Sunday, July 10, 2005

Cul-de-Sac Cred


Marc Ecko is a fan of pop culture, fashion, entrepreneurs and the American dream. He loves movies and video games, and he has 30,000 songs on five iPods. Two and a half years ago, he was at a company holiday party that featured a brief video titled, ''Who Is Marc Ecko?'' In it, Gary Coleman, the former child star, walked up and down Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, asking people if they were familiar with the clothing line Ecko Unlimited, which often features the stark silhouette of a rhinoceros on T-shirts, baggy jeans and other garments. They were shown photographs of four men and asked which one they figured was Ecko. Most picked the cool-looking black man. Hardly anyone chose the boyish white guy, who perhaps appeared a bit too much like a grown-up New Jersey mall rat to be running a multimillion-dollar clothing line that routinely turned up in rap videos. But that, of course, was Ecko. Everybody knew the brand; no one knew the man.

The man could certainly afford to join in the laughter that night. His company flirted with bankruptcy in 1998, but a few years later it was selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of rhino-ed apparel. Marc Ecko Enterprises has put the Ecko Unltd. brand in 5,000 retail locations, from specialty shops to malls. It owns the skateboard brand Zoo York, has a deal to make the rap superstar 50 Cent's G-Unit clothing line and sells Avirex apparel at low-price department stores like J.C. Penney and Kohl's. Complex, a men's shopping magazine founded by Ecko, claims a circulation of 300,000. His properties had retail sales of about $550 million last year, plus licensing fees for shoes and baby clothing and so forth, according to the company. Last year, Ecko signed a long-term lease for a massive flagship store on 42nd Street, and the company recently moved into a 250,000-square-foot headquarters on 23rd Street, where the boss's office will include a small basketball court.

Most of the success stories in the ''urban apparel'' category that has redefined the young men's clothing business over the past five years offered street cred in the form of direct links to hip-hop -- Rocawear through

Jay-Z and Damon Dash; Sean John through P. Diddy; Phat Fashions through Russell Simmons. Ecko is not a rap star, and he doesn't come from the streets; he's a fan from the cul-de-sacs. He is sometimes described as ''a former graffiti artist,'' but grown-up mall rat is closer to the truth. Born and raised in New Jersey, Ecko, who is 32, has never lived anywhere else. The Ecko boom began as a set of six T-shirts that he made while he was at Rutgers studying to be a pharmacist.

Cul-de-sac cred has arguably been Ecko's greatest strength throughout his company's chaotic rise. The sense now is that ''urban'' has run its course, and while Ecko does not believe that, he is also trying to transcend the category, with a line of tailored clothing and even the ultimate suburban-fan vehicle: a big-budget video game. Ecko is at a crossroads, and the man is trying to step out from behind his rhino. ''I want people to think of me almost as Willy Wonka,'' he told me. ''A pop-culture Willy Wonka, crossed with Richard Branson.'' A fan with power.

Marc Milecofsky grew up in Lakewood, N.J., about an hour and a half south of Manhattan. His parents were real-estate agents. He has two sisters, one of whom is his twin, Marci. The name Ecko is derived from a family story: when his mother was pregnant with Marci, the doctor informed her of an ''echo,'' which turned out to be Marc.

In one-on-one discussions and design meetings and at public functions, Ecko invariably speaks in a patois of hip-hop slang, pop-culture references, management-book phrases like ''skill set'' and ''best practice'' and intellectual theorizing. Addressing a game developers' conference, he warned about business entropy, using Jabba the Hutt as a case study. During one of my visits, T.I., the rap artist, showed up, and after Ecko presented the trailer of his forthcoming video game, he casually made a point about the ''existential'' nature of listening to 50 Cent lyrics for the typical suburban kid. He was neither electric nor commanding, but he possessed a confidence that seemed thoroughly un-self-conscious. He always wore baggy jeans, sneakers, an untucked button-down shirt and, usually, a Yankees cap, tilted.

