Cyrus Tetteh had grown tired of the feeling that his grades in the classroom were determining his value, and he wanted to do something about it. He started thinking about ways that he could create a platform for himself, and ultimately decided that he wanted to share his creative vision with others in the form of a clothing brand: Cool Club Clothing. I had the opportunity to sit down with Tetteh, a 2015 alum, and reflect on the process of starting his own brand while at U-M, and where he wants to go from here.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and why you decided to start Cool Club Clothing?
“I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan. I lived there my whole life before deciding to attend the University of Michigan. … When I started taking classes — just normal freshman classes — I was getting tired of feeling like my value was based on my grades. I didn’t want my value as a person to be represented by the letter grade … And I came up with my own clothing line: Cool Club Clothing in 2012. I haven’t stopped since. I got a lot of support on campus … I did what I needed to do and I was just living and trying to have fun.”
You being able to find a way to do your own things outside of the traditional confines that a lot of students face is really interesting to me.
“The whole thing is that it started with the idea of me wanting to break free and figure out the things that I like to do and things that make me happy while still making me feel like I’m progressing in life. One thing leads to another, and you find the things that you love. It started with music. I wanted to create clothing that would promote my music, and then people would start asking me for things, saying, ‘Oh, you should do this in this color, you should do hats or maybe you should do this.’ I started making more things and it turned into a clothing line. I just really want to encourage people to do things and try things. Especially the people who feel confined by their grades like I did.”
So when you started Cool Club Clothing, did you have any overarching goals? What was your vision for the brand?
“Starting off, I made a couple of shirts for me and my friends to wear with the first design that I had made. … The growth [of the brand] was sort of driven by the people. … At the end of the day, I just wanted to create a platform for myself to climb that ladder to ultimately have that creative freedom and be able to give back to people. With the clothing, I wanted to take it as far as it could go. I didn’t know what that was. It was never concrete — whatever opportunity came my way, I’d jump into it.”
Can you talk a bit about the biggest hurdles that you had when starting the brand?
“The main questions were what will my first designs be and how do I get them on a shirt? I was sitting and doing my math homework one night when I got bored. I flipped over my homework and started drawing the first Cool Club logo. My roommate at the time offered to help me make my logo. Before he had done that, I had never used InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop. He introduced me to all of those things, so I got those and I’ve been on since then. … Being so small, it can be expensive to make your clothing, so it’s a matter of finding the best place to do it. It was a lot of trial and error, but it worked out.”
Can you talk a bit more about the trial and error aspect?
“Everything was really driven by the people, but there was a process of figuring out which materials worked and didn’t work and which shirts fit the way I wanted to was something that took some time.
Learning that you can’t please everyone and learning how to communicate with customers was difficult, but I knew that a bad customer experience could be the difference between someone who would never try the brand and a lifetime supporter.”
You’ve mentioned a few times that the growth of the brand was driven by the people. What was it like starting a brand on U-M’s campus specifically?
“It’s an experience like no other. Until you’re a super huge brand, never will you be able to walk outside and see people wearing your brand. There was a point in time where it was regular to walk outside, especially during the winter, and see people wearing the Cool Club hats. And because of that, you kinda get lost in it. … Being on campus, it was cool. I got a lot of support along the way, and the resources that we have — the fashion orgs and everything else — provide so many opportunities to promote your brand on campus.
It made it this thing around here. And that was cool. That really helped me a lot and gave me a lot of confidence. It slowly made me feel like I had a leg to stand on. I felt like my value was being determined by my creations instead of my grades.
I appreciate the love I got from Michigan. I had the chance to work with some of the student-athletes. I got to work with Denard Robinson — we did a little pop up shop. It was cool, man.”
So after you graduated in 2015, can you touch on how it was moving away from campus?
“When you talk about hurdles, that’s definitely the biggest hurdle.
On campus, it felt like it was cool. It was this trial and error process and people were supporting it. When I left campus, it felt like it was me versus the world instead of a small community. I had to dig deeper into my artistry, sit down and bring some life to my design.
I worked with my high school, Cass Tech, and did a collection with them, which helped because they have such a big alumni network. Right after that, I did a collection with Devin Funchess. That was cool because he was going to the Super Bowl that year, had just come from Michigan and he’s a really cool guy.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2015 when I realized that I needed to stop doing all these collabs and work on defining my brand within the city. I wanted to find a way to get out my own name rather than using someone else’s brand. I spent some time working on my designing skills to take my skills to the next level, and came up with my Detroit Players Club design, which was my most successful design to date. That felt like the introduction of my brand to Detroit.”
Moving forward, where do you see things in five years?
“Really, photography has come in and changed things. At first, I picked up the camera to promote my brand, but now I’m working for the city as a photographer. I’ve been enjoying photography, I’m liking the foundation it’s building and it’s bringing money in. I want to continue to make clothing, but I’m definitely going to be focusing on my photos.
I really want Cool Club to keep growing. I have some designs that will be coming soon. I want Cool Club to be a creative outlet. That’s all I ever wanted it to be — an outlet for when I feel like putting out a design or I want to work with a certain brand. I don’t want to leave it hanging, and I want to keep using it as a creative outlet to make statements. Maybe it turns into a platform to raise awareness for certain issues.
I’ll still be doing my thing in five years. Right now I’m just living between the two [photography and clothing]. I’m trying to go hard at both, honestly. Just trying to find a way to balance the two.”
Do you have any advice for people who may feel the same way you did as a freshman and want to create something like you did?
“My advice is to just get started. Get started and don’t look back. That’s the most important thing that you can do as someone who wants anything for themselves. You can’t think about it for too long. Nothing is ever going to be perfect, but if you know what you want and you can see it, you can make it happen. It’s your vision, so trust your vision and start taking those first steps. Do what you need to do to make it happen. You never know what could happen once you take those first steps. The best way to learn is to go through the process, and it really is a process.
You just have to trust the process.”