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As our hip-hop artists rise, so do our fashion designers

Glen Infante recalls the first time a major hip-hop artist wore his hand-designed threads like it was yesterday. When he speaks of it, you can almost see the excitement levers in his brain start to churn; his eyes rotating their sockets like a broken slot machine. It was 2010 and Infante's label I Love the Hype (ILTHY) was no older than a shrieking newborn.

"It was Wale," he boasts, referencing the dreadlocked rapper signed with the "it" label of the moment, Maybach Music Group, headed by rap behemoth Rick Ross. "We didn't know that was going to happen or how he got the shirt. Someone showed it to us on Twitter and was like 'Holy shit, Wale is wearing ILTHY!'"

Sure enough, the promotional video A Day in the Life of Wale shows the rapper clad in designer shades, expensive jeans, and one of Infante's earliest ILTHY designs — a shirt emblazened with a cartoon eggplant complete with hands and feet. Infante immediately dedicated a blog post to the event and put screenshots from the video on his website.

"That was wild man. So wild," says Infante. "That opened our eyes like, 'Holy shit, we might be actually pretty dope and not even realize it.'"

ILTHY has grown exponentially since that day, culminating with the opening of their first retail store last year. Its success has certainly been fueled by the quality of the clothing and the design talent of Infante and his team, but the brand wouldn't be where it is today without the support of both national and local hip-hop artists. In fact, the strong bond between hip-hop artists and locally made streetwear has been essential to the rapid growth of other brands too, like Akron's Blessed Label and Cleveland's Another Enemy and Boosters Brand.

Streetwear is an amalgam of surf, skate, and hip-hop culture believed to have started in the late '80s when Los Angeles surfboard designer Shawn Stussy began putting his "tag" on T-shirts. Stussy is now one of the most prominent streetwear brands in the U.S. Skaters and hip-hoppers adopted the premise and made their own lines with brands like Billionaire Boys Club (BBC), a Bathing Ape, the Hundreds, and Diamond Supply Co. becoming household names.

Each streetwear brand has a signature logo, always intertwined into the design. BBC, for example, sports a guy in an astronaut suit. A bomb with eyes and a mouth is synonymous with the Hundreds.

Adding to the appeal, each item is usually made in limited quantities and double the price of a regular T-shirt or pair of jeans. Rabid fans even have a name: hypebeasts.

Cleveland has caught the wave. While Blessed Label has been around since 2004, the real renaissance of streetwear here began in 2007 when three young Cleveland Heights natives opened Heart & Sole, a sneaker boutique on Coventry. Two years later, Another Enemy began producing its line, followed shortly by ILTHY. Heart & Sole began stocking their gear alongside the major national brands.

A few years later, Coventry suddenly became a mini streetwear hub when another urban clothing supplier, N.E.X.T., opened across the street. At one point or another, both stores have housed Another Enemy, while N.E.X.T. carried ILTHY. These days, both brands have their own stores and the demand for Cleveland streetwear seems to be at an all-time high. At least part of the thanks goes to the rappers who enrobe in the local threads every morning.

Antoine Franklin, one fourth of the Cleveland hip-hop group Keyel, says hip-hop's love affair with streetwear stems from the genre's origins.

"When hip-hop first started out, people had specific styles," says Franklin. "People came out and they were wearing crazy leather tight pants. People were wearing the gold chains and Adidas and all that jazz. So hip-hop is really not just music, it's a multitude of different things."

With the national rise of Cleveland rappers Machine Gun Kelly and Chip Tha Ripper, as well as the growing popularity of locals likes Tezo, Ray Jr., and Keyel, streetwear and hip-hop have been able to cement the bond between the music and clothing style. Machine Gun Kelly has been spotted wearing Another Enemy in his music videos. Chip Tha Ripper has worked with ILTHY on multiple T-shirt and mixtape cover designs.

When national acts like Wiz Khalifa, Cory Gunz, or Curren$y come to town, they usually leave fully outfitted in a local brand, which becomes part of their national wardrobe. When they are seen wearing a Cleveland brand, a picture of them in that outfit will surely surface on that brand's website not long after.

Click over to Another Enemy's homepage right now and the first image you'll see is R&B singer/occasional rapper Chris Brown donning one of their shirts. But locally, it's a relationship that blossoms because of the pride these artists have for their city, and the benefit goes both ways.

"When you wear an Another Enemy logo or an ILTHY, you know when you're repping those brands you are repping where you're from," says Infante. "Like the scene here with all these rappers, they want to rep where they're from so the best way they can do it is to wear clothing that's made here. We don't always reach out to them; in most cases, they reach out to us to say, 'Hey, we like what you guys are doing, come for the ride,' and it's all worked out. It's helped us out a lot lately."

