Creative director, designer and artist Nigeria Ealey thrives on inspiring images. In his West Coast home, which is laced with floor-to-ceiling windows that feature city views and mood boards that run the length of the walls, he literally surrounds himself with them. This is how he stays true to his roots and connects with the creative life forces around him. The result is Ealey’s clothing company, Tier, which gained seven figures last year and can be seen on people across the country.
Tier manufactures high quality streetwear for men, women and children. This includes everything from monochromatic sets to outerwear to specialty baseball caps. But no matter the item, Ealey and his co-founders, Esaie Jean Simon and Victor James, craft each Tier piece with two touchstones in mind: authenticity and durability. And the label’s slogan, “Art Never Dies”, reflects this. According to Ealey, it’s a sensibility that dates back to the trios’ days as business-founding students attending Long Island University in Brooklyn in 2014.
“When we think of people like Tupac or Michael Jackson or Van Gogh, their work meant so much while they were here that even after they were gone, it still means that,” Ealey says. “I think that’s the real test of a person – what impact can you leave on people in your field of work that is a representation and a memory of what you’ve done here?”
It’s an ideology that not only fuels the brand, but has helped shape Ealey’s desire to express herself through fashion in the first place. As a child attending schools all over the city, Ealey remembers having to wear stuffy uniforms. It wasn’t until Friday, when students were allowed to dress in civilian clothes, that he was able to break the monotony and show some personality. During this time, he recalls being influenced by the dynamism of anime. He found inspiration in the color schemes and patterns and how the characters were presented so boldly. Ealey recalls looking forward to Fridays and creating opportunities to shine simply through his clothes.
“There were big influences from the fashion aspect like, Oh, these colors together will be perfect,” he recalls. “I looked and I saw how they dressed and I was like, Yo, their outfits are on fire.”
As creative director, Ealey focuses on conceptualization and planning. He asks lots of questions and works to ensure there is purpose and intentionality in every product he and his co-founders put their name to.
In keeping with their motto “Art never dies”, the trio also strives to ensure that other artists also have a clear path for their work. Community engagement and breaking down barriers for budding artists is another value Ealey holds dear.
“We really try to take the model and make it its own entity for emerging artists in music, in cooking, in photography, in any field that encompasses art,” he remarks. “Our goal is to provide the information and resources needed for the next group of up-and-coming entrepreneurs and creators that we didn’t have.”
To these ends, Ealey’s time as an elementary school art teacher still inspires him. He remembers teaching and wishes he had the same level of guidance and support from his elders.
“You think about art and music and dance, and it’s always like, If you don’t finish your math test, you can’t go to art,” he says. “But those things aren’t secondary. It’s taught that only one of many can be successful in those things, so it’s ingrained that they shouldn’t be artists. But there’s literally people who only see images in their heads, and art is just as important as math and science.
During her time as a teacher, Ealey worked to ensure her students felt validated. Cultivating their talents and making them feel seen was his mission.
“I always say kids are the smartest people on Earth,” he says. “And they helped me find my inner child. I had extremely talented students who didn’t even know they were creating something awesome.
He remembers his time as a teacher serving as the reset and push he needed to raise Tier to the next level. Today, it’s that same vigor and renewed enthusiasm that helps drive the brand forward. As an independent business, Ealey remains proud that Tier hires directly from its community and is a stable incubator for young artists finding their way.
“It’s end work,” he says. “Yes, we have fire rated clothing, and it’s quality and it’s good, but I want to be an example to show people that you can literally do anything you can think of.”
Ealey predicts that Tier will earn more than $1 million next year, a goal he expressed several years ago. He’s a firm believer that if you’re really doing the work, there’s no other way to go but up.
“I grew up on projects all my life,” he recalls. “We had EBT cards, and there are a lot of people who come from where I come from who can’t even understand that. But it’s real. I really made something out of nothing.
With an unwavering directive to break down barriers and put art first while giving back, Ealey doesn’t plan on slowing down any time soon.
“From the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep, I’m focused on Tier,” he explains. “If I put my mind to it, it’s possible. If I put my time into it, it is possible. We show people that we can navigate any space, no matter what.
Asked about the mood boards and what we can expect from Tier’s next collection, Ealey smiles. The passionate creative director couldn’t say much, but he wants the world to know that this will be a homecoming.
And it will stay there.