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ITA POP-UP + INTERVIEW | ITA POP-UP + INTERVIEW | ITA POP-UP + INTERVIEW | ITA POP-UP + INTERVIEW
Conor McKeon: Congrats on the baby! How are you feeling? How’s Taslim?
Brandon T. Brown: We are feeling great and thrilled to finally meet baby Taslim! He’s doing awesome.
Jade Akintola: It's quite surreal, so much has changed with everything still feeling quite new. The days and nights are long and it also feels like he's been here forever. It’s truly one of those “life is beautiful” moments - bringing a new being into the world is a lot of things and you can feel yourself expanding and shifting in real time. We’re very lucky.
CM: So much of your brand is about taking time for yourself. I’ve known you both for a long time now, and know how hard you work, is that something you’ve had to learn as you’ve moved into your thirties?
JA: Yes! It's been a massive learning curve for me and one that I'm still on. I have to bring a lot of intention into taking time for myself as it's not second nature and a new habit that I’m forming. Establishing the brand has certainly put free time front and center, but running two businesses and now being a new mum has a lot of demands circulating. I constantly remind myself of two things:
1. If I take care of myself first I’ll only do things better
2. This is not a race
Luckily I have Brandon as a constant reminder too as he has a solid daily practice.
BTB: You know, it's one of those things that you hear and see: “Make sure you rest”, and, “Don't forget to take time off”. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in trying to keep up, and making sure I'm not behind in my career, or feeling like if I don't achieve this right now then I’m somehow losing at life. But the more I remind myself to just take a step back, the easier it is to realize how far I’ve come. Even if it’s for 30 seconds a day, I try to re-center myself. It makes life so much more enjoyable.
CM: Founding and running a company is such hard work, and so how do you reconcile owning a company centered around letting go from work in pursuit of personal development and rest?
JA: This was something I considered at the onset of developing and launching ITA. I was doubting myself because I’m not an expert of the outdoors nor someone with an abundance of free time. So I fell back on honesty - I am on this journey to find balance and tap into something bigger - are you?
This honesty was also how we were able to carve out a specific lane for the brand around free time and leisure as opposed to the super active outdoor activities. Not to say we won’t get there, but our starting point was in fact my starting point - focusing on opportunities for accessible moments of leisure and creating the best products for this.
CM: And what are some ways, pre-baby, that you took time for yourself? And how are you hoping to manage with the child?
JA: Sounds simple but walking… This is one outdoor activity that I could maintain wherever I was - be it traveling for work or at home in Bedstuy. It’s also the hardest one to talk myself out of! Walking and heading to the park or the beach are my go to ways to disconnect. Thankfully these are very baby-friendly activities. I’m even more motivated to maintain these slices of time out post-baby as BTB and I are both keen for Taz to have a deep connection with the outdoors and want to cultivate that from the jump. Helps that it's fun and a good way to break up the day of round the clock nappies and feeds. BTB is a bit more adventurous - he’ll be leading the fishing expeditions and I’ll be captain of picnics and ice-pops on the beach.
NGL though, time for myself looks very different in these early newborn days - getting the time to tap a shower, cook something or take a nap are successful time out moments. Looking back, pregnancy really pushed time for self-care to the top of my priorities list. I’d actually had a reading early in my first trimester and learned that part of why this pregnancy was now was to restore balance and have me prioritize my mind-body connection. I put this into action by taking up pilates working with the amazing trainer Duana at The Fit In, getting facials with the incredible Crystal Greene, regular therapy sessions and working with a doula for pregnancy and parenting prep.
I’m learning that like many things, how time for myself takes shape will differ depending on the season especially as I move into this next chapter of my life - keeping it a priority, being open and flexible in terms of how is key.
CM: You’ve spoken about the need for spiritual development, what parts of your day-to-day go toward feeding that growth?
BTB: I think for the most part is just reminding myself of what it is that I want to achieve in that development. Some days I wake up and practicing my spiritual development comes with ease. Other days I'm like “ I’ll meditate later” or “I’ll write tomorrow” and I feel a bit of guilt when I put “simple tasks” aside. Because I know what the bigger picture is for me personally. So the day-to-day is to just remind myself of how I want to feel when I do achieve those tasks, reflecting on how good it felt to nurture that growth.
“AS THE FIRST BLACK-OWNED OUTDOOR FURNITURE AND GOODS BRAND I FELT THE NEED TO DREAM UP A WORLD THAT HASN’T REALLY BEEN CONVEYED IN THIS SETTING BEFORE.”
CM: Talk about design inspiration. It’s such a lovely mix of clean silhouettes and vibrant colors.
JA: When I started building out the brand in my mind, I went home. I thought about my heritage and once I dove into this space it gave me the confidence to find my place in the outdoors so this is what I was hoping to bring to life. As the first Black-owned outdoor furniture and goods brand I felt the need to dream up a world that hasn’t really been conveyed in this setting before. Fortunately there is plenty of rich inspiration outside of the outdoor industry for our products and brand visuals - for example traditional fabrics and prints, Wales Bonner’s whole aesthetic and storytelling, the organic, bold shapes in Simone Bodmer Turner’s work, to rich primary colors paired with cool neutrals — reminiscent of African wild flowers or Cassi Namoda paintings. In creating our visual world we also looked to the textured modernity of 1950s Africa captured by Seydou Keita.
