STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is Cedar Cathedral, a podcast about artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes. I’m Steve Hendershot, along with Clare Hendershot, from The Diving Bell, our band in Chicago.
When Brandon Williamson and his friends named their fashion brand PRSVR, or Persevere, it was like they made a prediction about what it would take to make it. Talent, yes, hustle, yes, but also a long time. Endurance. Resilience. The thing is, though, they didn’t seem to make that connection right away.
CLARE HENDERSHOT: Nine years ago this week, Brandon and his friends threw a launch party in Detroit. It was not the sort of party you throw when you’re beginning a long, slow, arduous journey. It was the party you throw when you expect to make a huge splash, right away.
BRANDON WILLIAMSON: We didn’t just get one nightclub, we had a connecting nightclub, too. And it’s just like, what are we doing here? It was just way too much, but we were just trying to present this larger-than-life thing that we knew at the time was what it was but it was just in its infancy, so it was like, you can’t present it correctly because you’re not there yet.
SH: The reason for the party was to collect preorders for their first shoe. And they thought they had all the boxes checked in order to be successful. They had flown in a famous rapper, Willie the Kid. They had a bathtub full of rose petals, because, you know. They had their shoe on a podium. But something got lost in translation, and the preorders did not roll in in quite the volume Brandon anticipated. In fact, the total number of sales that evening was, um …
BW: Zero. Not one.
SH: Brandon moved to Chicago right after that, thinking that a change of venue might be the answer. But the thing about a journey called Persevere is that there’s no instant solution. So years pass in Chicago. Brandon’s fellow designers and business partners fall away. Brandon gets sidetracked and almost gives up.
CH: But he doesn’t. And eventually, PRSVR takes off. Hear the story on this episode of Cedar Cathedral.
CH: The first Cedar Cathedral meetup is coming soon: Friday, May 13, at 5:30 pm at Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids. Come join us, please. It would be great to meet you, and also, this show is all about making connections between people pursuing the creative life in the Great Lakes — different cities, different modes of creativity and artistry, and the dream for these gatherings is to take it beyond stories on the radio and start building this community in real life. We’re going to do this in other cities, too, but this is the testing ground, and we’re excited.
SH: Our show is about Great Lakes artists, and also we are Great Lakes artists. Our band, The Diving Bell, is playing at Long Road Distillers that night, Friday, May 13, and then the next night, Saturday, May 14, in Detroit at the Park Bar at the Elizabeth Theater. Then the next weekend, on Sunday, May 22nd, it’s our concert and carnival and live radio play of the year. We’ve rented the venue Workshop in Chicago for a special performance and live-album recording of our show about an 1800s explorer who searches for Atlantis in the Great Lakes. There will be origami poison frogs, there will be a craft cocktail called The Poison Frog, and there will be a theremin. Tickets at divingbellmusic.com.
CH: Now back to the story.
SH: Before you can start to make sense of Brandon’s tale of success through perseverance, you’ve got to understand that his journey is even more unlikely than what we told you so far. That’s because not only does the world not believe in PRSVR right away, Brandon doesn’t particularly believe in himself, either—at least, not as a designer. Out of the three original PRSVR guys, there was an internal pecking order in terms of who was the best designer. And it wasn’t Brandon. He didn’t finish second, either. It was just kind of acknowledged that he was the low man on the artistic totem pole.
BW: They didn’t like any of my ideas. Nothing I ever liked ever got in.
SH: So in PRSVR’s early days, Brandon took the lead on other aspects of the business. He was a trained cobbler and had worked in shoe repair, and in the mid-2000s he started to think about how he would source materials and production for a luxury sneaker. He knew that a lot of high-end footwear came from Italy, so he called the Italian Trade Commission in Chicago—this is while he still lived in Detroit. Not only did someone at the commission take his call, but by picking up the phone, Brandon sort of won the fashion lottery. Because soon he’s in Milan, meeting with the craftsmen and women who hammer and stitch together all those premium shoes.
