Although the DARLA brand name is now an acronym for “Dreams And Real Life Aligned,” the name DARLA actually belongs to my great aunt Darla who passed away from cancer in 2004. The concept of DARLA Magazine was inspired by the relationship I have with my cousin Mia (her daughter) + all of the other women in my family. I wanted to create a publication that would represent creatives who live by their own rules and work hard to achieve their dreams, as well as a publication that shares the stories of those who have been affected by cancer and other serious illnesses.
This week’s feature is a brand + model collaboration that represents both of these things. URBANE is a new lifestyle brand under the Avenue Black company created by Jason Richardson — a 24 year old designer and entrepreneur from New Jersey. For SS16 Jason has released two custom-cut “Remission” basketball jerseys + a custom cut “Untitled” hat and linked up with model, Sonya Marin, and photographer, Brandon Almengo, to shoot the look book. Both Jason + Sonya are cancer survivors with inspiring stories about how they have found the strength to keep pushing when the odds were against them.
I had the opportunity to ask Jason a few questions about the meaning behind his company and what it’s like to be a young business owner + to learn about Sonya’s survival story from her own point of view. Check out the interview below!
victoriadrianna: What inspired the creation of Avenue Black/URBANE? When/how did you get started with designing?
Jason Richardson: At age two I was diagnosed with a Wilms Tumor (cancer of the Kidney). I went through surgical removal of my right kidney and chemotherapy. Growing up I honestly wasn’t supposed to play any sports but basketball was always a passion of mine. Fast forwarding to now I just finished up my collegiate career at Rutgers Camden. My entire life has been about people telling me I can’t do this or I can’t do that and I’ve just went against the grain everytime. Coaches telling me he’s too small to play college basketball or teachers telling me he’s not smart enough to excel in college.
In college I was always into fashion and was the guy always getting dressed to go to that 9am class. In my downtime in college I taught myself adobe suite and learned how to design and make websites. Once I graduated I told myself I wanted to start my own brand, but I felt like that was thinking too small. So I decided to start a clothing company called “Avenue Black” and with that I would have multiple brands under that large umbrella. My goal is to create this machine of different style clothing brands. With that I want to help other brands expand and help them make their path easier. I have done a lot of the ground work and put out thousands of dollars to find the resources that I have and I am willing to invest in younger designers who don’t have the resources or the income to really push their brand. That’s what Avenue Black is all about. It’s about taking light from the darkness and focusing on pushing through to the light at the end of the tunnel.
Now for “URBANE,” that is my baby and my pride and joy. It’s the first brand under “Avenue Black.” URBANE is a lifestyle brand solely owned and designed by me. The book definition of “URBANE” is the reflecting of elegance or sophistication especially in expression. My expression in that definition is through the garments. Every piece released for URBANE will tell a story. A small portion of my story and everything that I have been through growing up. My main focus for the first two products were the before and after of my Cancer survivor story.
V: Describe the overall aesthetic of your clothing line — what do you want your brand to represent to our generation?
JR: I want my brand to express to the generation that anything is truly possible. My life being a living testament to that. I survived cancer and still did everything they told me I couldn’t do. I wasn’t supposed to play basketball and I went on to set records and give a college program its first winning season in school history. Even when I wanted to start my clothing brand people were saying, “Oh everyone has a clothing brand now, you’re just like them,” but know I’m not like everyone else. I have a story to tell and I’m going to tell it. I want my generation and younger generations to look at my story and I want it to inspire them. I am going to make dope clothing I know that, but if I’m not able to inspire someone along the way then who I am I really doing it for?
V: What’s the story behind the shoot for your summer ’16 collection?
JR: So I have an amazing friend named Sonya. We have been friends for going on 8 years. 3 years ago she was diagnosed with Leukemia. She went through chemotherapy and stands today 2 years in remission. When she reached out and told me she was diagnosed it felt unreal to see a friend so close to me have to go through that experience. I told her she was going to make it. I told her we are too strong for this and we are going to be survivor buddies. She laughed but after all of that she pushed through and made it. So I only thought it was right we collaborate on this photo shoot together. The Remission jersey is something that symbolizes both of our battles. It’s something that changed both of our lives for the better. Our bond is amazing and we both share that one characteristic of being survivors.
victoriadrianna: Tell me a little about yourself and your story of being a cancer survivor.
Sonya Marin: In February of 2014 I was interning at Versace, excelling in all 6 of my classes, and working full-time as a waitress to pay rent and support all of trips to and from NYC. I was as busy as ever but I loved every second of it; I felt so confident in my abilities at my job, in class, and interning. It was exactly what I needed — the relationship I was in was as rocky as ever so I was searching for the feeling of fulfillment.
For 2 months I had been experiencing feelings of fatigue and being out of breathe just walking the short distance from NY Penn station to the Versace building. I chalked it up to not exercising and terrible eating habits. My condition only worsened, but everything was looking up for my life so stopping and paying attention to my body was out of the question. Days continued and each day I woke up more and more weak. My dad finally convinced me to take a day off and attend a Villanova basketball game. After the game, I shared my symptoms with him and he urged me to call out of work the next day and see the doctor. I took his advice, still unshaken, during my visit, my doctor took a blood sample and came back to the room with a look of worry, he requested a parent to discuss my results. With much confusion I phoned my dad and he came into the room, equally as confused, being that I was of age to not have a parent present. My doctor explained that my blood count was dangerously low and I needed a transfusion immediately. I was so confused, but remained silent. The doctor still looked worried as he wrote me a prescription and sent me off to the nearest hospital.
