Anthony Griffin leaves entrepreneurial legacy at Swift!
Anthony Griffin is flanked by Chef Walt (l) and "Jay" (r) for a selfie shortly after selling Jay the jacket he is wearing.
The passing of Anthony’s Clothing Founder, Heaven or Hell Brand Creator and Community Entrepreneurial Philanthropist, Anthony Griffin last December evoked the heartfelt tributes and honors beffitting an Elder Statesman. The struggles he endured, victories he experienced and the hope he inspired sharing it with a community rightly earned him such a place. This piece is not a mal-timed death announcement. It is about a living legacy Griffin left for us here at Swift.
On December 21, 2022, Griffin's voice was silenced in this world. But his entrepreneurial example continues to resonate in North Hartford and at Swift. “Why work for someone else, when you can work for yourself ?,” Griffin asked me shortly before he passed following an illness and hospitalization. He knew how deep it struck with me. He knew I had not always worked for others. That question was the source of all he accomplished and its answer the source of all he ever shared.
Griffin came looking for space last Fall to house his upcoming Winter 2023 selection of Sheep-Skin shearling coats. The Swift Factory wasn’t his first choice. He really wanted to take his collection to Barbour Street where it all had begun for him and where the capacity of its community-based trade fueled generations of Black-owned business and a deep community narrative and place nicknamed “The Plaza”. It was where his redemption began when he got out of jail in 1989. A deal for a well-established storefront space on Barbour Street had fallen through. So, he was going to make it happen a couple of blocks away at Swift–a focused, curated offering of classic Sheepskin (“Sheepdog”)-style shearling coats restyled for 2023.
The move-in wasn't easy for him. He had lost a few steps since we had last been on campus together.
That was back in the Summer of 2016 when Griffin resurrected his successful “ANT” (Affection New Thoughts, Business Concepts) Program–a 15-week course aimed at teaching youth practical entrepreneurial skills and partnering them in local apprenticeships. That summer, he brought his graduating class to 5-Corners, activating a youth marketplace at Swift where they sold their products.
After wrapping up that summer, Griffin kept his presence alive through half-negotiations over the years maintaining insight into our project goals. Six years later, he was moving in and I could see he was going to need some help. What he did next was classic Anthony Griffin. I was talking with him on Love Lane about being able to help him when I could and he looked past me, focusing hard. “You looking for work?” he asked a young man trying to pass us by on the sidewalk.
I left them to speak, went about my work day and could see Griffin holding court with the young man beyond my desk at Reception and the massive shiny double black doors fronting Building 3’s Love Lane Entrance. For the next week, he worked to get Griffin’s winter inventory in place here. In less than a week, I realized Griffing was already providing the outcomes our team needed. He was bringing in business. He was hiring from the community. He was paying his rent so that we could pay our bills.
As his inventory began to stream in, I saw that he had never shrank from carrying the best quality. The weight of the coats could be felt just by looking at them–blacks, browns, blues, and dark brown-on-browns–all sheepskin winter wear worth a mint. They were the core product in his medium-sized office, complemented by recent shipments of the latest iterations of winter hats and scarves. Fedoras littered the medium-sized office in Building 3. He had just obtained exclusive distrution rights in the Northeast for Jordan Craig. His movements were intentional, precise. Griffin was planning something big.
His clientele was classy and old school classic. A diverse set of old and new heads began fulfilling showings by appointment. Their traffic was smooth and subdued, patiently waiting for his response in our reception area. His relentless entrepreneurial mind sparked, transforming every campus interaction into a trading opportunity. One of his most effective tools was to give you a gift.
For me, it was a grey, checkered hat and scarf set with a removable pom-pom. It was quality stuff as always. Hats have always been an important tool of our expression in our community. A whole language is based on the “break-down” of our hats–messages conveyed by the tilt of a brim, cocking back, pushing forward and tilting to either the right or the left. We find freedom through expression of our personal creativity—our style—what others define as Swag–what we breathe like air.
It is transmitted to us through generations of assimilated and amalgated expressions of fashion; from the remnants of native charms and talismans retained and worn to overalls worn with a dress shirt and tie to the gentrified dandies of Renaissance Harlem to Zoot suits to our “GQ” generation of the 1980’s to the rap culture that saw the birth of Griffin’s “Heaven or Hell” brand and its launch into Hip Hop fame and fashion. Swag has always been an expression of freedom for the African diaspora in America. And, it has always been big business in the Black Community.
