A simple black t-shirt, with ‘Dark’ written across. To represent how I felt in this moment. An idea to be able to express me through my clothing. Alone, Isolated, Dark. But that’s not where this all began, let me take you back to my childhood.
My name is James, I grew up just outside of Bristol, England, my parents divorced at 3 years old, and my mother quickly entered a new relationship, we moved 3 hours away from my father. Maybe that’s where this all began. I always felt like an outsider, not quite fitting in with any crowd I encountered, even from a young age. High school really brought that to light, and that’s where the depression really set in.
I always wondered how I could become part of a group, I couldn’t skate, play any sports, or succeed in art classes, and the core subjects, Maths, English, and Science were so confusing to me that I didn’t fit into the educational system either. Around the age of 17, my mum moved to Australia, leaving me behind, so I moved to my dad’s house in London. It didn’t work out and I quickly got removed from the house.
I thought mum is where I belonged, she was the only one who made me feel like I existed, blind to the way I was really viewed. I moved to Australia for 1 year and I thought it was amazing, though I quickly found myself in my own place due to some disagreements at home. Depression quickly followed, until my visa expired, and back to England, it was for me.
This was devastating as I finally started to establish a friend in Australia. We kept in contact and at 25, I was able to be sponsored by my job as a hairdresser to Alice Springs, in the center of Australia. I spent 3 years working towards citizenship, though Alice had become a difficult existence for me. 27,000 people in 1 town, with no other civilization for a 16-hour drive but after 3 years with permanent residency in hand, I made the move to Melbourne.
It was new and exciting, though depression seemed to dawn on me a lot faster. After 4 more years working as a hairdresser/barber I decided to quit my job and backpack around the world, to find myself. I traveled throughout South America and Asia, and I ended up in Cambodia, teaching English.
After 6 weeks and being overwhelmed with the pressure and stress of teaching a classroom of children aged 4-12, I couldn’t do it anymore and moved to the islands. “Perfect” I thought, this is paradise, a great community of travelers and ex-pats, much like ‘The Beach’ my favorite movie. A place I could belong, I thought, though I didn’t. I felt lost, isolated, and dark. That’s where ‘We Are Dark’ comes from, a lonely guy on an island off the coast of Cambodia.
I had this idea to wear how I felt – on the outskirts of every tribe, community, and group I ever went. With the idea, I arrived back in Australia a month later, with a dream to create a brand. I had some samples created, but Australia just didn’t feel right, and depression was strong. On a whim, I went to America for 5 weeks to photograph the shirt there. However, little did I know I would end up living in Los Angeles for over a year.
The city of dreams, some say. I met a guy called Daniel who later became my husband. I discussed the shirt I had created with him, and he openly communicated and explained he felt the same way too, though there was something different about this approach. It made me listen. We connected, and a relationship started.
With the relationship, ‘Dark’ grew into ‘We Are Dark’. Over the next 6 months, we would discuss the idea of having our own brand and what that would look like. It was helping us both with our depression and gave us something to work towards.
The Language of Instituo
During this time, I created my own language. The language of Instituo. Derived from Latin, meaning to establish, train, educate, build, and beyond all-purpose. Within 2 days I had 26 symbols, to correlate to the English alphabet. I had no clue how to incorporate this into the brand, but we loved the idea and thought it should be a part of it, somehow.
With our language, we decided to create words to express emotions or support others in the community once they had learned the language. Only those who knew would be able to read and acknowledge others, but the world would not be able to cast judgment or shame, for they did not know what the symbols were or said. We had no clue how to bring this to life, though we had a vision of the brand becoming global, we sought advice on how to trademark the name, which we managed to do with no complications.
Moving to Hawaii
We delved into production and how we could make this happen, we didn’t have a big budget or investors or even pitch the idea to anyone. We ordered samples with a few drop ship companies in which we were beyond disappointed with the quality we got given. But, we wanted to use cotton as we learned polyester was plastic woven into fabric and bad for our skin and environment, with around 140 microfibers per t-shirt per wash going into the ocean which the fish would eat.
We spent over a year trying different companies and it became a very frustrating and disheartening process. Especially when you see YouTube videos talking about the ‘overnight success of a brand you’d never heard about that was apparently making 7 figures a month.’ But we didn’t give up. After all, you only fail when you quit. We ended up moving to Hawaii in November 2020. Working on a website and both working jobs as baristas in coffee shops, whilst continually looking for how to even make this a reality.
On our first Costco trip since moving, we drove past a shirt shop with a tiny sign outside, I wrote down the name and said we should contact them and see what they are able to do. Which is exactly what we did. His name is Jay, local to Hawaii and an all-around nice guy, much like most people in Hawaii. It’s not as cutthroat as the mainland. He helped us with where to source our shirts and he could screen print. He showed us examples and we liked them a lot, So, we made an order. 36 t-shirts, with 2 different words on the back down the spine, in 2 different colors.
First Market with Our T-shirts
Within 2 weeks they were ready, and, the day I’m writing this to you marks the 1-year anniversary of when we picked them up and looked over them. We had to sort out our business license which we managed to do with the help of a local market owner. She said we could have a booth at her market once we have the license, it would be $35 per Sunday, and the ability to be open during Covid due to it being local produce and a farmers’ market.
