How The Rad Black Kids Is Championing Diversity, Sustainability, and Creativity

How The Rad Black Kids Is Championing Diversity, Sustainability, and Creativity


Born out of the skateboarding and snowboarding culture he grew up surrounded by in Idaho, Thulani Ngazimbi started out making durable, weather-resistant longboards under the name The Rad Black Kids in 2014, from a desire to see faces like his in action sports.

Over time, as the longboards flew off the shelves, The Rad Black Kids took the same principles of quality, durability and longevity, and applied them to its first clothing collection in 2015. Ngazimbi used the garments he designed to tell stories from his home country of Zimbabwe and stories of Africans in the diaspora, each piece designed as a “soldier” on a crusade of shattering monoliths. 

Today, The Rad Black Kids has now evolved into a brand that not only offers narrative-based product design, but one where all its products are made with care, currently in Portugal. The brand now offers hooded sweatshirts, T-shirts and sneakers that tell a story inspired by African narratives, alongside principles of quality, durability and longevity. Sustainability and reduction of carbon emissions are at the heart of The Rad Black Kids’ production, and the brand has been planting a tree for every product it sells since 2014.

The Folklore spoke to Ngazimbi about weaving rich narratives of the African diaspora into each design, championing sustainability on a practical level, and inspiring a new generation of creatives.

The Rad Black Kids founder Thulani Ngazimbi
The Rad Black Kids founder Thulani Ngazimbi

 

The Rad Black Kids started due to the boredom of an Idaho summer.  How has your love of skateboarding intertwined with the brand’s growth and the way it expresses itself?

It was actually my love for snowboarding that led me to skateboarding during Idaho summers. I got into snowboarding accidentally. The adrenaline rush from the first time I stood up on a snowboard, only competed with a longboard, and recently, with a surfboard. These sports were contrary to the rugby, tennis and cricket that I played growing up in Zimbabwe. My love for those sports has allowed me to extend what my self-expression is, being in sports that Black people are typically not seen in. Brand growth feels tethered to emboldening my community to feel welcome in those spaces. This is a freedom like none other. It feels like with each product drop I am setting a standard, which leads to creating the best products I possibly can.

You’ve said action sports often lacked faces “like yours” growing up. How does building a brand, not just products, allow you to shift that narrative for the next generation?

Setting that standard is the key. Moving to Portugal, and choosing production with a reputation of excellence is a great start. The competitive aspect in action sports companies means we compete with brands that are well funded, predominantly non-Black-owned businesses, in a space where Black faces do not typically shop.

So in order to stimulate sales and sell-through, relatability has to be built into each product. The greatest part of that challenge is that with each new drop, we have to be the best in the world. We have to make products that will be remembered for ever by each customer. All this could be summed up with the word “excellence”. The next generation has to see this excellence as standard.

The brand name itself is interesting. Was there a moment you realized the term “Rad Black Kids” had a broader resonance beyond just skateboarding?

In the first few years of the brand, I noticed a lot of Black moms using the hashtag #theradblackkids to describe their kids doing things. I was moved by that. There really wasn’t an easily identifiable affiliation to the brand, other than the name being transcendent to those it reached. One time I spoke to a prominent stylist, Kwame Waters, who spoke of himself as a “Rad Black Kid” after seeing one of the clothing labels in a retailer. The name was pluralized so people could see themselves in the brand, it was never just about me.

The Rad Black Kids sneakers


That move to Portugal was a huge risk. Can you tell us about the moment you knew this wasn’t just about better quality, but was essential to the brand’s DNA and values?

The Rad Black Kids had a growing footprint in Japan since our first trade show where we opened up 12 doors in Japan. This was very meaningful because I formed most of my design ethos by reading T-shirt forums online, and inherently related to Japanese design, specifically in highlighting nostalgia. Our orders grew steadily in Japan, and one season we reached what I thought was a tipping point: more doors.

The defect rate also had reached its peak of 25% per order, using notable factories in LA. I realized that a higher quality could change the game. Aside from that, the brand DNA from 2014 has been conservation, fair wages, and ethical product, both in delivery and production. Portuguese factories were the first factories I saw with lunch breaks, fair wages, and air conditioning. There were also options of closed-loop manufacturing where inputs didn’t leave as waste. But most importantly, for the brand – and for me – was the willingness of manufacturers to listen to my dream and deploy their resources to make it happen.

Expanding from longboards to apparel, footwear, and now eyewear are big leaps. What’s the decision-making process like when entering a new product category?

