Most business owners can point to a moment when their idea crystallized; when their path became just a bit clearer. For Joey Lit (Jonathan Coffie to his mother), it was as a 10-year-old boy at home in the Ghanaian port city of Tema, watching one of his older brother's bootleg VHS tapes of MTV Cribs and American hip-hop videos. This was the era of 50 Cent and early Kanye West, but the video he kept rewinding was ‘Right Thurr’ by Chingy.
‘There was something about Chingy's look,’ says Joey, whose brother was part of the rap battle scene in Tema, which is known for swallowing up western influences well before the rest of West Africa has caught on. ‘The durag, the way the shirt, cap and sneakers all matched – I didn't know at that point what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that kind of style would be part of it somehow.’
Today, Joey is the co-founder of FREE THE YOUTH, an amorphous creative collective that he launched in 2013 with his Tema friend Kelly Kurlz. Initially, it was mostly about Joey and Kelly posting pictures to Tumblr and Instagram of their sharply dressed crew wearing the likes of Raf Simons and Alexander Wang, ‘hoping to show the world a different side to Ghana’.
Now, though, FREE THE YOUTH is a streetwear brand hyped by Vogue magazine, sought out by Nike and TikTok for collaborations, and worn by many of Ghana's new Afrobeats musicians. Along with the likes of Ghanaian brands Daniks Peters and FearNoMan, and Nigeria's Motherlan and Modus Vivendii, FREE THE YOUTH has been part of the explosion of West African streetwear brands in recent years.
And the brand, which has until now specialized in limited runs of T-shirts and denim, is eyeing the next level. The core crew of six is busy working on plans for a new factory and shop between the smart Accra districts of Labone and Osu. After that, Joey says they want to open stores across Africa, in cities like Lagos, Dakar and Nairobi, before going global. ‘In three or four years, we'd love to be part of the LVMH group,’ he says, boldly.
From Accra to beyond
Until now, FREE THE YOUTH's success has largely been a triumph of marketing, a skill Joey has been honing since his pre-teen Chingy revelation. Not long after, he was cruising to school in a pair of pink Timberlands and competing in high-school sneaker battles, so afraid to dirty his box-fresh Phat Farms or BAPE STAS that he'd wear them around his neck. His style heroes were his older brother and his friends, who were channeling Cam'ron and Kanye West on Tema's party scene. ‘Even then, it felt like we were part of a new kind of African culture,’ he says.
They started FREE THE YOUTH when Joey was studying electrical engineering in Accra and Kelly had just left high school in Tema, 20 miles along the coast. But it wasn't until two years later that they decided to parlay their sense of style into some of their own merchandise. They printed a handful of T-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies, emblazoned simply with their name. Joey gave T-shirts to B4Bonah and Kwesi Arthur, two local rappers he was helping to style, as they pioneered new music fusing West African Afrobeats with trap and electronica. ‘People saw the shirts and didn't know what it was,’ says Joey. ‘It was like some secret society that they wanted to be a part of.’
Early on, they made a virtue of their lack of resources. They couldn't afford to print much, but because their clothes were seen on the backs of Ghana's coolest musicians, interest was high. Their first collection, in 2015, was a small batch of T-shirts that read ‘1,000 Injured’, referring to the Accra Sports Stadium disaster of 2001. Available for the equivalent of $8 on Facebook, the collection sold out in days.
The crew became experts at generating excitement. At Ghana Teen Fashion Week, models smoked on the runway while wearing the brand's Ghetto University collection. An invite to Accra Fashion Week in 2017 followed. ‘After that,’ says Joey, ‘things blew up, and suddenly we had all this interest from around the world.’
Their timing was good, with the world increasingly interested in African creatives across disciplines, using social media to shatter tired stereotypes about the continent. Accra Afrobeats singer Amaarae, known for her dyed buzz cut and punky feminism, appeared in Vogue's new VogueWorld 100 list in 2018 wearing a FREE THE YOUTH T-shirt. A year later, Vogue featured the brand itself, raving about its increasingly cheeky slogan collections, from ‘Comme Des Youthdem’ to ‘Taxis Not Allowed’, taken from a ubiquitous street sign in Ghana. Collaborations with Foot Locker and Amsterdam fashion brand Daily Paper have followed.
The business essentials
But the business itself hasn't caught pace with the hype around the brand. The crew bought a screen-printing machine in 2018, but still couldn't afford to print more than 200 pieces of any collection from its small office on an industrial estate in Accra. Most of them have had other jobs, with Joey only quitting his position as an engineer in the military in early 2019, before doing an online course in business and administration to get a better handle on the business.
‘At the beginning, we weren't keeping accounts and had no idea what we were spending,’ says Joey. ‘There was all this hype and demand, but in the background we were figuring out how to be a business.’
But if small collections could be sold as hyper-exclusive capsules, Joey admits that the focus of FREE THE YOUTH hasn't been the bottom line. Even as the price of a FREE THE YOUTH T-shirt has grown from $8 to $50 and up, annual turnovers haven't exceeded $15,000, partly due to limited production resources and the challenges of reaching a local market that's still not accustomed to purchasing clothes online. Many local sales to date have been done over the phone or via email. Almost three-quarters of the brand's sales have been in the US and Europe, through a handful of boutique sites in the US and the UK.
The crew invested $30,000 in its Accra pop-up shop – which opened in December 2020 – betting on a growing local demand, and using Chinese factories to triple production capacity. But the aspiration of the brand has always been to ultimately be 100% made in Ghana, from the printing to the embroidery, and they're currently seeking $100,000 from investors for a new factory in Accra, which will allow them to broaden collections beyond the current staples of T-shirts, hoodies and sweatshirts, as well as some denim.
‘We have to have different strategies for Africa and the rest of the world,’ says Joey. ‘People here are only just starting to get comfortable with paying for things online, so it's important to have a physical presence. That's why we want to have stores across Africa, but to keep growing our online presence around the world.’
The crew also hope that the factory can double as a real-life Ghetto University, giving young local creatives access to screen-printing machines, art spaces and photography studios, plus a theater and basketball court. They've already made T-shirts with the UN, raising awareness of Ghana's biodiversity for World Environment Day, and Joey says he wants FREE THE YOUTH to grow as a youth-focused NGO as it grows as a business.
‘We're still at the early stages, but we have big plans,’ says Joey, who, alongside their ambitions of opening stores across Africa, says they're even dreaming as far as growing the brand in Asia and South America one day. ‘Just like African youth culture is at the start of something big, so are we. We'll always be from Tema, but we're ready to take on the world.’