Meet JAWBREAKING: An interview with Jefferson Ellison

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Clockwise from top left: Jefferson Ellison, Asheville BLM protestors, and images from JAWBREAKING

Good morning, Asheville. Today we’re kicking off a brand new interview series in partnership with JAWBREAKING.xyz, a millennial-focused media company based right here in the 828. 

Over the course of the next month, we’ll be bringing you owner Jefferson Ellison’s interviews with some of our area’s doers, makers, movers + shakers. Think Cat Fly Film Festival, Sauna House, East Fork Pottery, the adé Project + more. 

Today, we’re starting off with Jefferson himself. A third generation Asheville native who bought JAWBREAKING at 23 years old, his story includes growing up on The Block (where his father owned a restaurant + jazz club), studying + working in fashion in Raleigh + NYC, styling the cast of Love It or List It, developing his own fashion collections, opening his first concept store right here in Asheville, and more.

First things first – What is JAWBREAKING? 

JAWBREAKING is a company that manifests the millennial experience through content, creative services, and product. The brand launched as a streetwear label in 2008. Over the last 12 years, we’ve dressed everyone from Kylie Jenner, Ed Sheeran, One Direction, Fifth Harmony, MAX! and more. We’re one of the original internet brands and now we’re all grown up. We showed at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) last year and we’re opening a concept store in downtown Asheville, in August.

 We also have a creative agency (currently representing LEAF Global Arts, The YMI Cultural Center, Diaz Restaurant Group, Cat Fly Film Festival, etc.), that launched in 2017, and our content platform that we launched in 2018

How did you come to own it and how did it evolve? 

I went to NC State in Raleigh where the brand was launched, so the original owner was a friend of mine and later a freelance client. In 2016, the brand was going up for sale and I was very unhappy with my job in NYC. I was 23 with nothing to lose, so I submitted an offer and they accepted. 

I originally purchased the company as an investment in hopes of restructuring and then selling it. I wanted to elevate the products and branding and give it a stronger look. But because owning a business is expensive, I was still taking freelance clients for PR and styling. Eventually the freelance work took on a life of its own and I was wearing our products to meetings and events. It seemed easier to bring the work into my JB world than to try and keep them separate. 

Then, as we were re-structuring our e-commerce site and we introduced a blog because every e-commerce site needs a blog – and I had this thought: “Why would we limit ourselves to just talking about t-shirts?” So we launched a full platform – with contributors, etc. – that covers everything from fashion to politics. We didn’t need to talk down to our customers or reduce our footprint. So we launched a full platform – with contributors, etc. – that covers everything from fashion to politics. It seems complicated from the outside, but in the fashion world it’s a very common business model. Rachel Zoe, Milk Makeup, Highsnobiety, etc. all have a unique perspective that they bring to content, product and services. Now, we do the same for our own. 

The clients I work with get the same voice that you read on the site. It’s intersectional, irreverent, young, authentic, and Southern. That perspective is how I approach marketing, production, and content creation. It’s the same perspective we bring to our product line.  

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Photo courtesy of Jefferson Ellison

Was it difficult to delegate when you were busy doing everything?

It wasn’t hard to delegate, it was expensive! Like, “Please do the work… I just can’t afford it.” Producing this last collection was so expensive. I can’t wait to release it, but it took a lot of money and time

I couldn’t have done that the year I bought the company because I was 23 in NYC and I’d just bought a company. I didn’t fully appreciate how much “good” work and efforts cost and how bad subpar work can be. The first collection I released at JAWBREAKING was terrible. I hate it. It sold enough to pay for itself, but it was not what it could have been because I didn’t spend money on a graphic designer, so the graphics were terrible

Now, four years later, I’m very clear on JAWBREAKING as a brand. Now we can show up consistently in any space. But it remains expensive to find collaborators to help keep the message. Especially when you want to be equitable and intersectional and you live in Asheville, NC. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a motley crew of creatives who I trust and who understand where the brand is coming from, so that the clients we service and the stories we tell get the attention they need, but a lot of times it’s just me running on cold brew

How has COVID-19 affected things?

Currently, we only work with freelancers. I’d just found someone at the beginning of February to come on full-time before the pandemic, but that didn’t last long because there just wasn’t anything to do. So much of my work exists in events, and we weren’t putting them on. I don’t make enough money to just have “help” for fun. I need help working. 

