The relationship between hip-hop and fashion has always been an organic one, from RUN DMC’s thick-soled Adidas to Lil Nas X’s clever collection with Wrangler. So when it was announced that Lil Wayne would partner with American Eagle for a capsule collection geared towards skateboarding culture, it seemed like a perfect fit.
Plenty goes into fashionable partnerships like the presence of the artist’s personal style and securing the bag. Wayne’s longtime manager Cortez Bryant knows this all too well. As fans enjoy an early look at “American Eagle X Young Money” at the Seward Park Educational Campus in Lower Manhattan earlier this month, Bryant is at ease. Threads are on display with a chance for attendees to stake between colorful hip-hop-inspired murals.
For Bryant, it’s business as usual at these type of events. His clients (formerly Nicki Minaj and Drake) are the money-makers, bringing out droves of fans and awareness to the brands they’re working with.
While his clients are in the mix of it all, Bryant plays the outfield, talking with guests and keeping an observant eye on his clients. We obviously know the fanfare that comes with these larger than life characters but what about the work that goes into locking in these deals?
Bryant is one of the leading power players in the industry. After launching Young Money Entertainment with Wayne in 2005 and starting his own management company, The Blueprint Group with Gee Roberson shortly after (where Roberson represents chart-topping gem Lil Nas X), Bryant worked tirelessly to etch his name amongst hip-hop’s most important business figures.
Throughout his career, Bryant has achieved a number of accolades including spots on coveted lists like Billboard’s “The Power 100” and “40 Under 40” and Complex’s “25 Most Powerful People in Rap.” Lucrative deals with brands like Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Jordan Brand propelled Cortez’s clients like Drake, Nicki Minaj, and G Eazy from rising rap stars into global phenomenons.
American Eagle X Young Money is just another entry on Cortez Bryant’s prolific resume. “This is really dope,” Bryant tells VIBE during the preview. “We set this journey up almost 20 years ago when we thought about the idea of Young Money. This is just another avenue and we’re going to continue to grow from here.”
VIBE spoke with Bryant about the new collaboration, the ups, and downs of handling business deals for Lil’ Wayne, and the status of TRUKFIT.
You’ve handled a lot of partnerships for Wayne in the past. What makes this new collaboration special?
Cortez Bryant: We always look for things to expand the brand of Young Money outside of just music. Clothes are a level of expression. This year we just wanted to find something that resonated and was more affordable for all the fans across the world because it is an international campaign. American Eagle has integrity, good quality clothes, and the partnership made sense.
What’s the most difficult thing about locking in a business deal for Wayne and how did American Eagle achieve that with you guys?
The money has to be right for one [laughs]. Some people are archaic and don’t understand the power of hip-hop. It was definitely like that early on but 15 years later, you know numbers-wise, hip-hop is the biggest genre in the world. Some brands get it when it comes to locking in these types of partnerships and some of them are still archaic in thinking and still haven’t understood that hip-hop music is pop music right now and it is pop culture.
Some don’t get it, and then some who try do get into it and do get it but they undervalue what the partnership is so that’s why I said the money might not be right. But luckily with American Eagle, they got it off the rip. They came proper, you know, how we structured the deal was dope. We have full creative autonomy on the line which is super dope and they’ve been great partners.
What’s the easiest thing about locking in a deal for Lil’ Wayne?
Wayne is a workaholic and I think every partnership that we’ve had, you know, they don’t know what to expect because Wayne is such an enigma.
He’s not the extrovert, there’s not a lot of stuff out there on him besides what people make up. They expect Wayne to just be the voice and the face. Once they meet him and they see him in all these meetings, they see he believes in the brand and believes in the product and will be working for it. You don’t know how much easier that makes everything. It all works out and everyone is happy.
What made American Eagle the right place for Lil’ Wayne to come and do this collab?
I’ve always seen American Eagle growing up and at the mall. In my opinion, as far as where we’re from, it represented a certain demographic. I kind of looked at their strategy and what their brand is about, you know I did my research. We just don’t hit these partnerships because the bag is right. I had to do my research on what their brand stands for and where they were trying to go. All their ideas aligned with what we were trying to do with our brand. So we came together and it was a natural fit.
This isn’t the first time Wayne has dipped his hands into the fashion game. What are the biggest differences between this collab and Wayne’s TRUKFIT line?
I think TRUKFIT kind of dissolved out. I also think the business of streetwear brands died down once the internet took over and people started shopping online. TRUKFIT was like a Sean John, like a Rocawear, that was our version of streetwear. We added in Macy’s and all that. But a weird trend happened were a lot of the kids started getting into the merch game and online sales and that’s why we kind of put TRUKFIT on the back burner.
Wayne was already a staple based off what we did with music. Merch was getting more popular so we were just like let’s go all-in on Young Money merch because that’s what all the kids are drawn to. They go to these merchandise lines and that was the whole idea of putting TRUKFIT on the back burner right now and really focus on building an apparel line based off Young Money the brand.
Do you see streetwear making a strong come back?
Yeah, I think so. Time is flipping and revealing itself. I see Iceberg and FUBU making a comeback. I see a lot of these older brands that are trying to get back into the marketplace with a lot of the brands that we were wearing in high school and the early 2000s. Fashion revolves like a damn hamster wheel so I feel like everything is coming back.
We’ll see where it goes whether it’ll be a niche or capsules here and there or whether the whole lines can live how they used to live. We’ll see where they are going and where they’re going to live because I don’t know where they’re going to live or whether it’s going to be a collaboration with Supreme or something you know? Fashion is going forward and reversing back to the madness with those brands. I see a lot of those brands coming back. I think there’ll be more TRUKFIT at one point down the line. Eventually, we’ll come back.