The 7-year-old white boy approaches the door to FUBU headquarters with unabashed awe. He is walking alongside his grandmother, who runs a sportswear boutique in Philadelphia and has come to replenish her store. Is this it? he asks, almost whispering as he turns to her for confirmation that this moment is real.
FUBU, maker of urban sportswear, occupies a suite of offices on the 66th floor of the Empire State Building that boasts master-of-the-universe views encompassing midtown, the Hudson and East rivers and beyond. When this brown-haired kid steps into the FUBU showroom, he looks in amazement at the brightly colored sportswear hanging on the walls of a conference room dominated by a polished wooden table. Every garment--baseball jacket, T-shirt, sweater--has been sized for a giant. Most are emblazoned with a head-turning logo. Everywhere the eye lands--from the black Slinky of a ceiling duct to the diamond-encrusted medallions dangling from the neck of three of the four company principals--the FUBU name stares back.
What's in a name? In this case, everything. When FUBU was born in 1992, it was an acronym for a socioeconomic battle cry: "For us, by us." Coming, as it does, from a company founded by four young African American men who grew up in Queens and watched folks like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren reap profits from the fashion lust in their predominantly black community, it is a call to arms; a brazen display of racial one-upmanship.
These clothes were created for black folks, by black folks. For us, by us. Self-sufficiency. Say it again son, this time with pride.
"For us, by us" rings out like a nationalistic economic manifesto: A community, if it is to survive and prosper, must celebrate its own, support its entrepreneurs and take pride in the products nurtured in its neighborhood.
How many nylon logo shorts can there be? How many massive baseball jackets? It doesn't matter. It's not the clothes, it's the marketing. FUBU became a success because it encapsulated the volatility of race, economics and, above all, politics, in a hip-hop silhouette.
FUBU took a lesson from the early days of hip-hop. The seminal rap group Public Enemy made politics cool, confrontational and commercial with its CDs "Fear of a Black Planet" and "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." Public Enemy transformed politics into a commodity, writes Nelson George in "Hip Hop America," a history of the musical movement. They peddled politics--a vehicle for agitation and empowerment--as dance hall entertainment.
But what once was so clearly an underground business has gone above ground with significant corporate backing, an NBA active-wear license, deals for tailored suits, dress shirts and ties, and even an Indy 500 sponsorship. FUBU also will open its first free-standing store in downtown Manhattan by the end of the year.
"This is American culture. This is not a niche thing," says David Watkins, president and CEO of Icon Lifestyle Marketing, which specializes in urban-centered advertising and marketing.
To be sure, the products FUBU makes are not groundbreaking. FUBU: The Collection, as the menswear line is formally known, includes such classic pieces as letterman sweaters that have been cut much roomier than the standard. The trousers aren't so oversize that the crotch hangs down to the ankles, but they are loose-fitting and slouchy. And the FUBU team has borrowed from all sorts of sports, including skiing, but altering the construction to fit city life.
A typical ski jacket "had a functionality that wasn't needed," says CEO Daymond John. "You didn't need Gore-Tex for a ski jacket. You didn't need that on the street. People were paying $900 and we could do the same style for $300."
This faux performance sportswear with its hip-hop styling has infiltrated closets from Queens to Berkeley, from Paris to Tokyo.
The style has been embraced so enthusiastically and so broadly that it is no surprise that this white kid is touring the FUBU showroom like it's as big a tourist attraction as the Empire State Building itself. And the acronym, initially interpreted as a statement of black empowerment, has been reinterpreted, clarified, expanded--by none other than the founders of FUBU. FUBU may very well be "by us" but it seems to be for a much broader audience than even the founders had ever imagined.
"Because of where we came from, an African American neighborhood, most of what we did started there. But now we realize those weren't the only people wearing the clothes," says co-founder Carl Brown.
"We didn't say black, black, black. We just weren't that extensively traveled. We thought only inner-city kids were into Timberland," John says. "We were a little close-minded because of our environment. It's not only inner-city African Americans but suburban African Americans, suburban Asians. Other ethnic groups were listening to Public Enemy. They liked the same accessories."
A revised, more nuanced reading of "For us, by us," indeed the more accurate reading, reveals it to be a mercurial expression of how mainstream dress is in the midst of a stealth revolution. FUBU--along with such similarly marketed companies as Enyce, Phat Farm, Mecca, Ecko and the godfather of it all, Karl Kani--is not only changing the nature of young men's sportswear, but the look of clothing in general.
"Realistically, this is what is becoming mainstream," Watkins says. "Collections from Donna Karan or Calvin Klein are urban-inspired. They don't say it. It's just what they do."