I hate to worry my parents so I began making jokes and making light of the situation even though worry began to creep up in the back of my mind. I stayed overnight in the hospital while receiving my transfusion and was awoken around 7 am by an old man in a white jacket. My annoyance quickly turned to shock as I read ‘oncologist’ on his white coat. He explained to me that they would be running tests, more specifically a bone marrow test to figure out why my body wasn’t correctly producing the right amount of blood. He gave me the best and worst case scenarios and I tried my best to form positive thoughts from the news I was receiving. I gave my mom a call, little did I know they had been up all night phoning my uncle who was a doctor and my grandmother who had been a nurse for over 20 years… So they were prepared for what the results could be.
For the next 3 days we played a waiting game, I tried my best to distract my family from uncertainty, while trying to mentally prep myself for the unknown. The one day that my family couldn’t be by my side, the doctor walks in to speak to me. I tried my best to read his expression and body language as a way to brace myself, but nothing. He sat down and immediately delved into an analogy about crab grass and how to much of it can ruin a perfectly good lawn; without treatment the entire lawn would cease to exist. My eyes kept searching for something in his hidden message but again, nothing. He took a deep breathe in and gave me the news, ” Sonya our results are indicating AML or as we like to call it, acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer…” as soon as the word left his mouth a lump formed in my throat and the tears ferociously yet quietly raced down my face. I wiped them casually and turned serious as I nodded my head as if accepting his news was a piece of cake. He explained treatment options and how soon we would need to start due to the cancer’s aggressiveness. I called my dad and within seconds of hanging up with him, calls from my siblings and mother came one after other with words of comfort and what seemed like emergency positivity.
I began a week long treatment of chemotherapy the very next day at the University of the Hospital of Pennsylvania and was watched by round-the-clock nurses to see if the treatment was working. Within 3 weeks, my doctors noted a positive change and I was home 2 weeks later. I received the news of my cancer’s triumphant disappearance late March. In order to secure my health, my doctors administered re-consolidation chemotherapy every month for 4 months, allowing me to receive it in the comfort of my own home. So for the following months into summer I slept, ate, and received chemotherapy; unable to leave the house due to such a low immune system. A lovely ‘perk’ from treatment, was that friends and family that visited were subjected to wearing hospital masks and refraining from bringing me flowers and all things that enhance any airborne diseases that could send me back to the hospital. That continued until August. My hair began growing back, just as I was getting accustomed to my baldy, I felt stronger, and my blood count was superb.
I wasted no time re-enrolling for classes and looking for another place and job. I felt so behind, even given my circumstance, it seemed to me that defeating cancer unleashed a hidden strength and tenacity to get things done and to live life for myself. I am now in my senior year of college, graduating in the fall, and just finished an internship at Marie Claire. I am trying not to fill my plate up too much and take it easier… But the strength that cancer released still drives me everyday to just be better overall in any and everything I choose to do.
V: What does URBANE’s “Remission” jersey mean to you?
SM: For me, the URBANE ‘Remission’ jersey symbolized a reminder of my journey… And a sense of humility greets me when I wear the jersey, also a sense of strength that I carry with me. This jersey serves as a piece of my memory that although gloomy and frightening, has the ability to produce something so much more beautiful.
victoriadrianna: What are some challenges you face while running your company?
Jason Richardson: As a young business owner I have faced a the most of my challenges with finding the right manufacturer. It’s hard because you don’t have a lot of money that you can afford to not see a return on, but you have to put out a significant amount of money out to find these top tier manufacturers that you want. My first product launch last year cost me a lot of money and the return on the investment wasn’t the best but that’s a sacrifice you have to take as a start-up business. One thing I can say is to learn from your mistakes and don’t make the same mistake twice. I put out around $4500 in the past year but through doing that I found the best manufacturer possible. There’s a lot of ground work that goes into having a successful brand and there really aren’t any short cuts. You have to do the work and there’s no way around it.
V: If you could give advice to a younger version in need of motivation to keep working towards your career goals, what would it be?
JR: My only words of motivation would be to take a look at my story and understand that adversity is going to come. There is only two methods of dealing with adversity and that is “Fight” or “Flight”. I came out of the womb fighting and look at where it has gotten me. Another thing I would say is “just do it”. I know that sounds cliche but there are going to be a lot of people who are going to tell you that you can’t do something. Sometimes those people are going to be the closest ones to you. The only person you have to listen to is yourself. If you want to do something, just do it and don’t overthink it. You will see how attainable your goals are once you just start doing the things that are going to get you there. I contemplated starting this company for about 3 months and I just woke up one morning and told myself I’m going to do it and I did it. Wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world right now!
If you love quality clothing with a meaning behind it as much as me, you’ll really appreciate what URBANE has to offer. Shop the “Remission” jerseys and “Untitled” baseball cap today and learn more about it by visiting avenueblack.us/urbane! + Keep up with what Jason has in store for Avenue Black in the future by following @AvenueBlack.US on Instagram.
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