BW: They’re like, 'Hey, we actually sponsor this trip. Would you like to go?' Yeah. So I went to Milan to go to that. I didn’t have to pay for the trip, like, literally, the trip, the hotel, the connections that I made — it was all free. I got back and was just inspired, I was like, 'You know, guys, we can do this.' I was over there and these people loved me, you know what I mean? They were receptive to the ideas, we just didn’t have any money. So when I got home, I just had to figure it out from there.
CH: You can see why the Detroit launch party drove Brandon crazy. PRSVR not only had a design, but Brandon had built the relationships, this network of suppliers in Italy that was ready to go, if only he could sell enough pre-orders.
SH: But it didn’t happen. Not in Detroit, not in Chicago. And after years of trying—trying to attract the interest and investment required to get these shoes made, even building a sneaker-store locator app to try to draw attention to PRSVR—well, eventually things broke down. By 2012, his two partners, Jermaine Barnwell and D.J. Grant, had left. And to Brandon, it was a crushing blow, because not only were they his friends and partners, he also thought of them as the creative engine behind PRSVR. Because he was the number-three designer on a team of three. What’s he going to be able to do by himself?
BW: Because again, it's just the lack of confidence in my abilities. All the ideas I had around these two super great creative people, they were like, 'Nah, that’s not cool. Nah, don't do that. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s cool, that’s a good idea, but we’re going to do this instead.'
SH: But around this time, something strange happens. See, Brandon still is making clothes for himself, and as he and his wife go shopping along Michigan Avenue in Chicago, those clothes get noticed.
BW: I had a bag and this shirt that was really cool, and she was like hey I like that bag. I’m like, ‘Oh you do? I’ll get you one.’ I’m sure she was like thinking, ‘Oh he knows a guy that makes bags,’ or ‘He knows where to buy the bag from.’ She didn’t realize I made the bag. All the stores we went to on Michigan Avenue people were constantly asking well what shirt is that? Where can I get one of those? And we're like, 'I made it,' and like 'No you didn’t.' We’re at Ferragamo like the manager of Ferragamo, Chris, he's like, 'I will buy that if you had that for sale right now.' She saw that she kind of put the battery in my back to say, 'Hey, you really need to focus back on this.'
SH: So his wife Margaret persuades him to give it one more shot, he has to decide what to take that shot with. He wasn’t going to push his partners’ designs, because that seemed weird to him once they’d left. He decided to push forward with a line of clothing that he had designed—clothing instead of shoes because it’s not as expensive to manufacture. But then, once he was looking at all that money he had saved by not doing shoes, Brandon decided to splurge. He decided to feature leather.
BW: We never had the ability to do that when I was 25. I couldn’t afford that, and I didn’t know where to get it either. So it was like oh my god, we could do this in leather? We had a leather denim jacket, a leather pullover, a leather polo, a leather sweatpant. We just did everything because we could never afford leather.
SH: It was a bold bet, and not unanimous among the PRSVR team. Brandon faced some serious opposition on the leather track pants from his wife, and also from one of his cofounders who at that moment was leaving the company and didn’t need to care, but still felt the need to object, just as a concerned friend’s warning to Brandon.
BW: Leather sweatpants, they were like, 'That’s not a good idea, let’s not do that.' Well, sometimes that’ll discourage me. Sometimes, if I know that I know that I know, I’ll still go ahead and do it and then I’ll come back and, like, 'I told you guys that this was going to be amazing.'
SH: Amazing doesn’t even do justice to what happens next. Brandon and Margaret make one last big push to get the brand off the ground, and they travel to Los Angeles for the BET Awards to try to get their clothes seen by the right people. They don’t even have tickets to the awards, they’re just watching on TV in the hotel lobby. And that’s where Brandon sees this well-dressed guy walk by.
