CoAD Student Turns Tragedy into Triumph with Chic Clothing Line

College of Architecture and Design student Jihad Peoples sports looks from Ladonn's fall/winter 2015 collection.

“Sometimes in tragedy we find our life’s purpose…” ~ Robert Brault

It was a hot, steamy June day in 2011. A group of high school students from Neptune escaped to Bradley Beach to take a dip in the ocean. But a seemingly harmless attempt to beat the heat took a tragic turn for the worst when 15-year-old sophomore Naisere LaDonn Nelson drowned after being swept away by a rip current.

“He was like a brother to me,” says College of Architecture and Design (CoAD) student Jihad Peoples. “We grew up together. We went to the same high school. We played on the same football team. We couldn’t have been any closer.”

Left to grapple with the sudden death of his childhood friend, Peoples, along with Kyle Lewis, a student at Howard University, who also hails from Neptune and attended high school with Nelson, created Ladonn, an altruistic, multipurpose lifestyle brand, to honor the life of their late brother.

“We’re taking ideas of generosity and being kind to others and applying it to the brand,” says Peoples. “That’s who Naisere was as a person; he was so giving, so kindhearted. This idea of being a philanthropist—giving, sharing—it derived from him.”

Ladonn’s humble beginnings and selfless mission led to a fitting partnership with the International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ).

IVHQ, a global travel organization, offers affordable volunteer projects in over 30 destinations to voluntoursits, eager to trek overseas to donate time and energy to improve the lives of others.

Ladonn is looking to raise $6,000 to fund a two-week trip (Aug. 15-29) to the Greater Accra Region of Ghana. Peoples will get his hands dirty constructing and renovating homes and infrastructure in rural communities. The labor-intensive work—painting, brick laying, carpentry, mortar mixing—aligns with his interior design studies at NJIT and Ladonn’s demonstrated commitment to service.

“This trip to Ghana will set the foundation for everything we’re trying to do: increase the quality of life, specifically for the less fortunate,” he says.

Peoples pledges to donate up to 100 cut-and-sew garments from Ladonn’s fall/winter 2015 “New World Order” collection to Ghanaians. And while he’s there, he’ll also use the region’s vibrant street life as a backdrop to shoot the look book for Ladonn’s upcoming fall/winter 2016 collection, “Contact de la Terre” (touch of earth).

“We experimented with a military aesthetic the first time,” he says. “The second collection will have an Afrocentric feel. Ghana gives us the perfect opportunity to tie everything together.”

Although Peoples is amped to lend his talents, he’s doubly excited that his first-time pilgrimage to Africa will raise awareness—and possibly foster a group of young, well-traveled tourists—back home to boot. He’s already spoken with the mayor of Neptune and the city’s board of education. They’re tossing around the idea of creating an annual summer program that enables students to travel abroad. 

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Back in the day: Jihad Peoples (left) on the football field in 2010 with Naisere LaDonn Nelson.

"How cool would it be for a group of high school students to have the chance to visit countries in Africa every year?” he asks. “They’ll gain different cultural experiences that they’ll be able to bring back and share with the community and their classmates.”

As the brand takes shape—Peoples envisions a multilayered conglomerate, replete with literature and interior design subchapters—it’s the clothing line that serves as Ladonn’s first toe-dip into the world of global benevolence.

“Neither of us ever took any classes or went to school for fashion design,” he boasts. “We basically hopped in and got started.” People’s and his right-hand man design and sew all the garments themselves. Ask him about his fashion influencers and he mentions designer Raf Simons, e-commerce powerhouse Hypebeast and rapper-turned-high-fashion-designer Kanye West.

“There’s no one in the fashion industry today that has a bigger influence than him,” he says about West, who sold out Madison Square Garden in February for his “Yeezy Season 3” fashion show. “No one else has ever done that.”

It’s no surprise Peoples takes cues from West: a multiplatinum, Grammy-award-winning superstar, who checked his infamous ego at the door to intern at GAP and Fendi to learn the ropes before muscling his way to the top of a notoriously fickle industry. “He’s breaking down doors for a lot of people like me who dream to accomplish things on that level.”

Like West, Peoples comes from a generation of unyielding dream chasers, wired with uniquely modern strands of grit and gumption, willing to risk it all on complex ventures and sacrifice foreseeable career paths to travel off the beaten track—and make bold pronouncements along the way.

“Ladonn will be a part of New York Fashion Week one day,” he declares, loud and clear. “That’s one of my biggest goals. We’ll be right up there with the big guys: the Ralph Laurens, the Valentinos, the Versaces.”

For now, Peoples is spending his summer working at Coach, readying the new collection and prepping for Ghana. In September, he’ll begin his fourth year at NJIT, where he lives on campus during the academic year, and is a member of the International Interior Design Association.

“We hope this Ghana campaign will encourage more people to stand up for what they believe in,” he says. “A year before he died, Naisere told me that the world is ours. And I believe that we will and we can change it for the better.”

By Shydale James
sjames@njit.edu