Fashion designer and business executive
Born Marc Milecofsky, in 1972, in New Jersey; married Allison; children: one daughter. Education: Attended Rutgers University.
Addresses: Office—Ecko Unlimited, 40 W. 23rd St., 2nd Flr., New York, NY 10010.
Began designing and customizing clothing while in high school; founded Ecko Unlimited with partners, c. 1993; adopted rhino logo; company nearly folded, 1998; signed licensing deal with the National Football League, 1999; launched magazine Complex, 2002; signed licensing deal with Skechers, 2003; opened Ecko Unlimited flagship store, 2004; introduced tailored clothing line, Marc Ecko "Cut & Sew" collection, 2004; launched video game with Atari, Marc Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, 2005.
Fashion designer Marc Ecko is a modern Renaissance man, moving from a variety of clothing pieces into publishing, skateboards, and video games, most of which are products of his own company Ecko Unlimited (also written as Ecko Unltd. and ecko unltd.). While his trendy clothes reflected street and hip-hop influences and were marketed to a youthful audience, as Ecko has aged, he has brought mature influences into some of his fashions for men and added lines for women and children. Recognized by many observers as a powerful businessman and marketing genius, Ecko told the New York Times Magazine's Rob Walker, "I want people to think of me almost as Willy Wonka. A pop-culture Willy Wonka, crossed with [wealthy businessman] Richard Branson."
Ecko was born Marc Milecofsky in 1972 in New Jersey with his twin sister, Marci. (The name Ecko comes from a family story about the twins' birth. Only his sister was physically on an ultrasound; Ecko appeared as just an echo. His parents did not know they were having twins until he was born.) The twins and their sister were raised in Lakewood, New Jersey, where their parents worked as real estate agents. They attended public schools, which were ethnically diverse, with many white, black, and Latino kids in the same class. From an early age, as young as elementary school, Ecko noticed that the way someone dressed allowed entrance to a social group. He also liked drawing and comic books.
As Ecko entered his teens, he became interested in hip-hop culture, rap music, and graffiti art. What became his career began while Ecko was still a high school student at Lakewood High School. Hip-hop and rap music were still relatively underground and the songs and clothes were hard to come by. In the mid-1980s, Ecko began doing clothing design in the family garage, using it as both a studio and showroom to design T-shirts. Because of the importance of customization of clothing in hip-hop, he also began offering this service as well. He made money on the side by customizing clothes for people from his school. Ecko even airbrushed girls' fingernails.
After graduating from Lakewood High School, Ecko studied pharmacy at the Rutgers School of Pharmacy. He did a little graffiti, but mostly created elaborate drawings in books. It was at this time that he took the tag name of Ecko, which he later adopted as his last name. Ecko soon believed that selling T-shirts would be profitable. With investments from his twin sister and friend Seth Gerszberg of several thousand dollars, Ecko founded Ecko Unlimited with them and had some success with the company's first six T-shirt designs. He became known nationwide when this first line of T-shirts was featured on the popular morning show Good Morning America in 1993. In the early days, he primarily focused on making T-shirts, some of which were worn by some of the leading artists of the day like Chuck D., founder of rap group Public Enemy, and filmmaker Spike Lee.
In this time period, urban clothing was not yet embraced by major retailers, but Ecko Unlimited was able to sell its T-shirts in boutiques. They sold well, and Ecko moved into more hip-hop and skater styles. A few years after its founding, the partners adopted the company's signature rhino logo. Ecko decided that his company needed a logo after it appeared at a fashion industry event in Las Vegas, the M.A.G.I.C. Show, for the first time. The choice of the rhino was both personal and symbolic. It was inspired by Ecko's father's collection of rhino statues. Ecko told Julee Greenberg of WWD, "People thought I was crazy. They had no idea why I would pick such a strange-looking animal for my logo. At first it was just an animal, but through time it has taken on new meanings. It is the only four-legged animal that can't walk backwards and by nature it is known as clumsy, which I think has come to represent us as a company."
Ecko Unlimited began having financial problems as it expanded into other types of clothing, such as jeans and jackets, and faced difficulties with manufacturers. While Ecko's clothes were popular, Ecko Unlimited lost about $6 million over the first six years of its existence. By 1998, Gerszberg and Ecko wondered if they should fold Ecko Unlimited or listen to advisors who told them to apply for bankruptcy. They tried to make a deal with another, more-established clothing company in an effort to save their company, but no one was interested. Gerszberg and Ecko managed to save themselves for the short term by having their largest creditor give them a loan to attempt a revitalization of Ecko Unlimited by using better suppliers and more designers than just Ecko.
After the 1998 low, Ecko Unlimited soon rebounded. The retail industry was changing with large retailers embracing the urban/hip-hop look. The company's clothing was featured in hip-hop magazines, not just on rap artists, but also on white and Latino stars as well as sports stars. The use of the rhino as the symbol came to be seen as particularly innovative. Walker of the New York Times Magazine found the choice inspired, writing, "In retrospect, Ecko says that using a visual symbol that had no connective tissue to hip-hop and leaving it open to interpretation were crucial. It looked cool as a graphic, was backed by marketing that played up individuality and achievement rather than you'll-never-be-this-cool exclusivity and yet was unspecific enough that made it made sense on rappers like RZA and Fat Joe, but also on [television character] A.J. Soprano, an archetype of the smirky teen suburbs."
