Welcome to Conversations with Black Creators. This week, we're chatting with Cynn Rankin--a Los Angeles-based clothing designer and vintage reseller.
Editor’s Note: This is the seventh feature in our series, Conversations with Black Creators, which is intended to highlight Black creatives’ work in various fields. At Tako Agency, we are really proud of being creators--people who pour creativity and skill into beautiful projects that add value to the world--and we want to make sure that all creators have a platform from which to make every corner burst with life.
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-- Grace, Creative Director
Cynn Rankin is an LA-based designer, vintage reseller, and fabricator of what he calls clothes for the zombie apocalypse.
Within the first ten minutes of our conversation, I learned that Cynn has a weirdly calming disposition. I don’t know if it’s his “you can only control what you can control” life philosophy (which permeated every corner of our chat) or his astonishingly nonchalant sense of humor (I’m not even sure he knows he’s funny?), but even when we were talking about complicated subjects, I felt present and relaxed.
Make no mistake, though: Cynn’s penchant for calm detachment and unwitting hilarity is not the result of some spell of blissful ignorance, or willful indifference to what’s happening in the world. He’s awake. He knows what’s happening--and that it’s happening to him. He’s just keenly aware that he can’t live his life drowning in stress over things he can’t control.
I felt privileged to skim the surface of his feelings on some complex issues in this interview: the dissonance between the way we talk about ending racism and the chances of it actually happening. The pressure on Black people to preach about needed change, and the resulting unbearable exhaustion. His coping mechanisms for everyday life.
It’s no small feat for Cynn to talk about those things--yet again. I’m incredibly grateful to him for sharing.
It wasn’t all seriousness, though. I got his thoughts on what it means to be a good friend, his life transition from goofy teenager to stylish, self-assured business owner, and his recipe for “letting things go."
Perhaps most valuable of all, though? He let the name of one of his vintage suppliers slip. I know where I’m headed the next time I’m in L.A.
I hope that Cynn’s cool, collected demeanor and deep thoughtfulness can be read in and between the lines of this article. It was a pleasure and an honor to experience them firsthand.
Hey Cynn! Go ahead and introduce yourself.
I always introduce myself as, “Cynn, but pronounced ‘Sheen,’ like, Charlie Sheen.” That’s the only way people know how to say my name. I’m 26 and I live in LA.
Let’s warm up...what is a life lesson you've learned recently?
I’d say, don’t try to get on anyone else’s road. Everyone’s going to do what they want to do; you can’t tell someone to do something because it’s what you’d do, or because you think it would work better for them. That’s not your journey.
Was there a particular incident that taught you that?
It was a collection of events. I was trying to do and say too much for people who didn’t want to hear it. I felt like I was being a good friend, trying to help, but it [being so involved in other people’s lives] was stressing me out.
My brother Mason told me, “You gotta let people do what they gonna do,” and it just clicked for me. At the end of the day, their lives are made up of their choices, not mine. I realized the best thing to do is tread my course to the best of my ability and help friends out when they ask.
"In order to do your best work, you need to learn how you work best."
How about a life lesson related to your craft?
Everybody works a little bit different. In order to do your best work, you need to learn how you work best. I’ve found that I personally work best between like, 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.
I also don’t like having a plan for anything. I just do what feels right. If you have an authentic style, you’re gonna put that into whatever you do, so it doesn’t matter what you’re making. People are gonna be like, “Oh this is a [artist’s name] piece,” you know what I mean? Leaning into that is more effective than making plans.
Have you always had a pretty solid personal style that’s guided you, or are you ever heavily influenced by external sources?
I’d say I was more heavily influenced when I was younger. I skate, so I’ve followed a lot of skate style trends. Back in my hometown in Kentucky, a lot of the people at the skatepark dressed alike and I followed those trends--skinny jeans and flannels. Those were the dark times for sure, looking back on it. [laughs] I haven’t always had good style.
I’ve always f*cked with good color combinations and I’ve always had long hair. That’s about it. Everything else has changed.
Funny you brought up skateboarding. My very next question was: You’re obviously entrenched in the skate scene. The skateboarding world has had an immeasurable impact on style trends over the years. Does it impact the way that you design?
100%. For example, there came a point [in skate style culture] when it was acceptable to wear baggier, thicker pants. It’s practical. If you’re wearing thicker pants and you fall, it doesn’t hurt as much. Then you wear them enough and you’re like, “Damn, why’d I ever wear any other pants?” They work for everything. You fall, you’re good. You get stabbed, you damn near might be alright. [laughs] So I incorporate a lot of workwear in the stuff that I make.
The more childish, cartoon-y stuff is because I have a love of nostalgia. Some of those pieces I don’t even like from a style perspective, but the graphic is just too good to waste and I know someone’s gonna like it.
How do you look past your own style preferences to be confident that someone’s going to like it?
I feel like people f*ck with me, usually.
Damn, I don’t want that to sound conceited, but it’s just from experience--more people f*ck with me than don’t f*ck with me.*
Also, everything I make is good quality.
