By early July, "Billy the Kid" Griffin was beginning to feel like a hunted man.
A stranger had approached his wife, noticing that she was wearing a T-shirt with a Visionz logo and asked her: "You like shrimp-fried rice?"
Visionz urbanwear creator Jung Won Kang is the focus of a campaign by black competitors who say he's cutting in on on their high-end T-shirt market.
(Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)
His 15-year-old daughter had come home in tears, inconsolable from a community picnic with nasty fliers with his name on them. He had stopped answering his cell phone altogether because everyone wanted to know the same thing: Why are you doing this to us?
But when the Unity Clothing Association brought the stand-up comedian to the table at a recent meeting in Largo, he remained defiant about his work promoting the Visionz line of urban sportswear. Yes, it was manufactured by Jung Won Kang, a Korean American businessman who was currently at odds with the association of local independent clothing store owners. The group considered him public enemy number one, something of a usurper -- a carpetbagger with designs on their multimillion-dollar trade in high-end T-shirts and warm-up gear. But hey, Griffin's family had to eat.
The next weekend at the Visionz store at Iverson Mall in Prince George's County, Griffin says, there was an ugly standoff between his supporters and someone passing out the association's fliers. It could have easily led to bloodshed. Griffin decided something had to give.
"I can't look over my shoulders over no clothes," he says. "I'm not going to jail over Visionz and it's not mine. I don't need nobody killing nobody over Visionz, and it's not mine."
What happened next involved a contract, but no killing.
When Visionz urban clothing opened its doors at Iverson Mall in January, the line looked a lot like the other 30 or so D.C.-based sportswear brands commanding upwards of $100 a T-shirt, with the same quality and workmanship, only it cost a lot less.
Helped by endorsements from the popular black comedian -- at one point Griffin was actually saying he was a co-owner of Visionz -- the line was instantly ubiquitous at pickup basketball courts, at the clubs and on the street.
What buyers didn't know was that the real force behind the line -- the vision behind Visionz -- was a Korean-born entrepreneur who had been manufacturing most of the black-owned companies' clothes out of his factory in Springfield for years.
At the rate Visionz was going, the area's black T-shirt designers figured it was only a matter of time before Kang put them all out of business.
"We got two things in this town, urban wear and go-go," says Steven Briscoe, owner of Xtra Ordinary Clothes on St. Barnabas Road. "This is our culture, this is our identity."
Unity Clothing Association was hastily formed, and it immediately set about "educating" the public about Visionz's true ownership through a flood of fliers at clubs, basketball courts and at Iverson Mall, a testament to racial sensitivities in established black neighborhoods where Asian business owners are sometimes viewed as intruders.
"There is already a carryout and liquor store in every black community run by Asians," the fliers pleaded. "How long will we let them RAPE the Urban community? Wake Up! Don't be Bamboozled or Hoodwinked!"
The association spent thousands for a community picnic outside a club in Capitol Heights, and broadcast its message through community bullhorns like the go-go talkers and the street basketball commentators, and gave out hundreds of T-shirts with the words "Visionz: Asian Wear," inside a red circle and slash, and entreated the public to "support your local black business," helpfully listing nearly two dozen black-owned companies.
And it wasn't through. The association leaned on Kang's two black pitchmen -- Griffin and Reggie "Polo" Burwell, leader of the go-go band TCB. For those who'd already bought Visionz clothes, they offered amnesty: Customers could exchange Kang's Visionz brand T-shirt for a black-owned line, free of charge, "just like a gun buy-back program."
"We are hoping that Mr. Kang will just go back to making clothes," says Ronald "Mo" Moten, the community activist and concert promoter tapped to lead the Unity Clothing Association. "He'll realize what he did was wrong, and we can continue having a good relationship."
Kang, however, has no such plans. In fact he's slated to open another location, at Springfield Mall, within the next month. He says the Visionz storefronts are just "sample stores," part of a plan to ultimately take his company national -- not compete with his local customers.
"If Mr. Kang wanted to take over D.C. , we would have done it already," says Daniel Montgomery, a design consultant for Visionz's parent company, East Coast Inc. "They should have a little bit more faith in somebody they've been dealing with for a long time. Mr. Kang doesn't undercut people. Mr. Kang is open, he's honest."
But faith is an awfully quaint concept in American enterprise, especially when so many millions are at stake.
Creating a Business Model
Inside the back office of a Georgia Avenue storefront, the figurative granddaddies of Washington's urban clothing scene, the originators who perfected "out the trunk" commerce in the early '80s, are shaking their heads.
"We've been doing this for 20 years, feeding our kids and grandkids," says Ty Johnson, the 52-year-old co-founder of Universal Madness, his silver hair in cornrows, perched on a desk beside his partner, Eddie Van.
