How To...Toe The Line Between Corporate And Cool
By Jordan Robertson

(Business 2.0) – At the ripe old age of 20, Marc Ecko, erstwhile graffiti artist and seller of hand-painted T-shirts, founded his first clothing line, Ecko Unlimited, in New York City. Almost immediately, the edgy streetwear caught on with the likes of Spike Lee and Chuck D. Today, 11 years later, Ecko presides over a billion-dollar enterprise that spans fashion categories from shoes and eyewear to watches and bags—his empire even publishes a pop-culture magazine, Complex. The clothing label alone rings up roughly $400 million in sales a year. Despite his push into the mainstream, Ecko has managed to hang on to the patronage of his living-on-the-edge core customers: hip-hop and skateboarding aficionados. In fact, he's inking more deals than ever with reigning music stars—he designs the clothing line of rapper 50 Cent—and he hopes his new menswear arm, the Marc Ecko Collection, will resonate with an urban market that's increasingly ditching baggy Ts in favor of tailored dress shirts. Here's how he stays relevant. — INTERVIEW BY JORDAN ROBERTSON

I started this business with six T-shirts. I came from the street, and that's the kind of underdog story that drives this market. But my lifestyle hasn't changed that much, even though I can now afford to travel and have material things. Opinion leaders have to stay as close to the pulse as possible, and it's really not that hard. It means hanging out in social spaces, just talking to people. The Friday night that a new movie comes out in a suburban mall, I have to be there. The minute you pay someone else to do that and report back is the minute you lose touch.

With the Marc Ecko Collection, I looked at which way the wind was blowing in men's fashion. For someone who's 25 or 35 and came of age with hip-hop and skate culture, traditional American designer brands are so staid. This line is more about how a guy who grew up with my original brand might aspire to dress up. But I don't think the average 30-year-old is impressed by a fancy billboard. The way to market to these guys is 10 feet from the product—nice shops, better fixtures, better lighting. The point of sale is where these people make the emotional connection that leads to purchase.

We ship a new product every 30 days, so we're contributing to the dialogue and constantly pushing style forward, just like we always have. I'll never forget when FUBU started selling to J.C. Penney and Foot Locker in 1998. From what I've heard, they went from $16 million to $100 million overnight. There was pressure on us to go that route, since we were FUBU's No. 2 competitor at the time. But I said no. Foot Locker was cramming an urban lifestyle brand into a sports store. FUBU didn't fit the "mass" DNA. Staying out of those distribution channels was the smartest thing I ever did.

To me, the gospel is your product: Do it well, and it will move off shelves. I don't care if you're selling clothing or electronics—what dictates your success is, Are you relevant at this moment in time? Are you touching a synapse in the customer that somebody else isn't?

Selling Without Selling Out

[*] Projected. Sources: Ecko Unlimited; License magazine