Ecko says he was in grade school when he started to see clothing as a device to fit in with social groups. He also figured out that not every place was as ethnically and culturally diverse as Lakewood's public schools, where there were as many black and Latino students as whites. At extended family get-togethers, it was a source of amusement that young Marc was into this exotic thing called break-dancing. Not that he could do it -- ''Too fat,'' he says. He couldn't rap either; but he could draw. He learned about graffiti culture through photography books by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant. Visiting a cousin in Trenton, he would see ''all the freight trains that I guess had run in New York, bombed with graffiti.'' Graffiti characters replaced comic books as his primary visual influence. He raked leaves to raise the money for a pair of Adidas shell-toes, like the ones Run-DMC had. He learned about Polo through a reference in the song ''La-Di-Da-Di,'' by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. Style was cultural expression, and customizing clothes was ''a big part of the urban dialect,'' he says, so he took up the airbrush. By his early teens, he was charging classmates for making designs on their jeans or shirts, which he did in his parents' garage.

Ecko went to the Rutgers School of Pharmacy, where being a white hip-hop fan was more unusual than it had been at Lakewood High. He dabbled in graffiti ''on a very small scale'' and made elaborate drawings in his sketchbook. He figured he could make a living from T-shirt designs, but he needed money to get a business started. A friend introduced him to Seth Gerszberg, who also grew up in Lakewood. Gerszberg radiates hustle. Spend five minutes with him, and you won't be surprised to learn that he dropped out of college because he was making $5,000 a week selling salvaged architectural ornaments, of all things. He didn't know anything about hip-hop or graffiti, but he helped get Ecko a few thousand dollars to make his first run of T-shirts, and they became partners, along with Marci. ''We spent the next six years losing $6 million,'' Gerszberg, now 33, says.

In the early 90's, hip-hop clothing brands were still a bit of a novelty. There were brands like Cross Colours, Fubu and Phat Farm, but mainstream retailers were slow to embrace what looked like a vaguely menacing fad. The best Ecko could do was strike some consignment deals with urban boutiques, meaning they paid nothing upfront. But the shirts sold. Ecko showed me a sketchbook page of a guy slumped on a pink chair, exhaling a cloud of smoke filled with a complex menagerie of images. This became the design on a shirt that sold 250,000 units. But the transition to jeans, jackets and so on brought a series of disasters with manufacturers. Debts piled up, and it was a struggle to make payroll for even a small staff.

Ecko and Gerszberg spent months looking for a deal with Levi's, Nautica, Perry Ellis. Everyone passed. And everyone took potshots, lecturing the kids from New Jersey about why their budget, their forecast, their margins were all wrong. Finally Gerszberg seemed to have a deal, but three days before closing, he got the phone call telling him it wasn't going to happen. ''My chest starts pounding and my hands get clammy,'' he says. ''I'm on the phone sitting in my chair, and then I wake up and I'm on the floor. Chalk outline. I passed out.''

In 1998, as his company seemed poised to collapse, Marc Ecko was 26 and knew he had made mistakes. But he had also learned a few things, like the need to differentiate from the crowd. He wanted a symbol. The obvious thing to do was to lift some icon of hip-hop street culture, like a turntable or a spray can. Instead he found his inspiration in his parents' Lakewood den, where his father kept a collection of kitschy little rhino statues.

He didn't think about it so much then, but he has thought about it a lot since. A logo starts out with no meaning; it acquires meaning from the product it is attached to, from an image created in advertising, and the people who use it -- in ads, in the real world and in the gray area in between (like pictures of celebrities in magazines). ''I think it's like something sublime,'' Ecko said to me, speaking about successful logo icons in general. ''When something is aesthetically beautiful, people react. And when you can assign a meaning and value to something and summarize or capture all of that instantly, that's something that I think human nature just gloms onto.''

People were starting to glom onto the rhino by 1998, when (after Gerszberg came to) pretty much everyone told Ecko to declare bankruptcy. Instead the partners persuaded their biggest creditor, a family connection of Gerszberg's, to give them one more loan. They would apply what they had learned from their rejection tour, hire designers so that Ecko wasn't doing it all, use better suppliers and take a last shot.

