By  on July 31, 2014

“Where was Marc Ecko?” the new advertisement series for Marc Ecko’s Cut & Sew line asks.

It’s a valid question. After more than two decades of building his Ecko Unltd. empire (which at its peak generated over $1 billion in global sales), then selling his shares to Iconix Brand Group Inc. in 2009, the 41-year-old has been living the ultimate retiree’s dream: traveling the world from South America to China, spending time with his family in New Jersey, and participating in the mundane, like watching “American Idol.”

But for a man who built a spray-painted apparel line into a bona fide business, the simple life was never in the picture.

“I needed to get my hands wet again,” he said inside his offices at Complex Media in New York. “I just felt like there was this unfinished business in me. It’s a little bit of pride, hubris and vanity that motivated me coming back. The thing that was the worst for me in the six years or so when I was operationally out was that creativity for me.”

So in 2013, Ecko decided to take back the reins of his men’s contemporary line, Cut & Sew, which will unveil its second season at the Liberty trade show in August in Las Vegas. Though the “It” boy of the Nineties, Ecko is now facing a market that offers competition on multiple fronts.

“It’s a new game now and I realize that,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. Getting back on that bike ain’t easy. Your knees ain’t right. You got sciatica. You’re grinding through and you’re like, ‘I need some oil.’”

WWD met with Ecko to talk about his past accomplishments, the current state of streetwear as the sector sees a major revival, his strategy in tackling the designer market, and the future of Marc Ecko Cut & Sew.

WWD: What motivated you to start a streetwear brand like Ecko Unltd.?

Marc Ecko: I remember in college in 1990 going to retail and seeing Stüssy. I was like, “Who the f--k is Stüssy? He’s not real.” I just wanted to torch them because they were commercially successful. I had my own competitive motivation. When I was starting, I was naïvely like, I’m trying to make it for myself, and said it like a mental patient. I started when I was 20 years old. I was trying to satisfy something that hadn’t been in the marketplace prior.

WWD: You grew up in New Jersey in the Eighties. Where did your interest in streetwear come about?

M.E.: There was this genre being born in L.A. and organized in the Northeast around people interested in hip-hop. That first wave of “urban” was productized to be clothing for African-Americans. My first exposure was all the success Karl Kani was having and all these articles in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal that my mother gave to me. She was like, “Son, you can do this.” My interest was a blend between wanting to build a real lifestyle brand like those guys were doing, and doing it in a way that positioned hip-hop and this convergence culture with graffiti art that I came up with in the Eighties from my lens and my vantage point.

WWD: You started your company with your twin sister, Marci, and friend Seth Gerszberg, who is now incubating a few streetwear brands under The Collective. Do you still talk to him?

M.E.: No, not really. Marci speaks to him probably more than I do. We don’t have a professional connection. If we run into each other it’s nice and cordial. There’s no need to. Our dots aren’t connected any more. He’s doing his thing, I’m doing mine.

WWD: Has the definition of streetwear changed through the years?

M.E.: [Initially,] it was a term for just black people or ghetto. I always found that funny. Because from Day One of launching the business and speaking to crossover buyers or buyers with scale, they were always struggling with it. I wrote a whole book about it. People want these labeling taxonomies to organize us so that you belong in aisle four, you in aisle six, you in aisle nine, you in the frozen [food section]. But sometimes things have more nuance than that. I think that there was somewhat of a loaded conversation.

It’s interesting that we packaged streetwear in a cleaner veneer that it describes something different than it was 10 years ago. Now we see “contemporary streetwear” or “progressive streetwear,” but what the f--k does that mean?

WWD: So are these new “high end” streetwear labels any more unique than they were years ago?

M.E.: I don’t think so. I look at brands now and 10 years ago — some brands are here, some not. There still are brands that are heavily graphic, fundamentally very strong provocative graphic design, printables and different prints.

When I was coming up there were a lot of high-end street brands. They were just selling to Japan at the time. There were plenty of Japanese imports. There wasn’t this fashion CNN that hip-hop has been in the past four years. Why is it that? Because it took a designer to take their streetwear labels to a higher price point — which, by the way, is harder to work as a successful business — to make streetwear OK? So suddenly streetwear and men’s wear can play nice. And suddenly the CFDA and the traditional design institutions can see streetwear through a lens of more validity.

WWD: Today’s streetwear market is saturated with hundreds, if not thousands, of brands. How difficult is it for a new label to survive?

M.E.: It’s hard. This industry is so ripe for massive structural overhaul. We’re still an industry dominated by paper and Excel spreadsheets. This creates massive amounts of opportunities and also massive challenges. If you’re not thinking about some unfair advantage at the supply side of it, you’re going to have a really tough time winning on just the brand side alone. Too often people think that a brand is just the woven label or the business card — the kind of gestalt or framework that you’re in my booth, you’re in my brand. But real brand differentiation comes from the needle up. What can you do to create a technological advantage or a resource that would expedite your brand in the marketplace and how it’s positioned in the marketplace? I think about “just in time” manufacturing and what’s going on there, and agile manufacturing. At scale, the import industry is ripe for a revolution. It’s going to come.

WWD: We’re seeing brands like the footwear brand The Greats successfully cut out retailers and go into a direct-to-consumer model. Is wholesaling necessary?

