Building community—that's gangsta: An Interview with Ron Finley

Posted by Ariel Katz on

I arrive at Ron's house in South Los Angeles and a group of students are just leaving. We sit outdoors at a picnic table on benches that read WE GROW and TOGETHER and Frank Sinatra's song "My Funny Valentine" is gently playing in the background. 

Ron is the first designer for EVERYBODY.WORLD's Contributor Collection that is actually a designer by trade, breaking our one rule that we should only seek non-designers. But Ron is singular—he's a man of many talents who refuses to be labeled. And after all, what we're really seeking by finding everyday extraordinary people to design the thing missing from their wardrobe is to learn something, and there's a wealth of knowledge and experience in Ron Finley. 

Ahead of the launch of his collection, we spoke to him about the details behind his designs, measuring success, levitating and more.

What three words would you use to describe yourself?

Fierce. Kind. Uncompromisable.

How do you typically start your day?

I wake up in the morning. You wake up, you get up, sit up, look up, stand up, and you don’t get caught the fuck up.

I like that. That’s completely practical, but also optimistic.

People are like ‘What’s your five year plan?’ To wake up in the morning! When I wake up, I’m successful. I’m not measuring my success by what we’ve been trained to think success is. What gives you value? The watch? The phone? The shoes? No, motherfucker, there’s only one thing that gives you value and that’s you. It’s that simple. You can have value just by saying ‘I have value.’ 

Ron Finley

You are many things, including an artist and designer, gardener and community builder. What would you most like to be remembered for?

Changing culture.

What’s your favorite thing to plant?

Sunflowers.

What are the three things you can’t live without?

Air. Air. Air.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

The raising of my sons.

Ron Finley center, with his sons Kohshin left, and Azzedine right

 How would you describe the collection you’ve designed, as a whole?

Comfortable and casual. Ergonomic. Clothes should not be a hassle, you should not have to fit into clothes. I studied tailoring when I was 15 and with that I realized that clothes weren’t made for me. They were made for somebody that didn’t look like me, their body wasn’t shaped like me, their back wasn’t as long or short as mine, and their hips wasn’t as wide as mine. It just got me into a thing that my whole life should be customized. So this collection, when you put your hands in your pockets, you shouldn’t have to struggle to get your hands in. The pockets are deep and they have pockets inside the pockets where you can store stuff. I call it ergonomic design for your body. It should feel good, it shouldn’t be a struggle. You shouldn’t be confined. If you need to kick somebody in the throat you can still kick them in the throat. If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready! So the collection is that, it’s comfortable, casual and it still has some style. I mean, our basics aren’t really what I want to think of as basics. You see the details on the clothes, and the shirts are made from cotton that was refuse. There is no trash, there’s only art waiting to happen and that’s what I love about what we’ve done.

How did you get into tailoring at 15, what led you to that?

I had a big ol’ ass and nothing fit me. Your ass wanted to know the truth! Shit didn’t fit me. We would go to the stores and it’s like damn you had to get bigger sizes, I was a skinny kid but I had big thighs, big hips. It just didn’t feel good. I got my first tailor-made pants I think at 15 and I couldn’t afford it. Back when I was a kid it was like $15 to get the pants and I couldn’t afford this, but what was cool is it made me think, ‘If he could do it, I can do it’ so I enrolled in school at night. I lied about my age—I had found out you needed to be 16 and I was only 15 or something like that. I went to night school for a few years. I didn’t get what I wanted out of it, because of the teacher. He wasn’t a teacher, he didn’t know how to teach.

I stayed in fashion. I’ve done other stuff, working in print shops, stuff like that. Getting all that indelible ink all over your clothes. I don’t know, I guess that’s been in me for a while, since I was in junior high school. I would pass by the Home Economics class and they would have cakes in the window, you know and the pies, so that they can cool and I would get a whiff and be like I gotta get down with that shit. I need to be down with those chocolate chip cookies. I went to the counsellor and said I want to take a cooking class. They said, ‘You can’t, that’s for girls.’ I don’t know where I pulled this from but I replied, ‘Aren’t most men chefs?’ They started a boys cooking class because of me. That was only because I wanted hot chocolate chip cookies. I changed the whole paradigm that had been in place for how many years at this school? I learned how to bake and everything.

You questioned the thing that had gone unquestioned.

I guess that’s been in me. Even taking it to here with the garden. I got the law changed where you can plant food on the street. They would tell you that you couldn’t plant food on the street. Basically, fuck that. Why? Why is that a rule? Why is that a law? Who does that work for? Who are you hurting? You’re stopping me from beautifying my community? You’re stopping me from educating myself, stopping me from advancing? I don’t know, I guess sitting here now I’m thinking why did I start making my own clothes? Cos the shit didn’t fit me and I knew there had to be another way. Back then, we saw all the movies with the fly clothes and I wanted some of that. I wanted to look fly! That’s where it started, wanting to look fly and not having the money to do it. It’s innovation.

EVERYBODY.WORLD by Ron Finley

Can you speak to some of your design details, like the pockets inside the pockets on the pants or the shawl collar on the hoodie?

I’ve been in fashion, for many many many years and… if you’re going to do something like everybody else, why do it? Things should be different. I want these clothes to be something that you grab and they just happen to be some of the softest, some of the most comfortable things that you have in your wardrobe. There’s a lot of details, from the drawstring pant to even the way your hands go into the pockets of those pants and they have pockets in them, so you don’t have all the stuff sitting at the bottom of your pocket. It’s almost like a file pocket, like you filing something, you have different compartments inside of the major compartment. I got tired of having pants where the pockets weren’t deep enough for your hands. And the shawl collar is something that I hadn’t seem before until I had done it, and then I wanted to redo it for this. It’s kind of a shawl collar with a V-neck hoodie, you know?

