Jaden Smith on celebrity, social justice and fashion as activism

His youth collective and fashion label MSFTSrep debuted its streetwear-inspired AW21 collection in collaboration with Pitti Uomo.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
11 March 2021, 4:37pm

Photo via Instagram

“I conquered the giant, now I've got the world in my hand,” rapped Jaden Smith on his Justin Bieber collaboration. When revisiting the “Never Say Never” video, which has since accrued just shy of one billion views, fans will notice the metal glint in Jaden's mouth — not grills, but braces. At the time of the 2010 smash, Jaden was 12 years old.

For Jaden, the lyrics rang close to home. Instead of focusing on his growing fame, the pre-teen's attention was increasingly drawn to the world's injustices. Looking back, Jaden recalls feeling overwhelmed by the millions of preventable deaths happening in poverty-stricken countries, and the inequalities across America. Crippled by consequent depression, he asked the adults around him what could be done to address the various crises. They were stumped.

This ignited Jaden’s passion for social justice. Over the next decade — while appearing in five more movies and TV shows, releasing three albums and headlining three tours, advocating for sartorial self-expression and shouldering the weighty expectations of a kid with immense celebrity — Jaden spearheaded multiple initiatives to help support those in need. His philanthropy found its outlet in 501CTHREE, a project that identifies communities without access to fresh water and installs filtration systems. In tandem, he co-created MSFTSrep (pronounced “Misfits”), a youth collective and fashion label offering creative insight to top-tier brands hoping to empower young people. For Jaden, it was the globe-spanning community he’d been searching for since childhood: a web of like-minded and engaged individuals, all determined to enact change. 

jaden smith fashion line AW21

It’s MSFTSrep that’s the real cornerstone of the now 22-year-old’s creative output. Today, Jaden is nestled in his bedroom, comfortably cloaked in a trailing hoodie-dress from his new ‘Untitled MSFTSrep’ AW21 collection, which debuted online via Pitti Uomo. The hoodie is one of the three streetwear-inspired pieces Jaden designed (there’s also a tailored skirt suit emblazoned with two middle fingers), offered as a preview for a larger collection that will drop later in the year. He holds up his sleeves — so long they eclipse his the frame of his webcam. “Look they’re still going,” Jaden laughs. “Anyone who wears this will show they think differently.”

Like many of Jaden’s endeavours, the clothes are much more than they seem. Ahead of the collection’s preview, i-D caught up with the young visionary to talk bravery, balance and Buffy.

In a year where everyone has felt creatively stilted, you’ve been incredibly productive. How?
You know, it’s really difficult. Before I even talked to you, I was singing and playing guitar and thought, ‘this doesn’t sound good, it sounds terrible’. I just have to remind myself to keep going. You have to know, when doing anything, that failure is on the road to success. It literally looks like: failure, failure, failure, success, failure. So that’s my approach to self-doubt, I know more failure is coming. 

But isn’t that difficult when you’re already in the spotlight? When you fail while the world’s weighing in?
That’s what’s really scary. That’s why, I think, as an artist you have to really know what you’re releasing, choose what people are going to hear or see. You have to know when you’ve failed at something enough times that there’s a high percentage that this time it’s going to be right. That’s when you have to be good at going with the flow. And then most times it’s freaking amazing. 

Tell me about your relationship to fashion versus music, is there any alignment in your approach towards each? 
It’s all just my perspective. I have a different way of thinking about things. For me it has always been about experimenting. While other people would be like, ‘Oh my god he’s so crazy, he’s wearing THAT’, seeing how what I was doing would travel around the world, really [affirmed] my perspective on dressing. And it’s the same thing with music. One of the most prominent music memories from my childhood was the Buffy The Vampire Slayer theme song. It really influenced me, I would hear the theme song multiple times a day. And I realised early on that not a lot of other people would be inspired by that. I've just always had a different perspective. 

You really pioneered a wave of androgynous dressing for cis, straight men in popular culture, that back then was really confronting. Where did that bravery come from? Or was bravery even involved?
Oh, there was definitely a concept of bravery, but it was more like, I’m going to wear this, and hang out with my friends and not say anything. Like, I’m going to act like this is just totally normal. I still do that to this day — that’s the bravery. I was never looking for the, ‘Oh snap, what are you wearing?’ I wanted to present myself like I wasn’t even thinking twice, just wanted to fly at all costs, whatever it takes. I adopted this kind of youthful naïveté. And that mentality is something that’s stayed with me as my aesthetic has evolved. Now, I’m taking that same idea and creating an organised movement in the youth. 

What does an organised movement look like to you? 
There’s a lot of things we need young to be working on now: figuring out how to desalinate water at a low energy cost; how to make solar panels that take in more energy from their surface. The goal was always to affect change in the real world. For me, the light at the end of the tunnel is the release of whatever we’re working on: the album, the collection. But the biggest thing I’ve done is 501CTHREE. I go into a place like Flint, Michigan and put water filtration systems in these communities. You know, a church or schools. That’s my favourite work I’m doing. 

You could easily just be a celebrity kid, or a musician, just do movies or do fashion. What propels you toward this work? 
You know, when I was young I always felt left out of shit. I felt like people didn’t want to hang out with me, or people would think I’m weird; or that these people were treating me weird and I didn’t understand that. I just wanted to have community, and motivate that community to change the world. 

I got to a certain age when I realised people were dying from curable diseases, or dying of starvation only because food wasn’t in the right place at the right time. All of this stuff came down on me as a child. So I asked who I could team up with so I wouldn’t feel depressed and could solve these problems, and they just said “no one”. So for a long time I felt scared and alone, and that’s how I got here. Here we are, 10 years later. We now have communities in New York and London, Italy and Baltimore. And we make clothes for people who are empowered by them. 

jaden smith fashion line AW21

Fashion is so often considered superficial, but you’re talking about emboldening an entire generation through self-presentation. 
I’m really excited about it. And the reason this collection is the way that it is, is because we moved all our production to Italy, and that’s really what’s taken us to the next level. We’re making things that make it clear we think differently about the world. We need to change the world and the way things are designed. Learning is cool. 

Stay in school, kids!
Learning is fun! Some of our prints are right out of a physics book, so people will be like, “What’s that? Oh it’s a graphic from a physics textbook! What does it mean?” This stuff is important. MSFTSrep is of course here to shake things up in the fashion industry, but it’s also here to change the world. All the youth that want to build a better future are all going to come together, and we’re all going to start seeing that. 

Do you care what people think? 
I really care what the MSFTSrep’s think, that really matters to me. That actually affects my day. But as far as everyone else, I care, I do. I care what they think and feel, but I don’t care what they think about me. It’s not about me being the coolest person ever. There are so many more important things to care or talk about, I can’t even think about myself.

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Jaden Smith