Our license came through and on December 19, 2020, we had our first market with our t-shirts and no knowledge of how people would respond. Daniel was apprehensive because ‘We Are Dark’ is not something you would generally see, let alone in Hawaii. The response was amazing, and we learned so much on that first day, about our own brand and the people who came to visit us. They shared their stories of how closely it affected them all. It brought light to the fact of the severity of how many people were suffering, rather than just seeing a statistic. It became more real than we ever knew. We sold a few t-shirts! A success. ‘We Are Dark’ is now officially out in public.
We went to a hotel on the island, where Daniel knew someone that worked there and spoke with their retail director, Monji. We explained the story and gifted him a couple of pieces from our collection with the hopes we would hear from him and have our clothing in the hotel. Though we didn’t hear from him for a while. But more on this later.
Over the course of the next 4 months, we continued to do farmers’ markets 3 days a week whilst holding our jobs as baristas and working around the brand’s schedule, and increasing what we could provide to allow people to become part of the movement. Daniel created a free workbook that anyone can download, and submit pages to, aptly named ‘The Collection’ – it’s a community effort, where people would submit their stories and what they use to help them through difficult times. With pages of half-finished art, stories, or piano lessons and calligraphy. To be inspired to try something new, without a blank piece of paper staring at you with no clue what to do.
Our Collection and Stock Grew
Hoodies were something I had always dreamed of creating, that was super soft and embroidered not printed. With Jay’s help, they became a reality, though expensive to produce I didn’t want to print them and was happy to pay more for something I really wanted in existence. Our collection and stock grew. May was Mental Health Awareness month so we released a new word, with the yellow color for mental health awareness, and everyone at the market purchased a t-shirt to support us and the cause. It was wonderful to see so many people support us at the market we were part of.
We got a call from Monji asking us if we could come in and meet with him. We were surprised and obviously, our response was “yes! Of course.” We made our way over and he told us due to covid that he had been very busy and had a lot happening with the hotel, but he loved our brand and wanted to have some in the store. We were shocked. Could it be, our little brand that we had worked so hard for was going to be part of one of the best hotels in Hawai’i? We delivered our first batch of clothing there as consignment and helped set it up and create an awesome little display, wondering what would happen next.
The First ‘We Are Dark’ Store
We kept working the farmers markets, our jobs as baristas, and building an inventory through the money we made from the markets. It was a struggle, as the coffee jobs had to keep a roof over our heads and to eat, as we had to reinvest everything back into ‘We Are Dark.’ We were ready for the next step, though we didn’t know what to do. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing, and we were going with the flow of life and allowing it to organically grow, but we decided to take a new direction and a bold decision. We asked Monji if he would like to be a part of ‘We Are Dark’.
We didn’t hear from him for a couple of weeks and were nervous about the response. The phone rang, apprehensively we answered, and he asked for us to go visit him. As we drove to see him, we were wondering what was about to happen. We sat down, and he explained he loved the idea and concept and could see a future for ‘We Are Dark’. He explained he had been offered a partnership from a couple of different startups in his career and he had declined, but for some reason, We Are Dark spoke to him, and he said if we still wanted him on board, he would love to become a part of the movement! Our response was ‘yes, of course, we would love to have you!’
We were all so excited and discussed the future of how we could grow, and how we all had the perfect amount of what the other was lacking making us a great trio. Monji mentioned having a store, and we were shocked and excited at the future prospect of having a store, though we knew we had a lot of work to do.
So that’s what we did, worked hard, maintaining our jobs as baristas and growing our inventory. Until one day we got a call from Monji, saying it’s happening! He had worked his magic and started the process of opening our first store. We were patient while he negotiated, until one day we had an email containing our future lease!
We were doing it! And we picked up the keys on November 2, 2021. 11 months after we launched, we had managed to obtain a lease for our own brick-and-mortar. We set an opening date of November 20, 2020. With keys in hand, we announced a grand opening and I got to work. Spending hours in the store, without air con as it wasn’t working, painting and figuring out the logistics of how the space would look.
Daniel was working overtime at his job, and Monji was working full-time too. We managed to do it though, we finished late Friday night for our grand opening on Saturday. We called in a few favors from our friends to paint a mural and to DJ on the opening. It was such a successful weekend, the support from our friends and strangers was wonderful. We have been open for 2 weeks now and still going strong. Spreading the word and helping to break the stigma surrounding mental health.
Building a Community for Those Who Feel Dark
Our plans for the future are to continue to open stores around the mainland USA before branching to other countries. To have a community for those who feel dark or those who support those that may be struggling with society. As for me, I still suffer from depression, it’s something I am learning to live with, some days are harder than others. As for many other people out there. I’m not here to say, ‘look at me, I’m cured!’ but more to say, I understand, I relate to you, and we can get through this together.
Finally, I would like to share a poem I wrote to capture and summarize what ‘We Are Dark’ is;
I felt so alone, to no tribe I belong,
A world I see, I feel so far from,
As I open my mind, I begin to see,
A wonderful journey takes place in me.
I ebb and I flow, with the river inside,
Slowly I learn to create, with pride,
The darkness stays,
But there’s light now too.
I have found a place to belong, A tribe, Community.
I am a part, of We Are Dark.