Before streetwear became a fashion force in and of itself, there was FUBU.
Started by four friends, the brand (an acronym for “For Us, By Us”) was a $350 million operation with 200 freestanding stores in the late Nineties. Through a new deal with Century 21, founders Daymond John, Keith Perrin, J. Alexander Martin and Carl Brown are relaunching it with a 10-piece collection of hoodies, T-shirts and other classics. A few hundred shoppers are expected at the 15-unit chain’s downtown flagship for Friday’s meet-and-greet with the founders who gave considerable thought to reviving the business after a seven-year hiatus.
Three years ago when Perrin took over FUBU’s social media, there were three followers. “I was looking around at all the other brands, and I thought, ‘Wow, FUBU only had three followers.’ And the three followers were three founders. Damon wasn’t even following the brand [laughs.] I thought, ‘Let me jump in here,’” Perrin said.
As more fans reached out asking about where they might find products since they had wiped out what they found on eBay and in thrift stores, the founders talked about bringing back the brand. To get a better handle on shoppers’ interests, there were test runs at retail with Crepeman in Tokyo and Urban Outfitters. FUBU also sold select products online (and continues to.) “We had hoodies at full price in the heat wave [last summer] and people were just buying them, and buying them and buying them like they had to get it before it was gone,” Perrin said.
That validation led to licensing deals for such categories as watches, underwear, women’s apparel and eyewear. The latter will make its debut at Vision Expo on March 22 in New York. Perrin also runs FUBU Radio, which has about 200,000 listeners. FUBU will sell to Century 21 on an ongoing basis. Perrin said, “We thought this would be a good fit for us. Everything went easy and smooth. The communication was there. Sometimes you deal with certain people and they don’t communicate with you. They put out stuff you don’t like, then you’re in a jam and you’re trying to get your stuff out. But these guys have been good from the start.”
Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond has also paid homage to the brand. “Kerby has said that people didn’t give us the proper respect as a brand that motivated and inspired a lot of these young designers. That’s one of the reasons he showcased us in his fashion show and we were very honored to be a part of it,” Perrin said.
While John is more widely known for his role on “Shark Tank,” all of the founders are involved with the brand’s comeback. There are plans for a FUBU hotel, Perrin said. A prospect in Selma, Ala., fell through, but Baltimore, Harlem and Brooklyn in New York are possibilities. “When people hear FUBU, they come at us in a different way. Sometimes you have to be careful about some of the deals that you sit down and try to develop. They try to get you because of the name, the brand and the money it has made,” he said.
Before influencers were a marketing strategy, FUBU gave products to musicians they knew or liked. Rapper LL Cool J provided mega-free publicity by wearing a FUBU hat in a 1999 Gap commercial and remains in touch with the founders.
Before FUBU got going, the four friends helped John sell the tie-top hats he created outside of the Jamaica Colosseum Mall. After racking up $800 in sales in an hour, they agreed they were onto something. Martin, who studied at FIT and worked at Macy’s, was the only founder with any fashion know-how. Perrin worked as a property manager, John was at Red Lobster and Brown was employed by a shipping company. After their regular work days had ended, they would meet up to work through the night on FUBU. John’s mother mortgaged her house for $100,000 to help get the business going, and the cofounders later agreed to move in to help pay that off, Perrin said.
The brand’s first go at MAGIC resulted in $300,000 in orders, but their elation flattened after realizing there wasn’t the capital to finance that. John’s mother suggested running an ad in The New York Times to make it known that financing was needed to fill $1 million in orders, Perrin said. Flooded with phone offers, Perrin said, “Loan sharks and all these people called us offering $10 million over the phone. Being from the neighborhood, we knew that it just doesn’t happen like this so we were very skeptical.”
Although John started selling hats and other products around 1989, FUBU’s formal plan was not solidified until about 1992. The brand had its share of starts and stops in the four years that followed. One respondent to the ad, the textiles division of Samsung, was legitimate, although the founders didn’t quit their day jobs right away. The condition was that FUBU had to make $5 million in three years. Much to everyone’s surprise, they rang up $30 million in orders in the fall of 1996, Perrin said. At its peak in the late Nineties, FUBU generated about $350 million annually.
“What’s funny is we didn’t think the brand was going to last that long. We thought, ‘OK, this thing is going to last for three years. Let’s just make as much money as we can and have as much impact as we can, because it’s going to be over,” Perrin said.
Friendship and business can be a tricky combination. Perrin said, “Oh yeah, we’ve had a few bumps. But the thing is we’ve known each other for so long that everyone knows everyone’s personality. When we get to the point where we know that one person is frustrated or is dealing with something, we know to leave them alone,” Perrin said. “There will be a heated argument and 30 minutes later, it’s like, ‘Do you want to go out to eat? OK, cool, let’s go to the steakhouse over here.’ We’ve known each other for so long that we became like brothers. It’s a little more than friends with us.”
With most of the interest in the brand driven by 18- to 34-year-olds, Perrin said, “Most of these kids weren’t born when this brand launched…for us to be pushing 50 years old, and some of us are 50 — to have 18-years-olds demanding that we bring the brand back is a true test to the hard work we put in over the years,” Perrin said. “We’re not trying to be a $350 million company again right off the bat. If that happens, it happens. Now it’s more or less let’s just give the people what they want and put the product back out there and see how it does.”
Century 21 is considering collaborations with other brands in the year ahead. Having worked with FUBU when it launched in the Nineties, the team has a personal relationship with the brand since they worked together for so many years, according to Heather Feinmel, director of marketing and public relations. “They really are such an iconic New York City brand and we also founded our roots here, starting our first store downtown in 1961.”
But there isn’t anything he would tell his younger self. Perrin said, “I partied too much. I don’t have any regrets doing that. I don’t drink any more. I had a health scare with my sugar a little while ago so I had to change my diet. I lost 25 lbs. I’m feeling good, I’m looking good and I’m looking forward to this launch. I haven’t been able to sleep for the last two weeks.”