Old Atlanta is back in style
How 2 dope women and a fashion upstart are preserving the culture
Talk about a fashion statement. When a homegrown urban merch brand with a familiar sounding name released a sweatshirt six months ago, it became an instant conversation piece. Beyond the clean, stylish design of the black crewneck, it was the words emblazoned across the chest that spoke volumes.
"Old Atlanta," it read in bold white letters, conjuring images of everything from Dr. King and his inner circle hammering out civil rights strategy over soul food at the original Paschal's to the city's once-annual spring break transformation into a gridlock street party called Freaknik.
For the partners behind Ateaelle (pronounced A-T-L), the connotation is clear. "This company was born out of the need for authentic representation from Atlanta natives," says Kirsten Daniel, who founded the fashion upstart about a year ago and runs it with creative director and longtime friend Destiny Stokes.
In a town hellbent on homogenizing its cultural identity, nostalgia is the new cool. But Old Atlanta stands for more than bragging rights and sentimentality. It's a fashionable effort to preserve Atlanta's narrative in a city where the old is increasingly overshadowed by the new.
Ironically, the business partners behind the brand Ateaelle reflect a similar dichotomy. Daniel, 31, is a native and Stokes, 33, is a transplant, so naturally their views on all things New Atlanta — from the changing landscape to the cultural erosion — tend to clash.
"She loves it; I don't so much," Daniel says, giving her friend and biz partner the side eye. "When I drive past the Ponce City Market, all I can think about is that's where we took field trips to go see City Hall East back in the day," Daniel says.
"When I drive by Ponce City Market, I think, ohmigod, it looks like Seattle," Stokes chimes in. "This is a jewel here in Atlanta."
Though she's a transplant, Stokes has been here long enough — 18 years — to earn her peach, and with it a deep respect for the history of the city through her mother, who's been civically engaged since they made Atlanta home.
"I feel like I'm a good representative for someone that was not born here," Stokes says, giving the city props for its diversity and ongoing urban development.
The two met about 16 years ago as cheerleaders at North Atlanta High. A native of Atlanta's Westside, Daniel grew up in Dixie Hills and bussed from nearby Douglas High to the Northside every day. Chicago native Stokes and her mom moved to Castleberry Hill in 1997, just as Olympic-sized change was beginning to leave its imprint on the city. But the late '90s were also a watershed era in Atlanta's music scene. The city was cementing its legacy via the likes of Dungeon Family, Dallas Austin, LaFace Records, and So So Def.
"Old Atlanta, for me, was musical," Daniel says, "The political side, the music, sitting on grandmama's front porch."
Daniel's inspiration to start Ateaelle came as a result of OutKast ATLast, the three-day festival of shows celebrating the duo's 20-year anniversary in 2014. Like a reunion for a generation of ATLiens, it became a reminder of '90s Atlanta.
"That's part of our culture that you can't get back," Daniel says. "It ignited in me the need to create something tangible that people could have that represents where we came from."
Their first creation, a tee that reads "Somewhere Between Bankhead and Buckhead," perfectly embodies the brand's origin story. "Even more than that, we feel like it's a mix of our personalities in that we kind of straddle the fence of class," Stokes says. "We can be Bankhead; we can be Buckhead, too. And we enjoy both of those."
For years, Daniel's been a stylist on the low, working with Grand Hustle-affiliated artists. As the right hand to label co-owner Jason Geter, she's also helped create such brands as AKOO and Hustle Gang. With industry experience as a current manager of operations for the brand and Buckhead boutique Strivers Row USA and indie record label Culture Republic (founded by Jason Geter, Shaka Zulu, and Bernard Parks), executing her vision was easy. So she decided to partner with her homegirl Stokes, a writer who recently left corporate America behind, to provide creative direction.
Together, they're reminiscent of a female OutKast, with the undeniable chemistry of longtime friends who have their own unique outlook — especially when it comes to the city. They may not totally agree on what Atlanta is becoming, but they certainly agree on Ateaelle's future. More than anything, they want to make sure the brand tells a story, which is how the Old Atlanta sweatshirt came about.
"The Old Atlanta crew neck was to create conversation," Daniel says.
Part of that conversation involves looking at what Atlanta risks losing in its rush to redevelop. "Growth is good for the city on some levels. I just think that it's attracting the wrong type of attention," Daniel says. "For anything to be preserved, you've got to promote the historic elements of it. There's no reason for people to come here and not know what Auburn Avenue was before all the businesses moved away. That's what makes us so special as a city in the South that has birthed so many great black entrepreneurs. There's a reason why that took place here, and that's the message that should be told."
Squaring away the history is just the half. With the influx of "Real Housewives" and and reality TV, Ateaelle wants to separate true Atlanta from the faux imagery and stereotypes people have come to associate with the city. It's definitely resonating.
"When I wear the Old Atlanta shirt, I feel like it basically tells people I have substance. I'm from the era of Atlanta that you didn't see on VH1 and Bravo; the down-home red clay," Candace Salim, a tech enthusiast and founder of MNGR Consulting, says. A native of Atlanta's Westside and a self-proclaimed "Grady baby," she says she feels like "part of a little secret society" when she wears her sweatshirt. "It speaks without me having to say a word."
Which is exactly as Daniel and Stokes intended. But that's not to say there's nothing new about Atlanta worth embracing. In a perfect world, there may even be room to reconcile the two.
"Atlanta, historically, has been very segregated," Daniel says when asked about the changing demographics in the core of the city. "So I'm really looking forward to these cultural worlds crossing and connecting. I like being able to go over to Tom, Dick & Hank in Mechanicsville, and they have people at the bar coming from the Braves game and everybody's comfortable."
In fact, Ateaelle hosts a monthly kickback series celebrating Old Atlanta every last Thursday of the month at Tom, Dick & Hanks called Soul Food Thursday. And with a product line that already includes dad hats and Atlanta-centric shirts, tees, and bodysuits for women, the latest additions are even more esoteric. Like a T-shirt that says "Keep Your Heart 3 Stacks," in honor of Andre 3000's verse on "International Player's Anthem." Or "Some of y'all done lost y'all minds," quoting pioneering Atlanta MC Kilo Ali. They even have a shirt that incorporates the High Museum of Art logo to read "Get High."
But, like the brand name Ateaelle, you have to know how to decipher the meaning. "The goal of that shirt is to really create some conversation around ascending culturally. That's what we're all about," Daniel says.
"My thing is, are we going to lose the culture? I feel like they're just building and building and building and there's no real plan to preserve what Atlanta's culture is. And if Ateaelle can do that for the city in some kind of way, then I'd like to try."