesus Walks’ changed my life.”

Jerry Lorenzo

Today, the first drop of Fear of God’s massive 96-piece fifth collection will be available for pre-order. The line, which focuses on luxury details and tailoring and was inspired by Lorenzo’s childhood, includes a flannel with a denim collar, trackpants, punkish plaid pants, a blush pink satin bomber, and a corduroy blazer—all of which will be sold in smaller sizes, Lorenzo’s workaround to releasing a women’s line. It’s Lorenzo’s most ambitious collection yet and, in a way, a dedication to his kids. He featured models of color for both the film and campaign images. “Now that I’m a father, it’s important that my kids see people in my clothes that look like them,” he says. Soon, he will also release five new sneakers in collaboration with Vans and Fear of God’s first fragrance.

Four years in, Fear of God has developed a fanbase of kids who tell Lorenzo he’s they’re “undisputed favorite designer” and that they only “sell shoes to purchase Fear of God pieces." The products are ubiquitous with A-list celebrities, like Bieber, West, 2 Chainz, Future, Offset, Travis Scott, Rihanna, Gigi Hadid, and Kendall Jenner. But while Lorenzo’s humbled by the support, he says he doesn’t want to put too much weight on those celebrity co-signs.

On Oscars night last month, he watched as Denzel Washington lost in the category of Best Actor for his performance in the film Fences to Manchester by the Sea star Casey Affleck. Washington was biting his lip; his eyes were watering. “I don’t know if I should say this, and not to say his happiness would’ve been validated by that moment...” he says, earnestly. “But I’m trying to get to a place where my happiness or success isn’t validated by someone wearing Fear of God, a store carrying it, or whatever Vogue has to say about it. I don’t wanna get to a place where I’m doing this for the industry.”

Jerry Lorenzo

Slumped in a wooden chair in his showroom, Lorenzo is reminded of his parents. “We didn’t have a lot when I grew up,” he says, “but players and coaches looked to my parents for something else they had about themselves that was beyond material things.” In a way, it’s what he’d like to achieve with Fear of God.

“I could never just make cool clothes just to make clothes,” he says. “I need it to be founded on purpose, or something of meaning.”

The message he’s sending with Fear of God is evolving. But right now, he says he’s trying to build something for his son, who he calls his“best friend," the way his father did for him. “I want to break any mental barriers in his mind about what’s possible for him to do,” Lorenzo says.

“Deep down, that’s what I’ve always wanted—to be like my parents.” he adds. “If I’m gonna have this brand, Fear of God, what am I giving to people beyond a cool ‘fit for Instagram?” He laughs a little, then his face turns completely serious.

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