There’s no doubt that this year has come with its up and downs but consequently there’s been much progress in regards to supporting Black businesses. In the fashion industry, Black designers are leveraging the recognition that this community has received over the last few months and monetized its new audience. This year, arguably for most, has been hit with grief. But there’s a shared survivors guilt amongst many creatives who have dealt with the monumental leaps of 2020. “The business has actually really excelled,” exclaimed Tyrell Oliver, co-founder of the CRATE, a luxury leisure label. “But I don’t always want to be too excited that my business is growing [as] the world feels like it’s going apart.”
Launched in 2014, the CRATE NY was founded by Terrill Kirk and Tyrell Oliver, two NYC natives who based their brand out of Far Rockaway, Queens. Often considered the “6th borough,” the duo opened a store-front in a community that’s not linked to the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. When the CRATE opened, the pair sold up-and-coming labels before transitioning over to designing their own clothes. “We were just bringing resources back,” says Kirk. “Going to L.A. and other places, just finding different brands that certain people might not have ever came in contact with.”
Now celebrating its sixth year, CRATE has been worn by the likes of Kanye West, J.Cole, Carmelo Anthony, Wiz Khalifa and more along with curating a growing a national following by remaining authentic. “It wasn’t a passion of mine to own a clothing store my whole life,” says Oliver. “We wanted to do a business. And then what could you do when you do business.”
Here’s more from the founders of the CRATE who spoke to ESSENCE about stepping into year six and how they’ve made it this far.
How was that initial process when opening up the store?
TERRIL KIRK: It was definitely trial and error. We didn’t know anything. I’m going to be honest with you. We knew nothing. These six years has been every day is a learning lesson. It was never smooth sailing. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t what we expected. Even six years in, it’s like we’re still learning every day. Customers are aging, customers are growing. You’re not dealing with the same neighborhood customers. You’re dealing with people on a different coast in the country.
What made you want to sell your own designs instead of carrying brands?
KIRK: After we came up with the name of the store the CRATE, we made and gave out the hats in the hood. People started calling us and saying, “I need a CRATE hat.” Fast forward, we opened the store and had a grand opening. I think we had made a T-shirt. Then after, maybe a couple months later, we started making little hoodies here and there. We were just doing little stuff here and there. I made some tie dye tees 2016 summer, and the gangsters in the neighborhood was wearing them. Tie dye is what they would call a hipster thing. That’s what most people would say. And I’m like no, “If I can get the people in my hood that I have never even seen with tie dye to wear that.” It was like things just started happening. We didn’t know when we opened that store, that it was going to be a brand. We just knew that we wanted to bring something to the neighborhood that they’ve never experienced.
How do you deal with the growing demand of customers outside of Queens now?
TYRELL OLIVER: We don’t have the answers for tomorrow. We just know not letting the customers direct. We learned not to let the customers dictate what we do. We still want to keep our hands involved. Customers ask for all types of things. Why don’t you make this? Why don’t you do that? We’re trying to keep our feel in it but still let the business grow, let them feel the natural state of where they started. As far as when it grows and new customers come on board, they came on board for a reason because they naturally liked something and they gravitate towards it. So we just try to remain the same and just learn day-to-day.
Why did you all decide to keep your storefront in Far Rockaway, Queens?
OLIVER: When you hear about Far Rockaway being from New York, you’re like, “People don’t come to Far Rockaway.” They have no reason to come to Far Rockaway. A lot of people might get on the train and go to the beach. So the fact that we’re able to do what we’re doing in Far Rockaway is better than none. It’s unmatched. It’s putting something that’s not there, creating a resource, creating that hub for people to come shop and chill.
“The fact that we’re able to do what we’re doing in Far Rockaway is better than none. It’s unmatched.” – Tyrell Oliver
OLIVER: It’s changed the environment a little bit too because you didn’t have to go to the city, or take an hour ride to the city and then go look for it. No, it’s right here. A lot of neighborhoods have that. We never had that.
KIRK: This collection right here not only strengthened the brand, but it’s strengthened me as a creative along with the other graphic designers we brought on this year. I don’t know if people were staying at home more and just paying attention to what was going on, but it definitely gained traction. Like the traction, we always we knew we would get but we never knew when it would come.
Where do you see CRATE going?
OLIVER: The CRATE was just a store. We didn’t have this plan in the beginning. Things have changed over the years so much that I can’t really say what tomorrow is like. I don’t know. I’m literally playing it by ear. Its endless. One thing I can say I know, and we both agree on, is we want to make sure that the people in Far Rockaway know they were there in the beginning. They know where we started. So it’s something that they can always brag about. No matter where it goes, they know it started there, and we’re from there. The CRATE represents them. If they don’t have nothing else, they got the CRATE. They know that.