I ordered a green tea in a trendy coffee shop in downtown LA this morning, then sat down to wait for a young designer, whom I would soon be interviewing. It was a clean, high-ceilinged, minimalist space selling artisanal coffee and situated across the street from Grand Central Market—an appropriate spot to talk about design, art, and the craftsmanship movement in LA. Lorenzo Diggins, Jr. eventually joined me and we talked about his work, his ambitions, and his constant drive to elicit human connection through art. To my surprise, what started as an interview between strangers, ultimately ended up feeling like an easy conversation between colleagues, or even friends. Through the course of our conversation I learned about how he got to where he is now, we shared like minded views of what makes art important and accessible, and we even exchanged a high five! There are many fascinating things about Lorenzo, not the least of which is his body of work, but his interest in and ability to garner emotional connection might be the most thought provoking, and certainly the most disarming.
Lorenzo is an LA based artist/entrepreneur and the creator of a men’s lifestyle blog turned accessory/menswear company, as well as a popular zine and countless other freelance endeavors, including photography, art direction, and event curation. His brand The Essential Man has garnered some significant attention in both its blog form and now in its product line, but Lorenzo hasn’t rested on his laurels. While running this successful company, he’s also created a zine called “The Simple Things”—a collection of illustrations of things that bring him joy—and launched “The Simple Things Project”—a social experiment (started with his great grandmother) in which he asks strangers of all demographics what brings them joy. With so much on his plate, and so many endeavors working successfully at once, I wondered how he did it and how he kept motivated. The answers he gave me were honest and inspiring.
I wanted to know more about The Essential Man (TEM) and how he grew the business to what it is now. He laughed as he told me that TEM was actually “the benefit of a failure.” He had a previous brand (his first) called Heardemsay, but with a huge campaign and no product to meet the demand, he ultimately “over-promised and under-delivered.” TEM was his way of keeping momentum going for his company, but doing so in a new way—a lifestyle blog. As the blog got increasingly popular and Lorenzo found himself with thousands of followers, he decided he needed to brand it and create a product line. Interestingly, he also told me he wanted to start with menswear, not accessories (the current bread and butter of the company). After launching the line with a tote bag, a cap, and a pocket notebook, he set up a kickstarter campaign to start producing menswear. But he didn't meet his goal. That put a big wrench in his plans because the campaign funds were going to be put directly into production, as Lorenzo had already invested in fabric on his own. He found himself with a lot of material and no way to turn it into the product he had envisioned—he was devastated and nearly quit. Luckily for us, he got creative instead. He asked himself what the next best step would be. "How do I maximize what I have?...Cut it up into a bunch of different pieces,” he explained to me. This was the birth of the line’s pocket squares and ties—a business move born out of necessity and ingenuity. “I think you’re going to find a pattern,” he said, laughing again, “–a lot of the stuff that I do is kind of out of necessity.” I admire the fact that at pinnacle moments in his career when faced with significant obstacles and sometimes failure, he just changed course. He simply tried "the next best thing," as he put it, and kept going, with perhaps more grit than he had started with.
Impressed, I asked him more about the challenges he’d faced thus far and what effect they’d had on his motivation. "Growing up, I picked up things really quickly and the detriment of that is you can put them down even quicker...once the beginner's luck rubbed off, I was on to the next thing,” he said. But he knew that design as a whole was a sort of calling because, “with this,” he explained, “even after experiencing failure, I was still determined to keep going. I've come too far now to quit." He talked about the fact that if his first company had been a success, he wouldn't know what he does now, which brought him to an important point. "My learning has all been out of necessity," he said. "I've sharpened my skill set because I've been forced to, versus taking it for granted and experiencing immediate success." He wants to appreciate the success he experiences and knows that means appreciating and pushing through the failures. He also knows that means actively seeking out knowledge, every single day—finding answers for himself and staying consistent.
