Jones, Carl and T. J. Walker
Carl Jones and T. J. Walker
Fashion designers, entrepreneurs
The meteoric ascent of Cross Colours, the streetwise clothing line developed by Carl Jones and T. J. Walker, was stunning not only for a black-owned business in a white-dominated industry; it was astonishing by any standard. Overall in U.S. retail, “shipments in mens/boys sportswear (Cross Colours’ primary market) were up only 4 percent in 1992,” Shelly Branch reported in Black Enterprise; but “Cross Colours pulled off an increase of 493 percent.” Cross Colours designs—most notably loose-fitting hip-hop attire sporting Afrocentric patterns and dotted with upbeat printed slogans—captured the imagination of the inner city as well as some markets previously considered inaccessible to such “exotic” fare, especially mall shoppers of all colors. Jones and Walker’s parent company, Threads 4 Life, later began marketing the popular Karl Kani jeans line; soon they had inspired a group of imitators in the pursuit of a market few designers had previously cornered.
Jones and Walker have been scrupulous about giving something back to the communities that made them successful, starting the Cross Colours Common Ground Foundation, which underwrites teen counseling services. Perhaps just as importantly, the two have provided a positive example where none had really existed before. “We opened the door for a lot of African Americans who were looking at apparel as a career,” Jones told Entrepreneur magazine. “Because of that, I feel that I cannot fail. If I do, I could hurt the future for other African American designers.” Though too-rapid growth forced them to move from manufacturing to licensing in 1994, Jones and Walker demonstrated what a combination of ambition, creativity, and an appreciation of previously neglected styles can achieve. “Clothing Without Prejudice,” the legend printed on their tags, expresses not only a design and business philosophy but a growth potential that not even the company’s founders could have anticipated.
Jones was born in Tennessee but grew up in the Watts section of South-Central Los Angeles. In his youth, he worked at the family auto-wrecking business in nearby Gardena. After graduating from high school, he attended El Camino College, majoring in architectural engineering; he also studied at Otis Parsons School of Design and Trade
At a Glance…
Carl Jones born c. 1955 in Tennessee; raised in Los Angeles; family owned auto-wrecking business in Gardena, CA. Education: Attended El Camino College, Otis Parsons School of Design (now Otis School of Art and Design), and Trade Technical College, all in California.
Thomas “T.J.” Walker born c. 1961 in Toomsuba, MS; raised in Meridian, MS; moved to Los Angeles, 1985. Education: Received B.F.A. in commercial design from Delta State University, Cleveland, MS, and M.F.A. in graphic and screen printed designs from Louisiana Technical University.
Jones founded Designers Screen Printing, 1982; sold company in 1985 and founded Surf Fetish, a screen printing and design concern. Walker taught art in Mississippi before moving to Los Angeles; joined Surf Fetish staff and helped Jones start Cross Colours in 1990; cofounded Threads 4 Life parent company. Portion of company profits channeled into Cross Colours Common Ground Foundation, an urban antiviolence campaign. Cross Colours sold in 1994 restructuring bid after heavy demand created large-scale debt; founders then moved into licensing.
Awards: Threads 4 Life named “Company of the Year” by Black Enterprise magazine, 1993.
Addresses: Homes —Los Angeles. Offices —Addresses of licensing headquarters currently unavailable; Cross Colours headquarters: P.O. Box 911091, Los Angeles, CA 90091-1091.
Technical College. Jones soon became more interested in clothing design than architecture, so he secured a $20,000 loan and in 1982 started Designers Screen Printing, a company that provided T-shirt designs for such highprofile clothing lines as Guess and Ocean Pacific. Three years later, having earned a healthy profit, he sold the company and founded a new one, Surf Fetish. The new concern’s trendy beachwear caught on like wildfire and was soon worth $20 million.
Jones had blossomed into a world-class entrepreneur, compounding his keen design sense with a shrewd understanding of economics. While at Surf Fetish, he hired Thomas “T. J.” Walker, a young designer who had grown up in Mississippi and moved to Los Angeles in 1985. After earning a scholarship and his master’s degree in graphic and screen printed designs from Louisiana Technical University, Walker spent some time teaching art. But he was looking for something more, so he piled his belongings in a trunk, drove to California, and lived in his car until he saw a classified ad placed by Jones.
