Deante Howard was only 13 years old when he decided to commit his life to Christianity. While recovering from an accident in which he had to get neck surgery, he started questioning the world around him, as he underwent a startling moment that challenged his belief that he’d always live to see another day. His grandma encouraged him to attend his local church with her regularly, and he became part of the youth ministry. One of favorite church traditions was about the clothes; on Sundays, he’d dress up every week to attend, a ritualistic aspect of the service he always enjoyed.
More than 10 years later, Deante's faith still drives him. And so does his love of style, a tool he now uses to spread the Christian gospel through Etsy. In 2019, he launched his label Equris to spark conversations about Christianity, selling graffiti-inspired logo hoodies, T-shirts, sweatpants, and jackets. For Howard, the decision to go into streetwear came from seeing other Christian labels do “cliché, corny stuff” instead of pieces inspired by trends that he and his friends actually wanted to wear. “I told myself, I can make that,” he remembers. Using his background in graphic design and business, the Missouri native launched Equris.
The Christian fashion industry is nothing new. Events like Christian Fashion Week, which held its last shows in 2015, have served as a platform for designers who wish to bridge the gap between style and faith. Meanwhile, designer labels like Givenchy, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Dior have long drawn inspiration from Christianity, particularly Catholicism, in their collections in both celebratory and subversive ways. The Costume Institute highlighted this relationship in its 2018 exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” with support from the Vatican itself.
There’s also a thriving community of Christian e-commerce stores on marketplaces like Etsy evoking the kind of “cliché” merch Howard wanted to differentiate his brand from. They use swirling calligraphy and friendly messages — “Jesus Loves You” — to evoke their soft and feminine message about faith, channeling the kind of T-shirt activism that's also behind pink #girlboss merch. Like Howard, entrepreneurs behind these shops are using apparel to spread the gospel.
Yet the phenomenon of faith-based brands using codes from the streetwear world to grow a Christian community of people wearing their faith on their sleeve is relatively new, at least on a mass-market scale. Designers like Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God have been pioneering Christian messaging through high-end streetwear brands for years, but now that same ethos has started to enter the closets of those for whom $700 sweatpants are unrealistic. On Instagram, the hashtag #christianstreetwear has generated over 22,000 posts, with people wearing T-shirts featuring Bible verses or #Blessed logos. These days, they’re not looking too different from mainstream streetwear brands who evoke spirituality as a tool to foster community and spread positivity. Just recently, Balenciaga created cross-bearing T-shirts for Kanye West’s Donda merch, proving the kind of cross-pollination that’s using codes from the secular world — much like West’s album — to the masses at the Mercedes Benz Stadium. Howard shares West’s vision. While Christians may be the target customers for these clothes, Howard says that he doesn’t just focus on this community because “it’d be like preaching to the choir.” “It’s a tool to spread the gospel,” he says.
Drew Urquhart shares a similar vision. As a nondenominational Christian who’s also quite private, he’s not the type of person who is comfortable approaching a stranger to inquire about their faith. Instead, he hopes his brand God The Father does the talking. “It’s ironic because now I talk about God every day, which is awesome,” he says, referring to the way his brand has allowed him to open up about his relationship with faith. Launched in 2019, God The Father is a Los Angeles-based streetwear brand that sells neutral-hued T-shirts, hoodies, and sweatshirts that could have easily been designed as merch for Kanye West’s Sunday Service. “We get DMs from people around the world who say their T-shirt helped start a conversation with their family about [faith],” says Urquhart. “Instead of saying, ‘Oh, have you heard about Jesus?’ it’s someone asking them about it.”
The collapse of social, political, and economic structures over the past 10 years, combined with the religious polarization that categorized Christianity in the United States as a politically conservative belief system have led a large portion of millennials to abandon religion. Popular mainstream issues like increasing access to abortion and queer justice are reflective of Christianity’s aging ideology; in many ways, the streetwear world is also considered to be a movement representative of young, progressive people. According to a recent Gallup report, 47% of adults in the country belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque, dropping below 50% for the first time in 80 years. A 2019 study by Pew Research Center also found that millennials are now almost as likely to say they have no religion as they are to identify as Christian, with four in 10 people in this generation saying they have no religious affiliation.
But for these entrepreneurs, it’s precisely this generational struggles that motivates them to seek streetwear as a tool of evangelization. A phenomenon born in New York City and Los Angeles, streetwear has always married narratives of personal ambitions, community building, struggle, especially in its inception in the 1980s and 1990s. Thanks to brands like Cross Colours and FUBU, streetwear has long linked clothes and social messaging, providing a space for people who want to make their beliefs undeniable to all. As a lifelong fan of streetwear, Howard says that those themes have long connected him to this type of fashion. And as a founder of a Christian streetwear brand, it’s his job to make people see the two are not so different. After all, personal struggle is what led him to belief in Christianity, and Equris is his way to build a community around it. “All of us [Christians] have the same calling, which is to go out there and make disciples,” he says.
Tianna Jenkins, founder of lifestyle and fashion brand CoSigned x God, has a similar approach. Launched in July 2021, CoSigned x God is inspired by Jenkins’ work as an ordained minister and the daughter of a pastor. “We are for people who don’t know [God] and people who do know him, wherever they are in their relationship with [Christianity],” she says. As a founder, she’s trying to use social media and newsletters to foster a community around her brand, similar to those created by Black designers like Telfar Clemens and Pyer Moss’ Kerby Jean-Raymond. Her method? Weekly prayer-based newsletters, which she shares with subscribers alongside discount codes to her merchandise. Despite the commerce play, she says profit is not her main goal. “If you are anointed with the calling that you have, the money will come regardless,” she says.
Materialism in modern Christianity has long been a controversial issue, with megachurch pastors often flaunting their wealth in the name of faith. While many are more used to seeing pastors in off-the-rack gray suits, a generation of preachers is giving brands like Yeezy, DSquared, Gucci, and Off-White their stamp of approval, despite the fact that the average pastor in the country makes between $28,000 and $44,000 per year. In 2019, the Instagram account @preachersnsneakers even started documenting the hefty price tags on the clothes worn by some pastors within Evangelical circles, like the leaders of Hillsong and Zoe Church. And while the book of Proverbs says “Whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow,” the New Testament portrays Jesus reprimanding people for turning the temple into a money-making venture. Many see the latter scene as a confirmation that commerce and faith don’t go together.
But for these entrepreneurs, style and commerce are just tools to carry their message, and make some money along the way. As far as some are concerned, there doesn’t need to be a separation between the two. “The problem with money is the love of it,” says Howard. “But if this is a talent or a gift that I am working for, then, biblically, I should be paid for it.”