If you see a young person walking down the street, chances are good that you'll see them wearing something with a rhino on it, the tell-tale sign of a design by Marc Ecko, whose companies reported a billion and a half dollars in retail sales last year in 60 countries. NY1’s Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 report on Ecko’s graffiti-inspired style.
If Marc Ecko were a mathematician, I’d ask him about math; an historian, history. But he's a hip designer, so as a 47-year-old guy, I asked him if there was any hope for me to become hip.
Hey, I had to ask and so let the transformation begin.
“Pull your shirt out, OK that's cool,” says Ecko, noticing that I’m wearing a Beatles t-shirt underneath my middle-aged shirt. “That's better! Take the sweater off, the mock neck is not a good look. The mock neck — we have to work on that."
And after a little work?
“Look how good you look. Look,” says Ecko. “Let's mess you up a little bit, there we go. You look — dude, you don't look 47 at all.”
Ecko’s companies reported a billion and a half dollars in retail sales last year in 60 countries. So who am I to argue?
Marc Ecko Enterprises has 275,000-square foot space in the Flatiron District, where he can host buyers around various showrooms. His is your average office, with a full kitchen and a basketball hoop with a gizmo that rewards you if you make a shot.
The success is all that much more remarcable when you consider that Ecko's company almost filed for bankruptcy in the late Î90s.
"I think the best thing that ever happened to me was being on the verge of bankruptcy and I've met a lot of people that kind of presumptively come up to me and will be like, Îtell me how you did it, was your family in the business, who did you know to get the money?’ Just presumptuous, you know. It's like, you did it with hard work,” says Ecko.
The business eventually took off, thanks in no small part to the rhino, an Ecko symbol now known around the world.
The idea came to him in his parents’ home in New Jersey.
"I was probably painting in the garage, and I just, I knew I needed like a mascot or something,” says Ecko. “There it was, that stupid, little, $3 wood rhino, that kind of, has been the best employee I've ever had and been amazing."
Ecko has turned a childhood love of art and design into clothing sold all over the world. And he's branched out to watches, and shoes. He's designed cars. There's a magazine and a video game.
But Ecko says his early struggles have created an introspective culture at the company, always wondering if they're doing things right.
“I don't have the secret, the Willy Wonka formula, that's gonna guarantee — [I look for it] every day. I mean Starbucks calls it caffeine, Coca Cola calls it caffeine, we don't sell caffeine — we sell clothes,” says Ecko.
We are starting to see him publicly a bit more now, as in a recent edition of "Iron Chef America" with Bobby Flay.
And over the past few years Ecko has lent his name and face to the battle over graffiti. Ecko even joined seven young artists in filing a first amendment lawsuit after the city amended its anti graffiti laws to criminalize simple possession or purchase of spray paint and broad-tipped marcers for all persons under the age of 21. A federal appeals court last year blocked the city from enforcing the law.
"Dome folks out there would be like, Îwhat a disruption, look, we changed the law, look the epidemic’s gotten worse, the graffiti explosion since the law was changed.’ Let's not be silly,” says Ecko.
Ecko has grown up and prospered in the hip-hop world.
I asked him if he thought any of the complaints lodged against hip-hop are legitimate.
"As long as people will be young and go through that window in their lives where they need to kind of find who they are generationally and be disruptive, and challenge the system, there will be this culture of disruption, and it's just a natural state of who we are,” says Ecko.
He was born Marc Milecofsky.
"Milecofsky· Didn't have the ring to it,” says Ecko. “Milecofsky Unlimited, yeah, would have been a tough one. Lots of felt letters."
So how did he become Marc Ecko? It came from his surprised mother.
"She didn't know that she was carrying twins. So when I was born, I was the echo," says Ecko. “I was Marcie’s Echo. It was my nickname. And then I adopted this nickname. You could see from high school I was writing Echo from fifth, sixth grade, I was signing my art that way. It was like a nickname.”
But how did he grow so comfortable and accepted in both black and white communities in the hip-hop world? Perhaps it's because he didn't grow up in some leafy New Jersey suburb, but in Lakewood, a racially-mixed working class town down the shore.
"I grew up at a time where hip-hop culture was this emerging dynamic, and kind of this emerging cultural diaspora, and I was able to kind of connect to my peer group through that,” says Ecko.
At an early age, Ecko became obsessed with graffiti art and design.
“I'd open up the garage door, I'd have my handmade easel, a Sears air compressor, [an] airbrush, and my boys would come over on the driveway, and we'd play hoops right while I was painting,” says Ecko. “You know, like, painting on jeans. I didn't have subway cars in Lakewood, New Jersey. It was the back of the Shop Rite, or the skating rink."
“I did some stupid things, but I don't know that, I always kind of had an internal filter. I never crossed that line beyond no return,” says Ecko.
Ecko was totally comfortable in his multi racial world in Lakewood, but Rutgers University was a different story.
"That's when I was in a community of like, kids that were like, black kids that only grew up in a black environment, or white kids that only grew up in a white environment, never even met black kids, or vice a versa,” says Ecko. “Where I was kind of the freak. Like, what's up with this dude? And that's when, it seemed like they were the weirdoes to me, I was just doing, doing me.”
He loved art and design, and so naturally at Rutgers, he went to the school of pharmacy.
“A lot of universities are lacking in hipness, don't make fun of just pharmacy school. I didn’t suffer only from the lack of hipness," says Ecko.
His father had been an unhappy pharmacist and encouraged his son to follow his passion for art.
"I'd hook up with artists and sit here and just draw and draw and draw. These are like my first T-shirt designs,” says Ecko, flipping through some old sketch books. “So I would make stuff, and give it to artists for free. And before I knew it I was like hanging out with these guys, you know. I'd get orders and this is how I started the business, it was just hustling this."
Those early designs were the genesis of work that is now coveted around the world. That success has allowed Ecko to contribute to a diverse group of programs.
The San Diego Zoo named a baby rhino after him for his work in trying to save the world's rhino population.
His company hosts the Sweat Equity program in which high school students take part in a design curriculum.
But perhaps the most unusual endeavor for a hip-hop clothing mogul? Ecko and his business partner Seth Gerszberg are funding an orphanage in Odessa, Ukraine.
"It's been very gratifying to be able to get vested in something, be able to go there three or four times a year, and see the improvement, but also see the failures, see where you have to fix it,” says Ecko. “It's like another business.”
It’s a life that would have been hard to imagine back in Lakewood.
But Ecko says his success hasn't satiated him.
“I know I've seen rich people on TV say that, and you're like, F-you, give me just a quarter of what you have,” says Ecko. “But it really is true. Emotionally, the things that keep me coming to work is the need to create, being able to work with young, creative people, being inspired, being mused, that's the thing. It's the hunt, discovering something new. Those are the things that keep you going.”
— Budd Mishkin