It’s clear when speaking with Lorenzo that he has both business savvy and unwavering passion for what he does. But what’s not as obvious is just how much of a self-made entrepreneur he is, largely because he’s endearingly humble. He believes in letting work speak for itself, admitting he’s still getting used to the idea of self-promotion, and speaks of his accomplishments with gracefulness and genuine gratitude. And let me be clear—he’s grown and diversified a business without a mentor and without a disposable income. He’s financed it all himself; he’s managed to keep his company sourcing and manufacturing products locally; and he’s learned what he needed to at each step of the process by leaning on sheer resourcefulness, a firm work ethic, and a passion for his craft. He also seems content with natural progression—utilizing a slow, meditative way of honing his skills and staying focused on legacy (one of his favorite words). Another big factor in his success thus far: he is concerned with integrity and craftsmanship above instant gratification. This is glaringly evident in his products and it’s so refreshing. The digital speed we move at now, societally and entrepreneurially, is in many ways exhausting and even flippant. I long for an attention span of more than 8 seconds, for value to be put back into human interaction, and for conscientious merchandizing and consumer minimalism to not just be part of some artisanal renaissance, but a withstanding way of life. Lorenzo is working in this way. “The way I'm going to achieve success is going to be different from everyone else,” he told me. “And so I've already committed to the longer journey. It's definitely a marathon for me." He's doing what he loves and doing it with integrity. He acknowledges that the challenge will be persistence because as he put it, "I fail quite a bit, [and] I fail fast.” But it’s this very self-awareness that seems to keep him successful and keep him creative.
The most telling thing, in my opinion, about Lorenzo’s character is his optimism. It spills out of him in a sort of contagious way. It’s present in all of his work, but it’s really embodied in his venture “The Simple Things.” The concept behind it is very simple, no pun intended. As business with The Essential Man was becoming more business than passion, he decided he wanted to focus on things that brought him joy. With TEM, he explained that “everything has to kind of be a success when you’re depending on it to support you and other people. So if I put out something and it didn’t get the right response it was always devastating. I needed something to…offset that pressure.” So he put together a book of illustrations of simple things that made him happy—a Mexican coke, a doughnut…He noted that he was getting caught up in what he didn’t have, and that this was a means of reflecting on what he did have. And he found so much peace in the project that he decided to invite other people to experience it alongside him. He launched “The Simple Things Project” shortly thereafter and continues to keep it going. Why? Connection, he says. “I try to be transparent with my journey,” he told me. “I think ultimately a lot of people just want to connect, and so I create these things where I can kind of instigate connection.” He went on to say that he thinks a lot of what sets people apart is a lack of understanding and he wants to change that. With this project and so much of what he does an artist and designer, Lorenzo tries “to create this atmosphere where people can see similarities.” If this isn’t art with purpose, I don’t know what is. He’s engaging the public in a social experiment that highlights happiness and optimism—things that seem, to me, to be slipping away from us in the tense global environment we find ourselves in. Furthermore, it asks people to spend time in self-reflection, which we don’t often make time for societally.
I asked Lorenzo about this optimism and he agreed, seeing himself the same way. He told me that this too is “a necessity.” “I saw a lot of stuff as a kid that I shouldn’t have seen…that kids shouldn’t just see,” he explained. He went on to say, “I don’t know if I considered it optimism, or me just trying to allow my imagination to take me outside my environment to [the point where] eventually it actually does.” He says he has always tried to keep that childlike sense of imagination and that inclination to dream big. As I sat there, drinking my tea, admittedly inspired, I suddenly realized how young he is and how genuinely wise he seems to be. I also realized how rare that is. Lorenzo credits his family, specifically his great grandmother, whom he takes care of and lovingly calls his “bff,” and his upbringing in LA as big influences on the person he is now. Having grown up in both South LA and Culver City—polar opposites—he told me, “my life was having to adapt to the environment I was in all the time,” and he says that’s been the biggest benefit to him—knowing how to adapt and be comfortable in his own space.
By the end of our conversation, I was hysterically laughing as Lorenzo told me that, probably thanks to the close relationship he has with his great grandmother, the stuff he likes is “very old.” With a huge grin on his face he says, “…like I watch Family Feud, and the court shows.” I, too, remembered watching Judge Judy alongside my grandmother, and nearly couldn’t control myself. “What millennial is watching channel 9, you know,” he asked in between chuckles, “–me!” He called it the “analogue” part of himself—a balance in an otherwise fast-paced world. And in this fast paced-world, Lorenzo Diggins, Jr. is going places even faster. He not only believes, but exemplifies that if you dream big enough you’ll eventually realize that dream. In ten years he sees himself with a brick and mortar, an arts center for kids, a home in Japan, and being a father (something he feels he was put in this world to be). And I have no doubt that if I get to talk to him again in ten years, he’ll tell me about all those incredible accomplishments with the same sincere gratitude and genuine humility that he did talking to me today.
Photo by Jaime Valdovino
View additional photos here.