“I’m not sure if you’re even peeping this.” Don Crawley says this often during a conversation at his RSVP Gallery boutique, which he co-owns with Louis Vuitton Men’s director and Off-White CEO Virgil Abloh, in downtown Los Angeles. He’s thumbing through racks of the new Fall/Winter 2019 ready-to-wear collection of his clothing line, Just Don, as Frank Ocean’s rendition of The Isley Brothers’ "(At Your Best) You Are Love" creeps out of the speakers.
When it comes to Crawley's pieces, the glory is in the details. Ever since he was a young Chicago kid cutting his Bo Jackson Nikes and customizing them using his mother’s nail polish, subtle touches to everyday garments have been his signature. Don C, as he’s known professionally, came into the entertainment industry as an integral part of friend and fellow Chicagoan Kanye West’s rise to superstardom — functioning as a tour manager, an executive on West’s G.O.O.D. Music record label, and even A&R’ing West’s Watch the Throne album with Jay-Z. It was during those recording sessions that Crawley caught his first big break as a designer before officially launching Just Don.
Back in 2011, Crawley would spend his downtime putting a spin on baseball caps by lining the brims with snakeskin. The Buck Fifty hat — the original style cost $150 — caught Jay-Z’s eye. “I would come to the studio from making hats and have them with me,” the designer recalls. “Luckily Jay-Z [tells me], ‘That’s cool. What’s that?’
“'Oh, this Yankee hat that I know you like?'” Crawley jokingly remembers responding. But West was the one to debut the first Buck Fifty, which was a Chicago Bulls cap. It wasn’t long before he was rocking it at events (most notably at the 2011 CFDA Awards), then onstage.
Jay-Z sported one in the pair’s “Otis” video, and nightly during the Throne's entire tour run. “That’s how I started my brand,” Crawley says of Just Don. Since then, he’s collaborated with brands like Nike, Timberland and Mitchell & Ness, pairing fashion with his love of sports.
As a kid, there weren’t many attainable goals to aspire to musically. “Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie,” he says of the elite black stars he knew of in the ‘80s. “That was it, pre-hip-hop.” But in Chi-Town, Michael Jordan was putting up massive numbers at the local basketball court down the street from him. Crawley gravitated towards that.
He loves athletic wear so much that his brand is almost exclusively focused on free, comfortable movement. The late designer Karl Lagerfeld (who oversaw fashion houses like Chanel and Fendi) abhorred sweatpants, once calling them “a sign of defeat.” Crawley disagrees, saying they're "the tux of the future." Truth be told: in this current high-low fashion era, seeing his new satin tearaway pants at an upscale party is likely to earn more approval than not.
“Luxury fabrication with sports silhouettes in mind” is how he describes Just Don's designs. It makes sense when he reaches towards the rack and pulls a knit jersey featuring the image of a shark leaping over a basketball.
For this Fall/Winter 2019 collection, Crawley conceptualized subsects of the brand based on a self-designed sports league he hopes to bring to fruition in time. Just Don now has five “teams”: The Jungle (tones reflective of nature), Team X (futuristic imagery), Islanders (playing with Caribbean vibes), The Dealers (based on Las Vegas gambling culture) and The Sound (infused with his love of music).
A Sound leather jacket features “pop,” “reggae” and more genres hand-stitched on it, along with music notes. Crawley flips it around — above the waistline are piano keys. He pulls either side of the Pelle Pelle-inspired piece, revealing that stretch fabric between each hand-cut key is an added touch. “Did you peep that?” he asks. Again, the designer takes pride in the little things.
Although he grew up during a time when house music was king, Crawley always leaned towards rap. “I’m hip-hop,” he says. “I’ve been hip-hop since before it was cool. I remember taking that stance and people from Chicago being like, ‘You’re a sellout, trying to act like you’re from New York.’ House music was it. You had to choose.”
Now at age 42, not only has he had a hand in creating classic rap albums, Crawley also has major artists wearing his clothes. Lil Uzi Vert recently told him that he’s buying Buck Fifty hats wherever he can find them. “I just saw Quavo in my jacket the other day,” he adds. Travis Scott, J Balvin, 21 Savage, LeBron James, Billie Eilish, Big Sean, Naomi Campbell, The Weeknd and more have been spotted wearing his brand. “Rappers, athletes, and hustlers are who I think of when I create,” he explains. “The look of the street legend. That mentality. You can tell what their mentalities are just by how they walk.”
He hopes to connect more stylish performing artists to the fashion world. “They’re some fresh musicians with a lot of creativity,” Crawley continues, mentioning the importance of an artist being aligned with the proper brand for it to be successful.
"Pharrell [Williams] is the GOAT of that,” Crawley opines of the super-producer, who's worked with the likes of Chanel, Richard Mille and Adidas. “I definitely took a look at his blueprint and tried to figure out how we can do our own version of that.” Pharrell’s 2004 Millionaire sunglasses with then-Louis Vuitton creative director Marc Jacobs and West’s Louis Vuitton sneaker collection (one of which is named after Crawley) in 2009 are two of Crawley’s favorite musician-fashion house unions. “Those were groundbreaking collaborations. It told me that the ultimate fashion house is inspired by the same music that’s moving the kids.”
Travis Scott’s current relationship with Nike, which has spawned several reimaginations of classic Air Jordans that are aligned with the rapper's Houston roots and Astroworld album, is catching his eye. “Travis is really in it,” Crawley says. “He’s really telling deep conceptual stories about things that hit close to home. You’re in his world.”
Portions of Just Don’s latest collection can be purchased in over 40 shops all over the world, but only in the L.A. store can shoppers see all five teams in one place. Crawley aims for “the light to shine on the product," explaining, "I don’t want people to buy my stuff like, ‘I saw Don C in the jacket.' I just want people to be excited about it.”
He prefers to be relatively invisible to the masses (though his nearly 400,000 Instagram followers may argue otherwise). “I work with some of the biggest artists, and you don’t know me,” the designer says with pride.