NEW YORK — Just like the rhino in his logo, Marc Ecko continues to move forward.

Walking through the streets of Manhattan, the rhino can’t be missed. It can be seen on shirts, hats, jeans and in the windows of Macy’s. While many people know the rhino logo represents the Ecko Unlimited brand, they don’t all know the significance of the animal to the man behind the label.

Modeled after his father’s collection of wooden rhinos, Ecko said he used to play with them and his Star Wars toys as a child. So when it came time to pick a logo to represent his brand, the rhino had to be it.

“People thought I was crazy,” Ecko said. “They had no idea why I would pick such a strange-looking animal for my logo. At first it was just an animal, but through time it has taken on new meanings. It is the only four-legged animal that can’t walk backwards and by nature it is known as clumsy, which I think has come to represent us as a company.”

Ecko might feel his company is a clumsy one, but its growth has been as sturdy as a rhino’s charge. This year, Ecko Unlimited is celebrating its 10th year in business, reaching more than $300 million in volume in the U.S. and more than $10 million more coming from international sales. The Ecko Unlimited family of brands includes Ecko Unltd. men’s wear, the Ecko Red junior collection and Complex magazine. In addition, Ecko Unlimited has several licenses for clothing-related products, owns contemporary cosmetics and clothing company Femme Arsenal and just launched G-Unit clothing — a line represented by one of today’s hottest rappers, 50 Cent.

“About two years ago, 50 had a mix tape out, but as an artist, he wasn’t signed yet,” Ecko said. “There was a lot of buzz that Eminem was going to sign him and that would make him huge. I really always believed in him from the start, so we ran an ad on him before anyone really knew who he was. Now we have a great relationship with him and we talked about launching a line when the time was right. Having a line was always in his business plan, and after a successful album and tour, there’s no reason why the time isn’t right.”Growing up in the Eighties in the culturally diverse town of Lakewood, N.J., Ecko used to get in trouble for spraying graffiti in alleys, an activity that was part of the nascent hip-hop culture. It was a time when hip-hop was just coming to the surface of the music industry, and Ecko couldn’t get enough of the genre.

“It was such a great time,” he said. “Hip-hop was in its baby stages. It wasn’t being served to you the way it is today — it was something you had to seek out. My friends were really into it and it wasn’t just about the music — it was the kind of clothes you bought and the way you carried yourself.”

Ecko said since he couldn’t break-dance like his friends, he stayed on top of his game by immersing himself in graffiti. When his guidance counselor at school told him he should stay away from the graffiti and concentrate on math, he decided to take his art to things that wouldn’t get him in trouble like T-shirts and airbrushing on girls’ fingernails.

“Girls used to line up outside my garage and I would airbrush their nails,” he said. “The proms were crazy.”

He soon began selling the clothes to his peers and his business was born.

“I used to find the name of the management companies on the back of my CDs and call them sounding all professional,” he recalled. “In reality, I had no idea what I was doing. I would send them my T-shirts for the artists to wear. I sent one to a local DJ at a radio station and he gave me a ‘shout-out’ on the radio. That was such a huge deal back then — to give a regular kid like me a shout-out — my friends were so impressed.”

From there, Ecko went off to Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he attended pharmacy school. Still finding art more appealing than counting pills, he said he began making other clothing items with his signature artwork on them. At one point, he was selling his jackets for up to $1,000 each.“I made a jacket and sent it to Michael Bivens of Bel Biv Devoe,” he said. “I put one of my friends’ tapes in a pocket and one month later he was signed to Motown Records. That was huge. I’ll never forget that.”

By his third year of college, he mapped out what he now knows was a “very naive” business plan for Ecko Unlimited. Soon he was attending trade shows with a small collection of clothing. There, he saw that there were so many people with graffiti for their logos, he decided to choose the rhino for originality.

Ecko said he has learned a lot about business in the past 10 years, but he still follows the same strategy: He is a product of hip-hop culture and no matter how large his brand becomes, he can never lose sight of that.

“This industry is so nerve-wracking,” he said. “I see people panic and go nuts over the littlest things. What I have learned is that this really isn’t that deep. We are making clothes based on what we know and that’s that. We don’t overpromise or underdeliver. I never focus on being number one. I focus on creating a good product. That’s all I can do.”

Right now, Ecko said he has quite a bit in the works. He’s working on a high-end men’s line called Marc Ecko to launch for fall 2004, likely with a runway show in Milan or Florence.

He’s also creating a video game with Atari and has plans for his own stores.

“I’ve been showing in Italy for the last two years and I get great reception there,” he said. “I think the European market is quicker to embrace than the U.S. I want to go to an environment where I can be myself.”

Ecko said he will continue to display hip-hop culture through his many business ventures and will support emerging talent in his advertising, but one day he hopes to reach his ultimate goal.

“When the consumer sees the rhino I want them to not be able to identify what came first — the hoody or the video game,” he said. “That’s my goal. That’s what I’m working for.”

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