Mark Braster started out as an apprentice for Ms. Denise at D&M Apparel in Fort Wayne, Indiana (while also delivering the mail for two years) and now he’s being appointed to design merch lines for some major stars including 21 Savage, SZA, Kanye West, Young Thug, and Lil Wayne. His most recent collaboration is with The Recording Academy to celebrate the 65th Grammy Awards with a capsule collection modeled by rising artists JEELEL! and Bktherula.
The theme: “When The Stars Align.” Perhaps a message for those who still haven’t won a gilded gramophone? Either way, the collection is super clean. It includes uniquely designed sweats, hoodies, and t-shirts with a cosmic vibe that is both nostalgic and modern.
I spoke with the Brast Studios owner about how the stars aligned for him to create the collection for The Recording Academy, how the stars aligned for him to connect with the late Virgil Abloh, and how the stars aligned for him to work with Kanye West. He also gave me his Grammy speech.
The stars aligned when Mark Braster designed our 65th #GRAMMYs limited-edition capsule collection.
— Recording Academy / GRAMMYs (@RecordingAcad) January 21, 2023
How did you get on board with the Grammys to do their merch?
Long story short, I was referred. I found out last minute. I know that they wanted to try something different. At the end of the day, the power is in the youth. Everything is based on if the youth gravitates toward it or not. It makes or breaks the situation. They’re highlighting hip-hop this year, which is another huge thing. I thought that it was going to be myself and other designers but when I found that it was just me, it was surreal.
Tell me about the “when the stars align” theme.
It’s a concept that The Recording Academy wanted to go with. The initial theme was supposed to be love and music. My initial capsule that I presented was more Valentine’s Day driven. But I could also see why they wanted to switch it to “when the stars align.” At the end of the day, we were able to create those vibrant pieces that are pretty much cohesive with the Grammys branding this year.
Tell me a little bit about the pieces you worked on for it.
The first initial design was the long sleeve, which has a gradient on the sleeve, super vibrant. On the back of the shirt, there is an astronaut sitting on top of the world holding a Grammy. And then the upper left shoulder is a quote, which is a quote from Pharrell. Then all the movie posters from back in the day.
Hip-hop has this love-hate relationship with the Grammys and with this line and you being a Black designer, how do you feel about that?
It was not just the Grammys. It’s corporate brands overall. At some point, people just have to realize things have to change in order to grow. Change has to happen. A post on Twitter said, as much as they don’t want to believe corporate brands need people like us, we’re the ones with the creativity. We have fresh ideas to keep it relevant, which is 100% true. A lot of these brands are starting to collaborate with artists because they see the powers within the culture. I feel like someone (at the Recording Academy) really was like we need to make this change and I’m sure it wasn’t easy. Overall, it’s been a great experience. Unfortunately, we have to be the bigger person and be less emotionally driven to get the point across that we are powerful and we influence a majority of the world.
How did you get into the fashion field?
So, there’s a leather store here in Fort Wayne run by a lady named Ms. Denise. I would go to the leather shop and just watch her sew. I had ideas. I was putting pieces together but I just didn’t know how to do it myself. At some point, she was like, hey, I’m not doing this. You got to do it. I want you to learn. That was how I learned how to sew. She gave me my first industrial sewing machine. I actually got to rebrand the store. She paid me for the logo and it was one of the first times I got paid.
She gave me $500. She gave me a leather jacket because it was a leather jacket that I saw that I wanted. It was a Harley-Davidson leather jacket. So, she gave me $500, the leather jacket, and then the sewing machine.
Did you start making clothes to sell online after that?
I started selling clothes online out of high school. I had college scholarships for track but I ended up not taking a scholarship because fashion is what I wanted to do. I’ve always been artistic, so I ended up working at UPS as a delivery driver assistant. That’s when I first started teaching myself how to design for about a year. Then I wanted to try to do my own brand, so of course, I quit. I began doing custom pieces and that’s kind of how I started networking with celebrities.
Tell me what it was like working Virgil Abloh and Kanye West, which I am sure was a dream.