How do you want people to feel when wearing these garments?

The bottom line is I want them to feel comfort. That’s the first thing, the only thing. If you're in a place of comfort, you just move differently. It’s you being who you are, instead of acting like something you’re not. It’s another energy, it’s another way you gonna walk through life. That’s what I want to have people do—be themselves. Some of the things that are on the clothes are just positive affirmations. It’s positive words. Talk about air. I mean truly, what’s the single most important thing to your life? Why don’t we have a pledge allegiance for air? We got people that don’t value themselves because of certain things, but things don’t give you value. The line is somewhat of a social statement, it’s just a way for you to look at things differently. If you operate from a place of comfort, everything is going to be beautiful. Nobody can fuck with your happy, you realize that you make yourself happy. 

You’ve talked about gardening is an act of defiance. What does “Gangsta Gardening” mean to you? And how did that give way to the Ron Finley Project.

What gardens mean to me is freedom and culture. First of all freedom—freedom from this bullshit society. You get to experience the alchemy, the magic of this planet. You take a seed you can barely see and you put it in some soil, give it a little water and some sun and all of a sudden you’ve got a 50-ft tree giving you fruit. That shit’s magic! What else can you call it? You have a little teeny seed that completely destroys itself to give new life and for how many years? I’ve seen 250-year old trees in Sweden still giving apples. So you want to talk about rate of return, return on investment? Plant a tree. Plant some food.

There’s so much negativity in the community. We celebrate ‘Oh, this is so gangsta, I’m gangsta, that’s gangsta’ and it’s not about being positive or having knowledge. And I don't mean education, I’m talking about having knowledge and there’s a big ass difference. I wanted to change that. I want to change what is gangsta. Gardeners and farmers are gangsta, they feed people. You know what I’m saying? Building community is gangsta. Like I say in my Masterclass, air is gangsta as fuck. Try doing without air. Air is the most gangsta thing on this fucking planet.

That’s why you’ll never see me go to space.

Right! That’s where that whole gangsta thing came from, to flip that script on that vernacular and on what we consider gangsta. Farmers are gangsta, teachers who doing it the right way are gangsta, artists with the messages, activists, that’s gangsta shit. Not somebody destroying their community, not somebody telling you to be high or get drunk, so that’s what this was about. 

Your Masterclass series is inspiring so many. What’s a skill that you’re working on mastering?

Being able to levitate. I figure we all got that shit. You see people using the chi, the prana that’s in this planet, which for some reason we’re not told about. When you realize that we’re spinning around on a ball in outer space and we’re looking for aliens. Or when you put it together that we’re spinning around on a ball and that ball is creating energy. That energy is coming up through and out of the earth, and that’s how we’re here, that’s the prana, that’s the energy. So when you find that you can harness that energy and manipulate it to heal yourself or to heal others—or as the yin and the yang—to harm, it just makes you think of stuff differently. Being able to harness that kind of energy and have that knowledge *snaps fingers* in your hands. We all can do it, but we’re not trained to do it. This planet is spinning around and it regenerates every 24 hours, it’s not sustaining itself, it’s regenerating itself. These are the lessons I think we need. That’s what I want to master, I want to get to the point where I can levitate.

Ron Finley

The sustainability and independence that comes with growing your own food is increasingly important. If someone is yet to cultivate the magic of soil at home, where can they start the art form of gardening?

At the beginning. And you might ask where is the beginning? It’s wherever the fuck you start. There are no rules! Once people realize that there's no rules, you design the life you want to live. Nobody told me to design this space we're sitting in, and think about how you feel in it? Designing the spaces that you want to see, that you want to feel, that you want to live in, that’s where it comes from. It’s not rocket science. Beauty in, beauty out. Like these benches we’re sitting on right now, that one says TOGETHER and this one says WE GROW but switch it around and it says “We grow together” or “Together we grow.” That’s what this is about, community, unity. Community in unity. Does that answer the question or did I get off track?

It answered a better question than I asked. Lastly, what’s one thing people don’t know about you but you wish they did?

Mostly I’m an open book. I mean, if you don’t know it about me I probably don’t want you to! But what is the one thing I wish people know? That I give a fuck. I guess by what I do, some people see it, but some people act like it’s something else. They act like there is an ulterior motive behind that. Yeah, there is an ulterior motive: To see other people do good, to see the planet change, to see the change that we all can make. I think we’re all artists, all of us, and we can use our art to propel this planet and toward a new horizon. I think the whole thing is about exposure. You seeing shit that you didn’t know could happen, it’ll make you think. This doesn’t have to be common, this doesn’t have to be the same, there is no fucking box.

The pandemic has shed a new light for a lot of people, a lot of people have been on this hamster wheel and no one really questions who seeks to benefit from that scenario.

I talk about that a lot, what you just said. When are you going to be successful? A corner office, a Birkin bag? You will never be fucking successful ever, unless you say ‘I am successful.’ I woke up this morning, I’m successful. And I’m black? And I ain’t got no bullet holes? I’m successful as fuck. You decide when you’re successful, not the system. You will be on a hamster wheel for the rest of your life if you’re measuring your success against somebody else. I’m tired of that bullshit. It’s like value, I tell kids all it takes for you to have value is for you to say it. That’s the Jedi mind shit. You can’t eat diamonds.