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Eyeing Gen Y's Future

I’m a deep thinker and could probably be an intellectual, but fundamentally I’m a 13-year-old at heart,” says Marc Ecko, the 30-year-old CEO and co-founder of Ecko Unlimited, the urban fashion company with a distinctive rhino logo. “I like to sit in my underwear and watch ‘SpongeBob Squarepants’ [the Nickelodeon cartoon series] while I’m eating low-fat Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Or I play video games until 2 a.m. Then I design.”

This may be why the designer has such a grasp on the wants of Generation Y… they are the same as his own. “I like all the elements of my childhood. I like good animation. I like good films. I like good toys,” says Ecko, a collector of comic book-style action heroes. “I thrive on design. I take the best elements from various designs and combine them into new products.”

From these diverse elements of his childhood, Ecko, together with his twin, Marci Tapper, and Seth Gerszberg, have created a thriving international design and lifestyle house, reflecting contemporary youth culture. Founded in 1993, Ecko Unlimited, which started as a T-shirt business with six wildly popular graffiti-inspired shirts, expanded quickly into the hip-hop, skate/extreme sport and designer fashion markets. In 1999, the company began producing footwear, leather goods, gloves, outerwear, underwear, bags and a women’s collection, Ecko Red. In 2002, under a licensing agreement with the New Jersey-based eyewear company, Viva International Group, Ecko Scopes, a line of ophthalmic frames and sunglasses, made its debut.

The roots and the name of Ecko Unlimited, however, date back to the ’80s. When Ecko was in the sixth grade in Lakewood, N.J., he discovered Subway Art, a book by Henry Chalfant. “That drew me into the graffiti business. I started doing airbrush work on T-shirts, signing them with the tagline, Ecko,” he says. “Echo was my nickname at that point. Before my sister and I were born, my mother didn’t know she was expecting twins. She complained about an unusual pain, which the doctor explained was a type of echo fluid. So I became known as Echo,” the designer notes.

Through word of mouth, Ecko’s airbrush business continued to flourish into his college years. He studied pharmacy at Rutgers University for three years. “But I was always interested in painting and I felt I was good at it,” he says. “I expanded from T-shirts into jeans and jackets and started doing a lot of customizing for Michael Bivens [of Bell Biv DeVoe] and Chuck D [of Public Enemy] and  for Spike Lee when he was in the ‘Malcolm X’ movie. The timing was good. That type of graffiti embellishing was in. It was the only real street fashion. At that point, street fashion was an immature genre, filled with T-shirts. There were no brands.” So he decided to fill the niche with Ecko Unlimited. “It seemed like more fun than being a pharmacist,” he adds.

Although the business was founded in 1993, the rhino icon did not appear for several years “After we participated in our first M.A.G.I.C. show, I realized we needed a distinctive logo,” the designer says. (M.A.G.I.C., which is held in Las Vegas, could be thought of as the Vision Expo of men’s apparel and accessories). “At that time, we were only using the Ecko name. I noticed all our competition had similar handwritten graffiti logo treatments. I didn’t want to be another ‘me too.’ I wanted an icon,” Ecko explains. “At the same show, while sitting at an all-you-can-eat buffet in Vegas, I noticed a display of old food cans with great images, including one of a rooster. That got me thinking. Shortly after, I was at my parents’ house. My dad has a huge collection of rhinos, which started when he bought a bad wood sculpture of a rhino. Then people started giving him rhinos. Anyway, I thought this might be a good fresh logo for us. The more I thought about it the more meaning it took on. Rhinos are sort of prehistoric and sort of mythological. It’s a big, clumsy animal, but when it runs, it’s very nimble—kind of like our company—a little awkward, but it can definitely move.”

One of the main reasons the company continues to charge like, well, like a rhino is that it’s constantly reinventing itself. “We need to communicate with our customers. The kids who are our customers are continually looking for newness. Simply put, our philosophy is to anticipate what the end consumer wants,” says Ecko. “We’re always expanding and rethinking our use of ideas and materials,” he says. “I like to mix disparate elements and see if they stick.” For example, take a brown shoe that looks like it would be worn by an old man, pair it with a sole used on athletic footwear and you have a completely new look.”

For Ecko, it’s in the details. “We’re not about clean, new and crisp,” he says. “We are about little details—cookies and treats. My sister tells me I waste money on the interior of products because I like to put lots of interesting things inside. But I know the kids who are my customers notice them and expect them from me.”

Not only has this attention to detail captured Ecko’s core market—16- to 20-something males and females, who are young in spirit and urban-minded—it has also brought in unexpected customers. “We are always amazed at the breadth of our customer base,” he notes. “You make a good shoe and a 38-year-old will wear it. Our jeans are selling to a much broader base than we had expected. And we think our new eyewear collection will have the same breadth.”

Expanding into eyewear was both a logical and essential move for Ecko. “I’ve always been intrigued by what eyewear can bring to a brand. It really scores in the lifestyle category. It’s the one accessory that can instantly transform the way you look. With just a change of eyewear, you can go from preppie to Mafia boss to snowboarder,” Ecko notes. “You can’t completely alter your attitude with any other accessory. If you wear a cable-knit sweater and khaki pants, you’re going to look preppie even if you put on snowboarder boots.”

And with Viva, Ecko feels he has found the ideal partner. “Viva knows what the hell they’re doing in this business. They run a really smart business. I don’t see Viva and us as a licensor/licensee relationship. Harvey Ross and Viva are my partners,” he emphasizes.

What the designer would like to do is rethink how eyewear relates to Gen Y. “I want to break down the status rules and be more accessible, providing options that are more precisely for my core customer,” he notes. “I would like to earn my way into optical by the merits of my products. I expect to be designing eyewear for a long time.”

Product, says Ecko, is fundamental. “Many designers communicate with the consumer through elaborate retail spaces and runway shows. I would rather bolster my name with product,” he notes. “To me runway shows and all the accoutrements of standard fashion are dinosaurs.”

And Ecko clearly understands his customers. In addition to apparel and accessories, Ecko’s products include video games and automobile rims. “Ralph [Lauren] has fine china. I have car rims. It’s another way of communicating,” he says. “We have to pay attention to what the kids say and react by contributing to their cultural base. What my customers want are car rims. The bridge between corporate America and young adults is too far apart.”

To further bridge that gap Ecko founded Complex, a lifestyle magazine targeted to his consumers. He also designs physical spaces. His foray into this type of work began five years ago when he was asked to design a store catering to the young, urban market in New York’s SoHo. He created the Yellow Rat Bastard (he owns the trademark) from scratch. “Since then we have designed a lot of spaces. It’s one more way of communicating with our customers.”

If he were not a designer, Ecko says he would like to be an anthropologist. “I love to travel and study the youth culture—whether it’s to a ‘B’ mall in Freehold, N.J., a restaurant in France, or Stanley Beach in Hong Kong.”
Ecko’s advice to young designers. “Learn to merchandise. Anyone can design on paper and form two-dimensional shapes,” he says. “What’s difficult is turning it into a product that functions, is technically correct and sells. When we started the eyewear line, the first thing we did was work on packaging. We pulled old album covers for ideas. I want my customers to have the emotional experience of looking at eye-catching packaging, handling and opening the case and then seeing the product.”
However, the current project Ecko most anticipates is the birth of his first child, a daughter, in September.