As an artist and designer, Tony Whlgn aims to uplift Black people and celebrate Black culture through his work. His "Don't Be A Litter Bug" shirt encourages recycling and keeping the community clean. Sales from his "Books Before Boxing" jacket were donated to the Detroit Boxing Gym for their work tutoring and teaching local youth.
Most recently, the 29-year-old collaborated with Vans for an initiative where the shoe brand released four different designs, each by a trailblazing Black artist. Whlgn's sneaker is an all-black slip-on style featuring a white silhouette of an abstract entity amid various plants.
“Through my design, I am planting intergenerational messages of love, peace, and happiness,” Whlgn tells Bustle. “The illustration on the toe box is a symbol I use for ‘planting love.’ The sublimated checkerboard and doodle-style drawing is a nod to Vans’ iconic pattern.”
As part of the initiative, Vans will donate $40,000 to the Black Arts Future Fund, a Black arts and culture organization.
Whlgn says he did not want to “overpower the medium,” so he intentionally created the pattern with a dark tonal coloring to add depth. “When designing these shoes, the inspiration was to imitate the embroidery placement on a luxury men’s loafer, and the purpose was to engage a sense of Black excellence with our audience,” he says.
Most importantly, the designer prioritized making people “feel like themselves” when wearing the shoes. “That’s honestly what would make me happy,” he says. “I want people to be their authentic selves, using the sneakers to accent and amplify their own personal style.”
Whlgn was previously a junior designer for Marc Ecko, held a creative design position at NYC’s Kith, and provided artist direction and design for rappers Big K.R.I.T. and Joey Badass. As a Black creative, he knows self doubt is often a roadblock on the path to achieving artistic and commercial success.
“For centuries, our ancestors were told they’d never amount to anything,” he says. “We’re challenged with self love. Sometimes we think we may not be good enough, not even in each other’s eyes, but in our [own], and that can be a huge hurdle to overcome for Black entrepreneurs.”
Looking ahead, he’s hopeful that fashion will continue to evolve and embrace more diverse voices and perspectives. He envisions a future in which sustainability is prioritized and production is more intentional.
“The fashion industry, in my opinion, has never been stable,” Whlgn says. “However, we will continue to see boundless, creative self-expression when brands collaborate with local designers and artisans who are really impacting the state of fashion, what it means to be a designer, and standing for real issues, for the people.”
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