Evolution of Urban Style
There is a lot of money to be made in baggy pants. "Hip hop is the ultimate capitalist tool," writes Nelson George.
One industry observer values the urban sportswear market at $5 billion. And it's growing, in part, simply because the definition of urban continues to expand. Once, urban simply meant "black." Then it grew to encompass "people of color." Now, the definition of urban is, like the definition of hip-hop, murky. Today, says trend analyst Tom Julian of Fallon McElligott, an advertising firm, "urban" encompasses some degree of ethnicity--its prickly presence is undeniable--but it also refers to how and to whom the product is marketed. Do the advertisements appear in Vibe and Latina or only Vogue and GQ? A company like FUBU, for example, understands the value of getting its product into teen magazines like Right On! and Word Up!
The cut of the clothes is "away from the body and there's some degree of athleticism," Julian says in describing an urban look. "They are styled for the street, but can go from the gym to the street to the club."
But even that definition is changing. FUBU has recently licensed a suit collection through manufacturer Pietrafesa, whose major customers are conservative retailers Brooks Brothers and Nordstrom.
Assures Brown: "We don't like big logos on the back of a suit."
So urban style--and its sub-genre, hip-hop chic--has evolved to encompass everything from high-top sneakers and saucer-size pendants to a citified version of a British patch-pocket country suit. It includes Calvin Klein's slouchy jeans, Donna Karan's cargo pants, the Gap's pro fleece vests, Gucci's eye-popping logo belts and that hooded sweat shirt you wear to the gym.
Hip-hop style is both self-created and appropriated. Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records and head of Rush Communications, can have his Phat Farm line of country club clothes. Sean "Puffy" Combs can hawk his Sean Jean collection of cashmere while wearing a Versace suit. Foxy Brown celebrates Dolce & Gabbana, and Mary J. Blige can be ghetto fabulous.
George notes that any subtext of political speechifying or racial identifying has given way to "I'm paid" consumerism. Indeed, the most consistent element of hip-hop has been its mutating sense of self.
Some folks still don't get that. They still think of hip-hop and urban and street as being a significant market, but certainly not anywhere near the mainstream market. But then what does one make of Giorgio Armani--who redefined the cult of men's power-dressing--outfitting the Fugees? Of Foxy Brown in Calvin Klein's CK Jeans ads? The decisions make both designers look culturally sentient and financially savvy. Indeed, designers would do better to get their flashy dresses and sequined suits on hip-hop's high-profile players than the young generation of New York and European socialites who swoon over pashmina shawls.
But bound up in the definition of urban style is the issue of race. The principle of self-sufficiency that was so crucial to the initial success of FUBU has become a thorn in the company's side as perceptions of the company have not evolved with the size of its business.
"Most of the incorrect perceptions of FUBU come from other ethnic groups that feel we're racist because of the name of the line," John says. "It comes down to buyers, some of whom feel the line isn't proper for their store because it will attract gang-bangers or they see pictures of us in the garments and think we look gang-affiliated."
The complaints, the contradictions, buzz in the background like white noise. The publicity photos of the four founders show them looking tough, gritty, even a little surly. Yet it's that attitude that initially sold the line, affording it credibility. The name reflected a righteous indignation at white-owned companies' slights to people of color. But then success revealed that everybody liked the righteous indignation. Whites, too. The rules of racial politics are not fixed; they are bent by time and laws. Now they also change depending on the speaker, the season, the sales pitch and the bottom line.
"In all reality, what we meant by 'For us, by us,' " begins Brown, and John picks up the thought, "is for this generation. . . . It's Generation Y." Call it revisionist history.
All of these clothes are worn by a "hip, trend-setting portion of the marketplace. It has a heavy skew of African Americans but it consists of Latinos, Asians, people of color, even hip Caucasians who are part of a city lifestyle," Watkins says. "Those kids are driving the trends in American culture."
And they are driving up FUBU's profits. But the fellas don't like to discuss money. It makes them uncomfortable. They say they don't want to offend their customers.
"When we started, we told people dollar figures, but our customers were thinking that we're supporting you and you're throwing it in our face," John says. The FUBU customers would hear about all the millions and wonder how the guys, all in their twenties, were divvying up the dough, never mind overhead, staffing and other expenses.
But the numbers already are out there. FUBU has annual volume of $200 million from its menswear business and $150 million from its licenses. (By comparison, Donna Karan has gross revenue of about $600 million, while Tommy Hilfiger boasts $1.7 billion.)
