Move over, Blue Jays caps and OVO owls: There’s another clothing brand looking to be Toronto’s go-to fashion staple.
Toronto is a city with no fixed aesthetic identity; we don’t wear team colours or rally around franchise gear. Leafs jerseys celebrate Leafs Nation more than the city itself, and the recent spike in Jays hats seemed like just an aspirational fad for an overhyped team. Our most unifying mascot might just be Drake’s OVO owl.
Graphic artist Bryan Espiritu, 32, was fixated on this sartorial gap when he started his clothing line, The Legends League, in 2007. “I used to say I didn’t want people to wear Yankees hats in the city anymore—I wanted to replace it,” says Espiritu, laughing.
Hit a busy mall across the GTA and you’ll likely catch someone—probably a young-ish dude, but more women, too—wearing a Legends League hat, with Espiritu’s signature cursive LL logo on the crown. It’s become a unifier, a code, a reason to give a passing stranger the nod in any neighbourhood, from Rexdale to Scarborough. His whimsically grimy design work has won him a global social media following, but the business success of the line of hats, tops, and forthcoming garments is due to a loyal, local following attracted to Espiritu’s personal narrative. Growing up in Etobicoke, he wanted to be both a writer and fashion designer Marc Ecko; The Legends League—which now includes his friends Bobby McGurk and Adrian Campana—is a conceptual coming together of those aspirations. It’s his life experiences translated into graphics.
“I’m not saying I’m the legend,” he explains, nursing a cup of coffee in the living room of his second-floor downtown apartment. Framed prints and an uncompleted canvas painting of a friend clutter the wall behind him. “The ‘legends’ are the people and the stories, good or bad, that influenced you to be the person you are now.”
A former creative arts leader at the youth mentorship program The Remix Project, Espiritu talks openly about highly personal things that he’s been writing about online for years: stories of abuse, arrests, schizophrenia, suicide attempts, violence, sobriety, fatherhood, and love. “I didn’t put ‘Fuck the Police’ on a shirt because it’s a cool ‘rap’ thing to do,” he says. “It’s because six of them beat the shit out of me [while I was] naked and handcuffed.” Similar experiences have become design themes and hashtagable LL nomenclature: “Suicide Kings,” “Broken Heart Bastard Gang,” “Naturally Born Stranger(s).”
Using radical self-acceptance as branding isn’t the usual methodology for streetwear success, which is what makes the growing ubiquity of LL among its core demographic—young, sometimes disenfranchised, hip-hop minded men—so important. “It’s something I say a lot: There’s no room for vulnerability in this game, so I’m trying to build some,” Espiritu says.
Streetwear boutiques across Canada, including Livestock and Capsule in Toronto, have put rare faith in a homegrown brand, placing it next to big sellers like coveted New York label Supreme. Certain pieces, and sometimes entire collections, sell out in fewer than 24 hours.
Business online is expanding globally, but the team is still focused on the conceptual, experiential pop-ups that prompt camp-outs and crazy long lines in the downtown core. “We wanted it to feel like you were doing something illegal, so we used to park a truck in an alley and have no fixed address, just a pirate map on the internet of where we were going to be,” Espiritu says. “People loved the novelty of it, so we want to push that this year.”
Ideation is clearly what moves Espiritu and The Legends League forward; revenue is just the happy by-product. In the past year, retail sales have doubled and LL has gone from making $1,000 in a day to as much as $20,000. Despite the growth—and the knowledge that Drake has a stack of LL clothing in his wardrobe—Espiritu is still getting used to the success. “I still think it’s the same as when we were selling 40 shirts,” he says. “I used to see someone in an LL hat and nod at them because they’d have to know who I was in order to get it. But,” he starts laughing again, “now I nod at people and they have no clue who I am, so it’s awkward.”
The Legends League Naturally Born Strangers pop-up and concert happens on Jan. 31 at the Mod Club (722 College St.).