Why The Legends League Sweatshop Is A Dream Fulfilled And A Life Validated

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Bryan Espiritu is the Legend behind the League. And since its inception in 2007, his Toronto-born brand and streetwear clothing line, The Legends League has amassed a cult-like following among the young, street-savvy and vulnerable. Born from his passion for brutally candid imagery and fueled by his overwhelming life experiences, the artist/designer/writer and his creations have been changing the narrative in Toronto and elsewhere since the days of Myspace, when people began to notice his unprecedented talent, exposed conditions and open conversations tackling suicide, mental illness, abuse and sobriety. From there, the city was hooked.

Fast-forward through years of ever-populating success. Following the evolution of graphics sketches, t-shirt sales, art shows, pop-up shops, and a recent Juno win – Bryan is celebrating his most certifying milestone. A dream fulfilled and a life validated; the iconic Toronto brand is preparing to open The LL Sweatshop in the heart of the city this Saturday. Bryan’s journey, based on his scrapes and scars, has cemented its pillar indefinitely.

Just days away from opening the first ever Legends League flagship store, the artistic mastermind has opened up about what it has taken to get here:

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Congrats on the shop. Tell me about its inception. I know the other day, you embedded a tweet of yours from 2009, mentioning a flagship store back then, so obviously it’s been something that you’ve dreamed of for a long time. How has the journey to get here been?

To be honest, it’s been a pretty long journey. I’ve been wanting to have a clothing line since I was 12. I can always kind of remember it, seeing shit and being like, “okay, this is what I want to do.” So I’ve had that planned for a really long time. But the brand itself, actually doing Legends League, it started around 2007 and it had nothing to do with clothes. It just had everything to do with me using an online platform as therapy, to be able to talk about experiences that I’ve had and just kind of sharing myself really candidly before anyone was really doing that online. And I caught a lot of flak for it but then I started to really realize that people were paying attention to what I was saying, because they could relate to it. I was channeling shit that had happened to me, but people were taking it like I was channeling some of the things that a lot of other people were going through. And the brand itself became this place where people knew that I was just going to be honest and candid with stuff. So it started with that. It wasn’t, “oh ya, I’m going to come out and put out a whole bunch of products and make a whole bunch of money.” My mentality was always community before commerce. And slowly, it turned into this thing.

Everything was done on Myspace at the time, but I presented it in such a way where my Myspace page didn’t look like a regular page. And so I would do these designs and these write-ups and it was a lot of angles in terms of the presentation. And then finally, I started posting some of my designs and people were asking about them, like “can we buy shit?” The first tee that I put out on Myspace, it was done in sort of an “I’ll make whatever you want” kind of way. I made the design but I gave everybody an opportunity to tell me what colour shirt they wanted, what colour print they wanted and it came with a poster and I signed it. It was only like 40 pieces but we sold out overnight. And I was kind of like, “holy shit, we have to do something with this.” So it was always based on the community aspect and me talking about things that I had gone through. It was really personal, not that it’s not personal now, but I think that the voice that I spoke with back then was all about stuff that I had particularly gone through and I wasn’t keeping in mind that maybe I should make it a little bit more broad. But it was from there and then turned into a thing where I thought, “maybe I could do a little collection’ and popup shops and they grew and grew and I think that the crazy part about it is that it’s not that we’re coming up with the craziest ground-breaking fashion designs. We’re not doing shows. We’re not doing fashion week. We’ve never done any trade shows or anything like that. It’s just all absolute grassroots community built type shit. We started to see that when we do pop-ups, we’re getting these 12 hour lineups and people camping out, and people willing to pay people to stand in line for them. And then this opportunity came up and the timing was pretty amazing. We just said “fuck it, now let’s open a shop.” There was a couple times that I said I was going to quit. Just for the sake of security. I was doing the advertising thing for a while and then, I did an art show. I was just really unsure of if it was what I wanted to do, because it’s tough.

I get that. Chasing a career in anything arts-related is a struggle. I’m a writer so I definitely know those times you’re talking about. I’ve been there.

