Issa Rae's HBO series "Insecure" has exposed viewers to an area of Los Angeles that otherwise doesn't get much airtime in popular culture these days — at least not in such a complex and romantic way: South-Central L.A., which encompasses communities like Crenshaw, Inglewood, Baldwin Hills, Compton and Leimert Park, many of which are historically predominantly Black.
Like Rae, designer Ashley Sky Walker is inspired by this part of the city, in which he also grew up. So inspired that in 2017, after a stint in New York City as a photographer, he returned to L.A. to launch the unisex clothing line Leimert Park Threads. The following year, in a moment of perfect synergy, Rae wore a shirt from the brand's signature Colored collection as her namesake character in "Insecure"'s third season (while in bed with Nathan, played by actor and activist Kendrick Sampson, to be exact).
"[Costume designer] Shiona Turini wanted to utilize our brand for HBO's 'Insecure' and it just so happened we had the prefect jersey for a scene she was doing with Issa Rae and Kendrick," Walker tells me. "It was just the perfect placement for the brand and it really showcased us in a really beautiful way, and I think it had a great message behind it in terms of showcasing some Black love."
Walker, who attended the art-centric Fairfax High School (which has a long list of famous alumni), always had an interest in fashion and photography. He studied fashion merchandising at Howard University, a prominent historically Black institution, and took advantage of an opportunity to study abroad in London at Central Saint Martins. "I was able to gain a lot of great perspective, an international perspective, on fashion and the business of fashion and met some really cool people," he says of the experience.
"Central Saint Martins was definitely a school I wanted to go to right out of high school, but I visited Howard on a Black college tour and felt at home there," he explains. "I chose culture first."
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Even while studying in Washington, D.C., Walker says he often visited New York City and "came up with" a group of creatives in fashion and adjacent industries who all then moved to the city to start their careers. Walker ended up interning at Art + Commerce, Diane Von Furstenberg and Vibe Magazine, where he often worked on fashion shoots. He then began getting hired as a photographer, ultimately contributing editorials and celebrity shoots to Vibe, as well as Uptown and Essence magazines.
Still, Walker always saw himself in L.A. longterm and, in 2016, made the move back home to built a new clientele, and ultimately start a new project.
"It has really always been on my heart to start a fashion line and throw my hat in the ring in that regard, so I decided to start Leimert Park Threads," he says. "I wasn't really sure exactly how or what exactly it was going to entail, but 'Colored' has been on my brain and it was just something I kept seeing in my head."
The culturally-charged term featured heavily in Walker's debut collection and remains a signature of the brand. Walker says he was inspired by Sean Jean: "The Sean Jean logo on the shirts, [they] just enticed people to learn more about the brand as a culture. 'Colored' for me represented so many different aspects of culture. It represented my Native American culture. I was partly raised by a Belizean godmother, so [it represents] aspects of that culture. Being in L.A., it's so multicultural here, and it helped me to embrace other cultures as well, other creeds. 'Colored' felt to me like it's an open door for people coming together and having conversations about race and social issues and social justice."
He also knew the word would get people's attention. "It has just the right amount of chutzpah," he notes. Other themed logos that Leimert Park Threads regularly uses include "Afro Futurism" and "Juneteenth."
Another signature of the brand is its HBCU collection, for which Walker refurbishes existing merch from schools like Howard and Morehouse. It caught the attention of another powerful figure in Hollywood, stylist Zerina Akers, who works with none other than Beyoncé. She put the iconic artist in one of Walker's Howard sweatshirts and a Morehouse T-shirt, both of which are featured in 2019's "Homecoming," the documentary that chronicles Beyoncé's unforgettable Coachella performance (which itself was, of course, inspired by HBCUs).
"That was such a great moment for us; to this day we definitely get lots of requests for that sweater," says Walker. He's even seen other designers try to copy it but confirms that "we were able to maintain a pretty solid footing in terms of people recognizing that sweater as one of ours."
2020 has been a big year for Leimert Park Threads, too. For one, it got a second moment on "Insecure," when the brand had its own booth at the fictional block party that Issa organizes in her neighborhood, in season four. (The brand has hosted similar activations in real life at events like Afropunk and Essence Festival.) Then, in celebration of Juneteenth — following weeks of Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police — Beyoncé featured Leimert Park Threads in her widely-shared list of Black-owned businesses to support.
"We did not expect it," says Walker. "It's garnered lots of traffic to our website and has definitely helped with our social media following and in getting the word and the brand out there and really helping to spread our message. That kind of publicity, you can't really pay for."
The brand was also awarded a two-week pop-up by Appear Here, a rapidly-growing platform that connects brands with short-term rental spaces. They're working on "a beautiful experience for my community and South Central" that Walker hopes will launch in October, though that will depend on the state of the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, Leimert Park Threads is available on its website as well as at Sole Folks, a sneaker shop in its namesake neighborhood.
Beyond creating more retail experiences once conditions allow, Walker hopes that the brand will continue to inspire those who see and wear it.
"Our mission is to entice people to have conversations about social justice, social awareness and to not be afraid to have conversations about race and color and be able to talk about all the things that make us different as well as things that bring us together as humans," he explains. He's also working on expanding the HBCU line through official licensing agreements with the schools featured.
"The HBCU line is our way of giving back to universities like Howard that helped to inspire me and introduce me to so many amazing people within my network that I've been able to work and collaborate with," he says. "Also to bring attention to the importance of people of color gaining education and keeping education at the forefront of how we're able to evolve as a people."