Eric “Phero” Lopez Credit: Eric Ortiz

The New Vanguard is a creative coalition that seeks to unite Black and other POC creatives who currently work as separate entities under one banner. The coalition was recently launched by Eric “Phero” Lopez, who acts as chief creative officer, and his cofounders—chief of legal counsel, Eddie Sanders; chief of strategy and operations, Pilar McQuirter; and chief of new business, Juan Sanchez.

The quartet’s aim is to amplify creatives’ work by supplying resources and access, while also landing them equitable pay. They’re storytellers and world-builders whose drive is to take Chicago’s artists and mold them into ambassadors for the city—ones who can take their narratives “beyond the walls and streets of their neighborhoods,” Lopez says. 

Though only formed at the beginning of 2022, the New Vanguard’s roster boasts 14 people whose talents run the gamut of entertainment, sports, music, fashion, and visual art: artists Brandon Breaux, Nikko Washington, Julian “Logik” Gilliam, Tubs, Armani Howard, Adrian Octavius Walker, and Crowezilla; fashion designers Sheila Rashid and Alex Carter; plant studio Semillas; musicians Joey Purp and Elton “L10” Cheung; and athletes Jayden Reed and Malik Elzy.

In that little time, the creative coalition has landed partnership deals for its roster with Google, Adidas, Bacardi, Showtime, Facebook, Lululemon, Samsung, Arcteryx, Lifewtr, Nifty Gateway, WNBA, McDonald’s, and the White Sox.

Prior to launching the New Vanguard, Lopez worked as an art and creative director at ad agencies Havas and the Annex, where he gained experience, and then started his production house, Cold Chillen. He saw both as learning from two different schools; while Havas gave him experience in corporate settings, Cold Chillen allowed his entrepreneurial side to flourish. Both helped him see the deficiency in Black and POC representation in the agency, nightlife, entertainment, and art worlds.

It’s not only important for the creative coalition to be as inclusive and diverse as possible but to also remain in Chicago. This conception becomes all the more impactful with the group’s nonprofit arm, the New Vanguard Foundation, which plans to be an educational resource for emerging creatives—and their hope to open a permanent space in the city. “This is something that we feel is lacking,” Lopez says. “It’s something that we wanted to start here in Chicago and we’re super excited to keep it here in Chicago.”

The Reader spoke with Lopez about the nuts and bolts of his organization, what a creative coalition means to him, and the community work that the New Vanguard hopes to accomplish.

Tara C. Mahadevan: What prompted you to start the New Vanguard?

Eric “Phero” Lopez: The higher I climbed up in corporate America, the less I saw people who look like me. The higher I climbed, the more I realized that we have the capabilities to do this ourselves. It’s not rocket science at the end of the day. It’s really understanding what the scope of work is—understanding the brief—and it doesn’t take a team of 100 people in a five-million-dollar building to actually create this work. Nowadays, with technology, some really great ideas, and a really strong work ethic, it means that we can do it too with a team of ten.

I also realized that we’re taking advantage of this talent—agencies take on the fuller budget scale of the scope of work, yet the artist only gets a small fee. Why is that? Why don’t artists own their LLC, why don’t artists own their publishing? Why don’t they own their distribution? Why can’t artists have their own scope when it comes to the content team? If each artist were to run as a brand versus doing whatever to get paid for their craft—if we were to be a little more organized and have more of an entrepreneurial spirit, then the budget goes a lot further.

I think that was the biggest strong point for us when we started the New Vanguard—saying, “We need this creative coalition in Chicago.” There is just a lack of not only representation as you climbed up, but there was a lack of ownership and resources and tools in Chicago. We had to go to either New York or LA or Miami to have some of these resources.

We never properly got the resources or the tools that we deserve. That’s why it’s so important for us to do it here—to start with our own people to have that proper representation. We’re talking about a fully diverse team from Chicago, who are actually creating new change and telling stories better than some of these agencies are. And that’s the real purpose of why I started this whole thing.

What does a creative coalition mean to you?

We call the New Vanguard a creative coalition because we see it like a union. We’re not an agency, we’re not a record label, we’re not a company. We are a unity between different business owners who are coming together as a village to create not only resources and tools, but a fair act of how we get paid out as well. The word union is a vintage word. Of course, we respect them because we are a working-class city—we’re honoring that. For us, it’s the idea of having unified arts and people of color coming together and saying, “Hey, we stand together. We’re going to share these resources and we’re going to keep this momentum and money within us to make sure that we all drive to success.”

Does each artist operate as their own brand under the New Vanguard?

Absolutely. Each artist owns their own business and has individual teams underneath their own umbrella. We come in and help out with giving them that structure. It’s a creative audit. 

It’s really understanding the sense of where they’re at as businesses and as owners.

How have you been selecting the talent you want to work with?

We really look for work ethic. We’re very particular in making sure that the talent we’re looking at has an undeniable work ethic and is looking to scale, but at the same time has a beautiful story and a perspective that’s beyond Chicago. We want to make sure that our talent is thinking beyond the walls and streets of their neighborhoods. How do you represent your neighborhood and put your city on the map while having a say in the industry?

What are you doing that’s focused on community and the city?

We’re super excited to announce that the New Vanguard has a nonprofit called the New Vanguard Foundation. We’ll be creating workshops and panels, and teaching the next generation of diverse creatives how to properly run a business and how to actually create the resources and tools to teach them how to be artists themselves. It’s about education. We see a lot of people who are really creative or really great at their craft, but don’t properly understand how to make it into a living. Biggest thing for us is to teach you how to create a legacy and make sure you get to do what you love. But at the same time, you should get the proper payment as well.