Learn The Biz: Blac Label Clothing’s Mike Black
Kidult.com recently did a great interview with Michael “Mike Black” Yussuff, VP of Product Development and Brand Management at Headgear Inc., the company that houses Blac Label, Antik Denim and Taverniti So brands.
His inspiring story – born in London, grew up in the Bronx, now at the helm of a brand (Blac Label) that’s made $50 million in four short years – is one that every aspiring fashion entrepreneur should be familiar with.
What do you do on day-to-day basis?
One, coming up with concepts for the brands. For example, we’re working on the Antik Fall [line] and the theme is hunting and military so it’s coming up with pieces and items in those categories and deciding which ones work. It’s all about balance. Just because we say “military,” it doesn’t mean grab a shirt and throw a bunch of military patches on it necessarily, but maybe we’ll look at an old TV show like M.A.S.H. and we’ll look at the kind of shirts they were wearing, like henleys, cargo pants and big chunky sweaters; not literally camouflage and M65 jackets. Secondly, with brand management, I am involved with any imagery of the brands—from photo shoots to product seeding. I work with the marketing department and have approval along what direction we go with the images we put out there for the different brands.
With each of the three brands being so different, how do you come up with the different themes?
For Blac Label, it’s based on anything from music to movies. For Antik, the jeans are designed by one of the original Antik designers, Philippe Naouri. I meet with Philippe once a month to talk about what he’s doing with the jeans so we know where to go from there. Blac Label works tops down, Antik works the opposite way. He talks to me about what he’s thinking about doing with the jeans and we try to incorporate that same feel into the tops. Finally, with Taverniti, I work with Deborah Suh, who worked directly with its original designer, Jimmy Taverniti, who knows the genetics of that brand. We haven’t launched tops for that brand yet, but the hope is Fall 2010.
You got your start in Corporate America, so what led you to go out on your own and launch the line?
I was doing financial reporting in Corporate America at Liz Claiborne and my boss quit. After he quit, I ran the department by myself for eight months, but when it came time for a review, they gave me the standard 3% raise and that discouraged me. At that same time, my friend Mike Harris started Total Sport, a sports retailer in Philadelphia. He pretty much sparked the whole throwback jersey craze. So, I joined him as General Manager and we opened 15 stores from south Jersey to Atlanta. We were also consulting with Mitchell & Ness and Headgear as well as doing our own special makeup product with Majestic, New Era and Reebok. We were all making a lot of money on the jersey thing, but I could see the bubble getting ready to burst. And that’s when I came up with Blac Label.
What is the concept behind Blac Label?
The original idea behind Blac Label was part of the success of the licensed goods was the fact that the sizing went so large. There were guys who were 300 lbs who couldn’t wear certain trends like Versace shirts because it wasn’t in their size. Now, there were $300 jerseys that these guys could buy and it made them feel good.
When you launched Blac Label in 2005, who was doing the initial designs?
Somos Thompson was an intern for Headgear and I would basically communicate to him what I wanted over the phone, he would draw it up and send it to me. I then went to visit the factory that was making Headgear’s product and I sat with the factory owner and his team about how I wanted the samples to come back. I am not an artist but I had a binder with 20 pages of different pieces or ideas. I also had samples—including stuff I had purchased over the years—and we were able to use that to put the first collection together.
Mike Black with Aaron Maybin of the Buffalo Bills, both rocking Blac Label tees
To what did you attribute the early success of the label?
We offered a couple of different things. First, we catered to bigger guys so that was an easy way to gain marketshare. That included professional athletes, like basketball and football players that couldn’t fit regular clothes, and they jumped right on it. Secondly, we did something no one else was doing. We took ideas and elements from European, couture and more fashion-forward brands and put them into our clothing in a way that would be accepted by a more mainstream customer.
What advice do you have for young people trying to get into the fashion business?
First, I would say get a job somewhere so you can see how fashion works. Before I worked at Saks, I worked retail at Banana Republic when I was in high school. From there to Saks and Liz to TotalSports, I got an understanding for the different sides of the business. A lot of people watch reality shows like Project Runway or Make My Line and they’re coming up with these garments that look pretty good, but I can look at some of them and say, ‘There’s no way you can produce that in a factory for mass production.’ So, how do you make money on it? And at the end of the day, this is a business. I can come up with the greatest line but if you can’t buy it, put it in your store and sell a hundred of them, then why would you want to? The days of making one garment to sell somewhere are over. How do you support your business that way? How do you grow? You have to be aware of both sides of the coin. So, if you’re a fan of a retail store like Zara then go get a job at Zara so you can learn the terminology and the fabrics.
So actual design experience isn’t necessary?
Actual design is just a small part of the business. I am not a designer. I hire designers and they are interchangeable. Their direction comes from me, its about whoever can execute it.
You also do brand development. Explain what the basics of brand development are and how Headgear uses it.
Headgear didn’t have a marketing department per se, so we had to figure out how to get the brand out there, perceived as cool and do so with minimal dollars. I was a guy who partied a lot in different cities so I contacted all these different party promoters in Philly, D.C., Miami and New York and I would seed them with clothes. They’re the guys that the VIPs first see at the club. So them seeing the promoters in Blac Label was an automatic co-sign. A lot of clothing companies will send stuff directly to rappers and actors, but those guys are getting clothes from 80 different brands so they’re not always appreciative of it. We never moved outside our realm [when it came to branding]. We never just did anybody and everybody.