How Cross Colours paved the way for streetwear in the ‘90s

The seminal streetwear brand founded by Carl Jones and TJ Walker in 1989—attracting fans like TLC, Tupac, and Aaliyah in the ’90s—explores its rich past at Nordstrom

Before “streetwear” was a thing, there was Cross Colours. Carl Jones and TJ Walker founded the seminal brand in 1989, when hip hop was still in its youth, to address the lack of brands that reflected the Black community. As luck would have it, Will Smith appeared in the brand on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and from then on, celebrities were vying to wear Cross Colours. Marked by the tagline “Clothing Without Prejudice,” as well as its core colors—green, yellow, and red—among other bold hues, Jones and Walker wanted to make it clear that the clothes were for everyone.

Several now-legendary entertainers of the ‘90s wore Cross Colours, including Tupac Shakur, TLC, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, and Aaliyah. Along with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the brand also appeared on the big screen in Martin, In Living Color, and Sister Act 2. In the late ‘90s, one of Cross Colours’s biggest retailers, Merry-Go-Round, filed for bankruptcy and, subsequently, the brand couldn’t survive. In 2019, after a lengthy legal battle over the Cross Colours logo, Jones and Walker revived the brand that had paved the way for FUBU, RocaWear, and, in more recent years, Off-White and Hood by Air. Since the comeback of Cross Colours it has been spotted on Cardi B., Billie Eilish, Rihanna, Dua Lipa, and Bruno Mars.

Cross Colours has set up shop in New York City through August 8, 2021 at Nordstrom’s flagship store on 57th Street. The shop-in-shop will feature an exhibition of Cross Colours ephemera that takes visitors through the seminal label’s history, as well as both reissues of vintage styles and new designs. Document spoke to Jones and Walker to take a look back at Cross Colours, examine its rich past, and explore the lessons they’ve learned over the years.

Document: Why did you decide to start Cross Colours in 1989?

Carl Jones: We recognized that our community spent a considerable amount of money on brands that were not considering us when it came to how the clothing was designed and marketed. We didn’t see ourselves reflected in ad campaigns. We knew there was a need and we were determined to create a brand that our community could see themselves in. There was a great deal of thought and intention that went into everything from the way the clothing would hang to the colors we chose.

Document: Describe the brand’s aesthetic.

TJ Walker: Many would describe our aesthetic as ‘Afrocentric,’ which you see represented through our core colors; green represents the land, yellow represents the sun, and red represents the blood of our people. We use the vibrant colors and the clothing itself as a vehicle to educate, inspire, and spread positivity.

Document: Why was it important to have the label carry the tagline, ‘Clothing Without Prejudice’?

Carl: We wanted it to be clear that Cross Colours was for everyone. Our brand isn’t about creating barriers to entry for customers; our focus is, and always has been, on building bridges through fashion.

Document: Everyone from Tupac to Snoop Dogg to TLC wore the brand in the ‘90s. How did you get it on so many celebrities? Why did the brand resonate so much?

TJ: It started with our former director of marketing in the ‘90s. This was before cell phones, Instagram, or the concept of Influencers. We had our director of marketing physically go down to the studio where they were filming The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with an overrun of samples we weren’t going to sell. He gave them to the stylist for the show and a few nights later Will [Smith] is wearing our shirt on primetime television. Things took off from there to the point where we had to limit the amount of clothing we could give away to celebrities due to the high demand.

Document: A lot of people who grew up after the ‘90s are not familiar with Cross Colours. Can you explain how it was so influential?

Carl: We were the first brand to really create and market what we now know as ‘streetwear.’ Our advertising broke barriers by highlighting the beauty of diverse skin tones and nationalities. Everyone from hardcore rappers to kids supported the brand. We’re extremely grateful to have been able to impact the culture in such a major way. Cross Colours is now ready to reach and impact this new generation one new collection at a time.

Document: What are the brand’s most important milestones?

TJ: It’s hard to choose, but we would say: our first Magic Show, where we walked away with a million dollars in orders in less than 48 hours; seeing Cross Colours pop up on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; having Bruno Mars and Cardi B. incorporate us into their ‘Finesse’ music video and Grammy performance; the opportunity to sponsor [Mars’s] 24K Magic World Tour; establishing our college mentorship program; and the relationships we’ve established with major retailers such as Nordstrom.

Document: Lots of present-day celebrities like Dua Lipa, Cardi B., and Bruno Mars have been wearing Cross Colours. How are you continuing its legacy?

Carl: We believe that Cross Colours’s legacy continues because we’ve stayed true to who we are as a brand and what we represent. Cross Colours is rooted in the idea that we are all united; we push for peace and speak out against injustices. Celebrities, as well as our everyday customers, recognize and align themselves with what we stand for. Our mission is our legacy, and our customers contribute to that significantly.

Document: How did this Nordstrom partnership come about?

TJ: It’s been a long-term goal of ours to be featured in Nordstrom stores, so this partnership means a great deal to the team. The partnership came about organically through a number of conversations between our teams during quarantine. We aligned on the importance of providing Black designers with platforms to amplify their work. Nordstrom was committed to that initiative and we’re proud to be a part of it.

Document: What are the most important things that your experience with Cross Colours has taught you?

Carl: Cross Colours has taught us both so many things over the years, about life and about ourselves. What stands out to us the most is the importance of keeping good people around you. We found success in the ‘90s and we’re rediscovering that success now because we’ve always aligned ourselves with those who believe in our mission. Our team is made up of some of the most brilliant and passionate people you’ll ever meet; they all embody the concept of unity in diversity. We learn from one other, hold one another accountable, and we believe in the work that we’re doing through Cross Colours.