Monday, December 4, 2023

Darryl Brown: From Toledo to fashion fame

Past generations called it “looking sharp”— when you look and feel like a million bucks and your clothing ensemble just sparkles. Darryl Brown calls it “getting fresh.” And as one of America’s rising fashion moguls, Brown knows a thing or two about freshness.

Photo credit: Tyson Hughes

Brown’s energy is evident the moment he enters the room. He walks like a tomcat, beaming with the confidence of a man who’s paid his dues and then some. He’s wearing a white DB (Darryl Brown) T-shirt ($80) and DB trouser ($150), and is all smiles as he shows off the future home of his Toledo fashion headquarters, located in the former Sophia Lustig Shop at 124 10th Street. His dreadlocked hair is pulled into a long cascade over his left shoulder. His arms are tattooed with artwork of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, souvenirs of the 10 years he spent hustling as an apprentice in the New York fashion world. He also spent a few years as stylist and wardrobe manager for Kanye West, but we’ll get to that.

Brown is the founder of the athleticwear line Midwest Kids and his namesake DB workwear line, recently named a “brand to watch” by the website Complex, and now available nationwide at Nordstrom. He’s just designed a shoe for Adidas with a grand unveiling scheduled for this fall. Kanye West, Lebron James, and Machine Gun Kelly are all listed in his phone’s contacts. And he’s done fashion shows all over the world, from Paris to Milan.

Pretty good for a kid from Toledo’s South End.

Photo credit: Tyson Hughes

Midwest Kid
Born and raised in the Collingwood/Belmont area, Brown got his first taste of fame as a track star at Rogers High School. He was named All City and All State and became known around his neighborhood for his athletic prowess. By the time he graduated from Rogers in 2004, Brown had already traveled around the world attending track meets. He describes his childhood as “blue collar” and offers high praise to his parents, who still live in Toledo— his dad is retired from Jeep and his mom still works at Toledo Hospital.

“I was blessed enough to stay out of trouble and not have too many issues. Growing up in the inner city, we weren’t rich but weren’t broke either,” says Brown, stretching back on a futon in his upstairs 10th Street office. 

After being awarded a track scholarship to Vincennes University in southern Indiana, however, Brown quickly realized that he was just one of many fast athletes out there. Plus, he quickly grew disillusioned with the politics of collegiate sports.

“College sports are really run like a business. It wasn’t full of glory and passion like high school sports were. And unless you’re a top tier athlete, there’s no money in it,” says Brown. With his dreams of competing in an Olympiad dashed, Brown came back home to Toledo. He got a great job working as a conductor for the Norfolk-Southern Railroad, where he was making serious money for a young man of 21. But after four years of working on the railroad, he began to burn out.

“I’m a Cancer. I don’t like anything stagnant. I like to be moving and progressing, elevating to the next level. So after I did all the partying in my early 20s and got that out of my system, I was just, like, “what’s next?”

His life was about to take a fashionable turn.

Clothing designed by Darryl Brown. Photo credit: Tyson Hughes

Looking good
As long as Darryl Brown can remember, he loved “getting fresh” and taking pictures of people. He loved the feeling he got when he dressed up in well-designed clothes. His interest in fashion led him to his friend Zack Beebe’s store NEX, a clothing and lifestyle boutique located near the University of Toledo campus, at Secor and Dorr. Beebe opened NEX in 2009 which Brown describes as a “one stop shop for guys.” Not only could you come in and shop for fine name-brand streetwear, but clients could listen to music and get a haircut. On his days off from the railroad, Brown spent hours hanging out at NEX, offering Beebe suggestions on what merchandise to stock. Though he loved helping his friend with the store, Brown still didn’t see a future for himself in fashion.

“Fashion to me was what I’d seen on TV— skinny people walking up and down on runways, and silk and fabric everywhere. That’s what I thought fashion was. I figured there was no place for me in that,” says Brown.

But one day Brown booked a then-mostly unknown rapper from Cleveland, Machine Gun Kelly, to appear at NEX, and the rapper asked Brown about the hoodie he was wearing and where he could get one. Little did Brown know, he had just landed his first client as a stylist.

“I found out that a stylist was someone who dressed people up and that blew my mind,” says Brown. “I thought all these famous athletes and entertainers were just rich and had the means to buy whatever clothes they wanted. I never knew that there was a person, a whole profession, who was dressing them. That blew my mind.”

Clothing designed by Darryl Brown. Photo credit: Tyson Hughes

Brown quit the railroad and fully devoted himself to the fashion world. He moved to New York, working for the brand Rocksmith, while still styling people on the side. After a few years, through a connection with Machine Gun Kelly, Brown ended up as Kayne West’s full-time stylist, which eventually prompted a move to Los Angeles. While out in L.A., Brown dropped his two brands, Midwest Kids and Darryl Brown, both of which met with success. But in the back of Brown’s mind, he recalled his Toledo roots, and his working-class upbringing. Plus, even though it was great working for Kanye, life in L.A. lacked his Midwest sensibility. 

“Both of my brands are Midwest rooted,” says Brown. “I pull all my inspirations from my childhood and growing up in the Midwest, so it just made sense to come back home.”

So he did.

Downtown Darryl
“It doesn’t look like much now, but wait ‘til it’s done!”

Brown walks through the gutted interior of the former women’s boutique (which has moved to Perrysburg) explaining the layout of his new world headquarters, as workers haul away demoed materials.

Brown walks through the dusty space, pointing out where sales counters and an in-house print shop will be built. One thing is for sure, he’s a lot more relaxed in Toledo than he was in L.A.

Photo credit: Tyson Hughes

“Every day I lived in NY or LA, I woke up to pressure. I felt like a hamster running on a wheel. So being back home I feel at ease. I definitely get more bang for my buck. I’m able to spread myself deeper instead of thin. Some people go wide with it, not deep, but shallow. I’m trying to go deep.”

Deep, indeed. His Midwest Kids brand is inspired by the vintage collegiate athleticwear his mom used to wear, while the Darryl Brown line takes its inspiration from the clothes his dad used to wear every day when he would go to work. Work is scheduled to be completed on the Darryl Brown headquarters this fall, with an official launch planned for October 1, also the date he will unveil his Adidas shoe to the world. For now, Brown is happy being home in Toledo. He can be close to his family and friends. In the meantime, it’s business as usual for Brown, selling his fashion lines and helping people “get fresh.”

“At the end of the day, I’m just a guy from Toledo. I’ve been super blessed and very fortunate and it’s great to be home.” 

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