MARC ECKO HAS LEARNED TO LOVE HIS MISTAKES. BIG TIME.
Marc Ecko has taken some time out of the spotlight — whether that was by choice or not is debatable. After the designer’s rise to the top, becoming the number-one streetwear brand in the world, Ecko was hit with serious financial problems and was even forced to put his luxurious 23rd street office on the market. After a highly public downfall, it seemed Ecko was done as a fashion company and maybe even as an individual. But if you’ve ever met Marc, you know he’s not going to just lie down and give up. Mass Appeal sat down with him to talk about his bookUnlabel, authenticity, and the resurgence of Ecko.
Mass Appeal: Why write a book now? It seems like 2005 would have been a much easier selling point.
Marc Ecko: I wasn’t able to fuel a book in ‘05. I wasn’t reflective enough back in my so-called “golden era.”
MA: What gave you the idea?
ME: Well I was asked to go to Singapore to give a speech. The other speakers were Malcolm Gladwell and Stefan Sagmeister, two incredibly intelligent men. I figured I was going to have to write something eloquent and this kind of just came to me. I had been given an offer to write a book before as well.
MA: Singapore is so sick.
ME: Yeah, they paid for everything too. First class flight — the whole nine.
MA: That’s tight. I think the most interesting part of the book is when you talk about the struggles early on in the company, specifically all the debt. You said you were using employees’ personal credit cards. That’s crazy.
ME: I think we were all so young and naive that you get wrapped up in that buzzy thing. You feel like you’re a part of something bigger than any one person. Reflecting on it now, it’s really not a sober or responsible way of thinking. When you’re 27 years old, you don’t necessarily have the experience to know that it’s irresponsible to put people on the hook like that. In the end, we unwound everybody, but it certainly didn’t come without a tremendous amount of drama. It did feel at moments like a charade.
MA: It’s got to be stressful to know so many people’s lives are on the line.
ME: I used to feel terrible. Here I had this thing where I wanted everybody to participate and come along for the ride, but you realize that even with the best intentions in mind it’s not fair to ask people who aren’t equity to do those kind of things. Unfortunately, I think that’s a common incident with start-ups. It was not pleasant.
MA: How could you have avoided all of that debt early on?
ME: Imagine you’re trying to design a Swiss army knife. All the customer wants is the fucking knife to be sharp. But your business-building ego makes you want to build the file, the bottle-cap opener, the reflective thing — you want all this shit. So you indulge and build more than you need. The way that you could avoid it is, just do less.
MA: But, to a certain extent, that overextending builds buzz around your company. Even though you can’t deliver on your promises right away, the illusion helps.
ME: No doubt. You are one hundred percent right. I talk in the book that in the same period our optics game was world class. From presentation at trade shows, [to] media campaigns, buying ads on that “I’ll gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today”— type shit. On the strength of the belief that we could execute, people extended us the credit. For better or worse there was this belief in the hustle, this belief that everything would be good. In the end, most of the stakeholders did well, but it definitely didn’t come without some bodies along the road.
MA: Do you think any luck went into that?
ME: Oh, there is no doubt there was luck. There were days where I was on the balls of my ass ready to fold it up, dog. I just wanted to make the wolves go away. It tests you in terms of what your tolerance for pain is. To my partner Seth’s credit, he had a much higher tolerance for pain than I did. So he, by the nature of us being partners, extended my tolerance threshold. Also, my sister Marci was always cool-headed and rational, far less emotional. On the other hand, I was very manic. Some days I’d be like, “Fuck this, my shit’s going to work, no doubt. Who does Ralph Lauren think he is? Fuck Stussy!” And then some days I was breaking down. I mean like, managing from underneath the desk. It’s not pretty. I don’t care what your entrepreneurial hustle is — being a creator is full contact.
MA: In the book, you say that your so-called “golden era” was your least authentic period.
ME: That period — from a perception point of view — people give me the most credit for being successful just from a compliance to numbers. Sale volume, perception, news media, all of that stuff. But at the same time, that period was the most inauthentic. I was trying to be something I wasn’t and I’m not.
