In the 1990's, FUBU was the definition of urban style. The vibrant colored jerseys, t-shirts, and jeansâ€”all scrawled with the FUBU logoâ€”snuck their way into the music videos, movies, and closets of any hip-hop artist of note. But even non-rap stars were crucial in the company's early success. After all, FUBU was, like the acronym said, for us, by us, and gave young black America a stylish alternative to the likes of Tommy Hilfiger â€“ brands willing to sell, but not cater, to the black American dollar.
As hip-hop has grown up, FUBU's singular style has receded into the background, and its once $350 million dollar business seemed to fade. In his new book, Display of Power: How FUBU Changed A World of Fashion, Branding, and Lifestyle, FUBU's CEO and Founder, Daymond John, tells KING-MAG.com where FUBU is now and where it's going to be in the future. - Interview by Claire Sulmers
KING-MAG.com: Why did you decide to write this book?
Daymond John: The corporate world thinks that people like us are just hanging out, smoking weed, baggy pants, and drinking Cristal. I want them to understand that we are strategic thinkers, there's a method to our madness, and that our market is a strong, educated, and disciplined market in some regards.
To be honest, when I first opened the book, I thought I'd be reading about why FUBU failed as a business. Then I read that it's still around. Well, where is it?
FUBU is an international brand. As of last year we opened our 60th store in Beijing, China. We're considered the number one sportswear brand in Korea and the number one street wear brand in France. Domestically, it depends on the category. If it's ladies, we're still sold in Macy's, and then some other outlets. We do really well with tuxedos and suits, which can be sold anywhere from Men's Wearhouse to a vast amount of specialty stores. So FUBU's kind've all over the place depending on what it is, and what people are buying.
Jay-Z once said, "I don't wear a jeans I'm 30 plus/give me a crisp pair of jeans and a button-up" How has FUBU adapted to the new hip-hop aesthetic of button ups, suits, and ties?
Because Jay-Z and them have graduated to polos, it really makes no difference. If you look at the hip-hop fashion back in the early 80's. Adidas, Izod, Lacoste, as well as Benetton had button ups, all the same stuff. It's nothing new to us, it's just a progression of fashion. Everything those guys are wearing has been or is in our line, as well as a lot of times, we were the ones who made them want to wear those things.
You and your crew were all over the TV screen, in commercials, and on billboards. How did you manage to get along after all these years?
We all knew each other since we were before or in high school. I knew one of them since I was 5 years old. We're like brothers. Do we fight? Often. Do we piss each other off? Often. But I think that we know that we have an agenda at the end of the day. We've been doing this now 10-15 years. It's our life. Everybody knows which position they play. Everybody's pretty open about how they feel. It's just communication I think.â€
What do you think of brands like Rocawear, Baby Phat, Akademiks, and Sean John? Do you admire them? What could they do better?
They're successful brands. I always admire anybody who makes me step my game up and who has success, I know how hard it is to get here. Will I critique them and say what they should do better? Not at all. Because there's a reason why everyone has a method to their madness. I can't critique them. I think they've done great. If we both know them, they're great.
Do you envision a return of the FUBU jersey and t-shirts?
The future for FUBU is to be relevant with fashion and be relevant with its name. We happen to be a household name, we're a brand. Anything we think works great for the brand we will do. One time we did music, we do movies, we may do something else, whatever we think is relevant for the brand.
Claire Sulmers has written for Real Simple, Essence, and Newsweek. She hosts her own fashion blog, http://thefashionbomb.blogspot.com/.
AN EXCERPT FROM DISPLAY OF POWER: HOW FUBU CHANGED A WORLD OF FASHION, BRANDING AND LIFESTYLE, published by Naked Ink and available on Amazon.
...I caught myself loooking for a hat I'd seen in a video by this group De La Soul, these three talented guys from Long Island.Â Like a lot of people in my neighborhood, I was influenced by the styles of some of these early rap artists, but the influences were subtle. I don't think any of us realized we were buying these clothes because we'd seen our favorite artists wear the same thing. Or, if we did, we didn't really talk about it. We just grabbed on to this or that trend and called it our own. This was really the first time I was consciously aware of the subliminal power of music videos as a marketing tool, and I was a textbook case. I'd seen this hat, I thought it had flavor, and I went out looking for one to add to my wardrobe. It was a tie-top hat, and I couldn't find one anywhere in New York City. I spent a whole day looking. Brooklyn. Queens. Manhattan. It became a real quest. And when I finally found one, I was disappointed. They were charging like thirty dollars for it, and the thing was so poorly constructed it looked like it wouldn't last but a week.