Griffin was a master marketer of it and could seemingly draw business from thin air based on the swag he peddled. We made an appointment to document his new move and he received me in his space. It was packed with garment district racks, wool and leather of various hues jamming the space. Before I could begin the interview, he was selling me a retro leather bomber, almost in a “8-Ball” style, but lighter and a crew-neck style collar with Afro-centric flight jacket-style patches. They were good, but the shearlings were it.
I forgot the interview and my gaze wheeled back to the shearling rack. The 2023 styles reflected a sort of infusion of the classic shearling with an evolved, beefed-up cut to the lapels and cuffs. I automatically grabbed a black one and threw it on, feeling its weight signal its authenticity. I felt like a victor wearing it, like I had survived much to be here to feel its protective vibe—like urban renewal, the Crack Wars and their fall-out. It was like the feeling you get walking outside in a brand new pair of Timberlanes for the first time.
Griffin smiled knowingly. He knew what was happening. I was caught and it continued as I saw a fedora in the corner calling me in the colors of Eshu the Owner of the Crossroads (black hat with a red underbrim). I popped it on, crowning the experience. He had the mirror tilted perfectly, capturing my secret evil shopping grin. Though I was itching to do it, I dared not break the brim down at all. I don’t break down a hat that is not yet mine and, to Griffin, we now had a big problem.
The hat and the coat were not yet mine. So he began the negotiation. Griffin sat back in his zone, energized in the negotiation. “I’ll give you both of them for $450,” he shot off; stroking the grey of his chin, his eyes darting back and forth anticipating the ludicrous offer he knew I was going to come up with. “I could do $300 Bro. Don’t let this tie fool you, I ain’t gettin rich doing this work,” I said, coloring the talk with ambiguity.
I knew what I was doing. And, Griffin did too. I learned this language operating a vending table on Asylum Street back for 6 years in the 1990’s. I was Mustafa Abdul-Jaliyl Muhammad, an associate of the Nubian Islaamic Hebrews peddling incense, oils and religious literature aimed at replacing images of the prophets with images that looked like us. By then, Griffin had become Mujaheed Sahih Muslim.
From the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths to the Hebrew Israelites to Africa Bambata's Zulu Nation, we were part of a massive movement of youth “re-claiming” our identity through spirituality. Nothing I can mention here was "trickling down" for us under Reaganomics. We were leaving the White Jesus our grandmothers had hanging on their walls. We pledged to make it on our own.
Many of us became street vendors and thrived. Prison was too big a risk to join the illicit trade. So, we ran brisk street businesses off a simple vending license that gave you a parking spot to operate from all day. Or, you could just take your inventory and visit the various housing projects and commercial corridors like North Main, Barbour, Park, Westland or Broad Streets or Albany, Wethersfield or Maple Avenues. That was before downtown merchants got together and the city moved us out of downtown Hartford. Many of us moved our sales to the trunks of cars. I went back to work.
Griffin had the street influence to claim a territory. He wasn't downtown with us. He was a Barbour Street hustler, using his street hustling skills to sell t-shirts and re-investing his profits to obtain more and more inventory, more tables to eventually work out a deal with the Unity Plaza property manager to move into a brick-and-mortar space there. Then the development of a brand connected his “Heaven or Hell” brand to Hip Hop Royalty and the region’s business, political and spiritual community.
Working with Hartford Artist, Ellis Echiverra, he created the “Heaven or Hell” logo and, after sending off samples of the Raekwan the Chef lyric-inspired logo to the Wu-Tang Clan and the Source Magazine featured Method Man rocking a “Heaven or Hell'' hat on its cover, Griffin’s brand and business launched into serious distribution networks. His line eventually ended up in 28 stores nationwide and he landed an account to supply a chain of clothing stores in London. As a Muslim businessman, he had even been appointed a business consultant by Imam WD Mohammed on behalf of the Islamic Community of North America. Griffin was one of the few Muslims I know personally who went to Mecca for Hajj (pilgrimage).
His line went international. But, he remained in the community. His entrepreneurial mind was as relentless as his drive to share it. He could see the opportunity to catch sales in any environment and that entrepreneurial energy infused hope into the lives of North Hartford residents. In the 50-year economic vacuum that came to define this neighborhood, Griffin’s became an entrepreneurial voice in the wilderness, his efforts an example of what it means to hustle forward. We were honored and privileged to have had him base his operations here at Swift. His entrepreneurial spirit will truly be missed here.