Brotherhood And Community Turned A Friendship Into A Successful Black Owned Lifestyle Brand
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
The ideology of blood being thicker than water derives from an understanding that a familial bond can withstand any external force that may otherwise be detrimental to any other kind of relation or kinship. Nonetheless, a common fallacy in this ideology is often revealed when family and friends begin to do business with one another. What usually starts out as a safe and mutually beneficial concept among family members and lifelong friends, often turns into collateral damage once there is a realization that blood isn't always thicker than water in business. For Salim Collins, Kimani Jones and Micah Ingram, the taboo of mixing business with family and friendship is something they vehemently refuse to let hinder their unbreakable bond, as well as their relatively new and flourishing company, Ascend Apparel LLC.
As college roommates at a distinguished Historically Black College, Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), Collins and Jones were far from establishing themselves as two young, Black business owners of a luxury apparel brand. They both arrived at WSSU in 2012 not knowing they shared a similar path as incoming college football transfers. Upon meeting each other for the first time in their dorm, Collins and Jones got off on the wrong foot, mostly due to being told that neither would have a roommate on campus. “Once I came into the room, I saw someone facing away from the other side of the room, so I said ‘hey man, what's up’. No lie, dude turned his head and gave me a head nod,” said Collins of Jones. “I remember walking out the room and called my mama to tell her that this ain't gonna work because i’m already about to fight my roommate,” Collins elaborated, jokingly.
Jones echoed the same sentiment in regards to he and Collins’ cold and rocky introduction to another, but he quickly made it known that he was willing to take the necessary measures to not have a roommate during his time in Winston-Salem. “When I was at Central (North Carolina Central University), I was spoiled unintentionally because I never had a roommate,” explained Jones. “My whole mindset was, I don't care if I take a L, somebody's gonna leave this room and it's not gonna be me,” said Jones of Collins.
After a friction filled introduction to one another, Jones and Collins slowly began to break the ice and got closer during time spent at football practice. Once they finally began to speak to one another, they quickly found out they had mutual friends, unknowingly shared the same spaces at different parties and events on campus, and they also shared a commonality in coming into WSSU after enduring unpleasant transfers from their previous schools. In true Black mother fashion, it was Collins’ mother Patrina Kelly Peebles, who cemented the lifelong friendship her son and Jones share today. Jones showed up to an event in support of Collins, who had received an award for a community-based initiative on campus. Following the event, Peebles was adamant and intentional about inviting Jones to a family dinner after the award ceremony, which imparted to Jones the comforting feeling that he was too a part of the family now.
After graduating from Winston-Salem State in 2015, Collins and Jones found themselves in the humbling predicament that once again, changed the course of their friendship. Collins decided to go back home in Charlotte, North Carolina, after his late father, Political and Civil Rights activist, Dwayne L. Collins was diagnosed with cancer. Jones wasn't looking forward to returning to his native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, so like a true friend, Collins asked his mother if Jones could live with them—and Peebles agreed to let them stay for the time being. Following some sacrifices and the humbling experience of moving back home, the two were able to save up enough to lease their own apartment in Charlotte.
Things took a turn when Collins quit his job around the same time Jones was let go from his. “We were both in this apartment with no money and no Job,” said Collins. “So of course when that happens you start getting creative”, he explained. Collins took the scenic route in starting a music label with his cousin Micah Ingram, who at the same time was also involved in a clothing business with Jones and two other individuals.
Ingram, who is the Chief Marketing Officer of Ascend Apparel, studied Mass Communications at WSSU at the time that Collins and Jones were there. Ingram has always been the common denominator, directly and indirectly within everything Jones and Collins did from the inception of their relationship. It was a no-brainer for Collins to officially bring on his cousin as the third member of the team due to his familiarity of the company's history, as well as his business acumen as a marketing machine. "Micah is a great communicator and he can sell the hell out of anything to anybody," Collins said of Ingram. Ingram played a significant role in helping mediate the rocky start Collins and Jones had, and he's continued to be the perfect buffer in life and in business, to the contrasting personalities between Collins and Jones.
After misfiring with the music label, Collins took an initiative that would change the trajectory of his team's future. “We didn't have any money or jobs, so I knew we had to come up with something just to pay the rent,” said Collins, stoically. As Jones pitched ideas to the clothing company he was working with at the time, Collins would overhear his frustration in not being valued, and his ideas not being taken into account. “I knew he had great ideas and I knew that if I had these ideas on my team, we were gonna actually do something with it,” said Collins of Jones. While sitting under the same roof, from a different room, Collins sent Jones a text message asking him if he wanted to make a leather bag company— and Jones was quickly on board.