The timing was right. Ecko's high-production ads in hip-hop magazines like The Source and Vibe put the rhino on a wide range of maverick recording artists like Talib Kweli and the Beatnuts. Meanwhile mainstream retailers were getting over their fear of the urban look, and Federated Department Stores, the owner of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, became a particularly enthusiastic seller of Ecko Unltd.

''Marc is a very, very creative designer,'' says Russell Simmons, founder of Phat Fashions and a godfather of hip-hop culture. ''He's got more edge than most.'' More precisely, he describes Ecko's designs as having an ''alternative'' quality, a ''more suburban edge.'' More Beastie Boys than Grand Puba, maybe. Simmons has watched the audience for ''urban'' expression expand and diversify; it would not be the dominant and mainstream force it is today without suburban fans. Yet many urban brands seem to want to avoid acknowledging this constituency, preferring to stick to the image that hip-hop still projects in videos and on album covers -- black, inner city, street.

Ecko Unltd. certainly worked to associate itself with black hip-hop artists, but its ads also featured the action-sports star Mike Metzger, the race-car driver Gary Gardella and members of the alt-rock band Linkin Park. ''We were inclusive,'' Ecko says. The urban-apparel business lately is all about ''crossing over'' to the suburbs. According to NPD Group, a retail data tracker, Ecko's brands have held up better than most of its urban-apparel competitors in core big-city markets and grown faster in the suburbs and rural markets.

Lucian James, whose branding agency Agenda Inc. did some consulting projects for Ecko, points out that the rhino also referenced the symbol language most familiar to the emerging youth culture: the language of the Polo pony and the Lacoste crocodile. The rhino participates in this language of brands and subtly satirizes it. Presented in silhouette, the beast is bulky and bold but also awkward and even ungraceful. (''Rhinos are not exactly aspirational,'' James notes.) As a brand, Ecko has shown ''an ability to sort of channel down between two different things,'' as James puts it -- black and white, urban and suburban, heritage and novelty, new talent and established talent. In retrospect, Ecko says that using a visual symbol that had no connective tissue to hip-hop and leaving it open to interpretation were crucial. It looked cool as a graphic, was backed by marketing that played up individuality and achievement rather than you'll-never-be-this-cool exclusivity and yet was unspecific enough that it made sense on rappers like RZA and Fat Joe, but also on A.J. Soprano, an archetype of the smirky teen suburbs.

Sales went from $15 million to $36 million in 1998, and in 2000 to $96 million. In 18 months the creditors were all paid off, and then some. Ecko the brand was giving young men -- and women -- exactly what they wanted, just as they were figuring out that they wanted it. Ecko the man was the Alpha Fan. ''The brand was like pop-pop,'' he says. ''Like fire.''

It seems every fashion upstart's goal is to become the Next Ralph Lauren, but pop-pop can be fleeting. Witness Fubu or Tommy Hilfiger. It is rare for a fashion company to get to Ecko's level and remain independent, still under the control of the young founders who made it up as they went along. Maybe this is why Ecko's chaos doesn't seem to be over. The company's move to a flashy new headquarters has coincided with layoffs. (Meanwhile Ecko himself has been getting attention on the gossip pages for buying a castlelike house in New Jersey and spending thousands of dollars on ''Star Wars'' memorabilia.) A potential deal to be acquired by Hilfiger fizzled out last year, even as rivals like Enyce and Phat Fashions found buyers. A plan to work with the rapper Eve on her clothing line unraveled. Most everyone I met at the company aside from its founders had been there for only a year or two; the one exception was gone not long after I met him.

Ecko says matter-of-factly that he has spent the past year and a half or so ''letting people fall down, letting the staff shake itself out.'' His own focus has been on two big projects: a new clothing line aimed at a slightly older shopper and the video game. What links these two projects is the company's belief that Marc Ecko must become as well known as his rhino.

