Clarence “CJ” Jones, founder of CJ’s Custom Clothiers started his journey as a basketball player at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Chicago, IL. Before he became the well-known designer he is today he made custom shirts. One of his initial and most notable clients was Tim Hardaway who opened his eyes to designing for athletes.
“As a child growing up my mother would take me to Saks Fifth Ave., Carson Pirie Scott, Marshall Fields and Co., Neiman Marcus and different stores like that for my dress clothes,” said Jones. “As I was growing up, I was noticing these really nice shirts and when I was 16 years old, my mother wanted to take me to the custom shops to get the custom-made shirts.”
Jones wasn’t too fond of custom clothing back then. He was a Polo, IZOD type of guy.
“If it wasn’t Polo, I didn’t want it.”
Little did he know he’d eventually fall in love with custom-made clothing.
“I used to tell my mom all the time ‘dang, I wish I would’ve been getting custom-made shirts when I was younger.”
It was an idea that turned into a hustle, a hustle that turned into a business, and a business that just grew.
“I couldn’t make it about money, I had to make it about relationships”
CJ’s unique career really took off after Barbara Bates, a well-known designer introduced him to the comedian, author, and talk-show host Steve Harvey. After impressing the sharp-dressed celebrity, Harvey connected Jones with fellow comedian and actor, Cedric the Entertainer.
After those big-name connections, CJ lost contact after moving to Nebraska and dealing with life. However, that was short-lived.
“They were on the second tour of the King’s Comedy Tour and I was out at the radio station wearing some shorts, a t-shirt, and some track shoes and saw Cedric,” said Jones. “Cedric said ‘man, we’ve been looking for you!’ Steve happened to be upstairs.”
After reuniting with the two and receiving backstage passes to the comedy tour, they introduced him to a fellow comedian, D.L. Hughley.
Jones turned those three connections into traveling to 13 different states with the Kings of Comedy. Subsequently, that much exposure and that much travel did wonders for the independent designer. At this point, Jones was meeting new people left and right and his brand continued to grow day-by-day.
“I realized that in this business I couldn’t make it about money, I had to make it about relationships and once I started making the business about relationships, that’s when the business started to grow.”
With notoriety comes more competition and with the growing industry that is designing and the rise of social media, CJ had to step his craft up even more. In the entertainment industry and especially in the sports industry, if 20-30-year-old athletes are wearing suits, you’ll notice they typically prefer the flashy look. Sometimes it gets to the point of utter gaudiness.
“Michael Jordan wasn’t a flashy guy.”
Through everything, Jones remained his authentic self while still changing with the eras. CJ Custom Clothiers provides a classic, dapper look that makes for a more complete and wholesome product.
“I try to educate each individual person that I’m making a garment for. I try to let them know when you’re going to the Draft or any public appearance, the first thing people will notice is your look, your brand.”
If you look at Michael Jordan, he’s not an overly flashy guy. He wore conservative suits, really nice shirts, outstanding looking ties, and pocket squares.
“What I do a lot of times is have them send me pictures of what they like. Then what I try to do is coordinate the pictures or colors that they like and incorporate it into a look that’s very conservative, has a little bit of flash (enough to get some oohs and aahs) but still enough class that if someone looked at you and wanted to put you on a commercial or market you, you could have that opportunity.”
CJ maneuvers himself throughout the industry with delicacy and sophistication while letting his work do the talking. However, just like many other businessmen, he had to triumph through rejection early in his career.
“I prayed about it. I cried a lot of nights.”
Before the celebrities, CJ worked primarily for pastors and businessmen. His early struggles began with credibility and respect, or lack thereof.
“When I first started trying to get athletes, it was very difficult because I didn’t have any,” said Jones. “Nobody wanted to be a Guinea pig.”
Jones did have Hardaway as a client but he just made shirts for him. That was enough to turn heads but wasn’t enough to seal the deal. Most athletes weren’t swayed by Jones’ lone client. They wanted a bigger name(s).
“I prayed about it. I cried a lot of nights.”
A few recent clients of CJ’s:
CJ got a break with Jerome Woods, the Kansas City Chief’s 1996 first-round draft pick. He made his first suit and seemed to have sealed his first deal.
