kids of immigrants, the radical d.i.y. brand championing immigrant ingenuity
Daniel Buezo and Weleh Dennis are on a mission to dress — and empower — a new generation of American youth with their vision of fashion.
photography adam elramly
Every Sunday, Daniel Buezo and Weleh Dennis meditate together at their studio in L.A.'s Koreatown. "We like to take the time to catch up with ourselves, to get into a positive space," says Daniel. Then they begin working on the week's collection. "Weleh's creativity is like nothing you've seen," explains Daniel, who also works as a musicians' stylist (most notably for Kehlani). He describes how his friend can make custom sweatshirt strings using duct-tape and a cigarette lighter. "We also hand sew a lot," adds Weleh, who previously worked in sales at Louis Vuitton. "We believe you can feel it, the garment becomes like a blanket, it gains sentimental value, is more connected."
Daniel and Weleh founded their brand Kids of Immigrants nine months ago and have released a new collection of products every Thursday since. In opposition to traditional models of fashion production and distribution, they craft their pieces by reconfiguring thrift store finds, then drop them directly onto their website. They splice together hooded sweatshirts and denim jackets, attaching patches and pockets and hand-drawn mantras: "LOVE," "FREEDOM," "SUPPORT YOUR FRIENDS." Each piece communicates a strong message not just with its slogan but in its stitches. "Culture to us is ingenuity," says Daniel, "It's making something out of nothing. You can try and buy all of these things to seem cool, but for us it's about going back to everything that our parents taught us, making the best of what we have."
The brand's message of unity and pride has resonated with musicians, as well as local L.A. streetwear fans. Big Sean wore two of the designers' first-ever pieces on tour with Rihanna. Kehlani performed in a "FIGHTER" sweatshirt. But while their platform is becoming increasingly visible, Daniel and Weleh aren't in a rush to make "Fuck Trump" T-shirts ("though we probably have ten friends between us who've asked us to"). "We want to do something rebellious in a positive way," says Daniel.
How did the idea for Kids of Immigrants come together?
Weleh: The name came from my former roommate, who was an immigrant as well. Years later, me and Daniel met through a mutual friend. The name is about how we want people to believe in where they came from, to be able to curate that, and articulate that - because it's all part of the dialogue of America.
Daniel: My parents are from Honduras and I can't really say that I'm from there, but I also don't think I am a "typical" American. It's the same with Weleh, being from Liberia. Growing up, I didn't want to know about my language, I wanted to know English. It was seeing Weleh take pride in his roots that made me believe in my roots — and that's what America really is.
Weleh: Growing up in California, everything was really diverse, but I wasn't seeing on TV at the time. I wanted that [diversity] to be the vibe of what we do. America is a bunch of immigrants melted together to create this culture — so let's give America a better picture of the culture.
How do you take that message and communicate it through clothes?
Daniel: Clothes are the platform, and something that we are both passionate about and love. Weleh is a design major, he went to the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I never went to college for fashion, but I style and do other things. I'm 28, Weleh is 30, and we've been [working in fashion] for around 10 years. Last year, we realized we'd kind of found a lane of our own: clothes are cool, but [we were asking ourselves] what is fashion really doing for us and our people? We were like, How can we make clothes everyday to help us and to help our people?
What were some of the first pieces you made together?
Daniel: Weleh worked at Louis Vuitton and I work at Opening Ceremony, we understand these brands and what starting a brand is. Our approach is: let's do the best we can with what we have. So we started by reconstructing things we found at thrift stores. The first piece, I think, was a red hoodie and a denim jacket. It's actually still here in our archive.
From there, we'd go thrifting. Weleh found some pieces, came up with two great ideas for pieces, and we sewed them both by hand. We loved them so much we didn't care how long it took. Those two pieces were worn by Big Sean on the tour he did with Rihanna. It was a moment of realizing that style has no pricetag on it.
What were both of your relationships with clothes like growing up?
Weleh: Me coming from where I'm from, and him coming from where he's from, fashion wasn't the cool thing then that it is now. All my friends liked clothes, but there wasn't really a dialogue about dressing. There was no one mentoring kids or telling them to "be yourself." I took the plunge to be myself and over time I learned that a lot of the things that are being sold to our culture aren't really part of our culture. My goal was that once I got into a comfortable design position, I was going to cut the excuses. If someone says, "I don't have money to start something," I'm like, "Well, you have money to go to a regular store and buy clothes, so go to a thrift store — it might be a little bit cheaper but at the end of the day it'll be something that's all yours."
We try to empower people with the stuff that we make. I have an academic background in design, but I am much more interested in the idea of ingenuity, or the what we call "immigrant ingenuity," which is the idea of making the best with what you have. How do we acknowledge things that are around us that are beautiful, instead of just aspiring to what's on the other side of the gate?
Having that type of [traditional] fashion background, means that while we are breaking the rules, we also know what the rules are. And we respect those rules all the way — but, we are sufficient.
Were your parents resourceful in similar ways? Do you come from creative families?
Daniel: My father is a construction worker and everything he does he learned when he came to America. He started by sweeping floors for $5 an hour. It's not really what kind of skills our parents used, it's more about how they did it, how they showed us that anything is possible. My parents created opportunity, rather than anything physical.
Weleh: My dad was an artist and architect back in Liberia and then the civil war happened and they had to immigrate over here. He had a graphic design job at the state capital and then the computer arrived and he couldn't transition over to the computer, so he lost his job.
When my parents immigrated here, they brought some leather goods over with them. That craftsmanship is so good, because the women of that culture had been working for 15 or 20 years with those skills. It's up to par with [the work] at a lot of the companies that I've worked for. I want to empower kids to look at their parents who work, for example, at a sewing factory and instead of thinking, "I'm embarrassed," to be really proud that their parent has a craft that she could teach them. It's about creating a relationship where we can support each other, instead of going straight to a corporate entity.
How has Trump's election affected the way you think about what you do?
Daniel: We talk about it between the two of us. We all have different ways of protesting and this is our way. Everybody is gifted and with that gift we are put on a platform to make the world a better place. This is our platform right here; we aren't yelling, "Fuck Trump."
Weleh: But we are feeding the homeless, we're trying to give back money to kids. We are trying to stay in our own realms. If we get caught up in everything that the news brings up - not to say that we don't have a dialogue about it - then that means taking our eyes off helping the youth. We will have things to say about how we feel about [Trump], but we don't want to get caught in our emotions. We are trying to push an overall positivity goal.
What's your plan for the brand, and continuing to spread your message?
Daniel: To me, it's about staying in touch with ourselves. Money is not what we see, but we also want to take care of ourselves and continue to be involved with the people we're involved with. We also want to be transparent. We want to tell people that they can do it too.
We want to take this to a level where we continue to give and take care of the people around us. And we've done that already: we've worked with this organization on Skid Row, we donated $3,500 dollars for an event and Opening Ceremony donated over $4000. We managed that within seven months of starting the company and we hope to continue that.
Weleh: Right now, we are really keen on figuring out our own structure. We aren't really in a rush. More than anything we want to create a story. You look at a brand like Louis Vuitton, and the history and heritage of that company is why, to me, it is luxurious. I love that idea of heritage coming full circle back to the kids of immigrants.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Adam Elramly