It’s a timeworn story: creative type grows up in a small town with few professional opportunities and feels compelled to leave such humble beginnings for the big city. But instead of the usual ending for local designer/businessman Floyd Johnson, whereby our protagonist flees for greener pastures, Johnson has instead created his own avenues for creative success right in his hometown.
In October 2009, Johnson began his now trademarked “Ohio Against the World” brand of T-shirts, which has blossomed into a street wear line that also includes oversize tank tops and various leather caps.
Originally conceived as an appropriation of a Nike slogan tee (“Brooklyn against the world”), Johnson claims he keeps his brand fresh by culling from a wide range of influences: high-end fashion designers like Karl Lagerfeld and fine artists like Andy Warhol; or Hiroshi Fujiwara, the godfather of Harajuku street fashion culture, and controversial fashion photographer Terry Richardson.
And although he appreciates the finer things in life, his product is more geared toward street wear — if only for the affordability factor.
“Nobody’s going to pay $1,500 for a dog chain bracelet if you’re in school. But that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the aesthetic,” Johnson says.
Perhaps that’s the biggest reason why the designer doesn’t limit his target audience. Johnson is well aware that taste spans more boundaries than money does. Give the people a reason to get behind the concept, and you’ve got a solid product.
At this point he’s made several versions of his iconic tee and various incarnations of a black baseball cap. The most expensive object he currently makes is his black leather Hermes-inspired, gold-studded cap. “I always want stuff to be affordable, so I do a lot by hand. I know a lot of people complained about a $65 hat, but it’s affordable for what you’re getting. It takes a lot of time to source and make the stuff.”
Only a few weeks ago, Johnson posted a photograph of international Pop star Rihanna wearing the aforementioned gold and leather OATW cap on his Facebook page.
“One of her friends sent her an email about the cap and she said she loved it,” Johnson says. He sent the hat to his friend who gave it to Rihanna while in L.A. for a Halloween party — yet another example of the brand speaking to people outside the state so affectionately promoted by the product. Even when people are wholly unaware of Ohio on the map, they grasp that Johnson is rooting for the little guy. In this way, the designer invokes Ohio in his slogan as the quintessential underdog — a trope of Midwestern capability in the face of widespread underestimation.
Raised in Mount Auburn by an entrepreneur/preacher father and small business owner mother, Johnson attended Fairview Academy of World Languages as a kid, where he studied German since kindergarten. “There were kids there from all around at that school: Indian Hill, Price Hill, Mount Auburn. You weren’t surrounded by people who looked exactly like you did,” Johnson says of his early education. And it seems clear that this affinity for diversity influences his aesthetic as well as his business practices.
“He was a good baby who never let anything bother him or stop him,” says Johnson’s mother, Norma Johnson. She’s never had to worry about her “Tom” (Thomas is Johnson’s middle name, and since his father is also Floyd, his mom always called him by his second name), because he has consistently had “people of all races who embrace him and take care of him” in his life.
In the mid-2000s, Johnson made a name for himself as “Floyd Freshdaily,” a well-connected party photographer who conceptualized events and acted as a go-between for DJs/event spaces and a demographically diverse audience.
He’s a charismatic guy who has always cultivated an online presence. When CityBeat interviewed him in 2008, Johnson had almost 1,500 Facebook friends — in the early days of the social network’s existence. When asked if he would’ve considered himself a party promoter back then, Johnson says, “I was more of a promoter for myself.”
One of his earliest collaborators was someone Johnson has known since his Fairview days: DJ Clockwork. Fresh off of a tour with rapper Mac Miller, Clockwork recently shared a story about one of their earliest joint projects.
“We did this ’80s party at [now defunct] Junior Art Gallery in Brighton. He threw it, I DJ’ed it. It was crazy; it was packed. From there, things just blossomed. It made recognition for both of us.”
People still talk about that party, as much for the 300 people going crazy in a 100-person capacity room as for the diversity of the crowd — there were well-to-do college kids and hood dropouts in equal measures — a rarity in Cincinnati.
Owing largely to his dynamic people skills, not to mention an education in marketing management at Cincinnati State, what initially seemed like a future career in PR for Floyd began to morph into something more tangible with his first Ohio Against the World campaign in 2009.
“I think partying and fashion go together. It’s a lifestyle,” he says, matter-of-factly. And Johnson should know. His father ran a modeling agency in town during the ’70s, and his paternal side of the family with 11 children was “full of prom kings and queens.” He mentions an aunt Linda who was famous for wearing full-length mink coats. The move to clothing seemed like a natural evolution for Johnson from his early days promoting parties.
