Back in the early 1990s, I began my journalism career as a fashion writer.
It’s true. Although I dress like a friggin’ slob, The (Nashville) Tennessean asked me to offer insights about socks and shoes and dresses and all the latest styles. I did my best, but everything was weird and dizzying and confusing. Hence, I repeatedly referred to the one brand I knew—FUBU.
At the time, FUBU was best known as the style wore by LL Cool J. Then it grew and grew and grew and grew. Ultimately, FUBU generated more than $6 billion in sales and its founder and CEO, Daymond John, became one of America’s most respected businessmen.
And here we are.
In today’s Quaz, Daymond discusses the rise of FUBU and the heart of Hollis; what makes fashion cool and why Daryl Hall is a better singer than Johnny Gill. You can follow Daymond on Twitter here, and visit his website here.
Daymond John, WTTQ (Welcome to the Quaz) …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Daymond, this isn’t exactly the friendliest question to start off an interview, but, hey, I embrace the quirky. OK, I have a problem with the fashion industry, and it’s this: We’re friggin’ sheep. Seriously, we’re sheep. Someone famous wears a T-shirt that says COOL STORY, BRO, two days later millions of people follow. Someone wears his pants low—BAM!—low pants are in. It seems like fashion, more than anything, shows how unoriginal and afraid to be different most of us are. Am I right? Am I wrong? And why?”
DAYMOND JOHN: So, believe it or not the beauty about fashion is why couture and a lot of fashion houses do runway shows. It’s because the beauty of it is fashion in Europe was really the Africans and the people from the ghetto who would find a dirty little rag but twist that rag the best way you would ever see it twisted and wear it and it wasn’t about the cost. And on the flip-side, who were you watching for this fashion? Because trust me, if the person wearing that “Cool Story, Bro” shirt was a 400-pound guy running around with cheeseburger stains on his shirt, I highly doubt you would see a bunch of people running out to get it. Wearing the baggy jeans where they are sagging … crack heads have been doing that for many years, way before that was the trend. I didn’t see anybody going out and copying them.
It’s all about who is wearing it, why they are wearing it and how cool they want to wear it, why you would want to look like them no matter what they are doing or wearing.
D.J.: Well if you want me to put three questions in one and answer it … I would say get my book, get my book, get my book. As for Red Lobster, I want to tell you on the shouts we hated getting you cheese biscuits all the time. And we do know a lot of customers try to put them in their pocketbook and sneak out with them. As for becoming one of the most recognized labels, it was really me doing something I loved. I sat on video sets for 19 hours a day where someone would come up to me and say we don’t want to use your clothes today, sorry you wasted your time. It wasn’t a waste of time. I saw some of the greatest artist in the world recording their music. I saw some of the hottest video vixens and I was able to sit by the Kraft services and eat all I wanted for free. So things like that, doing what I loved. A day never went buy that I was actually working, I was always having fun and 10 … 20 years later, I’m still having fun. So that is how you become one of the biggest brands in any business. You have fun.
J.P.: You are known as a branding expert. In 2013 what does that mean? With 8 gazillion websites, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. Do businesses still need branding experts? I mean, aren’t there enough do-it-yourself remedies out there on the internet?
D.J.: People need branding experts more than anything now because with 8 gazillion people out there, how are you going to separate yourself from the rest of them? You need that advice and have probably forgotten more than many people have learned in regards to branding. Because everybody believes that they are a brand now. Whether it’s Grandma with her homemade cookies and she has sold five cookies in the last six months and now she believes she has a business. Or the kid making those YouTube videos imitating the President and he believes he is a brand and a star. So how will you separate yourself? There are no do-it-yourself remedies, there are tried and true methods that work and can work against you. You are out there as a brand. You think you are doing it yourself, but little do you know that you are creating a negative brand about yourself. People are out there looking at you from afar. They may dislike you and might not trust you and they don’t want to do business with you because of the way you have represented your brand, not knowing you’re in the public eye.
J.P.: You’re from Hollis which is a place that absolutely fascinates me because of my love for Run DMC. I’ve heard about Hollis in the late 70’s and early 80’s but no little except it sounds pretty special. What was Hollis like when you were growing up? How do you explain the creativity that emerged from there and while we are on it when did you first know of Run DMC?
D.J.: Hollis is an amazing town. I first heard of Run DMC right before their first album came out. Hollis is middle class-to-lower class families, houses and not many apartment buildings. We would play stickball in the street, hopscotch, and walk to school. You know we would have to take a bus to the train and the train to Manhattan, which would take quite some time. Hollis started with Run DMC but Russell Simmons was also the manager of Kurtis Blow and many other acts. And after Run DMC started to blow up they would put on their friends. Russell then went ahead finding other groups in Hollis. These groups would be the bodyguard or somebody in the studio or carrying crates and before you know, it was Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J; it was Tribe Called Quest, Ja Rule and many others to follow. They say there something in the water but it was really just about giving other kids in our neighborhood another outlet and the understanding there was another way to make money and have fun. That’s how Hollis flourished.
