Fresh From Dopeville
Monday, February 19, 2007
To establish their District-based T-shirt company in 2004, the young owners of Dopeville literally turned themselves into sweatshop workers.
In one tiny room of the LeDroit Park rowhouse Olmedo Nazati shared with three roommates, he and Dopeville co-owner Deinde Dawodu met after their day jobs to create 300 graphic tees a night. Their heat press worked like a huge waffle iron, and running it was a hot and heavy job. For two years, they built up their biceps along with the business.
"We were two green dudes," Dawodu recalled. "We didn't know anything."
Today, Dopeville T-shirts are manufactured in Montreal, represented by a sales force based in New York and sold nationwide through accounts with 83 retailers, including Up Against the Wall of the District, one of the nation's largest urban clothing chains. They are also sold online and in stores in South Korea, Japan and Puerto Rico. Last year, the partners said they sold about 50,000 tees in about 150 stores.
"We are building a lifestyle brand," Nazati said.
The District is full of aspiring clothing designers who sell T-shirts out of car trunks, but Dopeville is one of the few to gain national distribution and popularity beyond the Washington area. Hoping to take it further, Nazati and Dawodu are looking to urban models like Ecko, which started as a T-shirt company and now has more than a dozen clothing lines, or Fubu ("for us, by us"), which began as a line of homemade cloth hats and, at its peak, had annual revenue of hundreds of millions of dollars.
For now Dopeville is basically a line of T-shirts, sweatshirts and baseball caps. Its graphic designs feature a series of characters who evoke the early hip-hop scene of the 1980s, when Dawodu and Nazati were growing up in Montgomery County -- days when the music was less about the bling and more about the beat, and "dope" was slang for excellent.
Each character has a personality and a backstory: "We don't just slap images and artwork on T-shirts," Dawodu said. "It all has meaning." Among the cast are Xtra Fresh Freddy, a dapper bunny rabbit with stars in his eyes who Dawodu sees as representing vanity; the entrepreneurial Money Making Marvin, a big-headed teddy bear with dollar signs in his ears; and Lil' Champ, a boxy lion who is meant to signify courage.
Nazati, who moved to Maryland with his family from Cali, Colombia, at age 7, is now 30. Dawodu, who was born here to parents from Lagos, Nigeria, will only say that he is 30-something -- because he plans to be in the industry for a long time, he said, and arbiters of urban style have to project youthfulness.
He will say that he was in his late 20s when the idea that became Dopeville was born. Working as a bartender, Dawodu made his friends some shirts with hip-hop-inspired designs, like a Buddha wearing a Kangol cap with a few hip-hop verses written on his belly.
He called the label Grand Republic Garments. He also had ideas for Dopeville and a third label called Guerrilla Golf Wear. Prodded by his girlfriend, he went to Thailand in 2002 to find a manufacturer for his samples -- or, as he puts it, "I was in Southeast Asia trying to get it popping."
He returned to the District after a month with 20 Grand Republic Garment tees with stitching and unusual patterns but had no luck getting a distribution deal. So he took the samples to a local trunk show -- where he ran into Nazati, whose family had been friends with his family for years. Nazati was working in information systems at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and as a party promoter for a group called Moro. He persuaded Dawodu to let him invest in and help build the street-wear business.