The headquarters of Fubu, high atop the Empire State Building, is a seamless blend of old- and new-school decor: Classic dark-wood-paneled walls and a polished conference table right out of Law and Order look at home near a tubular state-of-the-art stereo system that's adorned with a red, black and silver Fubu banner. A TV plays a Mýa video, another an Aaliyah video and a third features footage of don't-try-this-at-home motorcycle tricks. Retail buyers hurry in and out, while the receptionist announces over the PA, "Keith? Has anyone seen Keith?" Everywhere – in the conference rooms, on the walls, on the owners and staff – are the colorful, meticulously designed clothes that brought in $200 million last year for Fubu's men's line.
And here's Keith – Keith Perrin, one of the four founders of Fubu, along with Daymond John, Carl Brown and J. Alexander Martin – ambling down the hallway dressed in baggy denim overalls, a cream ribbed sweater and a white wool cap. All, of course, by Fubu. Perrin and his Fubu partners are all under thirty and hail from lower-middle-class beginnings in Hollis, Queens. They're now gathered around their office pool table (they often play at the close of the day), surrounded by an explosion of bright shirts, sneakers, jeans, NBA-licensed jerseys, leather jackets. Hell, there are even Fubu basketballs.
In seven short years, Fubu has grown from a business run out of John's house in Queens to a major-league label. Famous folk like Busta Rhymes and Mariah Carey wear Fubu, and the clothing has been featured on some sixteen TV shows, among them New York Undercover. The company has blossomed thanks to a tireless work ethic – the partners usually put in fifteen-hour days – and a famous neighbor: LL Cool J, an acquaintance of John's for years.
"We had just started to do shirts, and we decided we needed LL to wear one in a magazine, to get some more exposure and to seem more legit than we were," explains John. So the partners camped outside LL's house, then corralled him into posing for a photo with the shirt on before he stepped into his limo. "He wasn't too happy about it," says John, "but he was trying to help out some guys from the neighborhood." The photo was used for a Fubu ad in The Source. Now LL is the company's spokesman.
The four founders, who are close friends given to finishing each other's sentences, established Fubu – which stands for "for us, by us" – with a mission. "We started it after years of hearing that other major clothing companies really weren't acknowledging the African-American market," says John. "Not that we make it only for African-Americans. We make it basically for a culture, a generation. There's cool skate guys that like what we have. They listen to hip-hop, but they listen to rock also."
Everyone nods. "One of our biggest markets when we started out was Seattle," says John, picking up a pool cue. "That was surprising. So it wasn't just hip-hop, in a sense – guys like Korn wear it."
The skyrocketing urban-sportswear market grosses an estimated $5 billion a year, propelled by brands like Enyce (pronounced en-EE-chay), Mecca, Fubu, Phat Farm and Eckō Unlimited. Michigan-based Pelle Pelle, one of the most successful new labels, grossed a remarkable $69 million last year. These companies have impacted the fashion world as significantly as rap once changed the musical landscape. "The term urbanwear is kind of tired," says twenty-five-year-old Ryan Cross, the marketing and advertising director of Mecca. "We just consider ourselves a men's collection." Indeed, brands like Fubu and Enyce are making inroads into suburban malls across the country.
" 'Urban' men's lines," scoffs Def Jam co-founder and chairman and Phat Farm founder Russell Simmons. "It used to be the ethnic-clothing division. At least it's not the nigga division. The big deal about Phat Farm is, we sell pink golf sweaters – a lot of them. You can't call that urban. That's the most non-urban thing, in terms of what a buyer's looking at."
Since the Eighties, hip-hop kids have put their own tags on the clothes of the stodgy upper class, coopting and customizing upscale brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Polo. Hilfiger started out designing "very preppy, traditional classics," says his brother, Andy, the company's vice president of public relations. "But around 1992, Grand Puba started rapping, and he gave Tommy a shout-out in one of his songs. And in the urban neighborhoods, all the kids started picking up on Tommy."