J.P.: I’m fascinated by race and culture and how it works. FUBU is obviously for us by us which mean us African Americans and yet it has become this across all race as an ethnicity fashion phenomenon. How do you explain that? I mean literally speaking why were white kids and Asian kids buying FUBU when the us wasn’t us.
D.J.: Greatest misconception ever. Little do many people know my step-dad was a Jewish white man. “Us” has never been that. I created FUBU because Timberland made a lot of negative comments and many other designers did about not wanting a different color or segment of the market to wear their clothes and I would never create a company of the same prejudice that made me feel alienated. So, “Us” was about the hip hop culture. It was about kids—black, white, yellow, whether living in Germany, Japan or America, who all loved, as you just said, Run DMC. We all loved the new basketball player with the bald head with the baggy shorts who didn’t wear the pompom shorts. We all loved the young boxer with the gold chain who had the chipped tooth who talked really high. His name was Mike Tyson—he was a part of hip hop. The first craziest group in hip hop that I called was the Beastie Boys. You know we love people of all colors, and you know FUBU actually first started selling in Seattle, Washington to the skateboarders and in Japan. Trust me—none of those kids were black, so the “us” has always been “us” everywhere.
J.P.: You were on ABC’s Shark Tank, and I mean this with all respect, why? You have done amazing well for yourself. Why Donald trump and the Bachelor dudes in the world of reality television? What was in it for you?
D.J.: As a businessman I was always getting pitched businesses that were just other clothing businesses. And it was because people couldn’t see past the ability to think that all I wanted was clothing, when that was the last thing I wanted. When I could go to Macy’s and I already have 12 clothing lines, five of them are doing OK, three are dead and two or three are just holding water. I want to be able to go to a department store and sell them every item from a toaster to a fragrance to a piece of clothing to a chair to a snow shovel. So I went on the show because it broadened my public exposure as well as I get to talk to fascinating guys like you.
D.J.: Hmmm … greatest moment of my career would be when Prince asked me to join him when he performed 1999 for the year 2000. I was on the stage and you can see me on the DVD Rave UN2 The Year 2000. Prince only lets hot women up on stage but he let a chubby black guy up on stage playing the air guitar. That would be the highest moment.
The lowest moment of my career was when people were trying to ban the confederate flag in Georgia, and the counter part of that was that they wanted to ban FUBU, because of the misunderstanding that “us” was a black version of the KKK. I was very insulted that they would align me with such a hate group.
J.P.: How do you feel about CEO’s delving into politics? Example, Donald Trump backs Mitt Romney and searches for Obama’s birth certificate. Last thing I ever want to do is spend a cent on his goods on the other hand I hate when people are in a position to make a change and don’t. What is your take? Are you politically active and vocal about it?
D.J.: I am politically active but I am not vocal about it. I believe Donald Trump has the same rights as anybody else, he has one vote and he has a voice. If he can use his voice for what he believes in and it’s helpful, it’s helpful and if it’s not, it’s not, but that is the beauty of democracy.
J.P.: My life dream was to work in Sports Illustrated I was hired at 24 and quickly contracted the now-what-itis. You were 30 when FUBU made $350 mil has it been at all hard to come up with what’s next? Is there a negative to succeeding to quickly?
D.J.: It was not hard to come up with what’s next because coming up with FUBU everybody thought that I was struck by lightning once so even if I had a moderate success people were always surprised. I was counted out as the guys who wore baggy jeans who were ignorant guys and had no concept of what they were doing … they just made clothes. That’s what made it fairly easier to sneak up on amongst people because business is business no matter what you do. It takes anybody and everybody a lot of effort and a lot of energy to get to some level of success. I didn’t have a challenge with that and I still don’t have a challenge with that because I am always the underdog.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash if so, what do you recall?: Never thought I was going to die in a plane crash. Hopefully if I do die it will be in a plane crash because it will be over fairly quickly.
• Rank in order from favorite to least favorite—Christmas, Hollis, Frank Sinatra, Cherry Coca-Cola, Keith Hernandez, the number 12, Steel Magnolias, bazooka gum: Christmas and Hollis.
• I want to start a clothing line for sports writers, FSBS – For Shlubs By Shlubs. Can I borrow 5 million?: I would have to think about that.
• Better voice, Jonny Gill or Daryl Hall: Daryl Hall … hmm that’s a tough one. Best question you’ve had so far.
• Five reasons to make Hollis your next vacation spot: 1. Home of Run DMC; 2. The Sandwich spot on Francis Louis and Hollis; 3. The fried fish spot where the ladies have an attitude but the food is delicious; 4. The rock—in the middle of Hollis; 5. Home of FUBU
• Four greatest fashion icons of your lifetime: The two greats that stand out in my mind are Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld.
• Would you rather only be able to wear a Sears 1977 clothing line or have dry booger permanently stuck on the tip of your nose?: Sears. It’s the man that makes the clothes.
• Is there really such a thing as cool or is it just nonsense?: It goes back to the same concept. It depends on who’s cool, it’s the energy. So it is a real thing? Yes
• Five all-time favorite movies: 1. Dumb and Dumber; 2. Friday; 3.Goodfellas; 4. Wall Street; 5. Grinch.