Talking to Stephen Barrett about his life preceding the launch of Creamy Studios in 2018, it’s evident that his life could have gone in lots of different directions and most of them would have been without Creamy. Stephen and his brother, Peter, started the brand from their respective college dorms at Ohio University. Their goal: to be an environmental advocate in the streetwear community. Their method: creating unique 1-of-1 streetwear pieces by repurposing clothes they found thrifting. But this wasn’t a dream that they had shared from an early age.
By Stephen’s own admission, neither he nor his brother were, “fashion kids” growing up. While both brothers shared similar interests in their youth, their lives weren’t as interlinked as they are today. In the span of a few years, Stephen went from being a Division 3 swimmer, to quitting and transferring to OU and becoming an education major before realizing that he needed time away to figure out what he really wanted from life.
In the Spring of 2018 burnt out from school, Stephen decided to enroll on an Outward Bound trip. Strapped for the cash to pay for the trip, it was his next decision, to repurpose and sell thrifted t-shirts to raise the money, that would prove most pivotal in setting the stage for the founding of Creamy Studios later that fall. The t-shirts sold swiftly and after completing his trip, the confidence he had gained from selling the t-shirts in the Spring caused a substantial shift in Stephen’s mindset. Upon returning to OU in the Fall, he switched his major to Fashion Product Development and brought his brother onboard to help start the venture, citing Peter’s sharp business acumen, artistic ability as well as it serving as an avenue to bring them closer together.
Now, just shy of two and a half years later, the brothers are in the process of refining their business and creative practices, with the goal of creating more cohesive collections and building a deeper community around the brand.
Euan Makepeace: So, you started a brand called Creamy. What was the idea behind the name?
Stephen Barrett: I am a big peanut butter addict. That is really what got the word creamy stuck within my word index. I’ve always liked the word and the way it alludes to luxury. Something that is very rich or intense. I could never think of something that is creamy and is bad. I relate it to a state of euphoria, like seeing something that’s so cool and just thinking, “that’s so creamy”. It makes you feel something. That’s what it means to me. It’s also provocative. When some people ask me why creamy, you can tell by their face that they are uncomfortable saying the word. I get a kick out of that. I honestly felt like it was a word that if I didn’t snatch it up now, someone else was going to do it and I would regret it.
EM: The brand is self-described as an “environmental advocate” in “streetwear”. These are two phrases that you don’t often see in the same sentence. Why is this a message that’s important to you in your business?
SB: One, my passion besides doing art and fashion is the outdoors. One day I hope to retire to a cabin in the woods, that’s where I feel most at home. When I decided that I didn’t want to teach and that I wanted to do fashion I knew already that the industry has a terrible carbon footprint. So, I thought to myself, if I am going to do this, I want to be an advocate for the planet with my work. Because you’re right, streetwear, especially today, is the consumption machine. We’re not here to say that consumption is bad. It’s just that we want to make people conscious about it. We want people to think about why they’re buying a piece and consider where it’s being sourced from. Also, the fact that humans are always going to need clothing. There’s always going to be a supply of clothes that need to be repurposed and I just think that there is a future in recycling clothing. Whether that’s totally stripping it down and making it into a new textile or sewing together two pieces to make something completely new. I think there’s going to be a huge market for it and I wanted to be one of the first voices, because I think it’s a really cool concept.
EM: Based off of what you’re saying and considering the industry at this point in time, it’s fair to say that you’re ahead of the curve with regards to sustainability in fashion. Do you have any intention of stepping into a role where you’re an influencer in sustainable fashion in the future?
SB: I definitely do see a place for the brand in that role. That’s the role I want it to have. I don’t know exactly how we’ll do that though. Coming into this year, we are trying to approach projects a new way and refine our process. With each collection I do want there to be a message that relates to conscious consumption. I am really inspired by Patagonia and their Worn Wear initiative, which buys back their clothing and fixes it before reselling it. They also have video tutorials on how to fix clothing. They just do a lot of incredible things and it’s all outdoor focused so I think it would be really cool to take that model and apply it to the streetwear market. I think it would work. Essentially, as Creamy develops, I would like to have initiatives that elevate voices and eventually a program where we are buying back people’s vintage and having a team that upcycles it. Possibly even being able to teach other organizations, or other brands to do it and be an influence that way. I believe to save our planet this is the direction brands have to start thinking and I hope we can help other brands think a little differently.
EM: The art you put on your garments vary a lot between pieces. What are your inspirations when it comes to design?
