Doing it “for the culture” is a term that is often overused, but in regards to Ron Blassingame it’s more than befitting.
From constantly pouring into the community that made him to striving to enrich and empower the black community as whole, Ron embodies what it really means to put on for his people.
As the founder of clothing wear brand Spkng In Tounges, Ron has made it a mission to always make a statement in whatever he makes. I talked to Ron about where he gets his inspiration from, his community service initiatives and how repping his city is more than just a part of his brand, but a love story.
Saturday School: Just to start off, when did you start Spkng?
Ron Blassingame: The idea came in 2012 but I didn’t start to move as a brand until 2015.
SS: And what does Spkng mean or stand for?
RB: I grew up in the church so the concept of speaking in tongues has always been a recurring theme. Honestly, like most of my ideas the name just popped into my head and I felt like it would stick when people heard it. My Dad always taught me to be intentional so I started to do more research on the actual practice of “speaking in tongues” to see how I can make it connect with what I was doing. I found out that the act of speaking in tongues is considered a spiritual gift and I decided to remix the definition. I believe that creativity is a gift, my spiritual gift and every idea that I am blessed with is a gift that I am able to share with the world. I decided to shorten up the spelling so that when people search for my brand they aren’t getting a laundry list of bible quotes.
SS: Got it, that’s super smart. Have you always been the sole designer or do you have a team that helps you?
RB: I am the sole designer...and it’s hard because I’ve honestly learned everything on YouTube [laughs]. I would LOVE the help though. I literally control every last piece of my brand...from taxes, to marketing, to design.
SS: I’m a true believer in YouTube University [laughs'] but I feel like that’s the best way to start because then you can see how every aspect of the business works before you have to actually hire people. Moving on though, when people wear your clothes how do you want them to feel?
RB: I want people to feel like they have the ability to write their own story. My Dad would always tell me that if you are blessed with an idea, it is your job as a person that occupies a space on earth, to make that idea tangible; and I feel like my brand is that. I talk so much about my story and a large part of my backstory with my brand is people telling me no and me figuring out that no isn’t necessarily a destination but more of a redirection. When people wear my clothes I want them to feel like they’re investing in themselves and pouring into the people around them.
SS: Speaking of investing into the people around you, as a fellow Ohioan, growing up there a lot of us feel like we have to “get out”. But I like how you are constantly putting on for the state and the city you’re from. What do you feel like you get out of home that you wouldn’t from other places?
RB: I’m one of the few Ohioans that actually don’t want to leave. I lived in Boston for a year and loved it but it didn’t feel like home so I moved back. I mostly appreciate it because there would be no Spkng without Ohio, more specifically Cincinnati. Majority of the people that love and support me are here and I believe that home is your foundation. If you don’t take care of home first, it’ll be extremely difficult to become successful. My experiences here are the blueprint for 90% of my creativity.
SS: Did growing up in Ohio influence you at all while creating your line of tees?
RB: Most definitely. Most of my inspiration comes from growing up in Winton Terrace, a low-income community in Cincinnati and at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio where I attended college. Black American culture has an incredible amount of influence around the world and I grew up in that. The music, the fashion, the language are all things that defined my childhood. Now, so much of my work are recreations of that and Miami University blessed me with the language and the tools to articulate these messages verbally and visually.
SS: Since you have a heavy Ohio demographic, do you find it harder to expand your reach outside of the state?
RB: Honestly with the presence of social media it’s not that bad. It’s difficult to have that face to face engagement but with decent marketing and homies that share your work it becomes a lot easier to expand outside of Ohio.
SS: I see you’ve had quite a few speaking engagements at your alma mater Miami University, how did your experience there jumpstart your entrepreneurial pursuits?
RB: I have this conversation a lot regarding how much of an impact Miami had on me when starting my brand. As much as I love where I grew up, it sucked a lot out of me creatively because the things that I wanted to create weren’t often celebrated. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, growing up I honestly can’t name anyone around me that had an established brand or small business. When I went to Miami I still hung on to those cultural influences from back home and that “turn scraps into soul food” mentality and Miami blessed me with the resources and network to start a business. Miami essentially watered the seeds that I planted. It wasn’t that I saw other people starting businesses, it was that I was finally in a space that encouraged people to create and use their gifts to tell their story.
SS: So I’m a huge fan of your very popular “Ghetto Is” Definition tee (I happened to own one before I knew you), what inspired the viral quote that’s on the shirt?
RB: To be honest, I was just extremely tired of seeing repackaged and overpriced versions of my lived experience on bodies that weren’t black. It is perfectly okay to pay homage and appreciate significant parts of someone's culture but I couldn’t scroll on Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram without seeing people that weren’t black being celebrated for things that they considered “ghetto” a few years before. And just because you have access to it does not mean that you have to participate. From braids, to gold teeth, to nails, to music, all of these things that I grew up on was now an aesthetic or a costume for other people and I felt like the quote summarized my feelings towards it.
SS: Did you get any backlash from it? I definitely get a lot of double takes when I wear mine to work [laughs].
RB: Honestly no! The quote and the shirt was everywhere and it was really cool to see the conversation that came from it.
SS: Did you always want to be a designer? Or was this a new passion that just came about?