BW: And I was like oh my god, he’s got my pants on. Everybody’s looking like, 'I don’t think those are them, I don’t think so.' I’m like, 'Look at the knee, that’s our pant. Like, I know that’s our pant. I know what I did.'
SH: Crazy, right? For Brandon, that was the craziest PRSVR sighting of all time, a distinction that it held for like five full minutes, because all of a sudden Nicky Minaj shows up on the TV, doing her BET Awards performance—also wearing PRSVR pants.
BW: Nicki Minaj comes out and she’s doing a song with Ciara and she’s got our pants on. We had no idea she was going to wear them. So we’re sitting there not knowing that this is about to happen, and this moment happens where our pants are on that stage.
CH: And when Brandon says 'our pants,' he means his pants. The leather track pants that he had to fight for, that he had been warned against making in the first place. PRSVR took off—that year, Nelly performed in PRSVR shorts, and Teyana Taylor wore a PRSVR jacket to debut her new Adidas sneaker.
BW: And we didn’t know leather was about to hit. We don’t know. We don’t get to tell people what's going to happen, but leather hit so hard and we were right on time and God literally lined that up.
SH: And suddenly, Brandon was a red-hot designer. Which was hard for him, considering he still thought of himself as the number three designer on a team of three.
BW: My sketches aren’t as entailed as some of these guys that really, really, really do this, so it’s just more so of a respect thing. I don’t want them to ever see my process and be like, 'This guy’s not a designer.' It’s that kind of thing. Well, at the same time, I drew it and it came out and they bought it. I don’t know what else you want to call it, but that’s a designer. Looks like a duck...
SH: These days, Brandon and his wife Margaret both are full-time at PRSVR, and the last couple years have been about refining the formula. Version one was a live-and-work studio in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, which got rough because they had a small child, and customers wanted to stop by during dinner time, and so on — there were just no boundaries. Version two was a shop on Michigan Avenue, right there amidst the Ferragamos of the world, but sales weren’t quite there yet to justify it. So this month marks the beginning of stage 3 of PRSVR’s retail era: the opening of two new boutique shops, one in Chicago’s West Loop, and the other in Washington, D.C.
CH: Brandon also is looking at getting the band back together, bringing his two old partners back into the business. Which begs the question—will Brandon keep designing?
BW: I won’t stop designing, no. I found that I’m pretty good at it. I'll accept more ideas though. The things that I’m able to do were from being around you guys for so long and being able to kind of pick off of those things that they were doing and be inspired by those ideas. I think it would be great for me just to be able to like some of the things I design like man I’d get it back and like DJ would have remembered to do that, or Jermaine would have remembered to get this done, he would’ve put a pocket over there. Man, oh well, too late—let's go.
SH: In other words, it would be a partnership. PRSVR would begin to look a lot like the company Brandon and his friends envisioned so many years ago, except with more creative input from Brandon. They had this image in their minds, and surely enough, it is coming to pass. They just had to persevere.
CH: For more on PRSVR, including photos of Brandon in his awesome new camouflage, waxed-canvas denim jacket that’s lined in glorious pink, visit cedarcathedral.com and visit our Cedar Cathedral Instagram.
SH: We conclude every episode with a song by a great indie band from the Great Lakes, and this week we head to Minneapolis, of course to Minneapolis, in honor of a transcendent Great Lakes creator who died this week. I don’t know if our featured band, The Pines, ever made it to Paisley Park or interacted at all with Prince. I know they shared a city. I also know that as an artist, Prince loved teasing you with that perfect dance-pop hook before zig-zagging off in some other direction because he’d rather be interesting than always giving you what you want or expect. So here’s The Pines with Aerial Ocean, from their new album. And watch for that curveball chord right before the chorus, and when it hits, think of Prince.
CH: Cedar Cathedral was produced this week by us, Steve and Clare Hendershot from The Diving Bell. Thanks to Brandon Williamson and The Pines. See you in two weeks with another tale of Great Lakes creativity.