MA: What or who were you trying to be?
ME: In the book, I talk about branding and how Puffy has his own personal brand. Puffy’s game is authentic. You can love it or hate it, but it’s authentic. His game and his salesmanship is just who he is. That’s who he’s been since he was selling tickets for celebrity basketball games and A&R-ing at Uptown records. He’s one of the best sales guys.
For me to parrot that isn’t authentic. There is this fashion fallacy that speaks to the Ralph Laurenitis – — if he does this, then I should do that. You should always do you. My need to try and be out there in the scene and optics game just wasn’t really who I am. That’s why I reflect on that period and not necessarily begrudge it because I learned a lot, but it wasn’t my best period. It definitely rounded out my education.
MA: Understandable. It seems like Ecko is kind of having a resurgence. How did the relationship with Shipes and Smokers Club/Cinematic happen?
ME: Well, Johnny Shipes was squatting in our offices. He was getting his Smokers Club and Cinematic job done with just a couple interns. He’s the type of dude who I can ask for a favor and, no questions asked, he would get it done. I let him take over our marketing department and he just vomited on all of the products. Some of the team was really pissed, but others were able to go and rework some stuff. He’s just been really helpful. Don’t let Shipes fool you; there’s a genius underneath those droopy eyes. Now he’s the marketing director and Joey (Badass) is one of the creative directors.
MA: So what’s good with your new line coming in the fall?
ME: Well, what we were trying to do with this collection is to be a little more purposeful with the narrative. It’s something as a design process that we hadn’t done really in the last four years or so. I figured, why don’t we use this as a framework to create some narrative and envision this theme of who we visualize our guy to be — our consumer. Where’s the commonality between me and this guy, broadly? The idea of “let’s take something from my own history,” like being a pharmacy school dropout, and maybe that will create some really interesting narrative for art direction.
MA: How did you bring that narrative to light in your designs?
ME: The first delivery is very collegiate-inspired. Using the framework of a college dropout as the aesthetic. The second is that you come home from your final exams thinking about, “I don’t want to go back to school,” so you go get a job with your hands. Hence the second delivery is all blue-collar, on-the-dock type of shit. The kid’s good, he wants to earn, he wants to impress the boss. You kind of create these frameworks that are a little bit self-masturbatory. You do it so that you have some narrative for everybody to connect to other than, “oh, here’s a merchandising plan and it needs to be twelve woven shirts.” If you start designing like that, you lose sight of the romance.
What I was trying to do was force my team on their heels a bit with narrative. I think it helped to invigorate the team some. You’ll see it in the execution of the product. When you see these themes of the university-kind of college motif, the workwear motif, and then the “gunning for the boss’ job” motif. It’s kind of like playing with action figures; you need to play make-believe.
MA: Kind of like writing a screenplay?
ME: Yeah, that’s it, man. If you don’t have that kind of paradigm, you’re going to get this random illustration. If you want to be “commercially responsible” to appeal to that trend do it through the lens of a narrative. You have this framework to see stuff through and it helps.
MA: Is there a piece (or pieces) that stand out or are core pieces in this line?
ME: Well, in the book I talk about how merchandising is similar to being a casting director. You wouldn’t cast Grease as a one-man show. There’s a reason that there is a John Travolta. There’s a reason that there’s a nerdy guy and a brute alpha guy. Your assortment needs to behave that way. So there’s items that aren’t necessarily core, but they play a character to the theme or motif.
The “John Travolta” in this line ends up being the really strong array of woven shirts. If I had to give a “most improved” certificate to my team, it’s this category of business which, for me, I think had gotten too “fourth-week American Idol.” There was too many patches, seams, V’s and overlocks. It was kind of this “bad western meets Melrose” type of style and it was becoming a cartoon of itself. So we needed to bust up the woven-shirt category and get it to be more nuanced.
MA: Seems like you took a great deal of time defending a personal narrative. What should we expect?
ME: The only thing I can promise you is that you won’t be naked.