In 2017, Jones and Collins officially launched Ascend Apparel, and in 2018 their first product, the “Prelude Bag” sold out within a few months after officially operating as a business. The early success with their first product stemmed from a persistent and committed nature that existed within both men, a rooted foundation of trust that has evolved over the span of their friendship, as well as an independently structured business plan that gave them creative freedom and a peace of mind, due to not relying on any outside investors or funding. “I knew it would be hard at first, but I told Kimani that we were not taking any loans, no credit cards. This is all gonna be off of your dollar and mine,” explained Collins.
After launching their first product, Ascend Apparel has since released an array of products ranging from sneakers, cross-body bags, leather bags, as well as custom dad hats. At midnight on August 14th, 2020, they will officially launch a 30 day pre-order window for their brand new sneaker called “The Eclipse”. The Gold and Silver Package includes 2 sneaker silhouettes, designed by Kimani Jones and visual artist Braxton Epps. Inspired by sports cars, the original white Power Ranger, and the Air Mags from the 80s sci-fi classic film, “Back To The Future”. Jones and Epps embarked on a detailed and timely project in January of 2020, to create the sneakers shown in the commercial below.
Jones went into designing these sneakers with a chip on his shoulder after some customer reviews from their first sneaker, The Arise Trainer 01. “ I wanted to get closer to the stability of the shoe and search for the right out-sole because that can make or break the sneaker,” said Jones. Always intrigued by futuristic characters and objects growing up as a kid, Jones had to do some soul searching to configure a way to correlate his childhood interest into the design of the sneaker. “Earlier when I asked Salim what can I do for the brand, he asked me what I liked to do as a kid,” explained Jones.
While Collins and Ingram handle the day to day operations of marketing, finances and social media, Jones is afforded a creative license to brainstorm and execute on every idea that comes to mind. “He's not forced to do anything he naturally doesn't feel comfortable doing,” said Collins of Jones.
Collins and Jones have created a well oiled machine as individuals who know their role within the company and don't step on each other's toes. One of the most transparent characteristics of their friendship is seen within their accountability of another. “I remember when he quit his job I sat him down in the apartment and told him he wasn't doing shit,” Jones said of Collins. “Soon as he gets home he's on 2K the whole night and then goes to sleep. I knew he’d probably be mad when I told him this but, fuck it,” said Jones. Even more important than Jones holding a mirror up to his friend, was the manner in which Collins received the unfiltered criticism. “When he did that, of course I was naturally pissed off. But that's how we built our trust because he told me something I needed to hear and he was right,” said Collins of Jones. This level of accountability also translates into the time and detail that goes into creating quality products and running a successful business as young, Black entrepreneurs.
As it pertains to Ascend Apparel and their aspirations, there is nothing more important than building generational wealth. Given that there is less inherited wealth among Black families in America, it's important that Black owned businesses and Black entrepreneurs prioritize the idea of securing the financial leverage of future generations. “Our mindset from the start has always been about generational wealth because, when I get lazy, tired, or weak, I have to remind myself that this ain't just for me, Kimani or Micah,” said Collins. From the lens of inequalities and acts of systemic racism in America, there's a large gap between Black families and white families when looking at the wealth transfer that has been passed down for generations. Given this information, its a fascinating observation to know that Ascend Apparel upholds and prioritizes the pride of their lineage, as well as being intentional about making sure their grand kids come into this world with a financial edge of their own.
Friendships are often cemented by the common understanding of a mutual disdain, rather than the sole fulfillment of sharing the same interests. For Collins, Jones and Ingram, there is a mutual understanding of the way they will not run their business. They mutually understand that their purpose does not solely lie on self fulfillment, but rather in progressing their community and culture. They mutually trust one another not because of time spent together, but because they consistently held each other accountable throughout the duration of said time. As Ascend Apparel begins to hit their stride as a Black owned business, it's important to note that family, friendship and brotherhood are the foundations that exist within the root of the company.
Ascend Apparel will officially open the pre-orders for the Gold and Silver pair of "The Eclipse" August 14th, 2020 at midnight, and the pre-order window will stay open until September 14th, 2020. The shoe limit will be at 300 pairs for each sneaker, and 30 pair per-size (sizes ranging from 4-14). Make sure to follow Micah, Kimani, and Salim for all updates regarding the pre-order for "The Eclipse" sneakers. Be sure to follow Ascend Apparel on Instagram to stay up to date on the latest news, releases, and pop up events.
Jon Olangi is a senior editor and writer at TTT Media, where he covers culture.