LA designer supports the community through fashion, streetwear

by Danielle F. Winter

Corey Populus, 33, has always found beauty in the flowing, circular nature of LA fashion, streetwear, and life. Therein lies freedom, which Populus has sought to capture and propagate through his brand and creative studio, Circulate. It’s a version of liberation that he’s been chasing since he was a teenager skateboarding at Leimert Park, then becoming a fixture at Fairfax as an intern, and later, when he left his sales post at Diamond Supply to work on his terms. To become an entrepreneur.

LA designer supports the community through fashion, streetwear

Now Populus is bringing that feeling to others — by elevating other LA brands owned by Black and giving back to charities through Circulate Market or its education initiatives through Circulate Arts. This Juneteenth celebrates the designer by doing what he does: circulating resources and attracting his homies. “That’s what Circulate is,” Populus says. “A tool to convey a message, give back, or build a community. That is the most important value.” In this essay, said to Julissa James, Populus explains why Circulate is more than just T-shirts and why he hopes it can serve as a tool to free ourselves.

I have been worldwide and seen several things that will change your outlook on life. I think that’s why I love giving back to the community so much.

“Circulate is a tool to get a message across, give back, or build community,” says creative director Corey Populus.

(Marc Cortes / For The Times)

Showing kids how to print a T-shirt or use this program can change their lives: they can be the next me or whatever.

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

Circulate is a tool to convey a message, give back or build a community. That’s the key value: circulating more than just a T-shirt. [I got the concept] after looking up the exact definition of ‘circulate’. It was ‘passing things from person to person’.

[Take a] life of a garment. I’m wearing the shirt today and will give it to my nephew a year later. Then he grows out of it and takes it to Goodwill. Now someone else is going to buy that shirt. It will live on forever. And then, one more bit, I was like, “I can circulate any type of message I want.”

I always share my friend’s stuff; they do the same. This is how we continue to dominate spaces: sharing resources and talking about each other when not in the same area. Any chance I can give back in any way, that’s usually what I’m trying to do.

Everyone thinks they can run a brand, but when you get thrown into the fire, it’s not just printing hoodies and T-shirts and posting a photo on Instagram. It’s not always glitz and glamour. But I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Populus says his brand is bigger than just T-shirts. It’s a movement.

(Marc Cortes / For The Times)

Just before the pandemic, I was at a tipping point. I was like, “My brand is starting to pick up steam. I’m next.” Then the pandemic hit. I had sold Circulate to PacSun since we started. [Then] they had to close some stores and cancel my order. As the pandemic slowly faded and all the protests took place, I made shirts and images relevant to the uprising. PacSun contacted me and said, “Yo, we’re about to reopen the stores. We want to get a product.” I thought, “Yeah, but I have a cool idea.”

At that time, everyone said, “Support black causes! Yada yada.” All these online publications put together these lists: “Here are ten black brands you should know. They were the same people all the time. (Not to downplay those people, because many are my friends.) But I’m like, “Yo, there are a lot of Black-owned brands here doing great things. They let us out.”

That led to Circulate Market – I wanted to spotlight Black-owned brands I like because I was tired of seeing the same usual suspects. PacSun has a big platform, so I asked them, “Can we add a charitable component? Let each brand come and pick a charity that’s right for them?” They were super on board. Bricks & Wood let me pick Kacey Lynch, Anwar Carrots, and all my good friends. We did a pop-up shop in downtown LA and New York. We made a charity shirt. It was amazing, and it was organic.

This June 10, the designer celebrates by circulating resources and attracting his homies.

(Marc Cortes / For The Times)

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

I try to have different pillars of Circulate. Circulate Arts is more about cultural stuff and storytelling – I just did an NFL collaboration, a shirt by Kenny Washington, the first black football player to sign an NFL contract. He’s from LA and went to UCLA. Then there’s ReCirculate – it’s all about sustainability and helping the planet. I will pick it up again in September. Then there’s another piece from Circulate called Circulations, which is all music and jazz stuff – I made this cool shirt with a graph of the evolution of African American music.

Populus says, “15-year-old Corey would trip over the Corey I am today. I get to be myself.”

(Marc Cortes / For The Times)

Fifteen-year-old Corey would trip over the Corey I am today. Get up when I want, walk when I want, move freely, and have financial freedom. Do you know what I mean?

I can be myself.

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