They introduced a generation of Washingtonians to the ultimate legitimate business hustle, creating a blueprint for building a clothing brand, a method that hasn't changed much since: Buy a bunch of T-shirt designs from young artists with an eye to the streets. Peddle them at clubs and concerts out of your van. Get the hottest go-go bands to wear them. Set up a storefront in your neighborhood. Count your money.
"Ty and Eddie were like uncles to me," says Griffin, who peddled Madness at his high school and his Southeast neighborhood. "They showed me how to stay out of the street."
As other entrepreneurs joined the Madness-inspired T-shirt gold rush, Johnson and Van established a wholesale division, Absolut Images, which was run by Griffin's sister Joann Robinson. The company silk-screened monogrammed T-shirts alongside the logos of the many companies that successfully followed the blueprint.
But their reign ended in 1995, when Johnson and Van were jailed on drug charges. By then, the game had begun to change anyway. Kids wanted T-shirts with elaborate embroidered designs.
That was around the time Kang began going door-to-door to different shops, offering his embroidery services from the basement of his Virginia home. "He would pick up the merchandise and deliver it to the store owners on the same day, which was unheard of," says Robert "Shooters Rob" George, owner of three Shooters stores in the D.C. area and Baltimore.
Kang soon mastered the popular puff embroidery style and eventually opened a factory to meet demand. A few years later, he opened another factory in Huntington Beach, Calif., where the T-shirts were cut and sewn, allowing black designers to eliminate another step. "He was a one-stop shop," says George.
In the Washington market, a cultural island where styles change on a weekly basis, Kang quickly became indispensable. His company, East Coast, provided a custom-made product without the high minimum orders required by many overseas suppliers. By the late 1990s, Kang had become the go-to man for product, and virtually everyone on the scene has used him at some point.
Some of the bigger companies, such as the popular H.O.B.O. line, which employs 10 full-time tailors in its own factory, have weaned themselves from Kang in recent years. Some of them have tried to use other tailors, but none are as flexible and capable of producing high-quality output in volume. Those who don't use Kang find it hard to compete.
Van and Johnson, whose Madness line remains popular, went to Kang, too, starting in 1999. "I knew from Day One what he was trying to do," Johnson says. "He got his Visionz from our visions."
Van agrees. "That's where it came from, our eyes."
Johnson says the Unity Clothing Association better get its act together, because the threat is serious, "because Mr. Kang -- "
"He's a baaaaad man," Van says.
Adds Johnson: "He's a genius."
Jung Kang sits in the office of his Springfield factory, buried in a black leather couch, silver snaking through his slightly thinning hair, his expression stoic.
When asked what part of Korea Kang is from, Montgomery, who is doubling as a translator, quips that he of course must be from South Korea -- Seoul, actually -- because "North Korea, I think, is still communist."
This elicits a smile from Kang, who understands enough English to get the joke.
Far from a maven of urban style, he looks like any other 52-year-old suburban dad with a short-sleeved polo shirt tucked into black slacks. A photo of him, his stay-at-home wife and two teenage sons is on the wall, along with watercolors of Korean landscapes.
He's spent most of his adult life in the apparel business. One of five children, the son of a doctor and a homemaker, Kang took his first job at a T-shirt and underwear factory right out of college.
In 1991 he moved to the United States, where he had family and his two small sons could get a better education. The vision for his own clothing line first emerged in 1993, when he went to a trade show in New York and saw sportswear decorated with elaborate embroidery.
He's tried several of his own lines before, none of which really took off. The manufacturing side of his company, however, did -- enough to move out of his basement, open a factory in Virginia and then California and eventually employ nearly 30 people. "His clients were growing, so he felt the need to study this business more," Montgomery says. "As word got around and his clients grew, he had to focus on them."
By last summer, Kang had run into financial problems. He stopped taking orders from smaller urbanwear companies, and told the bigger storefront customers that he would be coming out with his own line, one he ultimately wanted to expand into Georgia and the Carolinas.
He leased a storefront in Iverson Mall. He hired Billy Griffin, whom he'd known for years from his work on the clothing scene -- and who by then was fast making a name around the city as a comedian. Griffin became his top seller. This time, Kang's line took off.
He was surprised when one of the anti-Asian fliers, bearing names of his embroidery clients, made its way to the factory, but "understands what some of the customers on that flier are saying," Montgomery says, speaking to fears that Kang's line might flood the market.
At the moment, outside his office door, a loud hum echoes through the 5,000-square-foot factory where 42 sewing machines are running simultaneously. It is a run for All DAZ, one of several clients who, though part of the Unity Clothing Association, continue to patronize him.
"He believes he has good customers that come to him still," Montgomery says. "As long as he has his own vision and his own goals, this won't be a hindrance in the future."
For now, Visionz will have to do it without the help of its star salesman, who informed the company two weeks ago he was leaving for California to pursue his career as an actor and comedian. "Now he's gone Hollywood," Montgomery says, and Kang beams a proud smile.