Absolutely man. Especially if you get paid a regular salary for doing someone else’s work.  You’re like “fuck.” There was a time I had security, I had benefits, I was getting paid a really good salary but it just wasn’t me. I don’t mean it in a way that was like, I’m too lazy to do this. I meant it more like, it’s more me to bring people together and a really weird campy way. So I decided to just do this full time. And it was scary as fuck. I don’t know how, but it’s definitely paid off.

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Because it’s your purpose. Once you know what you’re supposed to do in life, you can’t really go and do something else. You kind of just have to fight through the bullshit to make it work.

I think that’s one of the most exhausting parts, to be honest. To continue to stay candid.  It’s physically exhausting. Whether it’s talking about my family situation or situation with my kid, or stuff that I’ve gone through in the past, it’s really tough. But at the same time, things have happened where individuals are on the verge of suicide, call me up and I’ve gotta talk them out of shit. My son is transgendered. He was born a female and so we’re going through the transition now and it’s amazing. But some of my friends I had never ever would of thought, hit me up and say, “dude, when I was in high school, I was dating a transgendered man and I could never talk about it.” I’m putting this out there and it’s surrounded by vulnerability, because people in the streetwear game and urban scene, they don’t do shit like that.

Especially in the urban community, people are reluctant to try and understand things like that.

Right. There’s no room for vulnerability in this game. And I said, if there’s no room for it, I’m going to build one. And it’s put us in this place where, I see a lot of brands now, younger brands who follow me or know me, and they do that story telling shit. It’s cool to see it. But I don’t think that 10 years ago or five years ago that that was the angle that anyone would have taken.

I think that’s even more important and spectacular in a place like Toronto – with such a cold screw face mentality. It’s so hard to be open about personal issues and be brave enough to be vulnerable in a place like that.

I was like 12 when I started b-boying in the scene and it was totally that. It was literally screw face capital type shit. You couldn’t get by if you didn’t have any talent and I think that’s the difference now is that people can hide behind the shield of how many followers they have and that somehow legitimizes them. It wasn’t like that coming up, especially in the b-boy scene. You had to be good. You had to actually be able to battle and take people out, or else it was impossible to be in a spot and get any respect from anyone. I remember nights when dudes would get beat down, because they were shit. And seeing that type of shit, I think growing up in that sort of environment, especially in the city, where there wasn’t a lot of ways to get yourself out there, other than being present, it helped the way that we present the brand. It’s not just popularity that’s getting us by. I’ll put my skills against anyone. But at the same time, our community is way stronger than anyone else’s. One of the things I always say is that, it’s not that our design work is so amazing that no one can fuck with us, it’s just that there’s no brand out there that has a better narrative than we do. Because it’s all been real.

You can feel it.

I hope so, because I’m feeling the exhaustion on the other end.

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You’ll see on Saturday at the opening. And you’re used to seeing huge lineups outside your Pop-up shops hours and hours before it opens anyway. Tell me about that feeling.

I think the first time that happened, I was out at a bar by my house and I was walking home and I saw like 6 or 7 kids sitting on the steps and they stopped me and they said “we’re here for tomorrow” and I was half in the bag and I was like “you guys are crazy, what are you thinking?” Then it became this thing where every pop-up shop and every event we did after that, there were these long-ass lineups. The last time, people were there 13 hours before our opening. People were out there and they had tents and chairs and they had food and booze for me. I go out there and I kick it with them all the time. I’ll be there at four in the morning just hanging out and having conversations with them. If they can muster up to be there hours on end, I can take the time to kick it with them. But I’m not used to it. Two hours before I called you, I said to my business partner, “I’m kind of nervous that no one’s going to show up.” That’s kind of something that I always say. I’ve always got this little bit of doubt. So I don’t ever expect it.

I hope you never get used to it. That’s what will keep the passion and that community aspect alive.

I’m not so high on a pedestal that I think that it’s all because of me that all of this is happening. It’s because of everyone. I wouldn’t be able to keep my lights on if people didn’t pay attention or support the things that I do.

So what does this shop represent for you in your life and your career now that you’ve gotten here?

