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How Free the Youth Is Using Streetwear Fashion to Tell Ghana’s Story

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How Free the Youth Is Using Streetwear Fashion to Tell Ghana’s Story

f you haven’t heard of Free the Youth yet, you will soon. The Ghanaian brand, launched in 2013, is taking the streetwear scene in Africa, Europe and America by storm. Co-founders Johnathan “Joey Lit” Coffie, Richard “Kweku Maposh” Ormano, Kelly “Kurlz” Sekafor Foli and the late Winfred “Shace” Mensah have built a strong reputation and loyal community by using fashion to tell their cultural stories and inspire the next generation to live creatively.

“We’re entitled to more than just fashion. Fashion is only the beginning for Free The Youth. We’re putting Africa on the map. That was the vision when we were even creating the logo, that's why we put in the globe. Because we’re doing something worldwide.”
Kelly Foli, co-founder of Free the Youth ( highsnobiety.com )

With head-turning designs, affordable limited-edition clothing and international collaborations with the likes of Off-White and Foot Locker, Free the Youth creatively tells the story of life in Ghana, from its trials to successes, with authenticity and grit to the wider world. The label’s designs represent African life, from Afrobeats musicians to poking at government corruption and economic discrimination.

“Our ‘bigger picture’ goal is to make it easier for every African youth to dream big...We got it hard and we don’t want it to be hard for the next generation.”
Johnathan Coffie, co-founder of Free the Youth ( hypebeast.com )

The Beginnings of Bold

Sharing a passion for fashion, the streetwear brand’s founding quartet unwittingly laid their roots down at a high school, in a Ghanaian harbor town named, Tema. “We know each other from the hood. Some of us used to go to school together. We used to sell clothes to each other,” Coffie said. “So during high school, we just started taking photos in cool clothes, looking fly on Tumblr, Facebook – at that time we weren’t even on Instagram.”

Fans of theirs would say, “You should free the youth,” which led to them starting to use the hashtag #FreeTheYouth. Then, they decided to actually print the phrase "Free the Youth" on t-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies.  

Serendipitously, Coffie gave t-shirts to local rappers B4Bonah and Kwesi Arthur. “People saw the shirts and didn't know what it was,” Coffie said. “It was like some secret society they wanted to be a part of.”

Even though Free the Youth didn’t have a huge budget to produce apparel, the rappers’ clout fueled major interest. The brand’s first collection in 2015 was a small batch of tees that read “1,000 Injured,” drawing attention back to the victims of the 2001 Accra Sports Stadium disaster. Available on Facebook for $8 a shirt, the collection sold out within days.

After that, they landed runway spots, with models at the Ghana Teen Fashion Week, who they got to wear the brand’s Ghetto University collection, and then did the same at Accra Fashion Week in 2017. “Things blew up and suddenly we had all this interest from around the world,” Coffie said.

The Real-Life Rise

Coffie and the Free the Youth crew were adept at using social media to transcend borders and paint a new picture of life in Africa. To add to their profile, Accra Afrobeats singer, Amaarae, appeared in Vogue’s "VogueWorld 100" list wearing a Free the Youth t-shirt. In 2019, Vogue highlighted the brand, along with it's raw designs and slogans, like “No Taxis Allowed,” referring to the signs outside many hotels and private buildings.

However, the brand’s day-to-day operations reflected more real life than the media hype. In 2018, Free the Youth bought a screen-printing machine, but couldn’t afford to print more than 200 pieces of any collection from their small Accra office. Most of the crew had other jobs, while trying to launch the brand. Coffie was a military engineer until 2019 when he quit to focus full-time on the label.

“At the beginning, we weren’t keeping accounts and had no idea what we were spending. There was all this hype and demand, but in the background we were figuring out how to be a business.”
Johnathan Coffie, co-founder of Free the Youth ( The Courier )

Free the Youth’s focus hasn’t been on the bottom line, although the price of a single tee has risen from $8 to $50. About 75% of the brand’s sales come from boutique sites in the U.S. and U.K. Many local customers buy over the phone and via email, since they’re not used to purchasing online. That’s why Free the Youth invested $30,000 to open a small shop in Accra in December 2020, where they welcome people to create t-shirts, listen to music or make friends.

The team’s also trying to raise $100,000 from investors to produce their 100% of their designs at a new factory in Ghana, which will also double as a Ghetto University, to give young creatives access to screen-printing machines, art studios and recreational spaces.

After this, Coffie wants to open stores across Africa, in Dakar, Lagos and Nairobi, before going international.

Inspiring Ghanaian Youth

The brand’s founders have often said in interviews that young people in Ghana don’t often get to choose their careers, since parents have a heavy influence in that area – and they wanted to be inspirations for youth, who desired to enter more creative fields.

“In Ghana, creative pursuits aren’t taken seriously...[Fashion’s] a very risky industry to touch. It's like one out of 100 people…succeed…But we got the courage to lay the blueprint for African streetwear. Hopefully, when we’re done, this will be a profitable industry for kids to look up to and even have a career.”
Johnathan Coffie, co-founder of Free the Youth ( highsnobiety.com )

The brand’s upcoming Graduate collection is linked to a charitable endeavor where each purchase sponsors an exercise book for a Ghanaian student. “This government of ours is really moving mad,”Ormano said. “We feel we have to bring these issues to attention like with this collection we’re telling the government, ‘You guys should be investing more in education, and kids stay in school because you are the future.’”

A focus on kids is also why Free the Youth has kept its price point low.

“We have to make it affordable for our community. Most of our supporters are youth...Our clothes tell a story and we can’t spread that story if no one can buy it.”
Kelly Foli, co-founder of Free the Youth ( hypebeast.com )

The World’s the Limit

Free the Youth’s recent resume lists an extraordinarily dizzying list of accomplishments. Major African musicians from Ghanaian hip-hop collectives Asakaa, La Même Gang and Afrobeats icons like Davido and Wizkid, wear Free the Youth gear all over the world.

Before the late, great Virgil Abloh passed, the crew had the chance to work with their fellow Ghanaian to learn about fashion and running a business. They also just collabed with Angelo Baque and Awake NY on a t-shirt capsule collection, released in April 2023 at the Homecoming Festival in Lagos, Nigeria. They've even made t-shirts with the United Nations to raise awareness about Ghana’s biodiversity for World Environment Day.

Want more? Free the Youth just launched Babe Youth, a woman-focused sub-label – with crop tops, tiny purses and a tribute to Suzzy Williams, the late Ghanaian actress. Going forward, womenswear will be a central part of the brand’s growth. Whatever Free the Youth does next, expect true-to-its-roots authenticity.

”[Some brands] are just doing it for the clout and for the bag. If it’s just for the bag, why are you doing it? If it’s your passion, the bag will come. You should start from somewhere, they should see the suffering, they should be able to relate. We’re in a warzone. There’s a lot of stuff in Africa that people need to know and pay attention to.”
Richard Ormano, co-founder of Free the Youth ( hypebeast.com )

Jul 9, 2023