“I remember sitting on our porch and talking about life,” says freelance stylist and Johnson’s best friend of almost a decade, Juliette Ladipo. “We were debating, ‘Do we move or should we stay?’ It’s hard to watch your friends who inspire you go off and abandon their roots. It was like, ‘Why can’t we create that kind of environment here?’ ”
And so Johnson did exactly that. Initially working on a short-lived apparel line, Copesthetic, out of his father’s basement (a project he began as a marketing project for school), Johnson took the lessons he learned from that early endeavor and began screenprinting a four-word slogan in an all-caps, collegiate font onto various colored T-shirts: Ohio Against the World.
The response was overwhelming. “I didn’t expect for it to get as big as it has,” Johnson says. “When OTR (Original Thought Required) on Main Street picked up their second or third run of shirts, I realized maybe this could become something bigger than just a T-shirt.”
At the heart of it all, OATW is about the individual protagonist. Just like Johnson himself, big things come from humble places. When asked how his work might change if he were to ever leave Ohio, he says, “I have no intention to move to New York or L.A. A lot of talented people try to ‘escape’ Ohio. They went off to these huge cities, but a lot of them lost the idea of what they wanted to do because of what they have to do to survive.”
In other words, he’s seen firsthand the detrimental effect that having to pay astronomical rents and subsisting in overpriced markets can have on your creative production.
Living in an “affordable” studio apartment in Northside allows Johnson the time to focus solely on his own business endeavors. When he talks about sleeping four hours a night and waking up at the crack of dawn to do work, he admits, “I couldn’t do it at all if I worked for somebody else.”
And “work” for the artist requires a lot of time on social media.
“I give a lot of credit to social networking,” Johnson says. “A lot of people throw shade to it, but when you work for yourself you need to do marketing.” Employing social media like Tumblr, Johnson can present an online lookbook for free to a global audience.
Even on Facebook, where the social network now requires businesses to pay to share their posts among “likers,” Johnson — because he embodies his own brand — is able to share imagery and information about his products gratis to almost 4,000 potential customers on a daily basis.
But Johnson doesn’t limit himself strictly to online media. For his first OATW campaign, he shot photos of friends wearing the shirts for posters he printed on the blueprint printers at Kinko’s, then wheatpasted them around town. He couldn’t afford an ad in a local publication, but Johnson knew the importance of reaching his audience and used every means he had to show them his product.
When asked if he’s interested in fame, he tempers his admission with self-deprecating facts — a very Cincinnati thing to do. He describes the repetitive redundancy of hand painting his appropriated orange Hermes shipping containers (a la Warhol’s Brillo boxes), fielding redundant text message orders from random numbers and making multiple trips to the post office for shipping supplies.
But he also (sheepishly) admits that fame has always been a goal. “I always wanted to be famous for something. Not an actor, not a musician, maybe just for who I am, ya know?”
And Johnson’s success has much to do with his pluralistic approach. “I’m all about being around people that don’t necessarily look like me.”
There is no specific “target audience” for Ohio Against the World, according to the artist.
“Even though it’s a blatant geographic reference, it’s definitely relatable,” Johnson says. “Straight, gay, white, black, Asian have all shown me astronomical support. And I thank everyone for that.”
Ladipo, who has styled videos for Jack White and leaves next month for a year abroad in Africa and India, says it can be rough to be a creative person in Cincinnati.
“To be able to create your own work and make it that successful is a pretty serious challenge,” she says.
But since March Johnson’s been able to work only for himself. In fact, his pie in the sky idea for the future involves establishing a creative agency right here in town: a “curated” hub of forward-thinking artistic types (think graphic designers, photographers, videographers, etc.).
Johnson and his New York-based friend, stylist/jewelry designer Susan Alexandria (originally from Ohio herself), came up with the creative agency idea while bouncing ideas off of each other via text. According to his future collaborator, “some of the most interesting, creative and brilliant people are from Ohio,” and they want to be able to source talent from here.
Johnson’s friends and collaborators say he’s successful because he doesn’t limit himself. He’s a doer who thinks out of the box — if something doesn’t exist, he’ll find ways to make it happen.
When asked about his hopes and dreams for the future, Johnson is pragmatic.
“To be a solid brand that represents the difference in Ohio through fashion,” he says, quickly adding, “and to be rich. I’m tired of being poor. Don’t let these gold shoes fool you. I’m tired of being broke. I wanna make it. I wanna make it happen by any means.” ©
CONTACT MARIA SEDA-REEDER: [email protected]
OATW presents a celebration of all black everything on Black Friday, Nov. 23 at The Ice Cream Factory, 2133 Central Ave., Brighton. Wear all black attire. For more information about Ohio Against the World, visit oatw-usa.com.