Originally created 05/15/04

Marc Ecko's rhino is a forward-moving force



NEW YORK -- His logo might be a rhinoceros, but Marc Ecko might be more aptly described as a chameleon.

He seems to adapt to whatever environment he's in at the moment: When he's courting young, hip-hop fans looking for cool clothes, he's the foul-mouthed, slouchy jeans-wearing, friend-of-50-Cent Ecko; at home with his pregnant wife and toddler daughter, he's doting dad Marc.

And when he's playing grown-up, running a company, attending charity events and doing interviews, he's almost-a-mogul Marc Ecko.

This is the guy who greets a reporter at his sophisticated, sparse Manhattan office to show off his new, more tailored labels, the Mark Ecko Collection and Cut & Sew by Marc Ecko.

There are blazers, cashmere sweaters and hand-embroidered shirts. A snowboard-style jacket in suit fabric and with dress buttons is one of Ecko's personal favorites.

He holds on to youthful touches, though, putting varsity-style lettering down the sleeve of a suit jacket and writing "Nothing Special" across the front of a leather briefcase.

Personally, Ecko can't part with his New York Yankees baseball cap, worn slightly askew, and he still collects toys and sneakers.

"I design for people I know. They (the garments) are for myself, following my consumption tendencies," says the 31-year-old.

"I am growing up with our customer. ... The moment in your life when you throw your back out, you realize you can't do slinky, clingy fabrics anymore."

He adds: "I want to take the classic classification - like Ralph Lauren or Facconable - and make it relevant to someone my age with my interests. I'm at the point where I want a good watch, and good luggage, and good shoes."

He'd like to see thirtysomething men start dressing the way that rappers make music, "sampling" and "remixing" different styles, brands and looks.

"I'd call it modern 'Miami Vice,"' Ecko says with a laugh.

Most other menswear conglomerates were built from the top down, Ecko says, but it made sense, especially considering his core customer, to start with the mass-market Ecko Unlimited and move into more specialized - and expensive - niches.

In addition to Unlimited, Cut & Sew and Collection, G-Unit Clothing, a partnership with rapper 50 Cent, Zoo York, a line of skateboards and skater-inspired clothing and gear, and the women's line Femme Arsenal, all fall under the Marc Ecko Enterprises umbrella. He also does a line of products exclusively for Target and publishes Complex Magazine, which has a circulation of 315,000, and the company is the sole funding source for a Ukrainian orphanage.

Projected revenues for last year top $400 million. His next project is rumored to be a partnership with Beyonce that would feature the pop star's designs.

"I have a real business plan, this isn't a vanity project for me. I don't see my job as having to sell retailers, I want to sell at retail. I want people to say, 'Marc Ecko makes a good shirt."'

Ecko says he is emulating the business model of Ralph Lauren, which has different divisions for different customers and lifestyles. Ralph Lauren Purple Label, for example, offers classics for a clothing connoisseur, while Polo Ralph Lauren is more relaxed and casual.

Even the Ecko rhino is a nod to Lauren's signature pony.

"When I started, the pony was taken, the alligator was taken," he explains.

"Real successful brands like Nike with its swish and Apple with its apple have logos that don't need words to identify them."

Ecko says the rhinoceros makes a lot of sense for his brand: It's a herbivore but fierce, it has a clumsy poise, it can't walk backward and it's a survivor of sorts - something Ecko can relate to since at one point his business was $6 million in debt.

He'd like to say those are the reasons for the rhino. But they aren't.

"At my parent's house in Lakewood, N.J., there is 'the blue room' with a blue carpet and bad wood paneling. To go with it, my dad had a bad collection of wood rhinoceroses, and that's where my rhino came from," Ecko says.

The reason the logo worked, according to Ecko, is that the rhino has absolutely nothing to do with the hip-hop world so no one would see him as a poser.

Anyway, Ecko says his street credibility is real. He spent much of his youth doing graffiti art; now he hires fellow former graffiti artists to do limited-edition screens for his garments.

"In '84, when graffiti and hip-hop were burgeoning, I was into it all. But I couldn't break-dance or rap, so I did graffiti. My tag was Ecko," he explains.

Why Ecko?

The name comes from the story his mother has told a thousand times, he says. When she was pregnant, the doctor said he heard an echo during one of her exams but he didn't warn her that it could be a twin. When he popped out moments after his sister, Marc Milecofsky became known as the echo.