How Jerry Lorenzo Created Fear of God.
Before Jerry Lorenzo founded his luxury streetwear brand Fear of God, he was a party promoter in Los Angeles. I can relate to that because for a time I was a party promoter in New York. It is a label I try to avoid, but it follows you. Even as I am now a father, a chief marketing officer, and author, people still come up to me and say, “Where’s the best club tonight?” While I throw up a little in my mouth when asked these questions nowadays, being a promoter was without a doubt one of the building blocks that helped me understand the true definition of marketing—how to move people and make them feel something.
Nightclub owner turned hotelier Ian Schrager explained what working in nightlife teaches you: “With a nightclub, you have no real discernible product. You have the same music and the same alcohol as everybody else, and yet you have to create magic night after night in hopes of distinguishing yourself.” There is a certain skill or capability—a combination of hubris, imagination, and knowing how to “get it done”—that is required when you have to continually make something out of nothing. This skill is not for sale, and it can’t be learned in school. It’s discovered only in the doing. Once you learn to make it rain, it’s a skill you never forget and a high you always desire. And many of the people who have exhibited this ability—or at least those who have been able to detach their ego from it—have become some of the most self-actualized and successful people I know. These are the people who have done what I call “threading the needle”—applying this invaluable skill and perspective to a more sustainable, substantial, and honorable pursuit.
Jerry Lorenzo is one of those people—he threaded the needle.
Jerry Lorenzo Manuel was born in Sacramento, California. His family moved often so they could stay close to his father Jerry Manuel, a professional baseball player who later coached in the minor and major leagues, and now works as a TV baseball analyst. Right through Lorenzo’s high school years, his family lived paycheck to paycheck. His mother would drive her children across the country to training-camp locations in the spring since they couldn’t afford plane tickets. While the best-paid big-league ballplayers were living in mansions, Lorenzo’s family, he remembers, spent time as renters in a studio apartment.
Lorenzo eventually moved to Los Angeles, getting his MBA at Loyola Marymount. He went to school during the day and worked at Diesel at night. He spent two years in the stockroom because, in his opinion, he probably “wasn’t cool enough” to be on the floor. One day they gave him a shot on the floor and he almost instantly sold over $5,000 of merchandise during the stint. Two years in the stockroom had given him an understanding of product and fit, and his knowledge and talent made him a natural salesperson. The manager was blown away and they kept him on the floor.
Eventually Lorenzo would leave Diesel and go to work for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He envisioned combining his hustle with his homegrown knowledge of baseball. He started out in the marketing department with a goal of becoming a sports agent. That journey would eventually lead him to relocate him to Chicago to work at an agency with big-name clients like Donovan McNabb and Dwyane Wade.
In 2008, Lorenzo headed back to Los Angeles and started his career as a party promoter. He used his initials to brand his gatherings, calling them JL Nights, which he described as “parties I could go to to hear hip-hop and see people that dressed like me.” The parties were a success—they paid Lorenzo’s bills and regularly attracted celebrities and large crowds. This is where he developed his focus on making great products. As he explains it: “The positive skill set [I got from working in nightlife] was that I built a party that was so good I didn’t have to ask you to come out—you just wanted to be there. With clothing, I don’t ever want to have to promote or ask you to buy something. I want to make something that is so good you just want it. I hated to have to text people to come out to the party, so I did everything I could to make sure we had the best party. ”My focus,” he adds, “has always been on the product.”
While Lorenzo enjoyed the hustle and creating something successful, after becoming a father, he felt he wanted to apply his skills to something more substantial and “honorable.” Something his kids could grow up with and be proud of. While organizing JL Nights was profitable enough to be a full-time job, he always knew it was not a long-term play. You might have noticed he shortened his original name, Jerry Lorenzo Manuel, to Jerry Lorenzo. He did that to avoid bringing any shame to his father as a promoter.
Prior to starting Fear of God, Lorenzo shut down his party business. He bootstrapped his new venture with $14,000 he had in savings. With no formal training in fashion, he learned as he launched. “I literally knew nothing,” he says. “I didn’t know about production, seasons, how to make a pattern…. I felt like there was something missing in my closet. And if it was missing in mine, then it must be missing in yours, too.”
The beginning, like most beginnings, was tough. Due to his lack of industry knowledge, he was stolen from and taken advantage of. As he recalls, “People would tell me, ‘I need $10,000 to book this fabric and if you don’t book this fabric then you can’t make your T-shirts.’ There were a thousand instances like that. I even had a lot of product managers who were stealing from me.”
Around the same time, his wife Desiree gave birth to twin daughters Liv and Mercy, who joined their son Jerry Lorenzo Manuel III. And while Lorenzo was challenged by his journey, he kept pushing forward, “As much money as I lost,” he says, “I never lost the conviction that I knew I had something to say or offer…. I just knew what I was going to do in the end was way bigger than what [people] were taking from me.”