Jones and Walker found a rare creative chemistry in their work together. Though Surf Fetish was enjoyable and lucrative for both, they agreed that they wanted to move on. “We wanted to do something that would express our heritage and where we were from: the colors, street influence, music, the whole Afrocentric thing,” Jones recalled to Gayle Sato Stodder of Entrepreneur. “We wanted to create something we could relate to.” Added Walker: “The kids we saw on the street really inspired us. We wanted to be a resource for them.” The inspiration of hip—hop culture formed the basis for the Cross Colours line. The two began working on the new project in 1990.
Leaving Walker—as vice president—to field the lion’s share of the design work, Jones took charge of most of the business end of Cross Colours, financing the new enterprise with the help of sold Surf Fetish shares, the mortgage on his home in Beverly Hills, and the sale of his Ferrari and 17 Harley—Davidson motorcycles—not to mention a bank loan. Having raised $1 million, Jones and Walker labored mightily to prepare a presentation at the Men’s Apparel Guild in California (MAGIC) Show in March of 1991. After working frantically in order to maketheshow, “all the cash was gone,” Jones recollected in the interview with Branch. “We went to the show on American Express.”
Their clothes were a splash and soon they found themselves with $5 million in orders. The partners now had to find a way to finance the manufacturing required to meet this sudden and overwhelming demand; overnight success was more burdensome than they had ever imagined. “It presented financial problems, production problems— every problem you can think of,” Jones told Stodder of Entrepreneur. When the Oaktree chain of menswear stores—with whom Jones had done business in the past—placed a large order, “we asked [the company’s president] for money so we could buy the fabric,” he commented in Forbes. Even shipping $15 million worth of orders in their first year meant meeting only about half of the demand.
The company’s success was so dramatic that Cross Colours took a booth at Black Expo U.S.A., an African American trade show, “to let consumers know we’re black-owned,” the company’s marketing director told Business Week. “We didn’t intend to come across as a militant company,” Jones noted in Black Enterprise —though he does take pride in Cross Colours’ pointedly multicultural staff. “We simply wanted to be known for making clothes for African Americans. That’s what our style is about, our colors, our fit.” As far as everyone else was concerned, he said, “We figured, if they dig it, they do; if they don’t, they don’t.”
Jones and Walker averted a threat to their success by locating a potential competitor, jeans designer Karl Kani (Carl Williams), and signing him on. As a result, the added revenue of Kani jeans and its expanded line were expected, according to Branch, to make some $34 million in sales in 1993. “Since [Jones] had a good eye, he decided that the Karl Kani kid was a comer, and he was right,” Oaktree president Derek Tucker explained to Branch. “His major competition is sitting in the office right next to him, and that’s brilliant, to compete against himself.”
In addition to expanding the company’s revenues and markets, however, Jones and Walker made good on their promise to help uplift the community. Thus they created the Cross Colours Common Ground Foundation. The organization was designed to help reduce gang violence. “Black Americans, as a race, fought an unyielding war to gain freedom and lost many lives,” Jones observed in a Cross Colours biography, “all to turn against ourselves in a futile blood bath of gang and domestic violence.” Through economic support, the positive messages on their clothes, and the example of their own financial success, Jones and Walker aimed to counter the pernicious effects of violence in the black community.
Throughout the early 1990s, Cross Colours took urban style to the masses, producing clothing that quickly became a hot commodity. With its African Kinte Cloths recontextualized in hang-loose homeboy ensembles, Cross Colours became one of the hippest tickets in the apparel world and soon gained a spot in the previously lily—white preserve of department store men’s sections. “Everybody wanted to buy our stuff,” Jones insisted in his interview with Entrepreneur. “White kids, black kids, kids from every neighborhood—and not just in America. We had a lot of buyers from Japan and Canada.” Indeed, as Black Enterprise demonstrated, the “crossover” appeal of the clothes caused a slight backlash among its original boosters, like the unidentified urban consumer who complained, “You can find Cross Colours at any mall. The best stuff is more underground.”
Such criticisms notwithstanding, Cross Colours’ parent company, Threads 4 Life, managed for the most part to balance street credibility with mainstream accessibility. In addition to uplifting slogans—”Stop the Violence,” “Peace N the Hood,” “Educate 2 Elevate,” “Love Sees No Color”—they got a boost from celebrities who wore their threads. Filmmaker John Singleton, musician George Clinton, rapper Big Daddy Kane, actor Will Smith, talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Arsenio Hall, and others helped expand the appeal of the line without large-scale advertising expenditures. On the other hand, some litigation ensued when filmmaker Spike Lee charged that Cross Colours had used some of his slogans. Indeed, the parent company’s name was changed from “Solo Joint” to “Threads 4 Life” in deference to Lee.