"It's called anti-culture," says Billy Ceisler, vice president of marketing for SRC, an innovative marketing company whose clients include the Wu-Tang Clan. "Young urban America, when they rocked Fila or Ralph Lauren, they used to say to the rich people, 'Fuck you, I can wear what you wear. I'm gonna rock it differently – I'm gonna wear my hat to the side and everything big and baggy – but fuck you, you're no better than me.' "
Eventually, in the early Nineties, enterprising minds – many of whom were clothing and shoe fanatics who weren't seeing exactly what they wanted in stores – decided to take out the middleman with their own home-grown, grass-roots alternatives to Polo and Tommy and Calvin. "We filled the fashion void in the young-men's market," says Eckō designer Marc Echo, 26, whose loose, colorful designs are worn by hip-hop kids and skateboarders alike. "The generation that had been bringing product to the marketplace grew up on thirteen TV channels and had no clue what the Internet or MTV meant. Department stores would send three 40-year-old white guys over to Italy to get inspired and design things for 16-to 25-year-olds. They didn't have a clue. The consumers are reactionary, fickle, oversensitized by so much stimulus. We relate to those kids. We are those kids."
Back in the day, a shopping trip for most guys was equivalent to a prostate examination. That has changed. "When's the last time you heard a lady going, 'Guys hate to shop'?" asks Jeff Tweedy, executive vice president for Sean "Puffy" Combs' new clothing line, Sean John. "Remember that? It's not like that anymore." He laughs. "It's like, 'What? Shop? Let's go!' "
Russell Simmons phones from the airport, as he is literally on the go. "I'm flying to New Orleans," says the man whose Def Jam record label was responsible for bringing the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy to the masses. "Phat Farm gets off on taking classics and making them have a little twist. John Kennedy Jr. has always been in love with our seersucker pants. He also loves our oxford shirts – all of our classic stuff."
Simmons, whose company grossed around $20 million last year and recently rolled out a jewelry line called Baby Phat, salutes the competition. "I like Mecca a lot," he says. "Enyce is a brilliant design. Fubu is honest – they know their audience, they understand their audience." He likens the attitude of fledgling companies to that of rap music: "You know what happens in records, in blues and jazz and rock? They change to make it more accessible. Then the rappers came along – they didn't make a fuckin' compromise. Not one. And over twenty years, their position in the marketplace has grown, even though they never said a word to the mainstream. They talked to each other."
When you're a young clothing entrepreneur, a trip to the bank or a club or a party is not an extra-curricular activity. It's research. Marc Echo, who started out making custom denim outfits for folks like Public Enemy's Chuck D in the Eighties, says that he's always on the job: "Once, I'm in this mall in the middle of Jersey, having lunch at Ruby Tuesday. I see this big, goofy white kid – he's, like, six four, he's got tattoos all over his neck. He's wearing an olive-drab rip-stop jacket and carrying a yellow nylon toolbox that he rigged as a backpack. It was just so fresh – it was all graffiti-markered up. On his left shoulder, he had taken 200, 300 straight pins and put them through the epaulet, pointing up. I said, 'Why did you do that?' " The kid replied, "So no one can grab me from behind." Echo promptly cast him in his next fashion show.
Eckō's street-wise aesthetic, he says, is important to the growing company. "Our execution may sometimes be clumsy or awkward, but I think that's what makes us special," Echo reasons. "The customer knows that it's not, like, Big Brother behind the scenes just making another brand."
Because this form of fashion can change by the day, most new companies rely solely on aggressive, often unconventional marketing methods. Enter the famed Street Team, pioneered by Loud Records founder Steve Rifkind, 37, the chairman and founder of SRC. The team, a young squad with a presence in thirty-five cities, practices a revolutionary way of marketing that constantly takes the pulse of the kids on the street; they gather research and spread the word on Mecca and myriad other labels, including Levi's.
The guerrilla-style group canvasses the streets – and clubs and pool halls and schools – in a van. "It's like a bag of tricks," says team member Gaby. "We got shirts, baseball caps, fliers, football jerseys, albums, posters. You open it up, you gotta stand back. They see us in our van and they go crazy. You got five young hip-hop kids jumping out a van with Yankee jackets in yellow, red, blue, black, green. You like, 'Damn, where the fuck they get those?' "
When a company introduces a new item, says Gaby, "you have to put things where people can see it. If there's gonna be a hot night at a club, you show up and put a jacket that's not out yet on a bouncer. Every person that goes into that club is gonna see that jacket." He is kicking back at Rifkind's plush New York apartment with team members Billy Ceisler and Buddha. They are casual, joking around as the champagne is being passed, but at any moment they're prone to break into an impromptu ideas meeting. Later they will hit a slew of clubs to see what's happening.
Rifkind – a workhorse who doesn't smoke or drink and can go days without sleeping – sometimes calls a meeting at five in the morning. His motto, he says, is "no rules."
