by Shonette Reed
When founder and art director Byron Elliott started Black Sheep Collective (BLKSHPCO) in 2016, he had previously had no intention of starting an apparel brand. Though his goal was always to do something that differed from simple logo design, Elliott and his wife had been searching for the perfect canvas for his monthly designs.
Elliott serves the Christian community through his peculiar brand, reminding them that their peculiarity is something worth celebrating. It is in that, that he is able to constantly engage with his customers that he refers to as, “the collective” and do life with them, as well as lend a helping hand in the lives of others.
This attitude serves the brand well. Before August of 2016, BLKSHPCO had only sold about 50 shirts. That number quickly changed when Rapzilla contacted Elliott about a benefit tee for the beloved and recently deceased DJ Official.
“This is much bigger than me. This is much bigger than, you know, a brand. This is an idea that there is a place, or that there are people, that you can connect with who know how you feel,” Elliott shared over the phone.
The Beginning of Black Sheep Collective
Black Sheep Collective, BLKSHPCO, started in March of 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana, where Elliott was born and raised and now lives with his wife and kids. The brand is “not just a faith based apparel company but a movement”. As described on the site, “We are a meeting of the oddballs, outliers and the peculiar.”
Regardless of this mission, apparel design was not something that illustrator and graphic designer, Byron Elliott, saw himself going into. Elliott studied graphic design while in college and decided that, while there were great logo designs out there, he wanted to do something more. While in pursuit of that, Elliott created logos, cards, and a comic book for Deitrick Haddon and a super bowl game for “Funny or Die”.
While working a full-time job and feeling underappreciated and underutilized, Elliott became depressed about where he was. At the time, he was also in the middle of pursuing other artistic ventures but none seemed to work. After four years of this, Elliott called out to God.
“I was working at a full-time job and was filling very unfulfilled and underutilized and underappreciated. I tried to do other things artistically, and they just weren’t working. I became very depressed about it,” Elliott shared. “After about four years of that, I just gave up and I was like, “God, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do...whatever you want me to do, I just give it up.” I grew up as a Christian. I was born and raised in the church but this was the first time I felt like I was just straight up talking to Him and asking for His guidance as I’m tryna like, figure stuff out for myself.”
In the middle of this, Elliott said he heard two words clear as day: Christian artwork.
“And I was like, ‘Awww, man. Come on,” Elliott laughed.
While seeking God for direction, Elliott’s bosses approached him, sharing that they felt he was ready to move on, offering him help for a smooth transition. One thing led to another and he started working freelance. During that same time, Elliott went on what he describes as a sabbatical, which included a lot of praying and fasting and seeking the Lord for what the brand should represent. Through his prayers, one word stuck out and was constantly repeated: Different.
Though Elliott thought that “different” simply meant ‘different from the competition’, God meant more than that. It’s through this, that a community has been created for people who walk differently together, being unconformed. It’s this difference that Elliott has been tested to put into action what he said he would do.
During the start of BLKSHPCO last year, Elliott lost his younger sister in a car accident.
“I lost a sister last year in a car accident and it was horrible. She was younger than me. It was a total freak accident, you know. It was really hard; financially, emotionally, physically,” Elliott said. “My wife and I began talking randomly about what we would do if we were put in the position to help out anyone who is in this position. And long behold, we got contacted and that, to me, was God saying, “Okay, Let’s see if you’re gonna back up what you said.”
Shortly after, Rapzilla contacted Elliott to help them with a benefit for DJ Official’s family.
DJ Official Benefit Tee Partnership with Rapzilla
Elliott’s words were put to the test when Rapzilla contacted him about a partnership to raise money for DJ Official’s family through a benefit tee. When BLKSHPCO was working to contact the media about their brand, Rapzilla was one of the few that had gotten back to them.
“And so, the plan was to design the shirt, host it on our site, and handle everything, pretty much. And to give every piece of profit to DJ Official’s family. We were like, “Yeah. We’ll do it. We’re down.” Elliott said.
Nelson Chu, widely known as DJ Official, was a Christian Hip Hop (CHH) musician and longtime DJ from The Bronx, New York, for CHH label, Reach Records, and The Cross Movement. He retired in 2014 after several years of battling health issues. In 2016, he received approval for a lung transplant and heart valve repair. He was also scheduled for a kidney transplant the following year. On August 15, 2016, the news of DJ Official’s passing was shared on Reach Records website. His death was due to complications during the lung transplant surgery.
As a fan of Christian Hip Hop, Elliott knew of DJ Official but did not fully comprehend the weight of the situation until over 500 orders for benefit tees came in.
“I’m a big fan of Christian Hip Hop, and he touched a lot of people with his music and his contribution. I felt like it was a no-brainer to do whatever helped out,” Elliott said. “What I didn’t totally take into account, though, was the weight of the actual situation. To give you an idea, this was our first time ever doing the store...and up until that point, we had maybe sold like, I don’t know, 50 shirts from April to August.”
The benefit gave them their first encounter with figuring out international shipping, along with the demands of late nights and physical pain from many incoming orders. This was all for a cause that Elliott signed up for when he decided to help anyone through what he went through just earlier that year.
Though DJ Official touched many lives, Elliott benefitted from being able to give all the money made for the tees to a family that needed it-- all by his willingness to serve.
The Heart Of BLKSHPCO
BLKSHPCO is a brand that uses two biblical scriptures to describe its mission, Romans 12:2 and 1 Peter 2:9. Both of these scriptures describe the distinct nature that Christians should have as believers and followers of Jesus Christ.
When Elliott started, he was in search of a canvas that best showed the artwork he was doing-- t-shirts turned out to be the best fit. Something that he had no intention of doing early on, became something that he now spends his time fully committed to. Each month, a new design is released. These designs include what Elliott and his wife refer to as “visual parables”. Elliott has worked to create a brand that is not just different from the competition, but different in the way it invites people to be a part of the brand and the black sheep collective lifestyle as a whole.
Had Elliott stopped when things weren’t going the way he felt they should, or when he seemed to have little help, BLKSHPCO wouldn’t be the brand it is a year later. When it comes to emerging apparel designers, Elliott believes that you should remember why you are doing what you are doing.
“First things first, make sure that you absolutely love it. Don’t try to do this as a means to an end, don’t try to do it as some type of get rich quick type of thing, you know, because you’re going to fail you’re going to be upset. It’s slow, it takes time, so you’ve gotta be able to want to take that time with it,” Elliott said. “Also, figure out why you’re doing it. Are you trying to make something cool? Do you have a purpose? Do you have a mission? Are you driven by anything? What are you doing differently than what everybody else is doing? Just really try to find your voice and the reason why you’re doing it because that’s going to be a major driving force as well.”