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Joe Freshgoods on ‘probably the Blackest campaign that Vans has ever done’

His Chocolate Valley Resort collection imagines a place where Black travelers can find luxury and peace

For Black folks in the U.S., travel has never only been about leisure. It’s also often a quest for solace, peace, and safety. Picture vacationing families packed into cars, traversing interstates and highways slowly enough to avoid the attention of police but fast enough to outrun the sundown in towns where quiet menace became grave danger after dark. Recall artists and thinkers such as Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, and James Baldwin leaving the U.S. for Paris’ more tolerant attitudes and enriching creative environments.

This history is front of mind for designer Joe Freshgoods. Seeing the world helped the native of the West Side of Chicago nurture the creativity that started with him selling iron-on transfer T-shirts as a teen to become one of the hottest names in fashion. Freshgoods, whose real name is Joseph Robinson, partners with larger brands to tell specific and distinctively Black stories. Take his new Chocolate Valley Resort collection, which was created with partner Vault by Vans.

Chocolate Valley envisions a fictional, snow-covered resort where Black folks are welcomed and enveloped in comfort and warmth. Some of the collection’s packaging nods to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide published annually from 1936 to 1966 to help direct Black folks to safe lodging, restaurants, and amenities during a time when they were few and far between.

We spoke with Freshgoods, who was in Paris at the time, about what the ability to travel meant to his career, the intersection of storytelling and design, and the art of being cozy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

An image from the Vault by Vans x Joe Freshgoods Chocolate Valley Resort lookbook.

Yasshadai Owens/Vault by Vans and Joe Freshgoods

How has the ability to travel inspired your work?

I always tell the story that when Spirit Airlines first launched, they were doing $50 specials and a $70 special to LA. That was really big in my life, coming up. I wanna say I was like 19 or 20. I really, really appreciated just going to places. I was saving my little money off selling T-shirts and other odd jobs, and I was just traveling and being broke. It hits differently when you’re younger. Starting off my career going to LA, going to New York, going to South by Southwest, I built really long-lasting friendships. I didn’t grow up in a privileged household, so everything that I got I worked for. Being able to travel really set things off right in my career.

How is the history of Black travel reflected in the Chocolate Valley Resort collection? 

I think a lot of my research turned into something a bit sad. I’ve been all over the world thanks to my craft and what I’ve been doing. I never went to Disney World as a kid, but now I take my daughter to Disney World every year. We go on two or three vacations a year, and the type of resort that I stay at, I’m usually the only Black person there. And I’m like, ‘Damn!’ I started to feel guilty for my success, if that makes sense. And that just led me to a deep rabbit hole of research to figure out what leisure and traveling were like for Black people back in the day.

I was drawn to these stories of a lot of Black writers, I would say like the 1950s and ’60s, as early as the ’30s, moving to Paris. Chocolate Valley Resort is a fictional place that is welcoming to Black people. So, everything goes hand in hand. It was me feeling guilty about where my life was at. It led me to research what Black travel looked like, bringing me to this collection with Vans.

The T-shirt packaging is a nod to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide published annually from 1936 to 1966 that listed hotels, boarding houses, taverns, restaurants, service stations and other establishments throughout the country that served Black patrons.

Yasshadai Owens/Vault by Vans and Joe Freshgoods

How do you come up with stories associated with these products and translate them in a way that is fashionable?

I tell a lot of these stories simply because I just never seen it, and I’ve been into fashion and sneakers my whole life. It’s interesting that we’re the top consumer for a lot of this stuff, but some of the marketing behind the product doesn’t really hit for us. So for me, I feel it’s important for me to use my platform to make these stories visible. When you’re working with some of these brands, it’s so easy to just do colorway and materials. My pattern is usually story first, then design. As opposed to like design, then let me figure out the story behind the design. No. If I don’t have the story for it, the design is not gonna work. 

I always associate Vans with LA, sunshine, skateboarding, and surfing. How did you know they were the right partner to tell this story?

I’m blessed. I keep wanting to say that word. Often when you get into this place, you kind of gotta get told what to do. ‘Hey, Joe, you gotta do this silhouette. Try to focus on this. If you could tell the summertime story, that’d be dope.’ But since I’ve been killing everything the last few years, now when I work with brands, I don’t really compromise that much. Because, obviously, you reached out to me for a reason.

When I looked at Vans, with some of the great campaigns they’ve done, I would say that this is probably the Blackest campaign that Vans has ever done. I can confidently say that. And that means a lot to me.

The Vault by Vans x Joe Freshgoods Chocolate Valley Resort collection features footwear, apparel, and accessories.

Yasshadai Owens / Vault by Vans and Joe Freshgoods

Even if nobody buys anything, I can hold my head high. It’s just being able to tell these stories and it feels very good to be able to tell these stories and be the first to do it this way.

And hopefully, it inspires the next generation to come in and be like, ‘Well, we gonna do something similar to what Joe did and do it better,’ ‘Cause sometimes when I do things with friends, I don’t have a reference point. I’m not finna get in the room and shuck and jive, you know what I’m saying? If you reach out to me, then you want my sauce. And if you want my sauce, you gotta get it how I’m giving it to you. So it’s very important for me not to compromise.

In the history of Black travel, in many cases, there’s an element of luxury to it. A lot of Black folks say, “If I’m gonna go, I’m gonna do this thing right.” Some of the materials and other choices you made bring that sense of luxury to this collection. 

I’m one of the coziest people in the world. I call my s— luxury cozy. I’m big pants. I’m layered up. I’m cozy. My favorite type of fashion is when people look comfortable wearing what they’re wearing. With this apparel, it’s like, ‘These is Vans?’ That’s the whole vibe. ‘This mohair cardigan? These baggy cargos with five pockets, these Vans?’

I’m curious why you chose the Slip Hiker and the platform Sk8-Hi for the footwear.

When it comes to footwear, it’s cozy, padded, and made for winter weather, but you could do them with shorts. I picked the Slip Hiker ’cause nobody was really picking it. I just make what I’m into. I don’t really go off style, trends, or what’s in right now. I give people what I want. I’m trying to get men wearing pink all the time. I started doing that because of [rapper] Cam’ron.

Your website says that you hate structure. How do you reconcile the need for spontaneity with keeping all of these trains running on time?

Well, I gotta change that too ’cause I need structure. But it’s just my type of structure. I don’t have no investors. No partners. So the only part of that structure is just making sure that my business keeps operating freely how I want it to be done without having to answer to people.

I made that page when I only had one employee, and now I have a COO. I’ve got 16 employees. I’ve got two warehouses. It’s a lot. I’m very proud of that. 

What do you have coming in 2023?

I have some more stuff coming out with other brands and more community efforts. I get to pick and choose and work with people that I look at as real partners. It’s always about the investment in the community as well. If you coming to me just to give me some money to make a shoe, that’s not what does it for me. Maybe three years ago, it did. But nowadays, it’s just like, ‘All right, what are you gonna do with the community?’

Greg Whitt is a writer from Washington, DC. His work has appeared in VIBE, Genius, Consequence of Sound and several other publications. He likes to freestyle when he's by himself in the car.