Apr 21, 2022
How a Bed-Stuy hustlepreneur got his hoodies worn on the floor of Barclays Center
From humble origins, Kirrick Wise’s ‘I’m So Brooklyn’ apparel has been embraced by the Nets, the ‘Black Ink Crew’ and Damon Dash
Some Brooklynites fantasize about one day crashing the boards at Barclays Center. Kirrick Wise’s dreams lie in the arena’s merch store.
For the past five years, Wise, who has lived most of his life in Bedford-Stuyvesant, has run a scrappy one-man operation selling tie-dyed sweatshirts and other clothing in his community. His most popular wares are emblazoned with a hyperlocal motto: “I’m So Brooklyn.”
The clothing line is an extension of Wise’s own personality; the borough superfan likes to point out that he has graduated from four different Brooklyn schools, including Medgar Evers College and LIU Brooklyn, which is located right next to the Nets’ arena.
“I watched [the Barclays Center] get built! I went to the first Jay Z concert!” he tells Brooklyn Magazine.
So in February, when during a Black History Month halftime event, dancers in the Nets Beats drumline—affiliated with the Brooklyn United youth arts program—wore some of his hoodies on the court, Wise felt he had arrived.
“It was like just seeing your dreams come to life in real time right in front of your face,” he says. “I wanted to pop some champagne. I wanted to scream. I wanted to tell everybody.”
Because it was about more than validation for this clothing line: for Wise, the moment was also vindication, on the most Brooklyn of stages, of the spirit of his work as a mentor in his community, in an age of gentrification that’s changing the character of his beloved borough.
“I’m the type of brother who, when you see me in the streets, and you are a young person, I ask why you’re not in school, if you need any help, [how] can we bring your dreams to life?” he says. “I let you know that if you need any advice, you could come to me and I’ll lead you to wherever it is that you’re trying to go.”
It sounds like big talk, but Wise seems to be getting where he himself is trying to go: This Saturday, as the team hosts the Boston Celtics in their playoff series, the Nets’ own Team Hype dancers will wear “I’m So Brooklyn” apparel on the court.
‘Focus on the positive’
Wise, 36, has been a social worker and a motivational speaker at schools and other local venues, but these days he’s focused on spreading good vibes on the streets of Bed-Stuy through his KoolforLife clothing brand (under which he sells his “I’m So Brooklyn” creations). In conversation, he gushes about the power of positive energy and goes off on manic tangents about how it can change the world. His enthusiasm is catchy.
“A lot of young people who I know have been sent to jail, murdered, or have been disenfranchised, or have been pushed down due to the lens of poverty and oppression. They have been overlooked. So my goal is when you see me, to actually be that inspiration,” he says. “To wear a piece of KoolforLife clothing represents … you want to focus on the positive.”
His energy and networking are paying off. Wise befriended Criscia Long, the Nets’ senior director of entertainment, who was impressed with his work and helped get it featured on the drumline team last month and in this weekend’s upcoming game.
“People are very proud to be from Brooklyn, so I think that it’s a genius logo,” Long says.
Wise has also become friends with Ceasar Emanuel, owner of the Harlem tattoo shop that’s the setting for the long-running VH1 show “Black Ink Crew.” Emanuel wore an “I’m So Brooklyn” sweatshirt during an episode of a spinoff show, “Black Ink Crew: Compton,” earlier this year.
Wise doesn’t call it a store, but he does have a “showroom”—which does double duty as the living room of his one-bedroom Bed-Stuy apartment. It’s the size of a small pop-up shop, and features several racks of his creations. Wise buys sweatshirts, sweatpants, shirts and more, then tie-dyes the pieces by himself, later using a heated press in his kitchen to print “I’m So Brooklyn” and other type onto them. He designs more elaborate jean jackets with his artist friend Robert Newman, who creates colorful abstract mosaic renderings of influential Black figures like Malcolm X and Angela Davis that get added to the back of the jackets.
Dame Dash, Jay Z’s former business partner, and Nets big man Andre Drummond have sported his jackets.
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“He has the street wear, and then he also has the more artistic statement pieces,” Long says.
‘The community uplifted me’
Wise didn’t start out as an artist or an entrepreneur. He was raised by grandfather and great-grandmother and didn’t meet his biological father until he was 31. Wise “went through things” that he doesn’t want to elaborate on, but he says his grandparents instilled the values that have made him a “strong, educated … and humble” man.
“They gave me all those intangibles, where I can sit in a room of any class of people and I can maintain myself and do it in a respectful and dignified way,” he says. “If it wasn’t for everything that happened in my 36 years of living, I would not be this person on the phone with you right now talking about KoolforLife.”
Wise earned a degree in social work, but around six years or so years ago caught the artist bug. He says he had grown up looking at a Robert Rauschenberg painting that his grandparents owned, a chaotic collage of Black people waiting in a train station in the 1960s or 70s. Wise says he sold the painting and used the $5,000 he got for it to start his business.
The first few years were slow going, as he tried to sell things online, but during the pandemic he took a table of his apparel and set up shop outside in his neighborhood, and business picked up. He heard the rap song “So Brooklyn,” by Casanova and Fabolous (an update on the older “Brooklyn” tune by Fabolous and Jay Z, Wise points out) and had a creative breakthrough. He took the font he uses from the old Brooklyn Dodgers logo.
“‘I’m so Brooklyn’ connects with the young people of Brooklyn. ‘I’m so Brooklyn’ connects with the elderly people that have been around for 70, 80 years. I got grandmothers that wear my sweatshirts or my t-shirts,” he says.
As for leaning into tie-dye: It was easy for a beginner to learn the technique on YouTube and he saw how he could give it his own spin.
“I would set my tables up next to other people, close to their stores, and the clothing store people would be like, ‘I like what you’re doing. Would you like to put some of your stuff in my store?’ Instead of being negative, like ‘you better get out of here before I call the police.’ So community, the Brooklyn community, uplifted me,” he says.
He notes that gentrification and the influx of new people to the neighborhood—often pricing out long-situated locals—only increased the need for a sense of borough pride, and for cross-cultural understanding.
“Different people, different cultures, different ethnicities of people come to the area—everybody wants to be from Brooklyn. And it’s like, you know, they felt like they could just change around the culture,” he says. “People be complaining about people playing loud music, or having certain events. But that’s what this community was all about, like festivals and block parties.”
Wise’s next goals are expanding his “showroom” to a few more floors—and getting “I’m So Brooklyn” apparel regularly sold in the Barclays store.
Another idea he brings up repeatedly is manifestation; he manifested his first Barclays goal—so why not manifest his other dream of it being a multimillion dollar brand one day?
“I bet you that one day soon, KoolforLife is gonna be a household name. I guarantee that KoolforLife is going to be a symbol for change,” he says “And there’s going to be hope for young people, that if they really believe in themselves and are really willing to step outside of their comfort zone, that they can bring any dream to life.”
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