SB: It’s a little all over the map honestly. I doodled a lot growing up and my brother did as well, so that’s been a heavy influence. Just a doodle stream of consciousness can help us come up with ideas we like or think could be cool. A lot of those influences that inspire the imagery and ideas, and I don’t know if this is a cliché answer, come from the music that we listen to. I grew up listening to a lot of Indie music whereas my brother was more of a hip-hop nerd, so blending those two genres together is an influence for us. We both read a lot of books growing up, Shel Silverstein or my brother read a lot of Calvin and Hobbes, Dr. Suess and Where’s Waldo? Just really visually dense or abstract cartoons. We consumed a lot of that growing up. We really didn’t watch a lot of TV. My mom was not a fan of TV. There’s also a graffiti influence. I’ve only dabbled in it but that’s always been something I’ve been interested in. I know my brother was a part of the graffiti club at OU for a semester. We’ve been working on refining the designs a little, because sometimes we are all over the board. I would say if we had to pick from art periods, I’d definitely say a lot of cubism, pop art and I have started getting into surrealism, so I think there will be a lot of that coming in the future.
EM: Being an upcycle brand, you’re not manufacturing clothes for a specific calendar date I assume, so how do you configure your drops?
SB: How we’re going to operate in the future will be a little different from the past. In the past, we would just collect shirts over time and then some would filter out. We still do this, filtering pieces into different categories based on color or the type of item. Then the collections build from there. Sometimes it’s an idea. For example, I embroidered some Frank Ocean lyrics on a bunch of t-shirts once and a couple people really like it, so we did a whole collection of different Frank Ocean lyrics on the front of shirts. It has never really stuck to the traditional fashion calendar. I decided that I never really wanted to, because even though we’re doing clothing, when I originally approached it, I never really thought of it that way. I’ve always just thought that we can just put together mini-collection and just release them whenever we want. That’s how we were operating.
Now we are refining that idea and are trying to approach drops with four collections a year. Which is a little more traditional, but we’re almost treating them more like an album. By defining a theme and with each piece being a one-of-one we saw each piece as a track. That’s how we’re thinking of approaching our collections this year. We have a collection called “Circle Earth” that will be dropping in March and it’s very outdoor themed. A little more earthy on the shirts. We’ve really taken that album idea and tried to flush it out with this next collection and we can’t wait to see how our audience receives it. If people like it, we want to develop it more. Ultimately, I think it’s a creative way to approach fashion collections asides from it being based solely on a season.
EM: That’s very unique and I’ve never heard of that analogy in fashion before. It’s fitting though for your collections. Does the change in strategy align with any change in your aesthetic?
SB: I see a lane for what you could call Festwear. This would bridge the gap between streetwear and outdoor wear. So, clothing specifically designed for music festival that is durable and little bit flashier with a street edge. It’s also versatile so you could also wear it on your backpacking trip as well as walking down the street. This is an area that I saw opening up before the pandemic, but we’ll see if it exists post-pandemic.
EM: You have a section on your website called “Club Creamy”, can you tell me what that is?
SB: Its currently nothing. I put that up the other day. Part of what we’re working on this year is to beef up on our marketing. It’s essentially a newsletter, but we’re not going to send out a bunch of annoying ones. If you’re “in the club” you’ll receive some early access, you’re going to know about upcoming dates. Eventually I’d like there to be some exclusive behind the scenes content too. The goal is to build a community around the brand and give those customers who are really invested a place to get more involved. And who knows, once this pandemic is over, maybe there will be events that will all be driven by the club as well.
EM: What does future success look like?
SB: Working on the brand as my full-time gig and still being able to finance all the outdoor adventures I want to go on. Honestly, if I can get to that point then that’s success to me. If the brand blows up and it gets crazy big and I’m cashing six-figure checks that’d be really rad but at the same time if it stays local and it has a really strong local support, and I can still go travel and explore the outdoors then that would be just as fulfilling. Detail wise, I’d really like to have an actual space where we produce the clothing in the back and maybe in the front, we have a shop or host events. I think it would be really cool to have a community space so we could host movie nights or have local musicians play. It would be really dope to have a poetry reading night. So not only having a store, but having a center for kids who have a creative pull to meet other creatives in the community. A lot of people say retail is dead. I think that’s true if you just approach it as a store, I think you have to look at it differently. The future is definitely in community building and initiatives like that. And then hopefully being able to set up an upcycling program that people can send their used clothes into. That’s the future of the brand. Obviously there will be a lot in-between there but that’s the overarching goal.