Overall, we take inspiration from works that capture the softness and joy of our communities outdoors. Luckily for me, BTB as an artist and photographer has been the best suited and most willing partner to bring this inspiration to life in our visuals which play a huge part in our reimagination of the outdoors.
BTB: I think for me it's about what I envision when I think of the outdoors! We often see these very jagged or rough terrains when it comes to certain images of the outdoors. My intentions are to find ways to incorporate what ITA means to us aesthetically and match what nature is offering us in those moments. So as Jade mentioned, it’s working with those primary colors and mixing that into the outdoors, using the natural light that the sun provides. Understanding how to use the scenery of a vast field of greenery, or combining our color palettes with the yellow and orange leaves as we enter the fall season. I like to gather inspiration from nature!
CM: It seems as though the aesthetic is then a direct representation of your own sensibilities.
JA: 100%. We wouldn’t put anything out in the world that didn’t resonate with us individually or collectively. That said, I’ve certainly been pushed outside of my more minimal comfort zone through inspiration and collaboration as the brand sits in a very joyful space.
CM: One thing I admire about the company is that it’s not just product-focused. You’re building a well-rounded company, with experiences and resources. Does that tie into your goal of helping people become more well-rounded, spiritually, physically, emotionally?
JA: Thank you! I appreciate you mentioning that and am thrilled that our vision is coming across. Products were really the entry point - for better or worse - considering that it was perhaps one of the most challenging ways-in. The realities of the manufacturing process and how cash intensive it is. But, I was keen to show up in an industry where we were so strikingly absent.
That said, our goal is to have a world of offerings that are accessible to all people regardless of income level, comfort level or experience with the outdoors. This includes the experiences platform, resources, content and conversations that inspire, a give-back program and much more. Our mission is to connect more people to the outdoors. Why? Because leisure is for everyone.
CM: Reconnecting with nature seems to be a core part of your mission. What was your relationship to nature growing up and how has it grown and changed as you’ve gotten older?
BTB: I was raised in a small city in Maryland, then my mom moved us to a small town on the Eastern Shore part of Maryland. So I'm truly a country boy at heart. Growing up in that area, with a slower pace, I learned so much about myself while in nature. Most of my summers growing up we were always outside: Walking on the railroad tracks to venture deep into the woods, taking shortcuts through neighbors’ backyard to the fishing spot, to riding 4 wheelers and dirt biking.
JA: My childhood was pretty polar opposite. I grew up in London, South then Central, and I was pretty much a city slicker. Though I went to school in the countryside, outdoor activities seemed like something that my white friends would participate in exclusively. This was fortified in my late teens and early twenties as I began working and falling into the hustle of intense career prioritization - as is often the case for immigrant children. My disconnection started early and I started to really feel this absence in my late twenties, early thirties.
CM: Did you have an “A-Ha” moment while in nature that lead to the creation of ITA?
JA: Well I’d say it was less of an “A-Ha” moment and more of a WTF haha. By this I mean the idea for the brand came from a moment of discomfort, and one that took me down a path of more discomfort before reaching the solution. I was in San Diego with friends during the pandemic and we were at the beach. The Airbnb had kindly left these Tommy Bahama beach chairs that you wear on your back. The beach itself was predominantly white and we were pretty much the only diverse group. It was also during the racial awakening of that Summer, so perhaps there was some paranoia on my part, but I felt hypervisible and the products that surrounded us made me feel like a bit of an imposter / outsider. They didn’t suit our vibe and I felt no real connection to them. I was committed to spending more time outdoors, so I started looking for Black-owned outdoor brands with items that I needed for being at the beach, in my garden etc. I came up empty, so I dug deep into the history of the outdoors for communities of colour, and quickly understood that there’s a reason why the industry has been so homogenous for so long. It’s a complex and dark history of segregation and exclusion. I also spotted a really narrow offering from a design standpoint - products were often super utilitarian or Australian boho - neither of which spoke to me or my community. It was time for an update on all fronts.
CM: Finally, and to that end, why do you think it’s taken so long for a black-owned, woman-owned company to operate in this space? What have been your takeaways from operating in a predominately white industry.
JA: I can’t exactly say why but there are certainly a number of roadblocks that come to mind, many of which we are still working through…I’ll challenge myself to consolidate to three reasons/takeaways.
1. The outdoor industry is pretty dated and laden with stereotypes. It has been this way for many decades in the US and undoing this will take time. Thankfully progress moves more rapidly these days but it’s a long game for sure. Impact won’t come overnight.
2. Making products is hard! Especially hard goods. Its cash intensive, MOQ driven and production always takes much longer than you think.
3. Just because something doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. With all the challenges and as we’re the “first” or “one” of brands in the landscape, a small voice in my head sometimes whispers that maybe because this didn’t exist it was not needed. But in my heart I know this to not be true.
CM: Well, I’m so glad we were able to collaborate and give our space over to you all. I love you both very much and I’ll see you and Taslim soon.
BTB, JA: We love you, too!