Liberation is built together. This Los Angeles designer knows how to “flow” resources

(Marc Cortes / For The Times)

Corey Populus, 33, has always found beauty in the fluid, circular nature of not just LA fashion and streetwear, but life as well. There’s a freedom there, a freedom that Populus has tried to capture and redistribute through its brand and creative studio, Circulate. It’s a version of liberation he’s been chasing since he was a preteen on a skateboard in Leimert Park, then as a trainee-turned-staple at Fairfax, and later when he quit his job as a salesman. at Diamond Supply to become an entrepreneur on his own terms. .

Now Populus is giving the same feeling to others – by uplifting other black-owned LA brands and giving back to charities through Circulate Market or its educational initiatives through Circulate Arts. This Juneteenth, the designer is celebrating by doing what he does: circulating resources and threading his pals. “That’s what Circulate is,” says Populus. “A tool to convey a message, give back or create a community. This is the most important value. In this essay, narrated to Julissa James, Populus explains why Circulate is more than just t-shirts and why he hopes it can serve as a tool to liberate us.

I’ve been around the world and seen different things that will change your outlook on life. I think that’s why I love giving back to the community so much.

A person wearing a baseball cap, on-ear headphones, T-shirt and orange pants leans on a bicycle against a wall.

“Circulate is a tool for getting a message across, giving back or building a community,” says its creative director, Corey Populus. (Marc Cortes / For The Times)

The fact that I show children how to print a t-shirt or how to use this program can change a whole aspect of their life – they can be the next me, or whatever.

You know, they had to see that to become that.

Circulate is a tool to get a message across, give back or build a community. That’s the important value — circulating more than a T-shirt. [I got the concept] after researching the exact definition of “circulate”. It was “passing things from one person to another”.

[Take a] life of the garment. I’m wearing the shirt today, and I’ll give it to my little cousin a year later. Then he comes out and takes her to Goodwill. Now someone else is going to buy that shirt. He continues to live forever. And then another piece, I was like, “I can get any kind of message out there that I want.”

I always make sure to share my friends’ stuff; they do the same thing. This is how we continue to dominate spaces: by sharing resources and talking about each other when we are not in the same room. Any opportunity I can return in any way, that’s usually what I try to do.

Everyone thinks they can run a brand, but when you’re really thrown into the fire, it’s not just about printing hoodies and t-shirts and putting a picture on Instagram. It’s not always glitz and glamour. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Populus says his brand is bigger than just t-shirts.  It is a movement.

Populus says his brand is bigger than just t-shirts. It is a movement. (Marc Cortes/For the time)

I was at a tipping point just before the pandemic. I thought to myself, “My brand is actually starting to gain momentum. I will be next. Then the pandemic hit. I was selling Circulate to PacSun since we started. [Then] they had to close a bunch of stores and cancel my order. As the pandemic slowly began to fade and all the protests unfolded, I was making shirts and graphics relevant to the uprising. PacSun reached out to me and said, “Yo, we’re about to start opening stores again. We would love to get a product. I was like, “Yeah, but I have this really cool idea.”

During this period, everyone was saying, “Support black businesses! Yada yada. All of these online publications were compiling these lists: “Here are 10 black marks you should know about. It was the same people every time. (Not to belittle these people because a lot of them are my friends.) But I’m like, “Yo, there’s a ton of brands here that are black-owned and doing great things. They’re leaving us out.”

This sparked Circulate Market – I wanted to highlight black-owned brands I love and give them the spotlight, because I was tired of seeing the same usual suspects. PacSun has a great platform, so I said to them, “Can we add a charity component to it? That each brand come and choose a charity that resonates with it? They were great on board. I have to choose Kacey Lynch from Bricks & Wood, Anwar Carrots and all my very close friends. We did a pop-up store in downtown LA and also in New York. We made a charity shirt. It was amazing and it was really organic.

This Juneteenth, the creator is celebrating by circulating resources and donning his homies.

This Juneteenth, the creator is celebrating by circulating resources and donning his homies. (Marc Cortes/For the time)

That was the whole premise: I wanted to share my resources with my friends. And then we also shared our resources with different charities. Now I do Circulate Market every year. With the last one I just made I selected some new brands and we did a charity shirt – a collaboration with the organization Clean Up South Central by Dime Jones – to help rebuild a computer lab at the Bret Harte Preparatory Middleschool.

I try to have different pillars of Circulate. Circulate Arts is more about cultural things and telling a story – I just did an NFL collaboration, a jersey on Kenny Washington, the first black football player to sign an NFL contract. He’s from LA, went to UCLA. Then there’s ReCirculate – it’s all about sustainability and helping the Earth. I’m going to do this again in September. Then there’s another track from Circulate called Circulations, which is all music and jazz – I made this really cool shirt with a chart of the evolution of African American music.

"15 year old Corey would trip over the Corey I am now"  said Populus.  "I can be myself."

“15-year-old Corey would trip over the Corey that I am now,” Populus says. “I get to be myself.” (Marc Cortes/For the time)

15-year-old Corey would trip over the Corey that I am now. Being able to wake up when I want, walk when I want, move freely, have financial freedom. You know what I mean?

I get to be myself.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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