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Drake at the 2nd annual OVO Festival in Toronto.
Drake at the 2nd annual OVO Festival in Toronto.
George Pimentel/Getty Images

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The OVO-lution of Drake

With the release of the OVO Jordan 10s, the softest rapper cements his brand

If you’re reading this, it’s probably already too late to get your hands on a pair of OVO Jordan 10s, the most coveted sneaker since, well, last month’s Adidas Yeezy 350 Boost from Kanye West. Drake’s collaboration is something that he’s been teasing for years now, and it marks the highest profile release for OVO apparel.


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The release, which happened September 12th after a fake-out delay announcement, represents a kind of mainstreaming of OVO as a streetwear label, which has produced small batch design runs over the years. But even while worshipping a legacy brand like Jordan, Drake’s fast-moving business and branding sense for his own line is rather unique.

The Jordan 10 was originally released to coincide with the 1994-1995 NBA season, which saw His Airness return to the hardwood after a brief retirement/baseball career. Drake has had no such need for a comeback. He's somehow managed to feel new, like he's happening right now, for going on seven years — a pop culture eternity. This may be his absolute biggest accomplishment, bigger than multi-platinum sales, or shifting the whole balance of mainstream rap. There's a reason he's overloaded his festival sets this summer with material from his most recent mixtape. If you listen to "Best I Ever Had," it really sounds like it comes from a completely different era. Though Toronto producer Boi-1da went on to work on hit records for a range of artists, Drake has for the most part kept his production team, most notably Noah "40" Shebib, to himself. This is rare in today's hit-by-committee era, and it's helped Drake to continually sound unique and apart from his competitors.

Drake performs in front of the OVO owl, 2012. Image: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

This outsider ethos extends to OVO's branding, which Drake has deployed as part of his obsessive upkeep of his cultural cachet. In a rare interview with Billboard, OVO founder and Drake manager Oliver El-Khatib talked about a "ground-level energy that’s OVO — that's untainted, that’s not for sale, that’s uncompromised."

Drake paid lip service to Nike most recently on "10 Bands," even referencing his endorsement deal its with Jordan Brand subsidiary ("I get boxes of free Jordan like I play for North Carolina," if you’d somehow forgotten). Before that there was the Buggin’ Out-conjuring line "still had to scrub J's with a toothbrush" on his smash "Worst Behaviour." Drake and Jordan Brand made their mutual affection official in late 2013, and ultra-limited releases like an OVO AJ 12 have been drooled over by fans in the interim.

In the Kanye-directed clip for "Best I Ever Had," Drake bursts on the basketball court in a varsity/baseball jacket emblazoned with his name. It showcased his ability to give classic staples his own twist and early on defined his image in part by his sports and sportswear fandom and expertise. In the six years since, and in six years of OVO, a lot has transpired — but the style Drake wears, projects and sells has mostly remained defiantly middle of the road. When compared to paradigm shifters like Cam’ron, who made purple fur hard, or Young Thug, who challenges how far into the fashion avant-garde one can go as a mass appeal rapper, it’s surprising that Drake has any style clout to speak of. He’s not a designer himself or a high-profile fashion follower like Kanye or A$AP Rocky, respectively.

"I get boxes of free Jordan like I play for North Carolina."

The OVO store in Toronto’s Dundas West neighborhood, largely El-Khatib’s project, has been open less than a year. Years ago, El-Khatib met Drake while working at Lounge, a downtown clothing shop. He had once managed the short lived but vital Ransom. The OVO shop space is little more than bare cement floor, all bright white walls and an illuminated owl logo. There are a couple racks against each wall housing a couple of designs per garment category. Despite the store’s minimalism, the goods on offer actually represent a move away from a single visual thread towards several streams — generic varsity athletic designs, prep crests, gothic cross lettering, even plain, real oxford shirts are available.

Other rappers have zeroed in on a particular sneaker in their lyrics to represent their outlook: Young Jeezy with Air Force 1s, Lil B with Vans, and of course Run DMC and their beloved Adidas Superstars, b.k.a. Shelltoes. Then there are the rap stars who have made endorsement deals a regular occurrence: Jay Z, then 50 Cent with Reebok, Birdman for… LUGZ. One of Drake’s predecessors for aligning himself with Jordan is Eminem, though he also gave his name to other Nike models.

