DESIGNER TO KNOW : BILLIE ESSCO
Billie Essco Builds Buffalo
Designer and artist looks to etch a foundation and turn creativity into a high rise in Upstate New York
Growing up, Billie Essco would mill his eyes over his home in the East Side of Buffalo, New York. The closest building to a skyscraper is downtown. But on his block, there weren’t any high rises or tall structures. It didn’t deflate him one bit. Instead, he used it as inspiration. “We didn’t see how far we could go up,” Essco said.
“Downtown didn’t inspire us. There’s always a culture downtown in cities like Los Angeles and New York. In Buffalo, it’s all in the smaller buildings.”
Essco, born Chase Cobbina, naturally cooks with creative oils. He’s the head of his own clothing label, CZEN, a contemporary brand with an art heavy approach. He draws from the musical sphere, too, having just dropped his project “Aesthetic Raps” on Aug. 23. The artist has taken on a litany of names over the years, from Uptown Chase to Bizzy B (his Myspace days), but his pursuit of a greater culture in Buffalo hasn’t gone in the red.
He points to a day in August where a number of Buffalonians accomplished feats in the creative realm, including Griselda Records’ deal management deal with Roc Nation.
“Now, like I said, metaphorically speaking, the blueprint is there and the construction workers are coming in. They’re starting to build.”
Essco’s fixation to construction today might stem from his built past, specifically in fashion. CZEN, for instance, has taken notes from Afro-futurism as well as workwear to help mend some styles that Essco said were “based on innovations of the new world mixed with the culture created in the ghettos of the world.”
“One thing you find in any situation is you have a specific problem and a specific solution, so I believe when you’re put in situations like Buffalo or any ghetto, or any place trying to rebuild, you get certain problems that only certain people can provide solutions for,” Essco said.
“This ties back into CZEN, because throughout the years we have realized not what is needed within fashion but what is needed within someone’s ‘everydayness.’ We’ve been looking to provide things that stand past fashion and rather an agreed upon ideology, where a t-shirt can be part of your thought process. So it’s about talking to people through these clothes, and they’re talking back.”
Essco sees a Buffalo that can benefit from its community and remembers the fun times he had growing up.
He said negative stigmas about the city arose in his teenage years and cites the Buffalo Bills’ four straight Super Bowl appearances (and subsequent losses) as giving residents a “chip on their shoulders.”
“That sort of thing depletes a generation, and that chip is passed down to those people’s children,” Essco said.
“You also have to think about the weather and notoriety, some people out-of-town have told me that they didn’t know there were even black people in Buffalo. But it’s the second biggest city in the state, we’re changing all that here.”
Essco said he was “heavily influenced” by sneakers as a kid, thanking his cousin Camoflouge Monk, who got him into buying sneakers “moreso like a sport.” He ended up helping start a sneaker crew, trying his hand at buying and selling sneakers as commerce which “funded him well into college” before “sneakerheads were a thing.”
“If you were a sneakerhead, it was the equivalent to being a Star Wars fan,” Essco said.
Essco had spots like Rick’s Sports Apparel growing up in Buffalo. If you were cool with Rick, Essco said, you got the VIP treatment. Essco was younger and didn’t have the “it” factor. But his older brother did. “He bought so many pairs of kicks from him, my older brother was my connection.” The internet also played a big role, from hyper Ebay wars for deadstocks to logging into Nike Talk.
“Sneaker culture started with those younger brothers of drug dealers or those neighborhood kids who worked at the local Foot Locker, it was a real inner city thing,” Essco said.
“Now it’s sprouted, so it’s interesting to see the importation of sneakerhead culture, it was really storied. And Buffalo was very much apart of that storyline.”
Today, the city is home The Cellar, a sneaker and streetwear paradise which celebrated its second year in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village.
That’s where Essco and I talked, a place he chose “on purpose” for the interview since The Cellar symbolizes a place which his friends “put in the groundwork” for back in the day. “You can’t build an entire city by yourself, there will be things that you leave for the next person to finish, and that’s what is important about a great leader or master,” Essco said.
“It’s not about how much you accomplish, it’s about what you set to be accomplished.”
After his Lafayette High School years, the artist later found himself at the city’s Buffalo State College. Around the time, he was just getting his brand 1990s off the ground.
His thing had always been streetwear and he saw “putting streetwear on the runway” as a “juxtaposition.”
“If you think about it, obviously there were brands that did it before, but we were one of the first brands to reissue that passion, now, half the runways are streetwear-oriented,” Essco said. “We created moods for a sweater, theme boards for things you would just put on, some people thought they didn’t know what we were doing. Now, they understand.”
Part of Essco’s fashion-built lesson plan revolves around using language in his clothing.
It all stitches seamlessly into his raps, where he uses language to stamp on a grabbag of East Coast and trap styles in projects like “CAFÉ” and “Gallery.”
Essco often begins songs with a declarative “fuck yo dress code,” a rallying cry which unveils his defiance toward businesses trying to limit cultural participation of certain people based on dress. “Buffalo clubs would discriminate against people based on their dress, specific to certain cultures, and it was almost to the point where you can change the clothes but you can’t change a person,” Essco said.
“If a person is bad, that’s bad but if a person is good, that’s good. You can’t tell that based on what they wear.”
He points to his relationship with music as being “in the middle of everything,” being in “the grey between the black and white” or the “ghetto couture.”
“It comes from my DNA, I come from a place where it’s so cold but so great at the same time,” Essco said. “I dwell in the middle of things, I do something very pink and I do something very black. It’s just an eclectic space that certain people reach and it’s because of my detailed-orientedness, paying attention and understanding that there is value in both sides.”
With “Aesthetic Raps,” Essco finds the project as entering that grey area - just as the definition of aesthetic is flexible in its nature.
“The beauty, with aesthetics, is in the music - it’s going back to the appreciation of it all and not going so hard on a concept,” Essco said.
The artist said the past ten years have been a “fight for a dream for people to fathom.”
Now, he said, Buffalo sees establishments like The Cellar and the city’s success in rap (i.e. Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine).
As for the next decade, he hopes to see locals start building off the designs of today’s Buffalo.
“It’s about infrastructure, making sure that the people who have the tools to build start to build properly and even making sure we aren’t running slumlord properties around here, we want to build Buffalo into million-dollar properties,” Essco said.
“Metaphorically, and literally, we want to build in this space and grow.”