M.E.: I think it’s a blend. I don’t think there’s a one size fits all. And it’s way too early to determine the future. I think Warby Parker has created a lot of enthusiasm. I love the guys at Greats, they’re great guys, literally. Retail is like TV. If you want to talk about the power of branding, there’s still something about being in a duty-free shop and being in an array of brands around you, or a retail of choice, or an all-glass department store. There’s still that entertainment value of all the lights and space, wanting the recreational time of going to the movie and food court and going shopping. That’s what real people do in America. I think increasingly, you’re smart and launching your brand, you’re thinking what is your core competency and thinking who’s the lead actor in your play. How do you really own that in a narrow and deep fashion and serve that to the consumer? From launch you should think that. From launch you should have an e-commerce solution, even if it’s just half of it at launch. That’s respectable.

WWD: What do you think went awry with the Ecko Unltd. business?

M.E.: You want more demand than supply. There was more supply than there was demand. There was too much inventory. The inventory cycles were too frequent. It was too much. Period. It just wasn’t governed in a way that took advantage of the diversity of distribution.

I’ll also say that I wasn’t as operationally involved. I would sit on the periphery, but you know, that had the greatest impact on the business, more so than trends or perception. What’s more material is the lack of governance vis-a-vis making sure that if you’re my client or my partner that I was really optimizing the business for you. It became, you know, everything for everyone and nothing for anyone. My grandma used to say “10 pounds of s--t in a five-pound bag.” Too much stuff and not enough space.

It was not governed properly. Period. End of story. It was schizophrenic. We were trying to take cues from how big retailers were doing their business. We got so big and we stopped looking at our heritage. Your top dollar is as big as Aéropostale so let’s see what Aéropostale is doing versus looking culturally at your roots and your feet. We should have done the latter. We didn’t do that. We started at the top line and looked at other people at our level.

WWD: In your opinion, did the brand sell out?

M.E.: I don’t know. I think that you could build things that are really big at scale and have a massive business but not “sell out” from a cultural point of view. I don’t think the sell-out was the scale of the revenue but it was losing sight of its roots. It wasn’t being nourished to the point that it’s what got you out of the pickle. When it started to operationally, it was too late. To answer your question, I think that it’s not about being the coolest new brand but it’s about being Ecko Unltd. It’s a 20-plus-year-old brand that has a history. Will it be the next you know, hot s--t brand XYZ that’s crowded at Agenda? It needn’t be that. Vans doesn’t try to be that, neither does Levi’s.

WWD: What do you think it will take for Ecko Unltd. to make a comeback?

M.E.: I think Neil Cole at Iconix wanted to clean house and have new people with fresh ideas. That’s a start. They were like, “We tried this long enough,” and wanted to create new energy from an operational business. I do think it’s a function of new energy and new perspective on distribution and being confident. The brand could be marketable again.

WWD: Tell me about Marc Ecko Cut & Sew. Why did you want to relaunch it in a serious way?

M.E.: I got involved with Marc Ecko Cut & Sew only because I always felt like it was a failure to launch. It’s unfinished business for me creatively. The thing that was the worst for me in the six years or so was not being able to wake up when you get an idea, go in, get a sketch out, put it on the sample floor and get a prototype. That feedback was gone. I felt like it was just missing for me. It’s funny once you get your groove. It’s interesting. It’s good to connect to the community and industry, too.

WWD: You’re a nontraditional fashion designer. Is there any pressure to prove yourself?

M.E.: Listen, I didn’t go to FIT. I didn’t go to traditional design school. It doesn’t make me any less valid. I didn’t need that to pass through rubrics to be deemed qualified of those skill sets. It doesn’t work that way in film, animation, code or programming, so why must it work that way in fashion? It needn’t.

I’m such the outsider guy from that cohort. It’s like me having to prove to myself. I’m not an externally motivated guy like that. I have a thorny relationship with the fashion design industry. But that being said, I am learning and relearning. I’m speaking to people. Asking self-effacing questions. Asking buyers to vomit on my stuff. Be real. Meeting with multiline showrooms, sellers, other brands, editors, glean whatever I can.

WWD: What position will Marc Ecko Cut & Sew fill in the market?

M.E.: Our brand will have the dress component, but a youthfulness to it. If you graduated from streetwear, here is what you wore on your first day. There will be more of an emphasis in a denim collection. It will be back to the roots of being more simplified and less overly designed. I’ll be doing some things that are trendy now but not trend-driven. Our biggest partner is Dillard’s right now. I’m very, very grateful to them. We have a small team of about seven or eight of us. It’s a small start-up mentality and environment. We’re just trying to do our best.

WWD: What are the challenges you are now facing?

M.E.: Where do we start? It’s relearning the industry. There’s a new community of stylists, editors, designers, a new community of retailers and less of them. For one, I would say that some folks on the buy side have maybe selection bias and a preconceived notion of what the brand is supposed to be. Me saying, “Marc is back” can be perceived as some optics thing like, “Where was he?” I need to restore a trust with the buy side and be like, “Do you see the difference? Do you see the evolution of this assortment in that? Wow, he is back?”

WWD: Is there a designer whose business you want to emulate?

M.E.: There are so many designers I respect that are doing really good and important stuff. I look at the excitement of John Varvatos. I see that he serves a much older demographic. He traffics in a very specific period of rock ’n’ roll. I think I can build an American fashion brand that philosophically draws its influence from a different period as well.

WWD: What would you want the industry to know about the Marc Ecko of today?

M.E.: I’ve only been back in this less than a year and this is my second trade show. I’ll physically be on the floor meeting with and walking the trade show, selling my product. I don’t know anyone. If you’re reading this, hit me up. I’m down. I’m in the cut. I’m trying to be in this business. Put me in coach, that’s the vibe. I just want to constantly be learning and relearning and connecting and reconnecting. And I’m humbled by it all.

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