I actually spoke with Virgil way before anything with Kanye. Right after he started Off-White in 2013. He did the initial launch with Shane Gonzales from Midnight Studios and I took some photos for that shoot. I tagged him on Twitter and he reshared it. Then, he started following me on Twitter. Around 2015, I was more on Instagram where I would share stuff because I feel like that was the best way to get it out there, be creative, network, and show I was serious. I didn’t want a handout. I didn’t end up being like an employee for him or anything like that but just having Virgil acknowledge my work and my work was actually featured in an article of his.
What did acknowledgment do for you from that point on?
Money-wise, it didn’t really do anything, but I’d say I’ve always had high self-esteem. I know I’m good. Whatever I put my mind to, I’m good at it. I’ll be great. But just knowing that someone like that, of that caliber, makes me feel like I’m on the right track. I got a lot of work to do, but I’m on the right track.
How did Kanye connection happen?
The Donda thing was actually random. A friend of mine had just started working with Ye. I think he met him at Diddy’s house because he used to work for Diddy and then he met Ye at a party and Ye kind of just stole him from Diddy or whatever. A couple of weeks in, he hit me to work on the Donda stuff with him. He was like, the pay isn’t crazy, but I think you would be perfect or you will fit in. The first thing that we did was the New Year’s party flyer for him and Future. From there we kind of took on the Donda Sports and stuff, which led to the Slam Magazine cover placement.
Did you interact with Kanye much at all?
Just as a team. I did get to meet him in Chicago at a Donda game. Ye, Justin Laboy, and Antonio Brown. That whole era was crazy. Like the energy – I’ve never seen anything like it. When he came into a room, you could just feel it. It was wild. I’m not going to lie, it was almost intimidating for a quick second. It was a ton of people around. I got to say a few things.
What’s something you learned working with Ye that you take with you today?
Growing up, Ye was one of my idols. He and Pharrell. Those are the guys I looked up to fashion-wise; their whole demeanor and how they carry themselves. So you fast forward and I end up working with them. The biggest thing I took from this, it’s a couple of things was this was my first time actually working with an actual team. I’ve always done everything on my own. I’ve never had backup. I’ve worked with some people, but it wasn’t like this.
What’s the difference?
This is like an actual team effort. Everybody played their part and it was almost like a seamless situation. I will say it was like a ton of revision, but having that team aspect made it a lot easier to get clarity. As far as Ye’s vision, that’s one thing. Him as a creative, seeing how he works, it made me realize that it’s okay to be inspired. I feel like I was so hellbent on doing everything original or I can’t take inspiration from this or that. Whereas he’s inspired by everything around all of us. He doesn’t hide it at all. If he likes something, he’s going to let you know.
He had us watch this George Lucus film called THX 1138 and it’s like a futuristic film. I feel like the way he was dressing at that time, the boots and all of that, it just all made sense.
What was the deal with the boots, did you ask?
I don’t know. I wanted to ask. I literally felt like I feel like he’s in character. I feel like he took inspiration from THX 1138 as far as the boots and just how he wore his clothes and that George Lucas film played a part in the Donda Slam cover. If you look at the text, the way the names are at the bottom, it’s literally just like Star Wars. The intro where it’s angled was his vision. I loved it because I grew up watching Star Wars and Star Trek with my grandpa. That’s a huge thing. So seeing that it’s one of his favorite films and whatever, I was like, this is where I was supposed to be. Overall, it just helped with my confidence and just trusting other people, because working with other people, is a hard thing. And as a creative, it’s very hard. At the end of the day, there’s a purpose and the finished piece is like a masterpiece.
Give me your Grammy speech. Who do you want to thank?
I just like to thank everyone that has believed in me over the years. It’s too many people to name, but 100%, outside of me being talented, I wouldn’t be here without those people giving me a chance and just allowing me to show them that I’m a genuine person and I’m here to work. I specifically want to thank Barry (Hefner) from Since The 80s, because he’s the one that brought this opportunity to me. I’m still in disbelief. When he first asked me, I was like, bro, are you joking right now? And he’s like, nah. Like, I’m dead serious. I want to thank Barry.