Fashion business mogul, author and FUBU co-founder J. Alexander Martin drew a crowd alongside FUBU co-founder Carlton E. Brown in August at the National Urban League’s annual conference in Columbus, Ohio, with their riveting story of starting an urban fashion business from the ground up in the 1992. In fact, they, along with co-founders Daymond John and Keith C. Perrin, pioneered the “Urban Fashion” genre.
The company later evolved into a billion dollar international fashion brand.
“We were our actual customers, so we knew what our customers wanted. That’s why we named the company For Us, By Us,” Martin said during the panel discussion. “To be an entrepreneur is the craziest thing you can be; to use your vision and power to get something going. We did not have Illustrator; we designed with markers. If you create your first t-shirt and sell it, you’ve created a piece of revenue.”
Without the Internet or much of a budget, the founders of FUBU created a fashion, hip-hop empire.
Now, Alexander is sharing his business acumen with others through a new partnership with Impact. He has inked a promising and lucrative television venture titled, “Behind the Money,” which will air exclusively on The Impact Network. The series will provide expert insight on wealth, demonstrating how to get it, keep it, and control it without letting it control you.
Martin shares, “I am looking forward to our partnership because of their reach and their commitment to my vision of providing quality and impactful content to the urban community.”
FUBU had such an impact on their generation that there are FUBU items showcased in a Smithsonian museum in Europe. Further, they were the first urban company to be featured in Macy’s window; the first African American designers to get an ESSENCE award; and for five years straight, Crain’s ranked them the number two most successful minority-owned company (second to Goya). Oh and the model that Starbucks used to sell CDs in-store? That was FUBU’s idea. Prior, they had done a distribution deal where consumers could buy their music with a purchase of a pair of FUBU jeans.
Their success hinged on knowing their customer. “We got into the fashion game via hip-hop music, and it was clear early on that we had two different kinds of clientele: sports athletes (think John Starks), and street hustlers. We understood what kind of clothing they wanted,” Martin and Brown said.
Today, the FUBU founders are doing collaborations and have some in the works with PUMA, Mitchell Ness and Universal. They also plan to build hotels, with “us” in mind (the rooms will feature natural hair care products), launch radio stations, offer FUBU cell phone service and a FUBU TV app, and continue to write books.
As for his biggest lesson in entrepreneurship, Martin says, “There’s no excuse for someone today to tell me they can’t get a company started. Also, don’t be afraid to fail. You really have to have the stomach to be an entrepreneur. Timing is everything. You’ve go to be there and be present. Show up, do your best, and regroup if it doesn’t work. ”
Below are some snippets from Martin and Brown’s “Lunch, Listen and Learn” panel in Columbus where they discussed old-school marketing:
On marketing and promotion…
We knew we couldn’t go in the clubs and give away free t-shirts, but we did things to make a big impact. Who is the most visible person at a club? The security guards are, so we gave them hoodies and asked them to wear them.
We could not afford to advertise on billboards around the city, so we repainted gates with the words “Authorized FUBU Dealers.” We went to the best locations and thought of little ways to advertise our products affordably.
Before product placement became popular, we wore our own clothing when we were out having a good time at a party, a club or anywhere else. People wanted to be with us, and party with us. So, we wore our clothes to promote them. Later, we approached artists who were fans of hip-hop music and asked them to wear our clothes in their videos. As a result, we had customers all over the world since music artists were on MTV; it gave us all the exposure we needed.
On the LL Cool J factor…
LL was in a GAP commercial, but he was signed to us. We suggested he do the GAP commercial, but to wear a FUBU hat and say “For us, by us” while he was rapping. The kids in the street knew what he was saying. The GAP executives didn’t. We were willing to take chances that other companies were not willing to do.
On rolling with the changes in fashion…
You have to be out and aware of your surroundings. I’ve always been nosy, so I tended to stare at what people were wearing. Then we started to travel to a lot of different countries, and I went to every city just to understand what people were doing and wearing. Then, I’d bring it home and interpret it. Now, you can go online to see what people are wearing in other cities around the world.
On maintaining their brand…
In 1998, we started doing our own commercials, and made $250 million in sales.
Coming from Queens, N.Y., it was always important for us to own our own stuff. So, when Samsung came along as a distribution partner, they gave us a local salesman to get our products out. We negotiated with them for two years, but we weren’t desperate, so the deal worked as we saw fit. Back then people were giving their companies away for 75%. Not us.
Everything we did was hip-hop inspired. This was important for the success of the brand. We thought carefully about who to partner with, and made sure it was an authentic situation and controlled by us.