A lot of our work has turned virtual, more collaborative, and inward-facing. I’ve also started focusing more on my own projects. Like our website and now a storefront. I can honestly say, I wouldn’t be opening a store if COVID-19 hadn’t happened. But I can’t have a business model that relies simply on the success of other people’s business. Two things that everyone is doing in these times? Shopping and consuming content. So we’re ramping up those offerings. I’ve gone back to the model I had when I was in New York. I have a list of freelancers that we work with consistently, when the need arises.

Can you talk more about your own background and interests?

My background is in fashion. I started out as a stylist when I was 16. I was bored and overzealous so I just started asking people if I could do this for them. My first client was actually Honeypot Vintage in downtown Asheville. In school (College of Textiles, NCSU), I was in a program that allowed college credit for having a business. We got office space and everything. I received a full day of class credit per week and spent it working.

By the time I graduated college in 2015, I’d worked with HGTV, InStyle, TLC network, and Cotton Incorporated. I was the stylist for Love It or List It the year they shot in Raleigh. I interned at BCBG and would work Fashion Week at the beginning of each semester. I’d use all my absences for the semester, do all my homework up front, and then go to NY for a few weeks. 

After college I worked as a Fashion and Sales Coordinator for a Chinese conglomerate based in NYC. I managed luxury retail accounts (Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, Barneys, etc.) and did the PR for our in-house brands. I ended up not loving the job and feeling slightly trapped so when JAWBREAKING came along, I took it as a sign

What vision did you come up with for the brand?

I’m attached to tangible products that hold memories. I grew up in the South, and my memories are incredibly aesthetic-based. The first memory I really have is one of my mom getting dressed for her anniversary dinner. I’m sitting in her empty bathtub watching her. She was wearing pink satin heels, a floral chiffon midi dress, white pantyhose, and a litany of pearls. I just remember thinking about how good of a day they were going to have because she looked so nice

So for my own brand, I wanted to create products that you live your life in. Graphic t-shirts are so perfect because you’re basically wearing your heart on your sleeve. They literally speak for you. And you can go anywhere in a t-shirt. Wear it to bed, to a concert, on a date. You can dress it up with trousers or a blazer. 

Think about your favorite t-shirts and where they come from and the memories you have associated with them. They’re like little yearbooks. T-shirts are the most American and most youthful iconography that exist. And I know that sounds fluffy, but I actually hold space for that in my life. 

The collection coming out in August is called “You Can’t Go Home Again,” named after the Thomas Wolfe book. The collection is meant to answer the question “What would a 23-year-old girl from the deep-South wear on a Friday night on the Lower East Side? And what’s her life like?” It’s nuanced and edgy and has a wink of repression. There’s a constant mix of high-low. She’s irreverent and fearless and exudes classic Southern charm. That’s the space we live in. Because that’s what my life looks like. Really cool young people who travel the world and escape the South for big dreams, but carry their accent and good manners everywhere they go. 

The shirts are made in L.A. now but our graphic designer, screen printer, and tailor are all Asheville- or NC-based. This collection has a lot more soul to it. We want you to sleep in it, go out in it, and live a life in it. 

How have your PR clients shifted because of the pandemic?

The majority of my clients fall under medium-sized rather than small businesses, so they’re not closing – they’re shifting. Most of them say, “If we are spending money, we need to see more money come in.” They have to be specific and strategic. It’s not about trying to elevate an image for ego, it’s about staying relevant and staying alive.

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Photo courtesy of Jefferson Ellison

What’s your origin story – You grew up in Asheville and you’re very connected with The Block. Can you talk about that? 

I’m a third-generation Ashevillian. My dad is from here and my mom is from High Point, NC.

My dad has had his own law firm here for over 30 years. He was on City Council and was vice-mayor in the 90s, and my mom is a therapist who retired from Asheville City Schools. Like many kids, I was an overly involved student. I went through the Asheville City School system, played in band, ran track, did debate, theatre, etc. 

I also was lucky enough and continue to benefit from the fact that I feel safe here. Besides the fact that I was heavily involved, so was my brother. So everywhere I went, someone knew me or my brother or one of my parents. And on the off chance that they didn’t, they had eaten at my dad’s restaurant on The Block.

