By Elena Romero
South River, NJ., is about 45 minutes from the Lincoln Tunnel, an unassuming and indistinguishable, middle-class bedroom community, but for the building with the rhinos.
It is here, in a two-story, 30,000-square-foot office complex with giant rhinocer-oses painted on three seven-foot windows, that Marc Ecko has chosen his head-quarters to send his potent and pointed fashion messages.
In many ways it's a most appropriate setting.
Ecko may be 28, running a $150 million business, married and renovating a four-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot home, but at heart he's still the same aching and awkward teenager who took up graffiti art as a way to express himself. Besides, New Jersey's gritty, ethnically diverse, mall-going, turnpike-driving teenage mega-throngs are exactly the people that Ecko wants to reach.
As Ecko Unlimited's chairman, CEO and head of design, Ecko said he's intent on nothing so humble as building "the most Mtn-ally relevant design house on the planet.
"Music and culture and everything centered around them have shifted the way America thinks and integrates," said Ecko. "Wearing a Flibu sweatshirt in a room of 100 people - and you're the only one — says something about your belief system. That's no different from wearing a rhino sweatshirt., Rocawear or Sean John. Brands have become signifiers. [Apparel] is no longer about a person who goes to the Hamptons and has money That's the old guard. Now it represents your political points of view and your taste level of music. The minute that phenomenon gets changed is when this whole thing won't be important."
And in the next breath, he can be nearly cavalier.
"I'm a regular schmuck just trying to make it happen," said the designer "We want to flip it and hope you like it."
The thoughts might be easier to dismiss if Ecko weren't so passionate, or if his business weren't so buoyant.
With a staff of 130 - including 55 designers working out of the Jersey office, the company has grown more than 150 percent in the past two years. It ships merchandise from a 100,000-square-foot distribution center in Houston and also has a showroom in Manhattan. But it is here in South River where Ecko is most comfortable and where he strategically plans his seasonal designs and the growth strategy for making his company brand a. household name.
For Ecko, clothes are the sign of a silent rebellion. "You can still have a rebellion and have ajob. You don't have to have longhair When you walk a mall - that's how you define the state of the union." His battalion are his fans, consumers his soldiers. "They should help elevate the game and change popular culture together," he said. "Hip-hop in the context of world culture is a lot more interesting than in the context of American pop culture." Ecko himself has maintained close ties with a range of diverse public figures,
from Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst to the New York Jets' Ray Lucas to Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man. Having strong relationships with specialty stores and better department stores has enabled Ecko to reach a broad customer base without jeopardizing its brand's integrity.
Ecko's unique market presence is reflected in his ability to relate to hip-hop, skate/extreme sports and a global youth lifestyle. Said Ecko president Seth Gerszberg: "Ecko has a reputation for paying special attention to the nuance and idiom of urban and youth-minded culture."
Ecko Unlimited got its start in the summer of 1993, when its first line of six T-shirts proved wildly popular and garnered mention on Good Morning America. Now, in addition to Ecko's $150 million in domestic sales, there is another $30 million in revenue arriving from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Western Europe and Japan. Ecko Unlimited product has expanded beyond men's sportswear to include juniors', outerwear and leather, footwear, accessories, underwear and gloves. This year Ecko will spend $10 million on advertising - he's a client of Spike/DDB, the ad agency partnership between filmmaker Spike Lee and DDB Needham.
This past spring he staged the latest in a series of fashion shows that reinterpreted everyday looks for everyone - till Streeters, bike messengers, FedEx men. He showcased a wide fashion assortment ranging from his take on the new youth suit to political statements on sarongs.
However, the youthful designer has grander aspirations than the runway. "There's a lot of things I want to do," he said proudly "Fashion is a stepping-stone. You can't just be a [apparel] brand. You have to prove that your game is tight on other playing fields."
Ecko will be teaching a four-week seminar this spring at New York's Cooper-Hewitt. National Design Museum Smithsonian Institution. He's looking to expand into publishing with the launch of Climate, an interactive CD 'zine that will be distributed along with one million units of Ecko-branded apparel priced above $50.
He's in the process of making an animated short film and creating a whole separate video-game property, and he's currently shopping Manhattan retail space for an apparel/bookstore and art gallery "I look at conventional business models as my role model. I look at icons that move culture: Steven Spielberg, Walt Disney, Miles Davis, Michael Jordan." Said Ecko. "I said by the time I'm 30 I want to have my first video game."
HOW ECKO CAME INTO BEING
Marc Ecko was born Marc Milecofsky. Ecko was a nickname from his parents that stuck like mud on the heal of a rhino. When his mother was pregnant with him she complained of kicking in two separate spots. The doctor, according to Ecko, said that wasn't possible; it had to be "an echo in the fluid." When she finally gave birth to his twin sister, Marci, five minutes later, the doctor said, "Here comes the echo!"
So, that's what people called him - all through his school years. (He changed the "h" to a "k" in '97, fortifying the name's international exclusivity.)
Ecko grew up in Lakewood, N.J., an hour and a half from Manhattan. "It's like a miniature Crown Heights in the middle of suburbia," he said. "There's a very big Orthodox Jewish population, as well as a big Latino and Black population pretty much separated by a railroad track right down the middle of the town."
BIRTH OF THE RHINO
Two years after starting his company, Marc Ecko thought it was time to give the company an identifiable icon. "I went to the MAGIC trade show and saw brands like JNCO doing graffiti tags. My core logo was a graph tag. I asked myself, how is it any different from a PNB, Triple5 [Soul] or anyone else that was doing that?"
Before returning to MAGIC, Ecko researched animals. "I had a crazy affinity for animals and their silhouettes - very bold and graphic I remember eating at an all-you-can-eat buffet in Vegas and saw this canned food art of a rooster. I knew I had to come up with something."
The answer came in the form of a rhino. "I felt that an icon would be stronger than any name. I don't think I knew how strong it was going to be when I came up with it. It looked more sportswear-ish and it got resistance from buyers, at first."
It was an animal all too familiar to Ecko, whose father collected miniature wooden rhinos. "I remember, growing up, I used to play with one particular one all the time. I said, let me try to clinic that."
Over the years it has evolved from a straight black line with a rhino in the middle in red, to putting it in a red box, to black border/white rhino, to red field/white rhino. -ER.