In 1985, Toomsuba native Thomas “TJ” Walker left his home state to pursue a career in the fashion industry. Starting out as a graphic designer, Walker would quickly make a major influence on the industry, one that continues today.
Four years after his departure, Walker co-founded with noted fashion designer Carl Jones the Los Angeles-based urban apparel line Cross Colours — a boldly hued and geometric line of apparel and accessories that not only raised social consciousness with its emphasis on racial unity, but also had a significant influence on the fashion industry, and was highly visible on '80s television shows, in music videos and movies. Created especially for black youth, the clothing line gained popularity not only for its aesthetic appeal, but also its included message: “Clothing Without Prejudice.
Thirty years later, the clothing line is enjoying a revival. Recording artist Bruno Mars and rapper Cardi B paid homage to the iconic fashion label in the video for the song “Finesse.” The duo also wore the clothing line when they performed the song at the 2018 Grammy Awards.
In September, the clothing line will be featured in “Cross Colours: Black Fashion in the 20th Century," the first of a five-part exhibition at the California African-American Museum (CAAM) that examines fashion, identity and visual art. According to a museum release, the exhibit will “showcase vintage textiles, media footage and rare ephemera that illustrate how Cross Colours has permeated popular culture and how fashion can be used to tell history anew.” The exhibit will be on display Sept. 25 through March 1, 2020.
Not bad for a boy from a small town in Mississippi.
“It’s been a whirlwind; a lot of work involved,” Walker said in a telephone interview from his office in Los Angeles regarding preparations for the upcoming exhibit. “It’s going to be an amazing display. The exhibit will be featured in a 5,000-square-foot gallery, which I think is the largest space the museum has for its exhibits. The clothing is almost secondary to what it is because it’s mostly an educational tool, but also historical in terms of what it represents as far as the brand.”
Before the brand
A fashion enthusiast since childhood, Walker attributes his interest to his late grandmother as well as his love for freehand drawing.
“My grandmother used to sew clothes for people in the neighborhood and I love to sketch. So I was always drawing sketches of people wearing clothes, and from that it evolved into an actual making of clothes,” he said.
After graduating from high school, Walker attended Meridian Community College, where he received his associate of arts degree. He then received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Delta State University, and a master of fine arts degree from Louisiana Tech. A year later, he left Mississippi headed to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a fashion illustrator.
“That was my intent, but I ended up being an illustrator for a screen printing company that was working for the clothing industry,” he said.
The screen printing company’s owner was fashion designer Carl Jones, who decided to start his own line called Surf Fetish.
“I was helping him do the graphics for it. It was a very successful company,” he said.
Jones sold his interest in Surf Fetish and he and Walker started Cross Colours. Their goal was to not only to meet an underserved market and to include a positive message during a time when gang violence was on the rise.
“We felt there was a void in an underserved market as far as African Americans in terms of clothing,” Walker said. “We knew that we (African Americans) had a lot of buying power because we were buying a lot of clothing. But we wanted to make sure that we addressed it and actually identified it as what it actually was, and is currently: A product created, bought and appreciated by us.”
Cross Colours’ message was infused through the clothing’s colors — red, yellow, green and black — as well as the use of models of color in its advertising and promotion. Model-turned-actor Djimon Hounsou (“Amistad”) was the clothing line’s premier model, as well as Walker and Jones.
“Each color has a meaning. Red is for the blood of the people, yellow for the sun, green is for the earth and black is for the people,” Walker said. “We also put ourselves in the campaign because we wanted to make sure people understood that we were actually making the clothing. There was a rumor circulating that the clothing wasn’t actually made by black people, so we put our names and faces on the hangtag, as well as our statement to make sure people knew we were making the clothing and our message.”
The clothing line’s name “Cross Colours” and messages “Clothing Without Prejudice” and “Educate to Elevate” were especially targeted at gang violence, which was prevalent at the time.
“We wanted people to understand that we weren’t trying to use a color for a specific tribe, group or gang. We actually wanted people to mix the colors up,” Walker explained. “It’s definitely about unity and education, then and today.”
While encouraging positivity, hope and education to people through the clothing line were the founders’ goal, they did not anticipate just how much Cross Colours would influence the fashion industry and pop culture. Will Smith wore the clothing on the television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” as did the cast of “Martin” and “In Living Color.”Music artists such as TLC, Tupac, DaBrat, Mark Wahlberg, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg also sported the brand.
“We weren’t paying them to wear them, they just came out in full force to support of the brand,” Walker said. “And many actors and musicians continue to wear and support it.”
After the brand
After a solid six years making Cross Colours a household name, the clothing line was sold. Walker embarked on a teaching career, which he has continued for more than 20 years. In addition to being an instructor at The Fashion Institute, he also teaches computer and fashion sketching classes at Trade Tech College. He also conducts workshops and does speaking engagements
To continue their growth in the apparel industry, Walker and Jones formed Black Design Collective, an organization of accomplished designers who have impacted the fashion industry through their Ready To Wear, bespoke and film designs. With headquarters in Los Angeles, the group seeks to create a platform for designers of color to develop, produce and market their products globally as well as create a mentorship program for aspiring designers. Through the organization, young designers have an opportunity to work alongside a mentor and gain valuable knowledge and hands-on experience. Additionally, a scholarship fund has been established to assist young designers in their pursuit of higher education in the field of fashion, design and costume design.
“Our vision is to bring awareness of the history and relevance of the global impact of black design through resources, mentorship, e-commerce platform, and business platforms,” Walker said.
In April, the organization recognized Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who designed costumes for “Black Panther,” as well as “Malcolm X” “Amistad,” “The Butler,” “Selma” “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” and other major films and television shows. The organization also awarded its first scholarship, $10,000, to an African-American costume design student who attends The Fashion Institute.
And in recent years, Walker and Jones have been busy relaunching Cross Colours, which they repurchased in 2016 and is available online and at Zumiez retail stores.
“The trademark had switched several owners and when we recovered it was owned by someone in The Netherlands,” Walker noted. “Fortunately, we were able to get it back and we’ve been working really hard to keep what we’re calling the rebirth of the brand.”
The Cross Colours co-founder has also been busy buying vintage pieces of the clothing line for the California African-American Museum (CAAM) exhibition, as well as the company. Walker said it was rather inexpensive at first, but that has changed with the increased interest in vintage clothing.
“I’ve amassed over 300 pieces from anywhere I could find it, but mostly from e-Bay,” he said. “It’s been very interesting. I’ve found myself online competing with people trying to bid out myself. When I first started, the product was fairly inexpensive. But now the price has gone up a lot because people now associate a lot of value to it, and young people today love vintage clothing.”
And despite his busy schedule, Walker still makes time to come home each year to “relax and recharge” and visit with relatives. His parents Thomas and Annie are deceased, however his siblings Chrissie A. Walker, Shelia A. Coleman, Pearlie A. Walker and Johnny L. Walker still live in the Meridian area.