Interview: Marc Ecko Talks New Book ‘Unlabel,’ Measuring Success And Joey Bada$$’ Ecko Role

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By: / October 1, 2013

Amid an array of expletives, millionaire Marc Ecko sounds giddy while reflecting on his latest venture, Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out, a guide for creative folks looking to build an authentic brand. Intertwining his life story with business practices he learned along the way, Ecko details the secrets of his success, allowing readers to grab inspiration from his own unpaved road to riches.

By age 20, Ecko had turned his airbrushed t-shirt business into a billion-dollar enterprise. After years of defining progress by quantitative figures, he admits sales are not a concern when it comes to the book. “My book launches the same day as Malcolm Gladwell’s. That’s like launching an album the same day as Jay Z. It’s crazy,” he says. “I’m 41 years old and I’m trying to market a book. Could you do some dumber shit? Selling paper and words—it’s not easy.” VIBE sat down with the man behind Ecko Unlimited to talk success, Unlabel and why Kanye is not hip-hop’s Steve Jobs.

VIBE: What inspired you to write this book at this point in your life?

Marc Ecko: It took 41 years to build it. It’s the right mix of reflection, maybe a kind of self-actualization, a whole bunch of things that motivated this. Tactically, I was solicited to write a book two and a half years ago, and I didn’t feel like it was the right time. It took a couple years to put it together. I think this is the book that my body can make. I’m uniquely in a position to share a perspective on business and branding. Being a creative business guy and someone who has a legacy of being frustrated with how I was being taught, I feel like a parent now and if there’s one thing I can show people, other than making sweatshirts, I can put some of that gray hair to work and maybe someone gets value out of it.

Why did you settle on the title UnLabel?

Unlabel is a play on unlimited (Ecko Unlimited). When I started writing the book, I had done a lot of reflection on the fact that I had just sold my baby – my business. That’s why the subtext is selling you without selling out. The “un” was a play on that and also the idea of kinda tearing out the label inside your neck. There’s a lot of that urgency. I thought that as a metaphor was cool. Selling you without selling out is intentionally loaded. I figured make the subtext in a way that’s going to make people flat footed.

Some people are going to be like, Marc Ecko “sell out,” who the fuck is he to talk about sell out? It’s a business book for creative folks. I definitely use my story. I don’t try to use my story in a way that’s vain. It’s not a memoir in that sense—I don’t think my story is that unique or that important. What’s unique is some of the things I learned on branding. My kids are going to read it. People talk about legacy. The only legacy I really give a fuck about is my kids. Ultimately, selfishly, it was a really written for them. Hopefully, it will be relevant to a broad audience. I tried to think about them reading this when they’re 15, 16, 17 years old.

How will you judge the success of this book? By its sales or by the impact it has on people?

In the years of ’05 to ’07, ’08, I was deeply motivated by a quantitative number. I needed to measure success by finite numbers. I went into this very much knowing having friends that are authors, expect this to not sell one fuckin’ piece. My book launches the same day as Malcolm Gladwell. That’s like launching an album the same day as Jay Z. It’s crazy. Quit counting friends, followers, wins, losses and that addictive cycle de-emphasizes your ability to build something for longevity. Stuff that’s built for longevity sees past the line of money. It always seems like the old rich guy who says that “it’s not about the money.” It’s true, there’s this mania, this other thing that motivates me past the money. The sense of discovery, inventing shit, creating something. People think entrepreneur—money. I make fun of that in the book. That word sucks. I use “creator.”

When you took a leap of faith in 1993 and decided to start Ecko, did you ever imagine you would become this successful and ultimately pass your knowledge onto others?

I didn’t think that I’d be as into education as I am. I had a pretty healthy contempt for my teachers and I had a contempt for the fact that you’re told to ask questions but not really because you’re supposed to answer the questions to the test. A young Marc Ecko would’ve thought of a future Marc Ecko like: that old fart. Something happened [in my] early thirties when I started having kids where I got really connected to this idea, if I wasn’t doing this I probably would be a teacher. I think that’s part of my composition.

What drives you to continue being a creator? Why aren’t you content?

There’s this degree of mania and madness that deludes you just enough to think that you can. There’s this kind of nagging underdog subtext that is always in everything I do. When you succeed you never quite really arrived. I haven’t been happy in that sense. I think it’s because it’s the discovery. The hunter gatherer thing that’s programmed inside of us. You learn that rather than trying to design the journey by the goal line on the marathon it’s more about the process, the training, rather than the day of the event.

You advise people to not be a fake ass Steve Jobs. Can you clarify that?