I moved to Portugal in 2020. In that year, I had roommates (for the first time in a long time, luckily), but just like the whole world, we were on lockdown. I had recently gone through major personal changes and I decided that all I would do that year was work. I felt, this was my first real big leap into the realm of possibility: could The Rad Black Kids really be something? All I would do, now that I had access to production (via my first consultant) would be to design as much product as possible.

The biggest accomplishment that year had been socks. I always wanted to make socks. Now that was checked off, knitwear came next, then one day sneakers. I had been flipping sneakers during college, which is how I had paid for my MBA! So, strangely enough, I gave it a go, and two styles grew to six the next season. Eyewear has always been a love of mine. At one point I had 17 pairs of prescription glasses. Everything The Rad Black Kids does is tethered to a dream. We exist because of a dream, and everything we venture into is treated with that same energy. That ensures everyone on the team meets new product categories from a place that brings out that little kid who’s just glad to be at the table.

The Rad Black Kids


Your focus on sustainability goes beyond the buzzwords. What does “artisan clothing” mean to you, and how do the choices it requires influence the designs themselves?

Sustainability has been a core component of the brand since 2014 but it goes beyond carbon neutrality. It extends to the lives of the people who make, and consume the products affected by your ventures. We use a question of “no one needs any more products but if we do make them: Why?” Artisan clothing means having relationships with producers who innately understand who it is that they are, and they in turn understand who we are, what it is we are doing, and how we can leverage the humanity between us all to attain those goals.

A lot of the time we begin the work with the work, but sometimes, knowing the person and their reason behind the work creates a richer, deeper narrative that infects the product. I always keep an open design policy where each piece has a God-shaped hole, which is meant to be filled by the person we are working with. Not having such crazy rigidity in tech packs allows the maker to express who they are in the piece.

Each collection has a rich narrative. How do you strike a balance between educating through your pieces and ensuring they work as individual fashion items people love to wear?

That has to come naturally. For example, The Rad Black Kids now has three brands: The Rad Black Kids SPECIAL PROJECTS; The Rad Black Kids; and Lowing Kine by Rad Black Kids. Each of those brands has a different narrative structure that is based on product.

For the new mainline, we decided this season to pull away all the graphics. We wanted each piece to tell a story in how it fits (gender fluid) and have the color story take into context the richness of human skin, and each color on our chart for this season highlights different skin tones. Each story we tell for each product is a tribute to Zimbabwe: the rivers, the lakes, the mountains. Or each name is a tribute to family, their totems.

It is also quite a thing to be selling products in high-end American retailers with my tribe Ndebele or Zimbabwean names. That’s meant to be an inspiration for kids who come from where I come from, in hopes that they see themselves in me. To dream of what’s possible, and know it can happen. If a sneaker named Moyo (after my grandad, a popular last name in Zimbabwe) can be sold in the middle of NYC, then you can have that same impact, too!

The Rad Black Kids longboard


Longboard design seems very specific.  What surprised you when designing apparel or footwear in terms of the design process differences?

Longboard design, clothing design and footwear design all come from the same place for me. At my high school Christian Brothers College Bulawayo, I did technical drawing, which led to studying architecture at university. Learning how to draft in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s meant we didn’t have access to computers or CAD (computer-aided design software) so we learnt every part of drawing by hand. I still use those techniques today. A pencil, sometimes a compass, and pens is all I use to design every piece The Rad Black Kids makes. From there, I taught myself a method of making the designs hyper realistic. That place of drawing by hand makes everything I design feel intimate and – in a way – flawed. That part actually ties all types of design I do together.

The tree-planting commitment is ambitious. Can you tell us about your reforestation partners and how you verify the impact?

The non-profit organization Trees for the Future is a partner we have been donating through year after year. When we initially began donating to them, they stated a cost for planting each tree, and we would donate the equivalent after every year’s end sales. We decided a couple years back after reading the IPCC report to ambitiously increase the number of trees donated through our direct-to-consumer web sales. The best thing about Trees for the Future is that they employ families on the continent to maintain these tree forests and sometimes those families are tasked with farming food. This has shown tremendous economic impact on local economies in rural Africa, as these projects stimulate communities through much-needed cash infusions.

What would it mean to you, on a personal level, if a kid from another small town saw The Rad Black Kids’ success and felt inspired to launch something of their own?

A lot! I allot a certain amount of time on Mondays to meet with people who may need some mentorship, and always try to provide as much information or help as I can for people trying to make it, old and young. The express intent of this is to be able to inspire a kid from a small town to give it a go. When you leap into the land of making your dreams come true, it’s a journey that, more than anything, rewards you by making you a better person. I would be honored.


The Rad Black Kids will be presenting at the The Folklore’s Women’s Resort and Men’s Spring 2025 Showroom. Contact events@thefolklore.com to make an appointment

 

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