ILTHY's new headquarters in the Gordon Square District of Detroit Avenue is in a non-descript brick building. But inside it feels important, and reflects the brand's growing success. Infante's other passion — his giant artwork — adorns stark white walls, while ILTHY's hats, T-shirts, and hoodies are displayed throughout. It is as much gallery as boutique, and it oozes coolness.

Hip-hop's fingerprints are all over the store. Two of the colossal wall prints depict Infante's visions of Biggie and Tupac, each eating a doughnut, and commemorate the Delonte West shirt that gave birth to ILTHY. At the grand opening of the shop back in December 2011, a DJ spun hip-hop records behind the counter for guests that included Machine Gun Kelly's manager and DJ EV.

Another Enemy's store is filled with that same coolness. While their Cleveland Heights location is a bit smaller than ILTHY's, Another Enemy founder Justin Lipsky has made it his own. "Another Enemy" is splashed across the wall directly behind the counter, its eerie black font in stark contrast to the white background. Pictures of harmless cartoon characters altered to embody a sinister vibe duplicate the intelligent but offensive style Another Enemy is known for — a style Lipsky compares to "the feeling that you get when you see a Vice magazine."

As brands like Another Enemy and ILTHY continue to grow, their styles become more distinct. ILTHY has always been sports based, their T-shirts portraying former Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis as an X-Men character, or Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving as a no-brainer for the number one NBA draft pick. But Infante's signature artwork has moved the brand beyond that.

Another Enemy pushes the envelope with the images on their shirts and hats, ranging from one of the seven dwarves looking up Snow White's dress to the word "Enemy" stylized like the Miami Heat logo.

So why have hip-hop artists fallen in love with this streetwear culture, and why have they benefitted not just Cleveland brands, but brands all over the world?

"It's an art at the end of the day. I feel like anybody that practices art can relate to each other," says Tezo, who is frequently seen wearing ILTHY. "They always have good people supporting the brand. So it's more of a trust thing with ILTHY than a personal thing."

The synergy flows both ways. ILTHY founder Infante says many streetwear designers create their clothing with hip-hop artists in mind.

"The designers these days, we cater to the culture," says Infante. "The designs that we make that we want to send out or the art that we like to display are all in the same realm of what these young hip-hop artists are into. Some clothing, it shows status to the hip-hop artists, so they know what's cool. They dictate popularity that way. If your shirt and your clothes are popular enough, then you'll get a co-sign from so-and-so. The artists are actually a gateway for the streetwear culture to actually be seen."

Another Enemy's Lipsky, whose hip-hop clientele includes Cory Gunz, Wale, and Curren$y, among others, equates the independent clothing movement to the hip-hop scene.

"The independent fashion scene and the independent music scene go together because they are both independent and they need each other to support," says Lipsky. "So a musician who wants you to buy into his lifestyle and his drive and his ambition and the fact that he's cutting edge with his music or different than you've heard, wants to look different. Same kind of mentality. So they almost seek each other out."

But like all businesses, there has to be more to it than targeting a certain demographic. A clothing company can try to cater to a certain genre of music all they want. The product still has to be something a hip-hop artist would want to buy.

"Since it started and to now, the quality has gotten better," says Vince Manzano, one of Heart & Sole's founders. "People are like, 'Alright, it's going to be my first tee, I have a level of excellence that I have to strive for.' Which is great, that's dope, that's what we wanted."

Robert Rosenthal, a buyer for N.E.X.T., says he has had Cleveland streetwear brands sitting on the same shelf as "brands that sit in places like Barney's and Fred Segal."

"I love it. I think these guys are creative, they come up with really neat stuff and I love supporting it, especially in retail," says Rosenthal. "It sells. I think the kids support it too. So there is an affinity that it's homegrown. But beyond being homegrown, I think it's really well-designed product."

Companies striving to make clothing in the hip-hop vein — mixed with talented designers and quality products, and sprinkled with local and national hip-hop artists wearing the togs on a daily basis — creates the streetwear culture that is beginning to thrive by Lake Erie.

Infante couldn't be happier. "As Another Enemy grows, as Boosters Brand grows, ILTHY grows," he says.

"We are all creating the same culture in a city that lacks that specific culture. So when someone mainstream puts on those clothes, it brings attention to the people everywhere around the world that 'Hey, Cleveland is actually doing something.'"

Pictured page 15, top: Glen Infante (ILTHY); Amari Taylor (Heart & Sole); Corey Lowry, Justin Lipsky (Another Enemy); Vince Manzano (Heart & Sole). Bottom: Marc Scott (Another Enemy and Jordan Morales (ILTHY)

Pictured on pg. 15, top row from left: Glen Infante (ILTHY), Amari Taylor (Heart & Sole), Corey Lowry (Another Enemy), Justin Lipsky (Another Enemy), Vince Manzano (Heart & Sole). Bottom row from left: Marc Scott (Another Enemy) and Jordan Morales (ILTHY)

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