*Writer’s Note: Cynn isn’t full of himself. He has an uber-powerful charisma and quiet self-assuredness that cannot help but spill into his work. I’m unsurprised that it inspires a following.
"I feel like one day someone’s going to come to me with a pair of jeans I made and be like, 'These ripped here, here, and here, but here’s what I did to fix it,' and I’mma be like, 'Damn, can I buy those back? That’s hard as f*ck.' "
So, is it more about the quality of work than the style that makes you confident?
Nah, I wouldn’t say that. I’ll make like, a pair of jeans for someone and tell them, “Yo, if these rip on you at any time, just send them back to me. I’ll pay shipping my way, you pay shipping your way, and I’ll repair them.” But usually I encourage people to repair stuff themselves, because it’ll just look cooler that way.
If you can deconstruct and reconstruct something yourself, you’re furthering my aesthetic by way of your own, over time. That makes it even sicker. I feel like one day someone’s going to come to me with a pair of jeans I made and be like, “These ripped here, here, and here, but here’s what I did to fix it,” and I’mma be like, “Damn, can I buy those back? That’s hard as f*ck.” [laughs]
It does seem like that would fit the aesthetic of your pieces--deconstructed and raw.
Yeah, exactly. When I started making clothes, it came from this idea of being a designer during a zombie apocalypse. I’m super into zombie shit.
Writer’s Note: Can confirm. Cynn showed me a whole ass Walking Dead tattoo on the back of his arm during this interview.
So, to go back to the question of quality and style--I want my work to be decent quality, but I want it to reflect the wearer’s personal style too. I make like 4 or 5 pieces a month, and post those [to Instagram]. Sometimes I sell those exact ones, or they might turn into unique commissions because someone will see them and be like, “I want something like this,” but we’ll make changes based on their style or what materials are available.
How did you get started sewing?
In the 8th or 9th grade, my grandmother told me that sewing is something all men should know how to do, so she taught me. Then skinny jeans were starting to come into style. All my clothes were pretty baggy, so she taught me how to taper my jeans to fit tighter, because my mom wouldn’t buy me tight pants.
When did you start doing what you’re doing now, with the zombie apocalypse wear?
Funny story, actually. I have a homie named Eddie who works at [a place I go to find clothes]* and I found this sick Goosebumps blanket. Goosebumps shit is hot; it was selling for like 50 bucks online, but I didn’t wanna just sell a blanket, so [Eddie] was like, “Well, make something out of it.” I thought damn, I probably could make a hoodie.
That was the first hoodie I made. It was f*cked up--not good in my opinion, but someone bought it for $250. I was astonished. So I started making more hoodies. I was selling them for $150 each just so they’d move faster, and they started moving faster than I wanted to make them. That’s when I decided to start branding myself.
*Writer’s Note: Redacted. He said the name of one of his go-to vintage spots and I promised him I wouldn’t print it. You’re welcome, Cynn.
What’s your process look like? Do you collect a few random cool pieces and envision what they could be, or do you get a design in mind first and find pieces to match?
It’s a little of both, but for the most part, coming up with design ideas and then making them feels unnatural for me. I also resell vintage, so I see a lot of cool shit all the time that helps me with my designs--like, I like how that pocket looks or I’mma cuff some pants like that.
I use leftovers from pieces to make other stuff, too. So, I might use a pair of pants to make a pair of shorts, and if I like the way [the excess] from the pants is cut, I’ll fuse it together with something else.
"I really don’t need a Versace shirt to be as fly as you."
Sustainability is a hot button issue in fashion right now. Is that a factor that encouraged you to pursue this kind of design, or is it more about the style?
The zombie apocalyptic thing is based on this idea that, during a zombie apocalypse, nothing would be manufactured. So I can’t use anything that’s newly manufactured, ever. It wasn’t really because I wanted to be “green,” it was for the aesthetic; but, at the end of the day, the reason I do resale and stuff is to make a statement--like, I really don’t need a Versace shirt to be as fly as you.
You established the “Composed by Cynn R” brand in 2019--not very long ago! Has there been any shift in style or technique since then?
Definitely. I started not knowing a whole lot more than straight stitches and how to take things in. I made visors and hats...bracelets...I’d sew pockets onto hoodies--small things like that. It started out really simple, but my technique’s been growing the whole time. Every time I do something, I learn that I can do something else.
As far as style goes, I feel like I’ve always put my style into everything I’ve made, so it has that same aesthetic flavor. My vibe is consistent; I want it to look sick, but I care more about how my stuff is made than how it looks.
How long, on average, does it take you to make a single piece?
I usually ask clients for 2 - 3 weeks for commissions, because I like to look at things for a little bit before I do them. So I have to buy materials, and that might take a week, then I’ll take another few days to feel them out before I get to it. Once I get to work, though, it’s anything from 45 minutes to a few days. Just depends on how complicated the piece is.
Have you ever dealt with Imposter Syndrome? Like, you or those around you will find out that you’re not a “real” artist--that you’re not as good at what you’re doing as you think you are?