There was this point in my life when I was younger that I knew how much my dad made. I always had this thing in my head where I was like, fuck this guy, one day I’m going to make more money than him. When that day came where I signed off on a salary that made more money than him, I thought that I would feel good about it. And then there was this, okay one day when I do this, I’m going to feel good. It always kind of felt like revenge. Everything I did always felt like revenge against something that happened to me when I was younger and the fact that I couldn’t live a normal life. I think that what is happening with this shop is, eventually I started getting that feeling where I was like, this is such a fuck you to everything that’s happened. But now, it’s starting to feel like, maybe it’s my own validation to myself. It has nothing to do with anyone else. Just for me, internally. Like, all things considered, look where you ended up. Look at everything you planned out to do. It feels like one of those things where I’ve finally done it for myself and it’s a pillar. There’s a fucking sign with my logo on it right in front of me. It’s an insane feeling. This might wear off, but I feel like this might be that point where I feel like my life has been validated.

That sounds like growth. Like healing.

It’s interesting. I’m definitely not healed, that’s for sure. I always felt like there’s pockets to your life. You have your romantic life, your work life, your leisure and your friends and I felt like everything I did was attached at the hip to negativity – from issues with police to my kid to my family. Not that my kid brings negativity, but that was a hard thing for us to go through together. This just seems like I’ve been able to create another outlet for myself that has nothing to do with that negativity. Sure, it came from everything I’ve been through, but having this shop, it was just combining everything I have done online and creating a place for it. I don’t hide anything and I’m not hiding behind anything. How I post shit online is exactly how I am when you meet me. I’m not putting on a persona. Having a shop is me saying that I’m happy with this.

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When people rock their LL, what are they projecting? What are they saying to everybody else?

I feel like it’s a really small community, but you get these individuals who are in agreement and stand behind me with a few things. Or they feel like the brand represents them. I don’t think it’s aspirational in a way that, you look at a Nike or a Supreme or those girls that wear Lulu Lemon pants and look like they’ve never been to the gym or done yoga – I don’t think our brand has that. When people wear the brand, it’s because they really feel like they’re connected. And not at an idol level, they just think it speaks for them. I never wanted to create a megaphone brand. The difference between a megaphone and a telephone is a telephone has an ear peace. I’m just trying to spark a conversation.

Originally when the Legends League came about, a lot of people thought that I was saying that I’m the legend and I’m creating this league. It was never that. Legends can be individuals or they can be stories. My thing was that, we are created as individuals and inspired by individuals and the experiences that we’ve gone through. Those individuals and experiences mold the person that we become. The people and stories that make me are my legend. And the collection of those people and those stories are my league. The whole concept is that we are influenced and inspired by the people and experiences in our lives.

Amazing. I get that. I’m a firm believer that our negative experiences can mold us positively.

Absolutely.

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Oh, before I forget – congrats on the Juno win [for Naturally Born Strangers]. You were live streaming with the rest of Canada when that was announced.

Thanks. I got a phone-call saying we won it before I saw it. I did watch the livestream and that post I put up where I was laughing, that was my honest to god response. Just to hear them say it was so insane.

That was such a win for the entire hip-hop community. It was a long time coming.

There was one moment where my homie Addy Papa, who also produced the project – he was the one who said, let’s make this more than just a song, let’s do an actual album – He texted me a photo of Tona and Adam Bomb at the Junos, and they’re doing press and Tona is holding the trophy up and the feeling was more that – Look what we were able to do as homies. Look at the opportunities that me, just trusting my gut and having homies trust my vision – look what we can create. Not just with the Junos but with the brand and everything. Look what that’s been able to afford us. To see that photo of them kind of validated doing what our guts tell us.

So what is next for you and Legends League? What dreams do you have left?

My hopes, to be honest, is that the Canadian scene, in terms of streetcar starts to get a lot more shine. I’m hoping that the other brands in the city step up and people look at the opportunity. I’m hoping that another brand turns around and says, this is actually possible. It’s possible for me to have a flagship and actually make a living. I’m also hoping that we get some American recognition, because we never did a lot of blog shit, we never did a lot of press shit. We never begged people for shit. And there has been a lot of people that hit me up. But now, there’s an opportunity for us to get our name out globally.

Photo Cred: Kadeem Ellis

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