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Friday, March 13, 2009,2:09 PM
Ecko's startup story: Rhinos and maxed credit
By Jessica Harris

To launch his streetwise fashion line, Ecko burned up his credit cards and learned to dampen checks to slow down the bank's cashing them.

NEW YORK (FORTUNE Small Business) -- Fortune Small Business recently sat down with fashion designer Marc Ecko, founder and CEO of Marc Ecko Enterprises, at his Batcave-like headquarters in lower Manhattan. Ecko, 36, told us how he got his burgeoning streetwear empire off the ground. Below are edited highlights from Ecko's conversation with FSB contributor Jessica Harris; for more, see our video of the interview.

FSB: How did you become exposed to hip hop and graffiti - elements that have influenced your fashion?

Ecko: I grew up in the 1980s, in this really eclectic New Jersey town called Lakewood that had a large population of blacks and Latinos. Hip hop was something you had to go out and find back then - it wasn't something that found you.

FSB: You went to college planning to become a pharmacist like your father. What changed your mind?

Ecko: I wasn't happy with the idea of being a pharmacist. I was more passionate about art. And every time I tried to make a business out of art, whether it was airbrushing T-shirts or making custom denim jackets for friends, I felt valid among my peers because they made a big deal out of it.

FSB: What set you apart from your competitors in the fashion world?

Ecko: I had a rich education around graphic design and illustration, even though it was kind of a street education. Today, I consider myself less a traditional designer in the 'Mr. Armani, Mr. Klein' sense of the word and more of a curator. I have good chops at embellishing an item. I know how to apply art and illustration and give a context to core fashion foundation pieces that gives them a different energy.

FSB: What was the hardest part of getting off the ground?

Ecko: Probably learning to fully understand the word "independent." When [you launch a company] you start signing your name to things that commit you fiscally and legally.

FSB: You were capital-constrained in the early days. How did you pay the bills?

Ecko: Credit cards, credit cards, credit cards. [Plus], I learned that the barcodes at the bottom of a check are actually magnetic, so if you wet them down you could slow the bank's ability to cash the check. You could buy 15, sometimes 20 additional terms that way.

FSB: A few years after you started your company, you almost went bankrupt. How did you turn yourself around?

Ecko: It helped that the streetwear space started to get validation. We also put more emphasis on merchandising. I was good at [stuff like] graphic T-shirts and fleece. We started to study the sales reports: "Hey, you did that well, the consumer liked it and they reordered." Or you might have loved that piece there, you might have been emotional about it and thought it was the greatest piece of design [ever], but guess what, they hated it.

FSB: Tell me about Marc Ecko Cut and Sew, your new line.

Ecko: It's an extension of my brand. If you grew up on Ecko Unlimited then you can relate to Cut and Sew. Ecko Unlimited appeals to a slightly younger demographic. Cut and Sew is an older demographic, slightly more dressed up but still casual and still richly embellished.

FSB: Your company mascot is a rhinoceros. How did you come up with that?

Ecko: My dad had a collection of wooden rhino sculptures that I used to play with as a kid. Later on I had a line of 25 T-shirts in the range and one of them carried our rhino logo. I remember buyers saying, "What are you trying to say? Is this some kind of wannabee Timberland (TBL) thing?" But the consumer responded and validated the rhino so i started using it more and more. I wanted a logo mark, not just a word mark. I knew that if I could take all the lifestyle stuff that I embody and sublimate it onto this creature, it would be a recipe for success

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