That was short-lived. After Woods expressed his interest in becoming a regular of CJ’s, his agent shot the idea down and told him to go with someone else. This was disheartening for CJ, yearning for that big break.
“I gave him those clothes. That was money out of my pocket,” said Jones. “When you’re a young entrepreneur and you’re trying to make a name, every penny you make is difficult.”
Rejection once again reared its ugly head. After having every reason to give up, CJ didn’t. He didn’t sell out. He didn’t change who he was and he didn’t change his motives. He reverted back to the basics and reevaluated where he might’ve been lacking.
Once again, he got an opportunity after one of his connections informed him of an athlete that may be interested in his custom suits. That athlete was Walt Harris, the Chicago Bears 13th pick of the 1996 NFL Draft. Yes, the same draft as the player that ultimately rejected him. Woods was the 28th pick, so not only did Jones regroup rather quickly, he landed a superior athlete as result.
That was his first real break as a sports fashion designer.
After seeing the product CJ provided Harris, other athletes took notice. Athletes like Anthony Marsh, Marty Carter, and Donnell Woolford, who all three were on big contracts. CJ’s business catapulted into relevancy. His name held more weight at this point and when he was mentioned, he was more recognized by athletes.
“It felt good that somebody was paying me for my work,” Jones added. “The hard work was finally starting to pay off and from this day forward I’m internally grateful that Walt gave me that opportunity.”
Jones now has a Walt Harris jersey hanging in his house, as well as a few other of his favorite clients.
A growing narrative in this day and age is that you’re supposed to taste greatness sometime during your 20s. Many people truly believe that and the mindset has caused extreme impatientness and unrealistic standards in many cases. CJ was 31 or 32 when he got his first break. He was even older when he was considered a household name and now he’s had an established, well-sought after brand for about two decades.
The prime lesson in this is to go at your own pace and not to give up on your dreams.
With all these years of success, CJ has to keep his originally while still remaining relevant in an ever-growing industry. Social media is booming which means every single unique thought can be seen on a large platform. Trends catch fire much quicker than they used to.
“I don’t make my clients clothes just so I can make them. I sit down with all of my clients and think of a gameplan regarding their suit. I have their trust.”
Close friends always keep Jones on his toes by giving him ideas that’ll make him better. Showing him some of the latest trends so he can put his authentic spin on it.
Clarence’s faith, relentless fight, and authenticity propelled him into the upper echelon of sports designers. To this day, Jones works alone. He has no one designing for him. Everything comes first-hand from Clarence. In last year’s NBA Draft, Jones had four clients that went in the first round which was second of all designers, including the big businesses.
Thus far, Jones has been featured on Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, CNN, EBONY magazine, ESPN, Fox Radio, iHeart Radio, TIME magazine, SB Nation, and as a regular at both the NBA and NFL drafts and combines. He was also the designer behind former Oklahoma Sooners and current Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield’s Wooden Award suit.
The big businesses are great and in no way is this article aiming to deter you from taking an opportunity with an already established business, but there are many pros that come with being your own boss and being the owner of a brand.
“Being grounded, keeping God first in my life and being able to handle criticism,” said Jones when asked about his keys to success. “Also, knowing that you are your own boss and being able to make the right decision at the right time.”
Jones also mentioned competition as one of his main motivators.
“I see other companies that make custom clothing and they give me the motivation. They motivate me because they all have workers. I am one person.”
Like mentioned earlier, in the 2017 NBA Draft, CJ Custom Clothiers came in second with four first-round clients behind Joanna Alba who had eight. After his company came élevée and JC Penny.
Jones most recent clients from last year’s draft were Donovan Mitchell, Justin Patton, Jared Allen, Caleb Swanigan, P.J. Dozier and Sindarius Thornwell.
Jones isn’t finished. He fully intends on continuing to expand his business and is expected to do just as good or better than he did last year in the upcoming NBA Draft this June.
Clarence “CJ” Jones is an ambassador for self-made individuals. He’s a positive influence on African American’s looking to make a difference in an industry that doesn’t necessarily favor them. When it comes to hard work, Jones is the poster boy for persistence and sticking to your end goal.
Visit CJ Custom Clothiers at cjcustomclothiers.com.
Awesome article about a genuinely phenomenal guy!
Chicago, I’m so proud of your success.