Marc Ecko Cut & Sew, his attempt at tailored men's wear, has a new and fairly didactic logo (a pair of sewing shears), and when it first appeared last year, it made little impact. The clothes didn't stand out, and it became obvious that Marc Ecko's name -- without the rhino -- meant little to consumers. The Gary Coleman video notwithstanding, the company and its retailers assumed that people would connect the dots. ''We were delusional,'' Ecko says now. And so, during New York's Fashion Week a few months ago, Ecko showcased the fall Cut & Sew line at a party with four stages set up as ''scenes'': models milling around in track jackets, denim, argyle neckties, 7-Eleven sweaters, pinstripe blazers, tweed overcoats and so on, among pieces by street-art stars or prints of Yoda and Brooke Shields. Meanwhile a band played jazz versions of songs like ''Cum On Feel the Noize.'' This avalanche of influences may or may not offer up a portrait of Marc Ecko the man, but they suggest what Marc Ecko, the post-rhino brand, is supposed to represent.

Ecko's other, and more audacious, new project is the video game, ''Marc Ecko's Getting Up,'' scheduled to be released by Atari in September. It's about a graffiti artist who fights off cops while spreading his name on walls in a fictional city called New Radius, with the help of real-world graffiti stars like Futura and Shepard Fairey. Like the tags dangling from Ecko Unltd. clothes that offer a subscription to Complex magazine (''Get Down With Marc Ecko''), this is a fairly explicit attempt to make the Ecko name signify something bigger than apparel, as if Donna Karan produced a sitcom or Calvin Klein wrote a literary novel.

If all this sounds less like a grand harmonic pop-culture convergence than like a case of A.D.H.D., maybe that's the point. The easiest way to think about popular culture, or about fashion, is to think in sweeping strokes that assume there is still one mass market: American shoppers wake up one morning, throw away their hip-hop hoodies and start buying Lacoste again, revising their vision and their very aspirations, in lock step. Real life is messier. Hip-hop brands migrate to the suburbs, while hip-hop lyrics obsess about Gucci and Mercedes-Benz; ''street'' vernacular reaches for establishment symbols, while the children of the established middle class aspire to connect with authentic street, which in turn aspires to upper-crust validation.

Somewhere in this Mobius strip of commercial metaphors is the consumer, trying to figure out where he fits in. The phrase that Ecko now seems to want attached to his name is ''navigator of youth culture,'' which is interesting to parse. The fact that no one really knew who Marc Ecko was -- or even if he was a real person at all -- may well have made his brand easier for different groups to consume. Now he's edging toward the spotlight, but he's no P. Diddy or Gwen Stefani. So instead of trying to pass himself off as the coolest person in the room, he tries to be the guy who can figure out who everybody else thinks is the coolest. It's not an attempt to lead but rather to channel the consumer. ''I always remind myself, I learned everything at 16,'' Ecko says. ''I go back to the skeptical 16-year-old, who hates everything and is critical of everything. I think, What was acceptable?''

This fluidity is new in some ways, but in others it is not new at all. Ralph Lifshitz grew up in a Bronx apartment, far from the milieu of the patrician upper class. He saw the swells in the movies and during the summers that he worked as a waiter in the Catskills. He wanted to be like them, so he dressed like them, even in high school. Eventually his father, a Russian immigrant, changed the family surname to Lauren. Ralph dropped out of City College, got a job selling suits at Brooks Brothers and toiled away in the nether regions of the rag trade until he designed a line of fancy neckties that was picked up by Bloomingdale's in the late 60's. They were sold as emblems of status, under the brand name Polo. In her book ''The End of Fashion,'' Teri Agins credits Lauren with going on to invent ''lifestyle merchandising,'' building what looked like exclusive little boutiques in countless department stores. A working-class kid from the Bronx defined Dalton-and-Hamptons status in a way that was accessible on a mass scale. He made it one of the choices for the skeptical 16-year-old New Jersey mall shopper who would become Marc Ecko and who would try to translate his own enthusiasms into something new and to become, finally, more than a fan.

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