[chuckles] Uh, no...I don’t really care. I feel like, I make clothes, and people f*ck with it. If they ever stop f*cking with it, I’ll just do something else. For real, for real. I’m average-ly good at a whole lot of shit, and I’m on a road that’s already been paved, you know?
By that, I mean I believe that everything is written to be a certain way by the Universe. People just need to have patience. If you stay true to yourself, everything’s gonna work out for the best.
"It’s hard to have faith in the system, so what can we do but just be nice to the next guy?"
Have you experienced any unique challenges to being a Black creator in America?
Indirectly, yes. Sometimes people will come to my stand [at a flea market] and be hella impressed by something that I made, but then I pop up and I’m like, “Yeah I made that,” and they’ll be like, “Oh, that’s really nice,” and then just walk off. Before they were marveling at it, you know what I mean? Most of the things I experience are microaggressions like that.
To be honest, though, I be overlooking that shit. I just wanna sit back in my chair, smoke my joint, drink my water. People gonna live how they gonna live. We’re all here together. There’s so much going on right now. It’s hard to have faith in the system, so what can we do but just be nice to the next guy?
"Somebody who’s never had power can’t feel powerless, because they’ve never known what power feels like. At some point, they’re just gonna feel anger or hatred instead."
It’s a real weird time, for sure. It’s easy to feel powerless. Does that “just be nice to the next guy” philosophy help you feel like you’re maintaining some kind of control over things?
Somebody who’s never had power can’t feel powerless, because they’ve never known what power feels like. At some point, they’re just gonna feel anger or hatred instead.
We’re all talking about [ending racism], but we’re not doing it. You can say, “Defund the police,” but you know damn well they ain’t gonna defund the police. People talk about Black Lives Matter, but shit, more people seem to think they don’t. They should [matter]--they definitely do--but it doesn’t feel like it.
It’s not like I’m numb to what’s going on. I feel those things internally, and I talk about them with my friends and family, but at this point, it’s not gonna do me any good to project that shit out into the world. I can’t be preaching all the time. That shit’s draining as f*ck.
Absolutely, and you shouldn’t be made to feel like you have to.
Yeah, I know, but it damn near feels that way. You can’t not talk about it, but when you talk about it so much, it feels like you’re killing yourself inside. It makes you not want to feel or do anything positive.
If we all feel that way, ain’t nothing going to get accomplished. It’s a paradox; [the system’s] got us in some kinda f*cking loop.
When you’re talking [the way I am now], people come at you like your perspective isn’t valid. So many of them are in this Instagram [echo chamber], where you only see what you like and agree with. They aren’t willing to have real conversations. You gotta look out for yourself until they are, and then try to influence them in a positive direction.
In the meantime, I just wanna enjoy myself, be with my friends, and make cash doing what I do. All you can do is try to be happy. We’re all here for our own experience and we should make the best of it.
When you say “doing what you do”--is that your commissions and vintage resale, or do you have a side hustle as well?
Nope, I don’t do anything but sell clothes. That’s my hustle. I worked a job at Target for awhile, but I realized I wasn’t myself there. I had this weird fake personality where I was overly happy all the time. I decided I’d rather be a little worse off and be myself, so that’s how I started selling clothes. Best thing I ever did.
Do you explore other avenues of creativity outside of making clothes? If so, what are they?
I like graphic design. I’m always down to build shit. I just like working with my hands. I used to play instruments. I like to think of myself as an overall creative--I can tap into it when need be, no matter what I’m doing.
Who are three people you admire?
Personally, my brother Miles. Everything I’m not good at, he is good at, and I get to learn from watching him. Things that I’m good at, he can learn from me, too. He understands the business side of creation, I understand the creating side of creation. It’s a good balance.
For creative, I’ll have to go with Childish Gambino, Wiz Khalifa, or Snoop Dogg. I feel like they’re all super authentically themselves, and that’s allowed them to do whatever they want to do. Gambino, specifically--he’s a comedian, musician, actor...he’s in all these avenues. That’s how I want to be. I don’t want to feel pressure to do one thing or be one kind of guy.
For business, Jay-Z. He didn’t make his first album til he was 29 years old, and he built a whole empire off that. It just goes to show, it don’t matter at what time you pop, if you’re supposed to pop, you’re gonna pop--so long as you know you gotta work hard for it, before and after [you “make it”]. Also, I f*ck with the music. [laughs]
What's your favorite thing you've ever created?
There was this Basquiat hoodie that I made for myself, but I was $150 short on rent, so I sold it. I’ve always regretted that. That or The Last Supper sweater, which I just sold to an MTV show.
OK--now for the last question, which we ask everyone. What’s your favorite taco filling?
Beef tacos are really common around here. I don’t really eat beef, or most other red meat, but oo, I do f*ck with some chicken tacos.
Mad love to Cynn for taking time to chat. You can follow him on Instagram (and request commissions!) here.
Don't forget to check out our other Conversations here!