I didn’t catch the name of the 22-year-old behind up-and-coming Melbourne brand, JUDAH., when we first spoke. Throughout his career so far, the designer and businessman has existed under an air of anonymity.
Most will know him by his insta handle, phat.judah, his profile marked with mouth-covering ski masks and blotted out faces. For those who don’t know him, his identity remains a mystery.
But that doesn’t undermine the tenacity behind his brand – and the sheer pace at which it’s gaining traction. Though he comes across as one not to name names, a few years ago he designed the tour merch for Irish rapper Rejjie Snow, and Earl Sweatshirt has been seen fitted in his designs as well as much of the up-and-coming creatives dominating the Melbourne scene.
“I’m not too focused on that shit,” he tells VICE. “For example, if Drake wore my stuff it wouldn’t be like, ‘Wow, Drake’s wearing my stuff.’ It’s not my main priority. If they like it, they like it. I just like the authenticity. If they want it, they can get it.”
It’s the biggest message behind a brand he started when he was 16, just a kid in high school who was self-described as “money hungry”.
“I was in high school and all the kids around me had money to get shit, so I was kind of jealous.”
He started drawing stickers, getting them laminated and selling them at the school canteen for a few gold coins. Sometimes he’d make $20 to $30 a day. After school he’d spend it “eating with the homies”.
When he went to the Philippines, he put one of his designs on a T-shirt. “Yo, I’ll buy that off you,” said one of his friends.
“I was like ‘Fuck, what you mean?’ I was getting like $3-$4 for stickers, so I started making iron-on t-shirts and I found this local embroidery lady from down the road that had this real ghetto machine at her house,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about the trade and I was just getting shirts made with random words and used to walk around with a duffel bag just peer pressuring people like ‘Yo buy this shit, I’ll give you three T-shirts for $50.’
To make a bit of extra money on the side to launch JUDAH., he’d buy old-school brands from Boxing Day sales, selling them below retail price a few months later with the tags and labels intact. He also worked a myriad of jobs: Coles, a charcoal chicken shop, scaffolding, furniture removal, container unloading, “everything under the sun,” he says.
“I grew up struggling a bit,” he says.
“I’ve always just wanted to be able to get whatever I wanted without having to worry about what comes after.”
For him, growing up the way he did, as well listening to 50 Cent and watching movies like Paid In Full.
“I was like, ‘Yo, that’s cool that there are these fools that just buy what they want and drive nice cars’.”
At 17, he’d sneak into shows of artists like Mick Jenkins, making it back stage to hand people free t-shirts.
“I remember this specific time I was at 170 Russell and The Internet was there,” he says. “I threw a t-shirt but it didn’t land onstage, it hit Syd. And she was like ‘Shoutout to JUDAH.’. And from there I just started sneaking into festivals like Listen Out. Started jumping more fences and going backstage and just becoming homies with more people. And from there it was just word of mouth.”
As his popularity grew, and the clothes started piling up in boxes around his house, he decided to put a month's rent down on a warehouse in Melbourne’s South East, the area he grew up.
“What I’ve always known is that you can turn two into four and four into more. It got to a point where I doubled up a lot,” he says.
“Getting a warehouse was definitely a big decision for me. It was really scary that I’d get it and have to pay X a month. But I just said ‘Fuck it’, at the end of the day you just have to put your money where your mouth is and gamble against yourself. You’ve got to spend money to make money.”
From carrying around a duffel bag with 20 shirts, JUDAH. started receiving hundreds of orders a day. At the end of the year he wants 1000 in the first 24 hours of a drop.
“I remember the vision in my bedroom. I probably had like 25 t-shirts on my floor, folded neatly in the corner. And I used to think ‘Fuck, that’s a lot of t-shirts’ and now it’s just a warehouse full of shit.”
For a 22-year-old that, for the majority of his brand's life, has handled the graphic design, the cuts and silhouettes, the business and the manufacturing, his growth is an impressive feat. He now employs two people and is looking for a third.
“We’re definitely growing bigger and bigger. It’s weird that I’m 22 and paying people wages,” he says.
“But there’s a different side to looking at business. I feel like a lot of people expect a specific blueprint, they try to conform to some corporate branded way. Copying someone else’s blueprint is never going to work for them and their specific situation at a specific time. You just need to develop your own shit.”
It’s an unorthodox method that has obviously worked for the young designer, without digressing from the original message of his brand: community and genuineness. In fact, it’s likely the community in Melbourne that has helped his brand grow and one that he places an enormous amount of value in.
“It’s definitely a big part of who we are. We’re a tribe,” he says.
“Seeing how people move in the environment and working with new creatives and up-and-coming people is definitely a big factor for me to push in a different direction where we’re not so close minded.”
“America has their shit going. Europe’s got their shit going, and Australia’s starting to kick off now. Soon it’s going to be our time where people want to come to Australia instead of going out to the States or Europe to make a name for themselves. I want to reverse the role and using community is a big factor.”
In the end, the man behind JUDAH. is a young hustler looking to uplift the community while synonymously creating a brand that transcends Australian shores. His fits are clean, his designs focused on his own likes rather than trends, and he holds a business savvy that’s innate rather than created.
While the lift off of his brand comes from the aesthetic of the designs themselves, what’s clear is that it also comes from a place of drive, where no matter the cards you're dealt, the only way is forwards.
“I’ve been in circumstances where I’ve been dirt poor, where I’ve been struggling. Even when I started the brand it’s never been a beautiful ride up the hill. It’s always a rocky road. It’s always crazy. But it’s just about betting against the odds and really backing yourself.”