AJ is a co-founder of HNDSM. Born in Toronto, he moved to New York to attend Parsons School of Design, The New School. He now calls Manhattan home with his wife, son and their pup, Otto. Learn more about the man at the helm of a growing company.
Tell us more about your background, upbringing and the road that brought you to where you are now, personally and professionally.
My fashion career unknowingly started around the age of eight in Toronto. My incomprehensibly cool, older sister got me two sweatshirts; one from Guess and one from Club Monaco. I received compliments on both from teenagers (teenagers!). I felt a mix of intrigue, happiness and deep confusion. That experience seemingly began my path towards a career in fashion in an attempt to understand the relationship between clothes and their wearer.
In high school, I became fast friends with Christian Rice. We bonded over an awe of girls and a love of music. We went to every concert that we could. We were the two thirteen year olds dripping in sweat at shows for Blink-182, Taking Back Sunday, New Found Glory, and any other band that resembled them.
A few years later, Christian and I were the two eighteen year olds sharing a dorm room at Queen’s University, drawing on t-shirts with Sharpies. This evolved into making our own screen prints and buying up blanks at American Apparel using the manager’s staff discount. We sold the shirts to friends and acquaintances on campus. As we inched towards graduation, I thought to myself that if I could do this instead of getting a traditional job, I think I would be happier in life. This was the start of Handsome Clothing Co. Over the years, the brand has iterated and evolved into HNDSM. Now, Christian is the art director at Adsum (an awesome menswear brand) and I, at HNDSM. We still discuss music and our awe of girls; two girls of which have agreed to be with us.
What is something you believe everyone should experience in their life?
Rethinking their self perception.
Throughout high school and university, I lived with a fear in the pit of my stomach that I (i.e. my parents) would receive a letter stating that my marks were too low and that I had been put on academic probation. On multiple occasions, this happened. I would manage to claw my average back up and make it through the semester. I never shared this with anybody, but it left me with a definitive feeling that I was “less than” and that academics and possibly life itself would never be a space that I could excel in.
In 2012, I sought the opportunity to attend Parsons. This gave me the chance to move to New York (where I aspired to stay forever) and provided some structure to my career in fashion, as I was already a few years into running HNDSM. I moved to New York a couple of days before school started and the first week was tough. I remember scrambling to finish homework and then scrambling to finish lunches while simultaneously speed walking to my next class. I made a decision that if I could not find a groove and do well in school, I was going to leave Parsons. That left me with two very clear choices: dominate school or leave school. Coasting simply was not on the table. I worked hard and I worked differently than before. After a few weeks, one afternoon in class, I had a defining moment in my life. While my professor walked around the room handing back our first test of the semester on fabric compositions, I felt that familiar fear in my stomach that my body had been conditioned to feel. As he paced the room, placing tests in front of their respective students, he paused.
“Out of the 75 students that I teach this class to, I want to let you know who got the highest mark...AJ.”
I could not believe it. It shattered the self-perception that I had internalized at the age of twelve and never thought to let go of. It gave me permission to think about my capacity in a new way and begin rebuilding my self perception. I finished the semester with a 4.0 GPA for the first time in my life. On the last day of school, I visited this professor to let him know the impact that this moment had on my trajectory.
This win has helped me to rethink my limitations in every aspect of life. It provides a reminder that I, like you, can make changes and shed old preconceptions. It has formed my perspective on hard work days, long runs, parenting, and life goals. I share this story in the hopes that it can inspire someone that needs it. Let go of limitations that do not serve you because you are exceptional and you are the person that you aspire to be.
What was your favorite moment today and do you have any favorite grounding rituals?
I am a morning person. It took me over thirty years to realize this, but now I see it. I wake up every day at 5am and start my day. I think that one of my consistently favorite moments of the day starts with making a pour over coffee with my wife, Nunu. The kitchen is dim, our son is sleeping, our dog is sleeping, we are half asleep. Through the haze of a pre-coffee mind, we toast to something that we are thankful for. The combination of the caffeine and positive energy sets a nice tone for the day.
Work from home essentials? How are you adapting to this new reality?
One of the big changes that I have experienced through quarantine in 2020 is an increased excitement towards sport and wellness. A few of my favorite pieces that I have been getting heavy use out of are:
Satisfy Running Shorts
HNDSM Merino T-Shirts (it seems like a plug but it’s true)
Asics Gel Kayano Running Shoes
District Vision x Reigning Champ Junya Racer Sunglasses
Any advice you can give to young creatives in and out of the current context of the virus.
Hard work is essential. Strangely, it took me a while to fully realize this. Hard work pays off directly on what you are focused on as well as sometimes in unexpected ways. I believe that the universe rewards hard work and sometimes those rewards pop up in indirect ways.
Have a mindset of success. Believe that you are going to kill it. I found that physical activity pushed me forward in my headspace. The mindset that I carved out to go for long runs or a tough workout, carried over to my mindset in work.
Convince your subconscious mind that your aspirations are reality. Find yourself a great life coach or research and practise activities like daily affirmations, goal setting, and shedding preconceptions about yourself.
Can you tell us about some of your favorite spots in New York?
Black Seed Bagels
Prince Street Pizza
Photography by Nunu Jamani