Spencer Badu is disinterested in the monolithic looks that are popular in mainstream fashion today. You know, those head-to-toe Yeezy Gap looks you constantly see on your Instagram feed. Or, when you go outside and suddenly see that teenagers are all wearing Rick Owens now thanks to Playboi Carti. Instead, the 28-year-old Ghanaian Canadian designer aims to promote a different kind of uniformity within fashion. While Badu smirks and admits his friends thought the term was cliche, he dubs his genderless and futuristic garments “Youniforms” because they’re about promoting individuality more than anything else.
“It’s not about us forcing a look onto you or forcing a specific idea for a brand,” says Badu, whose clothing have been worn by the likes of ASAP Rocky, Young Thug, Kendrick Lamar, and more. “We want to create enough options that people could rotate or translate them into their wardrobe. The whole idea is creating garments that, more or less, challenges garment construction and even the industry.”
Since Badu launched his Toronto-based eponymous label in 2015, he has honed in on crafting contemporary garments that are innovative and enduring. A collared Spencer Badu shirt recently worn by Lamar for a Saturday Night Live promo is a prime example of his design ethos. The brown logoless shirt boasts additions like elasticated toggles on the cuff, and subtractions, such as sleeves with elbow holes which reveal whatever layer is underneath. While it almost looks exactly like the classic wardrobe staple, Badu’s touches redefine every notion of what we imagine a collared shirt should look like.
“A shirt’s opening is usually a regular placket with buttons so how do we make it modern or futuristic? We put an invisible zipper,” he says. “But with an invisible zipper, because it doesn’t open at the bottom, there has to be some sort of finishing at the bottom. So we added an elasticated waist to bring a crop-like shape. So in a way, you now have a new shape and garment.”
This is the tailored alchemy that Badu has perfected. His tanktops are tweaked so that the arms fall through the traditional undergarment’s head holes. T-shirt side seams are brought forward to purposefully give them an off-centered look. A pair of army green pants maintain the silhouette of traditional cargos but are finished off with the waist of a pair of black joggers complete with a drawstring.
“When you think of a Frank Ghery building, or someone like Donald Judd or Corbusier, they presented these crazy ideas that were deemed to be impossible, but through their execution they lived through the test of time,” Badu says. “Their work continues to affect generations to come. The goal for my brand is that type of longevity and cultural impact. Obviously, it’s not a building, but I like to think that some of the garments I’m making will stand the test of time and be passed down like Margiela, Helmut Lang, or Gaultier pieces.”
Badu was formally trained as a technical womenswear apparel designer at Olds College in Calgary, Alberta, where he graduated in 2016. But his lifelong interest in fashion was sparked by his love for hip-hop and his older brother’s interest in streetwear. Every summer, his brother Francis visited Buffalo, New York, to buy pieces from Pelle Pelle, Akademiks, and LRG—brands that were foreign and not as easily accessible to Toronto at the time but left an impression on a young Badu. “He would tell me that Jay-Z and Nas were wearing this in New York. So my introduction to fashion was really through hip-hop, which has always been a mass marketer for fashion brands.” he remembers. As a kid, Badu sold airbrushed graphic T-shirts in middle school but didn’t seriously consider starting a label until his parents sent him to live in Ghana for two years as a teenager. As he was assimilating to West African culture, he stayed connected to American hip-hop through the internet and began noticing rappers embracing fashion labels, including Comme des Garçons, Junya Watanabe, Raf Simons, and Rick Owens. He began diving deeper into their works.
“Like most fashion kids, when you start a brand, your references are the people that you look up to,” recalls Badu. “At the time, the early collections were dark, minimal, black and white, and monochrome.”
Badu had begun building pieces for his brand, previously named S.P. Badu, before enrolling in fashion school. When he graduated, he decided it would be best to pursue his own independent label rather than work for someone else. “I felt there wasn’t anyone that I could work for. So I just created something that I felt like was missing in this market,” he says. Although he gradually learned how to run a business and find proper manufacturers, it certainly wasn’t easy. All of his earnings often went back into producing the next collection. “When you’re in your early 20s and running a brand, it’s hard to think creatively when you’re being suffocated financially,” he says. Spencer Badu, the label, is still completely self-funded, and it wasn’t until 2020 that he felt like the brand began picking up more steam. Badu credits the momentum he gained that year to the pandemic and more awareness of Black creatives in light of George Floyd’s death. That tumultuous year led to Badu building up his direct-to-consumer sales rather than relying on wholesale. It also gave him a moment to reflect and think about what story his brand was looking to tell.
“As I grew as a designer, I became more confident with who I was and I realized that the only leverage I had in my career was being more honest about myself and where I come from,” he says. “I started to really lean into what set me apart from the next 10 designers who are at the top of mind.”
The designer began tapping into his Ghanian heritage and the cultural touchpoints he grew up on, which is apparent in his most recent collections. His ninth collection, titled “Baduhaus,” released this spring, included Kente-cloth inspired sweaters and graphic sweatshirts that reimagined Greek life college merch with Ghanian Adinkra symbols. While the theme of Badu’s 10th collection released in September was inspired by the outdoors, the designer also thought of his own parents’ migration from Ghana to Canada. Their journey was always set within the warmer months, so he sought to design garments that envisioned what their migration from Africa would have looked like within a fall setting.
“A lot of the silhouettes started from African silhouettes. It was voluminous in fabric and almost like drapery. But we still maintain that same volume within more traditional garments, like fleeces, vests, and the pants, which are more so a nod to hip-hop culture,” says Badu.
At ComplexCon, Badu will bring some of his most popular releases, which include hats with hidden side-zippers, his asymmetrical tanktops, two-in-one messenger bags, and select graphic T-shirts. Pieces from Badu’s upcoming 11th collection will also make their official debut at ComplexCon. “This 11th collection will speak towards the same idea of migration, but we’re thinking about arrival and what that looks like. The idea of keeping certain traditions, letting go of some, and picking up other things. It’s about how one assimilates to the environment that they’re in.”
Badu believes his label has found its stride lately. Aside from its North American retailers like SSENSE and Nordstrom, it’s stocked internationally in GR8 in Japan, H-Town in the United Kingdom, and Opener in Korea. Recently, he’s begun producing knitwear and accessories such as handbags and hats. In the near future, he looks to pursue meaningful collaborations and design footwear. While much of his pieces are produced using deadstock fabrics, and has even explored upcycled designs, he’s also begun to research novel production methods such as 3D printing sunglasses. The designer is also currently exploring the idea of presenting a live runway show in New York, London, or Paris. Still, despite all of that in the pipeline, what he’s most proud of is the community the brand has built.
“We’ve built this aesthetic that people around the world have gravitated to. And it’s really fulfilling to kind of see our impact, whether that’s just a random person up the street or celebrity,” says Badu. “Ultimately, our customer is someone who has this discernment to know who they are and what they want. We’re just happy that people can find that within what we’re doing.”