When Reece Yeboah received a call from his business partner one night in July 2019, he didn’t think much of it. It had been two years since the young London-based designer’s fashion label, Saint London, had gone from a mere idea to filling the racks at Selfridges and being worn by big name celebrities like Future, Gucci Mane and Lewis Hamilton. Little did he know that by the end of the call his world would have dramatically shifted.
Yeboah was always into clothes. His mother dressed him in brands like Prada, Moschino, GAP, Nike and Avirex from a young age, and he reminisces fondly about being stopped by older kids in his local area, each desperate to learn where he had picked up his latest piece from. Inspiration came not only from home but from across the pond too, the designer cites the always-fashionable then N.E.R.D frontman Pharrell Williams as someone he looked up to when he was growing up. “Me and my mate Christian tried to replicate him by starting a brand called Pirate Boyz Club, which failed terribly but I guess it’s the thought that counts,” he laughs.
Yeboah decided to take the plunge in 2013 - he dropped out of college and, with the help of his mentor Katy Lavett, Saint London was born. “The story behind Saint London and the name behind it stems from feeling like a underdog and a black sheep, hence the black and white colour scheme,” he explains.
“The ‘Saint’ represents who I am as a person within my community and social groups, overcoming very difficult circumstances, avoiding death and jail,” he continues. “Adding the ‘London’ was the icing on the cake, bringing a sense of heritage and paying respects to the city which raised me.” The name was accompanied by the age-old Fleur-de-lis symbol, chosen for its association with themes of honour, faith and unity.
They say you make your own luck, and — while the brand quickly began gaining traction in Yeboah’s community and online — it was chance encounter on the street that lead to an introduction to Sebastian Manes & Jack Cassidy [Selfridges’ Buying and Merchandising Director and Head of Menswear Buying respectively], and the rest was history. Just like that, Saint London was being stocked in Selfridges – one of the first independent London streetwear labels to be stocked in the iconic department store.
For a while, things seemed to be too good to be true for Yeboah and his fledgling brand. As is often the case with this type of instant success, things began to snowball very quickly for Saint London. In no time, glitterati from both sides of the pond were sporting his designs. “I’ll never forget the gut feeling when I saw Lewis Hamilton and Future wearing my clothes,” he says.
Then, one warm night in June 2019, his dream was shattered. Yeboah had just returned home from a gym session when he received a call from his business partners, asking him to come to the office for a chat. He was informed that a cease and desist letter had been sent from the NFL (The USA’s National Football League) about the name Saint London and the use of the Fleur-de-lis in his logo.
Since 2007, the NFL has played some of its games in London. A quick scan down the league’s list of teams reveals the likely motivation of the NFL’s cease and desist attempt, the combination of New Orleans’ team name — the Saints — and their Fleur-de-lis symbol evidently deemed enough by the organisation to pursue the independent young label with all its might.
“The panic and shock sunk in a few days later after realising the seriousness of what a cease and desist letter meant,” Yeboah recalls. “I questioned why this had happened several times with zero response from the NFL’s representatives. After spending all of my money on legal feels, business consultancy and intellectual property advice, I ran out of funds.”
Though time has passed, the confusion still haunts Yeboah. “To this day I’m still very much confused about why a small west London brand was picked on by such giants,” he says. “I became very sick, often not eating and socialising with people, which had a very huge impact on my mental health as fashion is major stress reliever for me. I use fashion as a voice to help me defeat stereotypical judgement, so to have someone take that away from me broke my heart.” The NFL has been contacted for comment.
Now, after a dark period, things are finally starting to look up for Yeboah, who seems confident and ready to take on the next challenge. During the time since the NFL ordeal, he has taken pause and reflected introspectively on what he might have done differently, and how to avoid something like this ever happening again.
“The future of Saint London is to start from scratch with a rebirth,” he says. “I have evolved into wiser person, thinking outside of the box more with the time I’ve had on my hands. This has given me the opportunity to think from now until 2025, with 10 full collections finished and over 5,000 T-shirt designs in my archive.” The new brand will, perhaps fittingly, be called ‘YEBOAH’.
Why, having built himself back up following his ordeal with the NFL, has Yeboah chosen to tell his story now? His answer is expectedly rooted in his roots, and the desire to educate and inspire that has always inhabited his work.
“I want this story to be the first and last we hear of large corporations taking advantage of young independent creatives,” he says. “More needs to be done in regards to education of law, intellectual property and copyright. Topics like this need to be taught in schools, youth clubs and other establishments.” In a time when the government is pushing ahead proposals to cut funding for arts and creative subjects in higher education, Yeboah’s calls for “more seminars, financial grants, free legal aid and more opportunities within the industries to study the business side of things” ring especially loud.
Until this is achieved, Yeboah wants his story to be a blueprint for young creatives. “We all know it’s twice as hard for a young black man in fashion to strive for greatness, but I guess my path was written for me,” he says. “I can only use this situation as a blessing in disguise. This is a story to be used as an example and life lesson.”
Yeboah’s path once again looks bright. As part of Converse and Dazed Magazine’s 2021 Open to Change initiative, he was chosen as one of the few young creatives taken under the wing of the A-Cold-Wall* founder and LVMH Prize-winner Samuel Ross, the perfect platform from which to launch his rebranded collection.
Yeboah is a fan of balance, and it is perhaps unsurprising that Selfridges is once again the aim. Though he can’t reveal too much detail, he is excited for the chance to start afresh and begin to achieve his goals once more. “I can’t wait to get back in there to show people what I’ve been up to.”