COLUMBUS, Ohio – Finding one's passion and purpose in life isn't always the easiest thing to do, but one man's mission to do so placed him in the middle of history.
Dustin Smith, Jr., 29, spends his days traveling and building his business, Affiliation Brand. It's a casual clothing brand that he re-established in 2018. While he's excited about what he's doing now, things weren't always that way.
Smith ran away from home at a young age and then lived with his dad and stepmom for a time before landing in the foster care system. Looking to escape a tough life, Smith moved from home to home. Graduating a year early from high school as valedictorian, he wasn't quite sure what his plans would be afterward.
Fending mostly for himself, he ended up at My Place, a transitional program of The Buckeye Ranch that provides housing among other things and helps teens become self-sufficient adults. Smith admits he didn't take full advantage of all of the opportunities offered at the time.
While there, he expressed his love for music through rap and conversations about starting a clothing line, but at that point, there wasn't a full plan in motion to move forward on those things. The only plan was to go to college.
Leaving Columbus, he set out for Cincinnati.
“I went to college because it was like a safety net for me. Like it gave me somewhere to stay, providing me food," he said.
That didn't last long though as Smith said he struggled to find his way in life and what he really wanted to do. Plus, the struggle to manage a full-time job and school took a toll. So, he left school and bounced around to a few other colleges before realizing it wasn't the schools, but the need to figure out what he really wanted to do.
Going through a bout of homelessness, Smith said it was then that things began to shift as clarity came. Family members began sending him pictures of his dad in the mail. He started looking at his dad's art, at what he calls “one of the worst positions in my life.” Looking at the art, was a signal for him to pursue what he'd always loved and what his dad loved. That's fashion, music and art.
After years of struggling, he finally decided to re-establish Affiliation Brand.
“The word means having to do with, like, I can't do this without people," he said.
The line is something his dad started back in 1998, before taking his own life. Now, it pays homage to his dad and his love for fashion and art. Smith explained that every aspect of the brand has meaning. Take for instance the logo — it was originally created by his dad and depicts what his dad looked like back in the 90s.
“My dad's hair was cut long on one side, his goatee and his hair and cut on this side,” he explained. Smith added to the logo gold teeth, something his dad also had. Keeping the logo similar in nature was Smith's way of remembering his history. For him, “It's almost like a father-son brand for real.”
While his dad used the original clothing line as a way to provide for their family, Smith now uses it to impact the lives of others. The people who model his clothes are people that he gets to know personally so that he can help them pursue their dreams through his brand. As he moves forward, he's building a nonprofit to help inner-city kids connect with their passion for fashion, music and art.
With that in the works, he keeps sharing his story of struggle and triumph. Periodically, he comes back to My Place to share lessons learned along the way, while challenging teems to make better choices as they look to find their way.
“To see it come to light and where he is in his life and how focused he is on continuing to become successful is very meaningful and it lets us know here, you know that you can do it," said Ricky McElroy, My Place independent living supervisor.
While Smith’s business is online, you can find him at different markets around the country selling his product.