Stephen Barrett, who in 2018 co-founded Creamy Studios alongside his brother, Peter, is wired to always consider the next thing.
As a result, Barrett said, he has spent little time lingering on the surreal nature of recent years, which have seen the fashion brand (often stylized as CRMY) create clothes worn by the likes of professional basketball players Jordan Clarkson and Jaxson Hayes, as well as pro skateboarder Drake Johnson. Then, in July, representatives with Madison Square Garden contracted Creamy to create custom pieces for 21 Savage, Drake, and Drake’s son, Adonis. And all of this is in addition to an ongoing collaboration with Chicago rapper Chief Keef.
“Things have also been happening at a breakneck speed, where I don’t think I’ve fully been able to process any of it,” Barrett said by Zoom in late January, just days before the Jan. 28 release of the latest Creamy collection. “I think Peter is a little better at appreciating our accomplishments, where I tend to be like, alright, what’s next? And I’m already over it, which is something I know I need to work on.”
When we spoke, Barrett said the business was at an interesting stage in its development, and the two co-founders were in the process of reassessing their approach, hoping to strike a better work balance that would allow time and space for ideas to develop rather than rushing headlong from one project to the next.
“We just kind of suffered some burnout,” Barrett said. “Overall, it was like we hit our max, and it was like, ‘Where do we go from here?’ In 2023, we tried to figure some things out and make some changes, but it still felt like we were in the mud and in the weeds. And at a certain point you need to create some space to get out of the mud … to really see where to move next. So, that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now.”
Part of this challenge is related to the labor-intensive nature of Creamy’s one-off items, which started with the designers sourcing clothing from thrift stores and then reimagining them, dying and fading the material and then incorporating hand-painted designs, embroidery, screen printing and airbrushing to create boldly colorful, wildly inventive pieces.
There are definite street-art aspects to the pair’s designs, but Barrett said the two draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources, including but not limited to: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, the graphic T-shirts once sold by American Eagle, Shepard Fairey, British street artist Sweet Toof, Salvador Dali, and the sketchbooks Stephen Barrett started filling with doodles in elementary school. The grinning skull that has become the Creamy trademark, for one, first appeared in a drawing Barrett made in sixth grade.
“And it’s sort of evolved from there,” said Barrett, who joined his brother in moving from Cincinnati to Columbus in 2021. “It was something I would draw [in the margins] of my workbooks, doing it again and again, refining it through that repetition.”
The Barretts grew up in a creative, art-nurturing household, raised by a father who attended school at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and later worked in brand design and a mother who kept intricate scrapbooks that frequently displayed an artist’s eye. Barrett said he and his siblings grew up in a no-video game, no-cable TV household, with their parents stressing the importance of play and imagination. “And I think that fostered that appreciation for creation,” he said. “My parents were the type of people where, when we came home from school with our projects, they would immediately hang them up and put them on display.”
This artistic side was further nurtured in the Cincinnati public school system, with Barrett taking daily elective art classes on top of the mandated twice-a-week art class, allowing more space for his creativity to flourish. “There was everything from drawing, painting and illustration to a metals class, and then there were AP versions of those, as well,” Barrett said. “It was like everything was at our fingertips.”
And yet, when Barrett enrolled at Ohio University, he initially shied from pursuing a degree in an artistic field, believing it to be an unsustainable career path. But the 2018 creation of Creamy and a subsequent pivot to a fashion retail major altered his thinking.
Indeed, part of what has given Barrett pause amid the company’s surge is that he doesn’t want it to lose touch with these creative roots, in which each piece exists as wearable art, of sorts. And growing the business while hewing to these ideals has proven to be a bit of a balancing act, requiring a mix of mass-produced but limited-run items and the more labor-intensive, one-offs upon which the business built a name.
“And that’s something we experimented with this last year,” said Barrett, who believes the collection Creamy is set to debut this weekend strikes the kind of balance the two hope to maintain moving forward. “We want to have limited-batch but mass-made pieces on hand, because that’s steady income and takes less work. But then we're still going to have the one-off pieces that are more customized and exclusive. And now it’s just figuring out how to manage that while staying within the brand ethos. … There’s definitely an avenue, a lane for it, and now it’s about finding that right mix.”