Twenty years ago, Forrest Gump was #1 at the box office, Boyz II Men were blowing up the music charts, and the OJ Simpson case was catching the nation by storm. And it was twenty years ago today that I took affordable next steps for my emerging fashion line FUBU. What happened next was magic.
My boys and I took one of the biggest chances of our lives; we flew across the country, to a place we’d only heard of, with no knowledge of the industry we were set on becoming a part of. It’s hard to believe it’s already been 20 years since I took my first trip to the MAGIC show in Las Vegas (The MAGIC trade show is the largest in the fashion industry. An estimated 80,000 people attend and roughly $200 million orders are written each day). The time flew by, I guess that’s what they mean when they say, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life”. I had already traveled up and down the eastern seaboard working the black expos, sort of like a traveling flea market, and I was beginning to place my FUBU stuff in these new things that the kids were really into called “music videos” (They were like the 90s version of SnapChat , Instagram, or Cyber Dust). I had heard about this event called the MAGIC show, and that all of the retailers went to it. At first I thought I was going to some kind of magic-themed fashion event where people would be performing tricks while customers bought clothing, haha. I soon discovered that MAGIC stands for MENS APPAREL GUILD IN CALIFORNIA, despite being held in Las Vegas – crazy designers!
At this point in time, my boys and I had already mortgaged my house and turned it into a factory. We had thrown all of the furniture out and were sleeping in sleeping bags in tiny rooms, so we ‘d have enough space for the factory. We were cranking, selling goods here and there. We had about 10 different styles at this point, a couple of hats and t-shirts, one scuba jacket, which we’d made out of scuba material, and a couple of sweatshirts, which we wanted to showcase at the MAGIC show. We had taken this great picture of LL Cool J (after stalking him), and sent it to all of the major retailers with a note that read, “You’ve seen it in all of the music videos, the kids have been asking for it, FUBU just signed it’s first multi-million dollar deal with LL COOL J and we will be at this year’s MAGIC show!” (I had to embellish a little bit!)
The only problem was we couldn’t afford to fly to Vegas and get passes to the show. Luckily, my mother worked for American Airlines at the time, and was able to get us buddy passes. Unfortunately when you use a buddy pass you fly on standby and on a weekend as busy as that, you have a very hard time getting on a flight. We waited in that airport for over 16 hours, some of us were able to fly into Vegas, most of us had to fly into surrounding states, like California, and take the bus to Vegas. Eventually, thanks to the help of my mother, we all made it to Vegas. That was our first hurtle, which we solved by taking affordable next steps. The second problem was we didn’t have $5-10k to pay for a table, stand or booth to showcase our clothing at the show. We solved this with good old fashion bootstrapping! We rented one room at the Mirage hotel (At night all six of us slept in that one room on the beds and in the bathroom). Then we went to Walmart and bought the cheapest, flimsiest rack we could find and hung all of our jackets and shirts on it, in the hotel room. These pieces that we display were the 10 products that people had seen in videos. Method Man wore the hat in the “Ice Cream” video, Busta Rhymes wore the jacket, Brand Nubian wore the FB shirt in a video, Miss Jones wore the hockey jersey in the “Where I Wanna Be Boy” video, and a dancer wore the FB shirt in the Mariah Carey and ODB “Fantasy” (remix) video.
So we were out in Vegas, and we had our clothing on racks in the hotel room. It was time to deal with our third issue; we didn’t have money to get into the MAGIC show, even as guests, just to tell people about the product. The badges went for around $100 and we probably had a total of $200 between the six of us, for the whole weekend. At the time, very few African Americans were involved in the show, and Menswear in general was kind of a dead area in the fashion business. So again, we bootstrapped. We snuck by security and pulled the buyers aside, telling them we had this clothing line called FUBU up in our hotel room. One of the days that we were there, we had just finished sharing a meager lunch, as we had no money to buy real food, and were sitting in the lobby of the Mirage when I saw him walk in, the man who changed my life the first time I saw him on a hang tag, Karl Kani.
Karl Kani and I much later in our careers, still great friends
Growing up, I thought that all designers had to be flamboyant and white. I never knew that a young, hip guy, who looked like me could be a successful designer. Karl Kani was the guy who made me believe it was possible. So I ran up to him nervously, and he immediately said, “Hey, you’re the guy in the picture with LL.” I couldn’t believe he recognized me. That made the trip worth it in itself. He GAVE me and one of my partners badges, and told us to come by the show the next day. When I went by his booth the following day, Karl introduced me to a couple of buyers and store owners (Now mind you, he didn’t have to do any of this. He could’ve easily looked at me as competition, but instead he was incredibly kind and generous). At the time the only cool companies in the streetwear business were Shabazz Brothers, Walker Wear, Mecca, Triple 5 Soul, Karl Kani, and of course, the guys who really sparked the industry, Cross Colours. Karl allowed me to hang out in his booth that day. When I was walking the show that day I saw a couple of guys named Bruce and Norman Weisfeld. A few months prior to the MAGIC show, I’d put an ad in the newspaper, inquiring about financial backing, joint ventures and strategic partnerships for FUBU. Like most of the companies I’d spoken to, Bruce and Norm seemed lukewarm on the idea of working with me. However, when I saw them that day, they were sitting with main guy from Dr. Jays, and he pointed me out to them, saying, “Hey, that’s the FUBU guy!” That’s what really helped us seal the deal. Bruce and Norman realized that FUBU was credible and became very interested in working with me. It goes to show, it’s not always about what happens the first time you talk to somebody. It’s just about getting on their radar and them seeing you in various circles. Once they see that you are making moves on your own, they will start to think about how much better you could be doing with their help. Our hard work that weekend paid off. We didn’t sleep until we got buyers to come to the Mirage and look at our clothing. It wasn’t until we were on the flight home that I realized I’d written over $300k in orders out of that hotel room! Bruce and Norman were our partners soon after.
The MAGIC show has since become my second home, twice a year. We brought our energy, creativity and attitude to the show, and played a big role in why it became such a popular destination. We went from buying one booth to purchasing 40 and putting them together as one big booth. Then we’d build a basketball court in the front. All of the stars and fashion titans would stop by our booth, including some soon-to-be stars.
With Russell and Rev, the men I looked up to and still do
With Tommy Hilfiger, a true pioneer in our industry