A few weeks after the launch of his first collection, Lorenzo received a call from fashion designer Virgil Abloh, someone he knew from his time in the clubs and working in Chicago. Abloh asked him to come to Atlantic City to share his debut collection with Kanye West, who had seen one of his T-shirt designs. Lorenzo jumped on a plane to Atlantic City. “When I got to Atlantic City,” Lorenzo recalls, “[Kanye] looked at the T-shirt and was like, ‘Man, I could see all the thought that went into this simple long tee.’” Kanye asked Lorenzo to work with him on a collaboration he was doing with A.P.C. in Paris, and later would engage him to work on other projects, including the Yeezus tour merch and Yeezy Season One.
“It was a whirlwind three years,” Lorenzo recalls. “A super tough and challenging time. I had just had twins in the beginning of that relationship working with him. Trying to build a family and find a harmonious way to work with this guy I looked up to for so long…. Someone you respect now sees what you see in yourself. And you both see things the same way. It is a pretty humbling thing and it’s kind of hard to put into words.” Kanye’s approval helped Lorenzo’s faith in self. “I believed in myself after that first meeting,” he says. “And I’m forever grateful to him for that.”
Lorenzo would eventually part ways with Kanye and his team. But right around the same time he would be approached by Justin Bieber. At the time Bieber was a pop music sensation, but his style and brand were far from setting trends with the hypebeasts. Bieber was planning to change that with his new album. He had been working on it for months with famed producer Rick Rubin, but needed to marry his music to an aesthetic point of view. That is where Lorenzo got involved. As he explains it:
“I was in this spiritual place where I was so connected to Bieber from the place of I liking his message of purpose and what I felt this kid was trying to say. And I knew my gifts and talents from a styling perspective could help him and I didn’t care at the time that he wasn’t so cool. It was risky because if I would have looked at that opportunity through a different lens, I would have said, ‘I am not working with Bieber—that’s gonna kill my brand.’ We don’t say the same thing from an aesthetics standpoint. But I felt a spiritual connection with where he was trying to go so I didn’t care.” Lorenzo decided to design all Bieber’s looks for the 2016 Purpose world tour and tour merchandise. The merch would end up being so successful that it would be sold in stores far beyond the tour itself.
Since 2013, Fear of G-d has been doubling in revenue year over year. While the company has experienced both meaningful revenue and relevance, to this day the brand has no outside investors. Until fairly recently, Lorenzo and just four employees worked out of his California home. The brand doesn’t follow the seasonal fashion calendar, but rather releases collections when they’re ready. They make videos to introduce the collections and the ideas behind the designs, but don’t do fashion shows or work any of the traditional fashion markets. This concept of doing things your way for the right reasons is at the heart of the brand and everything that Lorenzo does. As he puts it: “I don’t have to adhere to whatever walls they have up because of the day and age we live in.”
When Lorenzo saw Denzel Washington lose the Oscar for Best Actor to Casey Affleck in 2017, he observed that Denzel was biting his lip and his eyes were watering. In reaction, he says, “I don’t know if I should say this, and not to say his happiness would’ve been validated by that moment…. But I’m trying to get to a place where my happiness or success isn’t validated by someone wearing Fear of G-d, a store carrying it, or whatever Vogue has to say about it. I don’t wanna get to a place where I’m doing this for the industry.”
Lorenzo remembers the way players and coaches looked at his parents when he was growing up. They “looked to my parents for something else they had about themselves that was beyond material things…. Deep down, that’s what I’ve always wanted—to be like my parents.” Lorenzo adds, “If I’m gonna have this brand, Fear of God, what am I giving to people beyond a cool ‘fit’ for Instagram? I don’t have any investors or partners to answer to. There are no goals to meet. Everything we do is based on our conviction. But that also means that every collection is a risk. And if we miss the target, we’ve leveraged our whole company. Every collection could be the end of the brand, if it’s not successful. But believing in myself is all I really have. So I’m just constantly fueling myself and improving the products,
based on trend, but my own life experiences.”
Today Fear of G-d has thirty-plus employees. They are in the process of releasing a series of groundbreaking sneakers with Nike—completely new designs, not colorways of old models. The sneakers come with a complete collection of Fear of God x Nike apparel. The collaboration has been in the works for over two and a half years—the entire life of many companies in the fashion industry. Fear of God also recently released their sixth collection, aptly named Sixth, with a campaign starring Jared Leto. Though Leto is a spokesperson for Gucci, he got special permission from Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele for the Fear of God gig because Michele digs the brand. Fear of God and Jerry Lorenzo are definitely in the midst of a moment.
Lorenzo has been quoted as saying, “At some point, you have to be about something.” While his creative outlet of choice is designing luxury apparel, he has been able to grow Fear of God because he made a choice to grow himself. Sometime between promoting parties and having babies he chose to change and made a deep commitment to remain true to his convictions. He decided to be a role model who can show his children all that is possible when you act honorably and sharing generously. When Lorenzo explains his convictions, he quotes the pastor TD Jakes who said, “The reason you know you can do something is because you see it differently.” Jerry Lorenzo did one of the bravest things a person can do, trust your vision whether or not others do.
Or as Lorenzo puts it, “If they don’t let you eat at the table, just build your own table. Have your own dinner party.”