"Yeah, I told them I was going to California," Griffin says, sitting some 3,000 miles east of L.A. in a booth at Cranberry's restaurant in Forestville.
"I'm not about to burn my bridges. I have no problems with Kang."
Bald and plump, Griffin wears a plain white T-shirt with a Visionz logo on it, a diamond-encrusted stud flashing from his left ear. When Kang offered the 33-year-old with three daughters a job with Visionz a few months ago, it seemed like a good way to pass the time when he wasn't hosting local go-go shows or traveling for stand-up comedy gigs.
"A Korean offered us free clothing and money," Griffin says. "What's easier than that? It was nothing but a business opportunity."
Griffin grew up in the clothing game while living in Barry Farms and had worked or repped for all the major clothing lines at one time or another, especially Madness and H.O.B.O. He knew exactly how to increase his sales and performance-related bonus.
He would call his friend at Nike and ask him what the colors for the new sneakers would be the next week, then tell Kang what colors to bring to complete the outfit. He got Burwell to wear the clothes and do in-store CD signings for TCB; he had friends in the other go-go bands wear them.
He told customers at the Iverson store, where he worked part time, that he and Burwell owned Visionz -- with the disclaimer "for commission purposes only."
"You got 10 kids coming in with a pocketful of money," he says. " 'This TCB's clothing line?' 'Yeeeup.' 'Who the Chinese people?' 'That's my connect.' "
But after the fliers and phone calls, Griffin says, "it was starting to get hostile. My sugar is going up and down, my diabetes flaring up. You can't be an angry comedian.
"Crazy, ain't it? Over some clothes. I had less problems selling drugs."
So he gave in. His agent worked up a contract with the Unity Clothing Association. He would be paid $375 a week, and host all the events sponsored by the association and its affiliates. He has 17 gigs lined up this year alone. Burwell got a similar financial arrangement.
"They gave me a Michael Jordan deal," Griffin says. "It let me know how important I was to the cause."
'Make That Money'
"Water! Gatorade!" a man in a white tank top calls out as he rolls a cooler through the crowd of about a thousand people gathered for the George Goodman League at Barry Farms public housing complex. At the mike, commentator Miles Rawls is playing the dozens on some poor fool wearing high-water pants as he calls the shots in the bout between Shooters and Rare Essence, two basketball teams sponsored, respectively, by the clothing company and go-go band.
For more than 25 years, this has been the place where street ballers ball, and the players play on the sidelines in the latest gear. In recent weeks, Unity Clothing Association persuaded Rawls to include, between plays, public service announcements about its plight and the need to support black businesses. That's when Kwame Stoure first heard about it. "They make a valid point," the 34-year-old says. "If the Asian guy isn't part of your community, they want to keep the black dollars in the black community. He took the same idea and ran away with it."
A 17-year-old wearing a blue Sabiato shirt and hat doesn't want to give his name, but says he stopped wearing Visionz after reading the fliers. When a reporter points out a plump young man wandering the sidelines in a white Visionz T-shirt, he lowers his voice and leans in close. "They make good clothes. Walk around and you'll see a lot of people wearing it."
Kevin Jackson, a 34-year-old car salesman from Fort Washington, has just picked up an order of fried fish outside the chain-link fence surrounding the court. "You allowing the Korean to make the stuff, right?" he asks. "So why are you mad at him? He gon' try to make that money. . . . I think they should make their own clothes. For real, I think that it's overpriced. And that's why people were buying Visionz, because it's affordable."
Ahmad Najee-Ullah, a 33-year-old construction worker, is on the sidelines in his blue T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of A.D.I.D.A.C, a local black-owned line that is also a member of the association. "People gon' do what they want to do," he says. "Me, I stay with the homeys."
Just a few months ago, sitting down for dinner together would have been unthinkable. As one of the participants around the table at Jasper's restaurant in Largo observes, "Half of us wouldn't trust each other in the street."
But they're all here: representing Uptown and Northeast, Southeast and Maryland, more than 30 of them, all owners of Washington area storefronts meeting as the newly chartered Unity Clothing Association.
"The power that this symbolizes is unmatched," says Pamela Crockett, an attorney tapped to be the association's consigliere. "In the history of recorded thought, this has never been done by people like us."
"This right here is a nuclear bomb," agrees Harold Redd, owner of Squash All Beefs clothing store. "They never wanted a group of black men, the trendsetters, to get together. Let us all get paid off this power."
Feasting together as brothers, they see nothing but possibilities. They could incorporate, take it national. Start registering voters in the stores.
The meeting adjourns with a prayer, and a word of gratitude for the man who wasn't invited, the one who made the dinner possible. "I want to thank Mr. Kang for bringing all of us here together," says H.O.B.O. Shop owner John E. Day, dangling a toothpick between his lips. "It took awhile."