We live in a cultural time because of the impact of Apple, and this kind of folklore of Steve Jobs, the subsequent Walter Isaacson book, the movies. We painted him to be this exquisite micro-manager who would cry at meetings. We celebrated micro-management. Steve Jobs was a relentless commercialization guy, he was relentless about wanting to sell his shit. It’s a fallacy to think that he got there by standing on the table and being emotional. What people do is they celebrate the folklore of it. It’s kind of like being a fake ass Michael Jordan. Rather than being an authentic you, stop being a fake ass Steve Jobs. What I mean is stop micro-managing shit.

I’m giving a class on Skillshare where I’m deconstructing Biggie’s 10 Crack Commandments, which I contend is more valuable than any class you can take at Harvard business. I break down the song as a learning tool. I see people today, celebrating this fallacy of… One of the great creative minds of today is Kanye West. Dude, just be Kanye West. If you’re really the “Steve Jobs of hip-hop,” then you wouldn’t be bitching about Fendi. [Steve] didn’t wait… This motherfucker was in his garage hacking shit, fucking up, getting fired, just to find out he’s the only one that can put the crystal on the mount and make the skies open. Don’t make micro-management fashionable. Distribute the ownership so that the group can learn together. I learned that because I have micro-managed. Trust.

What’s your greatest accomplishment to date?

My kids. I know that sounds lazy or politically correct but I’m really proud of them. It’s a great motivator – that’s real.

You recently directed Big K.R.I.T’s video “Bigger Picture.” How did that come about?

It was super spontaneous. Literally, I get an email with the attachment of the record and Johnny Shipes was like, “Yo, I have this idea for this video.” He starts ranting or riffing on what the thread is. I start listening to it and I closed my eyes and I heard the song, then I heard it framing this notion of perspective and relationship. Just knowing the reality of what they were trying to achieve I felt like there’s a way to deploy motion graphics to make the shoot really easy. So I just went online and I grabbed this reference from Powers of 10, which is like a Charles and Ray Eames science film, and I basically extracted the audio and I put in K.R.I.T’s and he was like, “Yo…” It was that spontaneous it was 7 p.m. on a Friday and 9 p.m. that night we decided on the course we were going to take. I’ve been thinking about doing it again. For me to do that stuff I just want to make sure that it’s good. I’m not trying to be a full time video director or anything, but it’s certainly a lot of fun and I love working with K.R.I.T. His team is really good people, thoughtful and I think he’s an important artist.

I know you’re not as involved in the day-to-day operations of Ecko Unlimited, but you guys recently named Joey Bada$$ Creative Director of Ecko. Why?

To Johnny’s credit. The inception of the idea was to get younger energy into the fold. I’m far more involved in the Cut and Sew portion of the business. The organization had been kinda stuck in its ways, very transaction-based. They hadn’t been checking for that new talent. I was excited the team tried to connect to the legacy of the brand by connecting to young artists and creative types. I give credit to Johnny for making that happen. I think it’s like a one-year thing or two years. What I’m excited about is that Joey has this encyclopedia reference of how other people have done before him that he’s able to draw on. To see a cat that’s so young and having that wantedness to get the touch and feel of the business. I was happy to have him join up and get his hands dirty a little bit.

Are you pleased with his contribution?

Yeah, the organization could sort’ve do more to make his contribution more meaningful. I think in the next year, we’ll see the organization get out of its own way. It got so big. The intention of that relationship is really good. We have to do more to put more there in the company. So far so good. One of the things you’ll learn about me when you read the book is I’m just never really honestly satisfied.

Who are you listening to these days?

The most meaningful album for me this year was the Kanye record, Yeezus, just because it was the most challenging. It was kind of refreshing to be challenged like that. I listen to A$AP and Ferg and those guys. I listen to a lot of eclectic shit. I’m a real nerd for jazz music. Back in high school, Mo Better Blues was a game changer for me. It forever informed my appreciation of music sampling and the importance of jazz.

What’s your current definition of success?

Success is the hangover of failure. It’s about managing expectations. People want to paint this picture of the titan of industry, cigar chewing entrepreneur that jumps from the airplane to make an announcement—Richard Branson. That’s a fallacy. I just try to help manage people’s expectations. Claiming some G.O.A.T shit, that’s not my steez. This is who I am, this is my brand for better or worse, and this is what I do. I’m not focused on trying to be the greatest among us. I’m just trying to be Marc Ecko and creatively content and satisfied.

Photo Credit: Ray Yau / www.rayyau.net