Although the strong original look of the clothing line made an indelible impression on consumers and retailers alike, Jones and Walker hastened to broaden their palette. “Originally, we were targeted to young, black men,” commented Walker in Black Enterprise. In an effort to keep the loyalty of their maturing buyers, they introduced Cross Colours Classics—a slightly more well-heeled line to compete with such casual—wear mainstays as the Gap—and a line of linens and tableware marketed under the name Cross Colours Home. The owner of a clothing store in Hollywood, California, praised the new “softness” of the expanded Cross Colours line to Black Enterprise reporter Branch. “They’ve taken their clothing from the streets to the parks,” he added, reckoning “it was the only strategy to stay alive.” The magazine named Threads 4 Life “Company of the Year” for 1993.
Meanwhile the two founders worked beyond overtime. “I’m almost always at work—even on Sundays,” Walker told Entrepreneur in early 1994. “The business is my life right now. I feel like if I close my eyes for one minute, someone is seeing something I’m not.” Jones similarly attested to being a “workaholic.” “It’s been tough on my personal life because I fly a lot, I’m out of town a lot, I go to sales meetings. Ideally, I’d like to find a balance, but when you have a company that’s growing like this, it takes over.”
Yet, despite the tremendous strides made by Threads 4 Life, speculation continued through late 1993 into early 1994 about the perils of too-rapid growth. As Branch wondered, while “Cross Colours puts more on its plate— will success strangle it?” Such questions were fueled by difficulties in 1992 and 1993 relating to shipping schedules and numerous cancellations of orders. Oaktree president Tucker confessed to Black Enterprise: “Carl drove me crazy with late deliveries, of course. That’s just part of being hot.” Other retailers were less understanding, however. Eventually it became clear that, as George White of the Los Angeles Times put it, “the small company became unmanageable, mostly because it rose so fast and to such great heights.”
Jones and Walker had reached another crossroads. Despite the tremendous popularity of their clothing, they found themselves mired in debt thanks to an attempt to expand their manufacturing beyond their immediate means. “Demand was overwhelming,” Jones related to White. “The growing pains forced us into restructuring. We weren’t ready for what happened to us.” It was decided that the manufacturing operations of Threads 4 Life would be sold, though the buyer’s name wasn’t disclosed as of March 1994.
Jones and Walker have since moved into licensing and continue designing for Cross Colours, regardless of its new owner. Kani, meanwhile, set up his own company, Karl Kani Infinity. “You realize that other companies can do certain jobs better than you can,” Jones admitted to Black Enterprise. “You have to go where you are strong.” Various players on the apparel scene agreed that licensing would most likely benefit Jones and Walker; New York fashion editor Lisa Marsh admitted that “licensing is an effective way of marketing products,” while Sports-wear International’s Deidre Dube insisted in Black Enterprise, “Cross Colours is a name that no one will ever forget. And with licensing, you have the best of both worlds”—profits without manufacturing overhead. Marsh added that “this should be a moneymaking proposition, as long as [Jones and Walker] stay true to their design philosophy and their customers.”
Whatever the eventual fate of Cross Colours clothing, Jones and Walker have opened the door for African American designers without turning their backs on either community style or community needs. In the process they introduced urban style to shoppers who otherwise might never have appreciated it—let alone purchased it. Having built a financial empire with the talents of a multi-ethnic staff, they went on to donate money as well as message space on their clothes to the cause of defeating violence and prejudice. In addition, of course, and of inestimable value, is the example the two founders have provided to young people of color throughout America’s cities. “I enjoy talking to kids in the community, because those kids are me,” Walker proclaimed to Stodder of Entrepreneur. “If I can show them that this is possible, I get as much out of meeting them as they do—maybe more.”
Black Enterprise, June 1993, pp. 111-20; March 1994, pp. 14-16.
Business Week, August 31, 1992, p. 18.
Entrepreneur, January 1994, pp. 212-17.
Forbes, July 20, 1992, p. 328.
Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1994, pp. D1-3.
Newsweek, July 13, 1992, pp. 56-58.
Time, June 22, 1992, p. 21.
Additional information for this sketch was taken from Cross Colours publicity materials.
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