True Religion’s Zihaad Wells on Collaborations and Supporting Young Creatives

True Religion creative director Zihaad Wells is moving the denim brand forward through collaborations with celebrities and influencers who have deep ties with its heritage and young creatives who are reinterpreting the label in new ways.

Recently the brand has teamed with the likes of Atlanta artists Blu Boy and Elijah Popo, multimedia artist Jaffa Saba, and New York City-based designer Madeline Kraemer, who’s behind the brand Gems by Madeline, and also heavy hitters like rappers 2 Chainz and Chief Keef and streetwear brand Supreme.

But the aim isn’t to do a collaboration collection every month, according to Wells, who assumed the creative director role in 2019.

“It has to make sense for us as a brand,” Wells explained. “There is a Y2K moment happening now and True Religion is prime for that trend and moment as a team and company. We’re very much focused on the next generation and the next 20 years.”

Wells joined True Religion in 2006 and was the first designer the company hired. He saw and experienced firsthand how True Religion permeated youth culture and streetwear. In the middle of his 11-year tenure, he worked with Russell Westbrook, who was named creative director and directed the brand’s campaign and designed a collection; he saw rapper 2 Chainz loosely name his seventh mixtape “T.R.U. REALigion” after the brand in 2011, and a year later saw rapper Chief Keef in the brand in the early part of the 2010s when his hit songs “Love Sosa” and “I Don’t Like” shook rap airwaves.

The two rappers collaborated with True Religion on collections in recent years. “We jumped at the opportunity,” Wells said about collaborating with 2 Chainz for the 10-year anniversary of his “T.R.U. REALigion” mixtape. “For us it made a lot of sense. He said, ‘you guys need to work with Chief Keef’ and we had a plan in place to work with him already.”

The True Religion x Chief Keef collaboration sold out within the day, according to Wells. The partners reworked the True Religion logo with skulls and bones, eyes and lightning bolts on T-shirts and hoodies that also had flame motifs, and sweatpants, jeans and denim jackets with hearts, the word “trueee” and flames as well.

“We went online at 9 a.m. and two minutes in, there were over 200 people with items in their cart,” Wells said. “They’re not huge volume because we want them to be special. In general they all sell out really fast.”

Supreme had the same effect for True Religion. “They reached out to us,” Wells said. “My first question was why do you want to work with us and their policy is to work with people unique in their field with a definitive point of view and bring those worlds together.”

The collaboration that launched in fall 2021 saw denim trucker jackets and cargo pants, sweatshirts and beanies with cobranding and reworked True Religion motifs like the horseshoe and Buddha.

“It was a true collaboration in that we worked back and forth and made the garments ourselves,” Wells said. “It was a great partnership.”

But the work with young creatives is equally as important for the brand’s future. Wells said True Religion has become a blank canvas for creatives and entrepreneurs like Blu Boy, Jaffa Saba and Madeline Kraemer.

True Religion teamed with London-native Saba on a collection sold exclusively at Selfridges in 2020. Matt Claydon, True Religion’s vice president of international, discovered Saba’s work on Instagram and reached out. Saba studied in art school briefly and worked at Never Fade, where he had the chance to learn about craftsmanship and design. He also had mentors who worked on Savile Row that would give advice and pointers. This birthed his love for deconstructing and upcycling clothes and reworking existing materials into accessories, masks and shoes.

The first collection for Selfridges included deconstructed denim and novelty pieces and the remaining fabric from production was used to wrap a Jeep in denim. True Religion teamed with Saba again in 2021 for a sashiko collection sold exclusively at Browns and they sold out every piece, according to Wells.

“It’s a constant collaboration,” said the 21-year-old Saba. “One of the main points that I pitched and happy to see them take on board is to empower the youth and embrace the young creatives, because they’re the ones with the ideas. I’m very grateful for this and I really appreciate them listening to me because as a young person you do not feel empowered. I’ve always been told you’re not good enough and can’t do anything, but to have someone say you can do whatever you want is empowering.”

Atlanta artist Elijah Popo partnered with True Religion through his brand Everyone and together produced 30 tie-dye denim pieces.

Blu Boy and True Religion also launched a collection in October 2021 as a result of a relationship that Blu Boy described as a “fluke.” His best friend’s cousin whom he is also close with is Elijah Popo. They posted a group photo together on social media and True Religion asked Popo who Blu Boy was after seeing the photo. Blu Boy went to visit the brand in Los Angeles while filming a show for HBO.

“Atlanta is True Religion — that’s what everybody wore and I couldn’t afford it,” Blu Boy said. “I really took it to heart and went to the headquarters and got that ball rolling. A few pieces became a full collection and a party and an online video campaign.” They have a collaboration launching at ComplexCon this year as well.

“It’s a start of a crazy career,” Blu Boy said excitedly about the partnership. “I love True Religion and what they’ve done. If I saw someone like me doing this how could I not be inspired? True Religion and the relationship I have is another win for creatives and artists.”

Wells was introduced to Madeline Kraemer’s work through his daughter. The designer, who is known for making stacked patchwork denim, applied her craft to True Religion’s signature jeans.

“They are a really good partner and great family to me,” Kraemer said. The young creative graduated from Fashion Institute of Technology in 2019 and began reworking denim garments into new pieces at the beginning of lockdown due to COVID-19. True Religion reached out and first did a question-and-answer feature on Kraemer as well as a collaboration on custom jeans that were raffled to the public. They teamed two more times on more styles.

“For me, the goal is to keep moving forward with these young creatives that are able to look at the brand in a new way,” Wells said. “I believe it has so much potential. I see True Religion as a forever brand. It’s going to keep moving forward with young creatives showing us what it could be. Today, it moves at such a fast pace. It needs to be flexible enough to move with it. I don’t know what the future holds, but True Religion will be part of it.”

This is part of the reason why Wells returned to the brand.

After leaving the company in 2017, he had brief stints with Hudson Jeans and AG Jeans before returning in 2019. Though the brand has built its heritage organically through its typeface font, signature horseshoe and Buddha motifs, as well as youth culture, streetwear and rap music, the younger generation still views True Religion much like rappers did 10 years ago and California shoppers when the label launched 20 years ago.

“I spoke to my 16-year-old daughter in 2019 about the brand and she said everyone is wearing True Religion in school,” Well said. “That means we have a really attentive audience. The brand has always been personal to me. I saw so much opportunity and the mandate for my return was really simple: we want to get back to the DNA of who the brand is. We’re not trying to convince a whole new generation, we just have to highlight what’s great about the brand.”

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