RB: No, not at all. I still don’t consider myself a designer because there are people that can take fabric and patterns and create these beautiful pieces out of it. I honestly just have a lot of ideas and know how to work Adobe Illustrator. I definitely feel like I am a creative and right now my medium is t-shirts and service projects. I pray that one day I do grow to become a designer because I definitely have ideas and want to expand my brand past screen printed t-shirts and hoodies.
SS: You’re clearly making a name for yourself in fashion but who is someone in the industry whose work inspires you the most?
RB: This is probably one of the most cliche answers but Pharrell. I just appreciate how free he is with what he wears and the amount of influence he has in streetwear, design, and obviously music. He does so many things and creates them on his own terms. I love Vashtie, and Teddy Saints, everything that he is doing with Aimé Leon Dore is beautiful. Lastly, JoeFreshGoods is incredible too. He’s probably the person I look up to the most specifically from a brand perspective. To see someone else from the Midwest do what he’s doing is amazing; and it’s mostly through selling t-shirts.
SS: Black male designers such as Virgil Abloh or Pyer Moss are currently being “seen” by the fashion industry, why do you think that is?
RB: It’s beautiful. What Virgil has done with Off-White from clothing, to being blessed with the opportunity to put his own twist to 10 Nike silhouettes, and is now serving as the creative director for Louis Vuitton Mens...it’s extremely inspiring. We finally see black people working with these companies and being paid for our influence. I recently became familiar with Pyer Moss because of his “Stop calling 911 on the culture” t-shirt and I love that he speaks for our community with his work. It’s fun to create but to be intentional with your work and call out injustices on such a large platform, it pushes me to do more with my work.
SS: Your brand is unapologetically black and I love it. Not really a question but go into your inspiration behind Spkng.
RB: Spkng In Tongues is honestly a collection of things that I’m inspired by. I LOVE being black and black culture, more specifically black American culture, has such a rich history. I really want to use Spkng to highlight our history by creating wearable art. I’ve always had ideas that I would want to pitch to other organizations or concepts that I would want to bring to life with other people but it would always end with “no” or I got the runaround. Me developing this outlet gives me the ability to turn those former “no’s” into tangible things. I’m inspired by the ability to think and articulate those thoughts on whatever medium I have the opportunity to work on.
SS: I’ve noticed outside of solely being a fashion brand you have different community outreach initiatives such as the Pay It Forward Community Scholarship and #ForFlint Initiative, can you speak on how you want your brand to play a part in the black community?
RB: I just want to find really innovative ways to pour back into my community. There are so many people that “make it out” but never go back to give the people still there the tools and resources to also make it out. I draw so much inspiration from spaces that I’ve occupied and I feel that if I have the resources and network to help, why not? There’s also thousands of t-shirt brands and with the other half of Spkng being service, I feel that it gives me the opportunity to stand out in a crowd full of other talented creatives.
SS: In a year where do you want Spkng to be?
RB: There’s so much that I want to do and I honestly don’t know where exactly I want to be lol. I just want to continue growing and collaborating and hopefully featured by more publications. I want to host more events and be looked at as not only a brand and philanthropy but an operation that gives birth to ideas.
SS: The theme for Saturday School this year is cross promotion and horizontal networking, who are some black fashion brands you would want to collab with or that you admire?
RB: JoeFreshGoods is honestly the only black owned brand that I would like to collaborate with at the moment. I think that we have a similar aesthetic and could put together some really cool interactive events highlighting significant pieces of black culture. I would also love to work with a black woman that owns a streetwear brand. There are so many things that I want to recreate and 90% of them are inspired by black women.
SS: What has been your most rewarding experience so far with Spkng?
RB: Probably our #ForFlint initiative. The entire idea came from a conversation that I was having with a friend because I wanted to do something for my birthday. Again, attempting to find creative ways to fill a need instead of just throwing a party, I thought that it would be a cool idea to have a party but instead of charging money, charge people cases of water to get into the event. Just seeing how much support the community offered was amazing. People donating money, women carrying cases of water in heels walking into the club, and a space full of people swag surfing to support the people in Flint, Michigan. Flint is a few hours away from Ohio but none of us at the event were from there. We saw that there is a need that needed to be filled and in a small way we were able to support them.
SS: That’s amazing. It’s great that you’re shedding light on the issue as well because Flint STILL doesn’t have clean water. But as a word of encouragement, how would you encourage other aspiring designers to start their own brand?
RB: Create things that are true to you and with anything that you make, ask yourself will it be relevant in 5 years? A lot of brands get caught up in today and what looked good in 2013, they wouldn’t dare make today. With creating what’s true to you, be the thermostat and not the thermometer. Thermostats control the temperature in the room and thermometers adjust. Do and make things that dictate what people want.
SS: If you could talk to high school you what advice would you give?
RB: I would honestly just tell myself to start now. The things that I wanted to do as a kid were kind of put on the back burner because I was so focused on sports and the pressure that comes with being a kid. With fashion and design not necessarily being something that was celebrated by my friends in school or at home, I basically forgot about it. It’s amazing to see the narrative changing on black expression having so many kids starting business, making music, and making money doing things that make them happy. I pump fake on ideas a lot because as an adult that works a 9-5 that has to pay rent, and a car note, and student loans, there isn’t much room to take risk. My concerns as a teen were a lot smaller so I would have loved to see what carefree Ron would have come up with. Everything happens for a reason though and I now push myself to bring my ideas to life, I just challenge myself to be strategic about it.