"There are going to be some companies, whether it's your Filas or your Reeboks, that have lost complete touch with the market," says Ceisler. "If you don't change the way you do things, you're gonna sink. Steve was the first to do street teams. There are so many people trying to bite what we do. You call any company, they have alternative-marketing street-promotions companies."
Rifkind, sitting with team members at his kitchen table, motions to Ceisler. It is time for a meeting. It is midnight.
Jeff Tweedy is getting ready to launch the first line of Puffy's Sean John label. This morning, he says, he and Puffy chatted about the packages that they're sending out to "celebrities and hot people" for the big debut. "I have a little note prepared by him to send to these VIP people," Tweedy says. "In other words, Leonardo DiCaprio or Michael Jordan gets a hat and a shirt from Puff saying, 'I want you to be one of the first ones to wear it.' "
Puffy is not the first artist to get into the fashion business. Already the Wu-Tang Clan runs the successful Wu-Wear line of contemporary sportswear, and Master P recently rolled out his No Limit Soldier Gear. But Puffy is the first artist to create an upscale line, which he describes as "urban high fashion."
"We do things that the normal guy on the street is wearing, but we're taking it to the next step," says Tweedy. "We do lamb's wool, cashmere, beautiful gabardine. A lot of our inspiration comes from Prada, Gucci and Versace."
Tweedy, a former Polo designer, was just about to go to work for Fubu when Combs came calling. Frequently, hot designers or design teams are snatched up by rival companies. In the last few months, Polo raided Phat Farm, Mecca lured Ryan Cross from Eckō, Phat Farm snapped up five former Mecca designers and assistants, and Fubu hired an Enyce executive as vice president of marketing.
Enyce is one of the fastest-growing new lines. It was founded two years ago by three Mecca veterans, Tony Shellman, Rolondo Felix and Evan Davis, who decided to strike out on their own. The company has an appealingly cross-cultural vibe: Shellman is African-American, Felix is Filipino, Davis is white. Staff at their New York office ranges from Ukrainian to Chinese-Indian to Japanese-Hawaiian. An office luncheon often resembles a United Nations food court.
Indeed, most of these companies have staffs that reflect the real America. "I don't want to be in the urban-clothing business," says Simmons, "I want to be in the American-clothing business. This week in Billboard, four of the top five records are rap records. This is an indication of an open-minded kind of audience who doesn't say, 'If it's made by black, it has to be in some kind of segment.' "
The one thing this audience requires, it seems, is an emotional connection to the clothes. The designers have to keep close to the streets, close to their source – in touch but not in your face. "Our customer is extremely fickle," says Mecca's Cross. "The key is exposure. This customer doesn't want to be hit over the head repeatedly with images of your corporation. They want to feel some exclusivity, some bond with you. You don't want overkill. It's a fine line between credibility and financial success. Every day it's a battle.
Today that battle is being fought in midtown Manhattan, where rap fans are waiting in line outside a record store to meet Foxy Brown. This crowd is dressed – would you meet the foxy Ms. Brown wearing less than your best? And it has opinions.
Sean, 22, has had it with Air Jordans. "Jordan's out, so the Jordans are out," he says. "And Nike doesn't have nothing to wear no more." It is pointed out that he is actually wearing Nikes. He looks down. "Yeah, but these are tight." Fubu he likes. "It's been around for a while," he says, "but it's been low. Now everybody is starting to catch on to the craze, so it's gonna be hot like fire."
Neal and Raw, both 18, are wearing Polo and Mecca. They say that sometimes they drop $500 a month on clothes, "if necessary." Mecca is their favorite. "We don't wear no Reebok Classics, no L.A. Gear," says Raw. "And Tommy's played out."
"What are you talkin' about, fool?" says Neal. "I'm sportin' that right now. No diggity. Check it."
Kiwi, meanwhile, likes Tommy. "That, or Fubu," says the twenty-year-old. "People want to look like Jay-Z and DMX and LL. As long as it costs over a hundred dollars, it's cool. You won't want to be wearin' no ghetto-ass, worn-out twenty-dollar sneakers."
The customer's ever-changing mood is one of the many pitfalls in this business. Just ask Fubu's Daymond John. "We're always paranoid," he says, looking out from the sixty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building. He and his co-founders tick off a list of potential dangers:
"Growing too fast," John says.
They all nod.
"Jerking the customer," adds Martin. "Counterfeiters," says John. "I think they do as much business as we do."
Their biggest concern, however, is staying in touch with their audience. "Keeping our identity is the most important thing," says John. "Our customers are not dumb. People think they are. They're not. Once we lose identity, they done with you."