When I was younger my dad and his best friend invested in a property on The Block and turned it into a restaurant with a jazz club above it. I used to take piano lessons at the YMI and then meet my parents across the street for dinner. Then, I’d do my homework upstairs listening to Kat Williams scat all night. 

Besides the fact that it was an incredible gift to have, it also means that The Block has always been special to me. This current interest in it is nice, but I grew up there; it’s nothing new to me. Which is why this current moment in my career is so full circle. My agency represents two out of the four businesses located on the street (The YMI Cultural Center and LEAF Global Arts) and I am opening a concept store on that same street next month. Right next door to where my dad’s restaurant was.

It’s really exciting to be able to create a space of my own in a place that raised me. Especially considering I had only planned to be here a few months when I first moved back. But, being in Asheville has led me to a path of growth that I wouldn’t have in NY. I wouldn’t be representing a global nonprofit that produces 12,000-person festivals if I were in NY. I wouldn’t have the chance. I’d be a junior account exec somewhere. At 27, I’m “competing” with people twice my age with way more resources. That wouldn’t have happened in NY. So to take that momentum and growth and bring it to The Block, it’s surreal.

What is a concept store?

It’s a non-traditional retail model. The space – which opens at the beginning of August – will be my creative studio, office space, and a brick-and-mortar JAWBREAKING store. I won’t give too much away, but it’s safe to say… it’ll be dope

What do you think the present moment and future hold for Asheville? 

I think Asheville right now is learning through action. You’re watching a majority-white city with a lot of privilege and fragility try to advocate for people they don’t really know

You’re seeing a lot of white people use their voices to talk about issues that affect other people, and that is great. Where they need to get to is using their voices and platforms to raise the voice of someone else. I don’t want white people speaking for me, I want them grabbing a microphone and handing it to me. That’s where Asheville needs to get to

It’s a city of really well-intentioned people. But – as we talk about on JAWBREAKING all the time – Black people are not a cause. It’s easy for the white savior complex to creep in and for everyone to start talking about Black-on-Black crime, wealth, and education gaps. And now everyone is saying, “We need to help these poor people because their lives are so sad.” 

But no. You don’t need to throw handouts at people, you need to allow them an equal opportunity to control their own narratives and grow. The Black experience is not sad. Black people in this city and in this country are thriving. It’s just in the presence of a lot of adversity. It’s a harder climb and there is more risk. How many of these people marching and Facebooking own a business that can hire more Black people? How many don’t know any Black people? And are they actively fixing it? Maybe, but doubtful.

A business recently posted AVLtoday’s list of Black-owned businesses. I was curious…so I politely asked them how many Black people work there? How many Black-owned brands they carry and how many Black bodies are featured or work on their marketing materials? The answer was not as “woke” as the Black power cartoon fist they posted.

And that’s fine, but be honest. People need to do the work and use their privilege to create platforms. If white allies aren’t willing to take a step back and reduce themselves a little bit, then they’re not going to get anywhere. In a world where God isn’t making any more land and all of it is owned, wealth and power are in limited supply. There is a tangible, traceable amount of each. To share it, unfortunately, means you have to start giving it away. That doesn’t mean handouts. It means using your wealth to fund black business or hire black people. Using your power to share access and resources. You have to be active. And it doesn’t always feel as good as you want it to, especially when people can’t see it and like it on Instagram.

JAWBREAKING.xyz is a national outlet – how do you think it connects locally? What do you want Ashevillians to know about it?

I don’t necessarily think of it as local vs. national. I think we offer an intersectional voice to conversations that our generation is having. I’ve never gone out and met someone who only cared about things happening in Asheville, NC. 

Because our audience is global, we make sure that the topics we cover are far-reaching. And if we are talking about something happening in Asheville, or someone who lives here, then it’s relevant to the people we’re talking to – online businesses, artists, etc. But the goal isn’t to segment by location, we just want to tell stories.

What sets us apart is not the topics, but the perspective. There are many websites doing what we do, but they are monolithic. NYC-based, white-led, and accountable to major advertisers and Wall St. That’s not us. So I guess my elevator pitch to Asheville is the same as it would be for anywhere else. Come to the site if you want to read a unique perspective on fashion, beauty, politics and culture and never have to apologize for your interest in one or the other

Want more JAWBREAKING? Check out the website here, and follow them on Facebook + Instagram.