6IX YEARS

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Drake was once was notorious for his love of sweaters that were blatantly un-hip hop. In the last couple years, his style has settled somewhat, often incorporating true school mid ‘90s hip hop referents like Timbs, bombers, backwards snapbacks, and baggy Wu-tang tops. Though Drake still sometimes makes strange fashion choices that make it impossible to tell if he's trolling or not, he's also had a big role in making European labels both classic (Stone Island) and new school (Palace) take off in North America, likely due to his close relationship with influential Toronto boutique Nomad.

Drake's OVO apparel has expanded and changed over the last five years. Since the first appearance of the OVO owl on a tee, we've seen pop up shops in multiple cities and collaborations with Canada Goose and Roots. Drake’s ties to the Toronto Raptors (an official role, as "global ambassador", as of 2013) have further entrenched his brand in the retail landscape. To go to any Raptors game (not just on Drake Night, which is a real thing) is to see a flurry of OVO’s shiny black and gold, and hundreds of kids mixing and matching OVO gear with Raptors merch (the luckier/more efficient ones wear Mitchell & Ness’s OVO x Raptors pieces). Last winter there was even a local controversy surrounding Drake’s involvement in a Raptors re-design. In the end, gold was absent from the new team logo, but Drake did manage to get his colours on one of the four uniforms the players will wear this season.

The core of OVO’s visual identity from day one has been the simple outlined owl logo.

The core of OVO’s visual identity from day one has been the simple outlined owl logo. Apparently based on ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the design incorporates the brand’s letters as eyes and nose. The first owl shirts for sale were in conjunction with Nathanial Wills and his FLAUCY label, before OVO switched to in-house design. A wordmark with stylized omegas came next, with a new iteration looking like the stripe-through lettering in the old DVD logo.

Riding for Nike/Jordan is a little like being a fan of Apple. The sneaker giant has been number one for 30 years and is the undisputed design leader to such a degree that to many sneakerheads, "sneakers" just means various models of Nike and Jordan. But Drake’s whole persona has largely been built on his impressive ability to make the dullest possible moves seem noteworthy. From stopping songs to marvel at his clunkers, to claiming multiple hometowns, accents, and most sports teams that have ever won anything, he's transformed his inability to commit into massively influential "lifestyle curation," or something. For the most meme-able artist of our time, its difficult to think of anything Drake does which isn’t as calculated as a presidential campaign itinerary. When he’s not branding himself, he’s re-branding the city, with himself as its spiritual leader, of course. ("The 6ix"’s coinage is technically credited to local rapper Jimmy Prime.)

drakeovowimbledon

Drake repping OVO at Wimbledon 2015. Image: Karwai Tang/Getty Images

By 2010 Drake was already shilling for Sprite, following in the footsteps of hip hop hall of famers Nas, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, KRS-One and MC Shan. The ubiquitous and long-running ‘Spark’ TV spot extended the shelf life of Drake’s hit "Forever," and the business partnership has recently been revived in a new campaign. Then there's his work with Apple Music, betting on the new streaming service and in the process seeming to turn upstart Tidal into a punchline. Drake was tasked with unveiling the platform’s social component, Connect — which also happens to be the name of a Drake song. In all these deals, Drake seems to come out ahead, seamlessly enriching and expanding his own brand. For someone who came of age in front of the camera, it makes sense that he’s building an empire on the back of his universal appeal.

This summer, a clone of the classic Ralph Lauren cotton hat adorned the OVO store’s windows, with owls replacing the Polo pony. It recalls the moment in J.B. Strasser and Laurie Beckland’s Nike history Swoosh where MJ himself is convinced to imagine the Jumpman as a ubiquitous, versatile logo with the reach of the RL pony. OVO may be at a comparable crossroads right now. Since the genesis of OVO itself took place in a clothing store, it’s fitting that the design and apparel aspects of Drake’s company are currently thriving.

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