Remember, I knew how to sew. I was hemming my own pants and making alterations on my clothes since I was a little kid. I knew a flimsy piece of crap when I saw one. But I'd set my mind on that hat, so I bought it anyway, and soon as I got home with the thing I got out my mother's sewing machine and started sewing a couple knock-offs. I wasn't thinking about selling these hats, just that I could follow the pattern and do a better job of it, and at the other end I'd stockpile a few for my own use, because I knew this store-bought one wouldn't last, and because I liked to have options when I got dressed. I used a whole bunch of different colors, so I'd have a hat to match the trim of this sneaker, or the design of that shirt. you might look back at a picture of me from this period - late 80s, early 90s - and think I had this thrown-together look, but it was all about the ensemble, even down to an accessory like a tie-top hat. Everything had to go together, in one way or another.
Soon, a couple friends wanted to know if I could make a hat for them, so I turned out a few more. It was easy enough, just a piece of fabric cut into a simple square. Then I'd sew a lining on it, and take two of these finished squares and sew them together. Boom, you have a hat, and you tie it on the top and you're good to go. The first few hats I made were solid colors, but then I started reaching for some stripes, some patterns. Whatever fabric I thought looked good or felt nice. I went to the fabric store and bought some material. Nothing too expensive. The cost of goods for each hat was less than a dollar, and each one took only ten or fifteen minutes to make, and once I started making them in bigger numbers the costs and the production time came way down.
It's probably useful to put my developing fashion sense into some kind of context. In the world of hip-hop or urban clothing, or whatever you want to call it, there were a couple fixtures. There was Brand Jordan at Nike, and that "sneaker lureâ€ was able to build a whole line of warm-ups, tops, jackets, ball caps and related items. You couldn't really say those items were made for the black community, but there's no denying that they were embraced by the black community. There was Tommy Hilfiger, which didn't seem to target blacks either. Later on, a rumor would surface that Tommy Hilfiger didn't make his clothes to fit black people, but nevertheless the line made its first piece of real noise when a rapper named Grand Puba started talking about it in his rhymes. Tommy Hilfiger on my backâ€¦that's just my flava. The same artist also threw a couple shout-outs to Girbaud Jeans, and these were really the first big designer logo rises of our urban culture. There were bigger artists out there, but outside of Run-DMC with Adidas, no one was dropping these brand names in their songs in such a "product placementâ€ type of way. No one was making these markets.
When I started sewing these first couple hats, there was a company called Cross Colours on the scene, and they were making clothes out of Kinte cloth colors that called to mind the batik patterns out of certain African tribes. Plus, the texture of the fabric itself was unique, almost like a lightweight burlap, and you started to see black people walking around in orange jeans and purple jean jackets. I'd always been into sewing, and doctoring my own clothes, so I was really excited by this development. I used to check out the clothes in the stores, and consider the quality, and see if there were some elements I could layer on to the clothes I already had. I couldn't really afford to buy the items outright, but I wanted the look.
All of a sudden, that "look was everywhere. Big stars like Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg would show up on red carpets and talk shows wearing Cross Colours, and next thing you know everyone was wearing it. Our clothes started to get baggier, and more colorful. Designers like Karl Kani, who came out of Cross Colours, began to really put a stamp on hip-hop culture. The Cross Colour guys were hot, but Karl Kani was fire. He was from Brooklyn. He looked like a young Mike Tyson. He put his name on his clothes, and it hit me like a bolt of lightning, that somebody like me could make a name for himself making clothes.
The Troop line was huge for a while, but there was no personal connection there, the way there was with Karl Kani. LL Cool J was a big wearer of Troop, which was a Korean-owned company, but almost as soon as that line popped in a giant way there was a rumor on the street that the company's name stood for To Reign Over Oppressed People. It sounds ridiculous now, but that rumor killed the line. The Koreans didn't understand their market, and couldn't think how to respond. They used to make those leather jackets that everybody was wearing, and they just disappeared, and even a waiter at Red Lobster could see the importance of building and sustaining positive relations with your core consumers if you hoped to build and sustain any kind of real business.
Meanwhile, I kept selling my hats. Friends of mine started asking me where they could get a hat like that for themselves, and then I started hearing from friends of friends, and after that I started thinking maybe I should make a couple dozen and see if I could sell them at some of these concerts. I closed my eyes and saw that giant can opener my mother used to keep on the wall of our house and reminded myself to think big. I thought, why stop at making this stuff for me and my friends?