The company seems to be teetering between the wily nimbleness of a small business and the mincing, paranoid steps of a corporate colossus. It designs and manufactures by gut rather than any retailer's matrix. If the company has 50 orders for a shirt it feels will be a top seller, it'll produce 200 in anticipation of reorders, John says. FUBU doesn't operate on a 10-year plan or even a two-year one. "It's not so structured," Brown says. "It's a corporate structure but it's run like a big family business," John says.
But there are corporate-style worries. A newspaper photographer had better not zoom in too tight on the logos in the spring 2000 line--management fears that the images may find their way into the hands of counterfeiters.
Paranoia, however, is understandable under the circumstances. The seven-year-old company finds itself swiftly approaching the big leagues. And it worries that at any moment, this could all collapse.
"No one has done what we're doing at this level. There's no blueprint," John says. "With fashion companies, the lifespan is about five years, not to mention private companies [which fail even faster]. The numbers are against us."
The brand was built on cocky tenacity and the spirit of rebellion, aggression and materialism endemic to hip-hop. It began with John peddling homemade knit caps around Hollis, Queens--which produced its share of hip-hop artists, most notably Run-D.M.C. The hats led to T-shirts, which in turn led to other athletic-inspired sportswear such as rugby shirts, hockey jerseys and baseball caps. By 1995, FUBU had blossomed into a boutique urban label sold in independent sportswear stores and small chain retailers like Up Against the Wall. At the helm were childhood friends Keith Perrin, J. Alexander Martin, Brown and John.
But what truly allowed the company to grow was financial backing and distribution help from Samsung America. The maker of microwaves and TV sets partnered with FUBU soon after the sportswear company racked up impressive sales at a Las Vegas trade show in 1995. FUBU had arrived as a "lifestyle" brand sold in major department stores with licensing deals that can be rattled off like a laundry list: the suits, the NBA sportswear, lingerie, boys' apparel, footwear, accessories, FUBU Ladies.
On the Edge
Last year, Time magazine ran a headline: "Getting Giggy With a Hoodie." It detailed the popularity of urban fashion houses headed by young black designers. It was both a sign of a generation's success as well as a warning shot. Nothing throws a bucket of cold water on a hot product like a middle-of-the-roader (such as The Washington Post) dishing out compliments.
The edge--that impossibly precarious position where demand far outstrips supply, the knockoffs haven't flooded the market and your brand defines the state of cool--is an intoxicating place. When a company is there, it's easy to feel invincible, as if your time there is eternal.
"That particular business is very fickle. Companies come and go like flies. The survivors are few and far between," says Laurence C. Leeds Jr., chairman of Buckingham Capital Management and a former garment industry executive.
Right now FUBU is on the edge. Sizzling with potential. But after seven years in business and with a widely available product and a bold corporate trajectory, FUBU is getting a little . . . familiar. Got to stay sharp. "We listen to the customers. We listen to the people around us," Brown says.
"If we know a certain sneaker is coming out, we go by those colors. If a certain line in a song says 'blue and cream,' we know what's going to be hot," John says.
The company has little use for traditional trend forecasters and color analysts who make predictions about the popular hues one and two years down the road. "The street moves too fast to come up with a color for the next two years," Brown says.
So far, FUBU has been ready when tastes change. It offers a mix of logo-laden attire, for those who "paid a lot of money for this garment and want everyone to know," John says. But it also cuts garments with virtually no visible logos.
"FUBU was exactly at the right place at exactly the right time with exactly the right product," says Watkins of Icon. "They came into the market when people were starting to be over Tommy [Hilfiger]."
Marketing to urban-oriented customers and retaining them is tricky. "It has to be very organic. It has to seem like it's their choice. Even if you market to them you have to make it feel like they made the decision to come to you," Watkins says. The answer lies in direct customer contact through clubs, concerts and the street, sponsorships of small events, and product placement on celebrities who represent the tone of the brand.
"I've had to go up to video sets and wait for 50 minutes and have a stylist come out and say we don't want your clothes and then have to lug the clothes home," says Martin, who is vice president and head of design.
But then, FUBU got L.L. Cool J.
They snagged him on a street corner in the neighborhood and persuaded him to pose for a photograph dressed in a FUBU T-shirt. The picture ran as an advertisement in the Source. Eventually, the hip-hop performer and actor was contracted as FUBU's official spokesman.
And then came an example of guerrilla marketing, hip-hop as commodity, urban as mainstream. L.L., while rapping his kudos to the Gap in one of that company's television advertisements, deftly slipped in "For us, by us." He was even wearing a FUBU baseball cap.