Within several years, sales for Ecko Unlimited were in the hundreds of millions of dollars. While sales in 1998 totaled $36 million, two years later they more than doubled to $96 million and the company was able to pay off all its debts. In 2002, the men's sportswear division of Ecko Unlimited had revenues of at least $300 million. By 2004, Ecko's company's retail sales were more than a half a billion dollars, not including the licensing fees for some products like shoes and baby clothes. Sales grew over this time in part because Ecko Unlimited continually added more products and brands to become a lifestyle company.
Ecko Unlimited served as an umbrella for at least 12 distinct brands. The Ecko Unlimited name was attached to men's wear, while Eckored and Femme Arsenal were for women. Outerwear was sold under the name Ecko Unlimited Function, while Mark Ecko Leather focused on leather goods. Children's wear was sold under the names Ecko Unlimited Boys and Eckored Girls. There were also Marc Ecko watches, Marc Ecko gloves, Marc Ecko Footwear for men, women and children, and a line of cosmetics. Ecko also owned Zoo York, a brand of skateboards and related clothing and gear, and made the clothes for G-Unit, a clothing line for the rapper 50 Cent.
While not every deal Ecko has tried has worked out—for example, he negotiated with female rapper Eve to do her clothing line, but failed to reach an agreement—the contracts he did reach were sometimes quite high profile. In 1999, he inked a licensing deal with the National Football League (NFL) to create a sportswear line targeted at young men and women. The NFL wanted Ecko to bring a youthful appeal to its apparel. In 2003, Ecko signed a foot-wear licensing deal with Skechers to create shoes for both men and women. He also had a line of products specifically created for discount retailer Target.
As Ecko Unlimited continued to grow, he signed a lease in 2004 for the company's flagship store on 42nd Street in New York City. Ecko himself was a husband and father by this time, and in his early thirties. As he aged, he wanted his clothes to evolve with him. In 2004, he introduced the Marc Ecko "Cut & Sew" collection. This line focused on tailored clothing for men and a different logo. Instead of the trademark rhino, "Cut & Sew" featured a pair of sewing shears. Of this evolution, Ecko told Samantha Critchell of the Associated Press, "I design for people I know. They [the garments] are for myself, following my consumption tendencies. 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."
Ecko used the success of his fashion empire to try to conquer new worlds. In 2002, he launched a magazine called Complex. With a circulation of about 325, 000, it was a lifestyle magazine targeted at young men which was advertised on the tags of his clothing. Three years after the launch of Complex, Ecko reached another goal with the launch of his first video game. A big fan of video games himself, Ecko had already allowed his clothing and the rhino logo to appear in a number of other games. Created in conjunction with Atari, Ecko had a hands-on role in the creation of Marc Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure.
This game returned to Ecko's love of graffiti art. In Contents Under Pressure, gamers play a graffiti artist who is practicing his craft in the fictional city of New Radius. The artist must tag walls with the assistance of well-known graffiti artists like Future while dodging cops. Creating non-fashion works like video games helped further publicize Ecko's name and made him a celebrity in his own right. Ecko particularly took video games seriously, with strong opinions on what was wrong with the industry and what worked from the perspective of a serious gamer. He hoped to make more video games in the future, developing the "Getting Up" name as a brand. Ecko told the publication Official US Playstation, "I think ultimately, as we build the brand, we'll move the product toward [more customization]. I even see derivative products we can take with the Getting Up brand and do more free-form, open-environment, multiplayer experiences—pit one crew against another. We can get there, but first I wanted to put the flag in the ground and create a really cool graffiti experience, and I knew to do that, I needed to have some other hook that would get the cynic on board."
As a successful businessman, Ecko also believed in charity work. He worked on both a national and international level with less-fortunate young people. Ecko funded an orphanage in the Ukraine and also gave funds to maintain the world's rhino population. Though a philanthropist, he liked movies and music as well, owning five iPods with around 30, 000 songs total. He also collected toys and sneakers. Yet Ecko still thought of himself as a graffiti artist, albeit on a bigger scale. He told Official US Playstation, "My whole career is the ultimate form of graffiti. There are going to be people that hate just like there are the skaters that hated on Tony Hawk, but there are also these artists out there that the broader part of pop culture should be honoring. There's not a set aesthetic that has had more influence on popular culture than graffiti over the years.… I'm taking this culture and putting it on a pedestal. Yeah, I'm making a commercial product, but I'm bombing the system.… I make blazers and woven shirts—to me, getting my name inside that label is the same … high that I used to get when I tagged the backseat of a bus. It's the same hustle and swagger that a kid has, to want to make something from nothing."
ANSA English Media Service, January 9, 2004.
Associated Press, May 10, 2004.
Brandweek, May 14, 2001.
DNR, August 16, 1999, p. 8; November 19, 2001, p. 24.
Entertainment Weekly, April 8, 2005, p. 16.
Footwear News, November 3, 2003, p. 4; December 1, 2003, p. 4.
New York Times, May 4, 2003, p. ST13.
New York Times Magazine, July 10, 2005, p. 24.
Official US Playstation, June 1, 2005, p. 34.
WWD, August 28, 2003, p. 9.
"Bios, " Marc Ecko Enterprises, http://www.marc eckonenterprises.com/bios/bios1.shtml (February 12, 2006).
"The Company, " eckounltd.com, http://www.ecko unltd.com/abouteckounltd/thecompany.shtml (February 12, 2006).
"Mark Ecko, " nymag.com, http://www.newyork metro.com/fashion/fashionshows/designers/bios/marcecko/ (February 12, 2006).