Becoming fashion royalty is no easy feat, especially if you’re doing it from Chicago, where the industry lacks the prominence of New York or L.A. J. Byrnes is content not being No. 1, and the name of his streetwear company proves it. To him, Fourth is King.

“I came across the children’s poem, ‘first the worst, second the best…’ and I came across a version with ‘fourth is king,’” Byrnes said. The brand comes full circle: His full name is James Byrnes IV.

Raised in Wheaton, Byrnes, 33, had aspirations of becoming an artist but the classic dilemma of how to make a living led him to graphic design at Kansas University.

“Growing up, my bedroom was Nike stuff or surf brands and stuff like that. The graphics they had on their T-shirts was always very interesting to me,” Byrnes said.

When he graduated in 2003, Byrnes experienced a tough job hunt. Like many graphic designers, he wanted to work on concert posters and T-shirts that required a lot of creativity. Realizing how hard it was to get a foot in the door, Byrnes decided to strike out on his own. Working from his parents’ house, he began generating T-shirt ideas. As he found the money, he slowly started building the brand that became Fourth is King.

“You can read a lot of different things into the name,” he said. “Fourth is King is sort of like an underdog sort of thing. There are four stars in the Chicago flag. You can make different correlations.”

The underdog, home-grown aspects of the company are reflections of the city’s budding fashion scene, showcased in programs like Fashion Focus Chicago. Tonya Gross, who is the program director for fashion, culinary and design for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said Fashion Focus was designed to highlight artists like Byrnes and provide resources to help designers grow their businesses.

“I don’t think that we’re trying to identify ourselves as the next New York City or the next L.A. I don’t think that’s where we want to be. I think Chicago has its unique personality and we have a number of talented designers,” said Gross, a designer herself. “My goal is ultimately to unify, to bring us together, to networkand to identify those who are identifying themselves as fashion professionals.”

Byrnes wouldn’t want to do his work anywhere else.

“You could say, ‘Go to L.A. or New York,’ but I feel like Chicago is unique,” Byrnes said. “I think that’s sort of infused into my work. We’re not totally ‘surf’s up’ or the high fashion of New York either so it falls in between.” As I’ve started to work more on Fourth is King, I’ve started to reach out and try and collaborate with a lot of people because everyone is very open. … in Chicago it’s like ‘hey, we can help each other out.’ ”

After his initial struggle, Byrnes has held a steady freelance graphic design job with River North’s Taylor Bruce Design Partnership for the past 10 years. Fourth is King has grown with him, from just a few shirts with hand-sewn tags from his grandmother to events as huge as the Taste of Chicago.

Byrnes said he’s content with growing at a slower pace if it means Fourth is doing things right.

“I don’t know that you ever make it,” he said. “I’m just kind of a sucker for making things. I just like to make things that are out there in the world. I enjoy that—that other people are wearing it out there in the world.”

Byrnes’ wife, Ellen, a pediatric nurse at Lurie Children’s Hospital by day, has been part of Fourth’s journey for the past nine years. While running a business out of their new West Town home is a lot to handle (so many boxes!), she is in awe of her husband’s creativity.

“I’m always amazed by the different ideas that come out of his mind,” she said. “He takes his business—I don’t want to say serious because that makes it seem like it’s not as much fun—but he puts so much thought and effort into every little thing. The older we get, I see that intensify.”

It is still a learning process for the Fourth is King team. The company isn’t working with a seasonal fashion model , and it orders products in advance, leading to a lot of guesswork about which designs will be most popular. Fourth also works with high-quality materials, which is evident upon feeling the T-shirts and ultra-cozy sweatshirts.

That quality, along with the universality of its designs, is what attracted Josh Woods, who studies fashion merchandising and marketing at the Art Institute while working with Byrnes and Fourth to develop marketing strategies. As a native Californian, he has seen his fair share of streetwear.

“What really attracted me was how minimalistic it looks,” Woods said. “A lot of streetwear brands have a lot of clutter and a little bit too much going on. Sometimes that’s good, but I like how clean and simple it is, how the brand is everybody. ... I can wear it, my friend who is a skateboarder can wear it and my friend who works in a studio can wear it.”

Veronica Wilson is a RedEye special contributor.


Where to find Fourth is King:

Friday-Sunday: Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park (1501 W. Randolph St.). Noon-8 p.m.

July 22-23: Fashion Focus Chicago Sidewalk Sale at Daley Plaza

August 8: Pop-up shop with Hood Internet mixtape release at Rational Park (2557 W. North Ave.). 6-10 p.m.

Online: fourthisking.com

 

The Designs:

Like all works, Byrnes’ designs have stories behind them. 

The Amigo

“Our logo tee. The Amigo, as we like to call him, serves as the Fourth is King mascot and is a symbol of individuality. He has big hair. We encourage our audience to participate in FIK #FroFriday where we post only the best pics of friends, family, celebrities, musicians and athletes with big hair.”

One if by Land, Two if by Sea

“There were actually a few tees that Stefan [Lessard of Dave Matthews Band] has worn including Peace Out, Brainstorm and One if by Land, Two if by Sea. He wore this tee when DMB was touring in Chicago. I met Stefan's manager backstage and his daughters picked out a few tees for him. This was one of them. and he decided to wear it that night while they were performing in Chicago.”

Cedar Pole by Bryan Nash Gill

“Another guy we worked with was Bryan Nash Gill. He ended up passing away last year out of nowhere. He came to Chicago and then two weeks later he ended up passing away. He lived in Connecticut and did these awesome wood cuts. He finds dead trees and cool cross sections and prints directly on them and does rubbings.”

One of a Kind

“I like the wordplay thing a lot. When I’m getting going and trying to think of an idea I’ll look at things that play on words and start making lists. This one’s called One of a Kind. It’s a bunch of polka dots, but one stands separate.”

Windy City

“Inspired by the city we love.”

 

This profile is part of a yearlong series about Chicagoans with unique jobs in the arts. Know someone who deserves to be profiled? Email redeye@tribune.com with the subject line “Arts jobs” or tweet us @redeyechicago.