'Gotta Be Cool': Marc Ecko's Empire

One would imagine that the man behind Ecko Unlimited, the billion-dollar urban clothing line favored by hip-hop fans, would be a hip-hop star himself -- a mogul on the order of Rocawear's Jay-Z, Phat Farm's Russell Simmons or Sean Jean's P. Diddy.

But Marc Ecko, born Marc Milecofsky, didn't get his start spitting rhymes or selling dimes. He was a geeky kid who was into art and studied to be a pharmacist at Rutgers.

Ecko is a product not of the Bed-Stuy housing projects or South Central Los Angeles but of the not-so-mean streets of suburban Lakewood, N.J.

"Too fat to break dance, too white to rap," is how Ecko describes his younger self. "I could draw. With drawing and as an artist, I was good at that."

Though he grew up decidedly middle class, Ecko is now supremely wealthy. He even recently purchased a bona fide castle in his home state of New Jersey.

Today the kid who once raked leaves to earn money for a pair of Adidas now sells his own sneakers, as well as jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, button-downs, blazers, watches, skirts, dresses, handbags and more. Last year revenues of Ecko Enterprises exceeded $1 billion.

Hip-Hop Across the Style Spectrum

The fact that a 35-year-old, Jewish father of three is also one of hip-hop culture's style mavens may be surprising. But for Ecko, who came of age in the late 1980s after rap had already moved decisively into the mainstream, it makes perfect sense.

"You know, growing up in the '80s in America … in the Northeast was a unique moment in popular culture," he said, "and you are a product of your environment, and quite simply, Lakewood was really kind of ethnically, you know, mixed, where the emerging cultural trend among young people was hip-hop."

Ecko said that when he first started the company with his sister Marcie the brand was considered too white for hip-hop retailers and too black for retailers catering to the white skater crowd. But the pair found a way to appeal to an even broader demographic than just whites or blacks.

Marc Ecko Enterprises has now grown to include 12 separate fashion and lifestyle lines that cross a broad spectrum. From rapper 50 Cent's G-Unit line of hip-hop attire to the Zoo York brand aimed at skaters, Ecko appears to have bridged the gap that would have been his downfall.

"I was aware of this convergence in culture," he said, "and that what was going to validate whether something was cool or not was if you could look at it unemotionally, minus color, and say is it cool."

Confidence in His Brand

Ecko's confidence in his brand and his ability to seek out what is cool (or not "naft," as he likes to say) was the deciding factor in whether his life's work was to be fashion or prescriptions.

"I was wide-eyed and arrogant enough to believe I could do it," Ecko said. "I remember driving to ShopRite with my sister Marcie … and telling her to leave college, we're going to start this business, it's going to take us wherever we could dream, she was like, 'You're crazy.' And six months later she finished up and she came home to be my partner."

Now Ecko is attempting to redirect the success of his fashion empire into more socially conscious initiatives, like Sweat Equity Enterprises. The course is an afterschool design and mentoring program for underserved New York City teens.

"The principles of Sweat Equity are like language immersion around design," said Ecko. "Transparently showing behind the curtain of the wizard what industry and consumer products really look like and what it takes to make them. … My goal in building Sweat Equity is to create a four-year program where when you earn this piece of paper at the end of it, it's bankable. You can take that skill set to the bank."

After Ecko first found major success, he set out to do something beyond simply surrounding himself with the finer things in life.

"We were going to do something with our first bit of profit more meaningful than getting out of my Dodge Neon," he said.

Going Global, Giving Back

Up until that point the scope of the designer's humanitarian efforts remained within the inner city, but a business partner's life-changing experience brought Ecko's charitable efforts deep into the former Soviet Union, to the edge of the Black Sea.

Through various charities and fundraisers, Marc Ecko Enterprises now raises money for the Tikva Children's Home in Odessa, Ukraine, an orphanage that aims to provide a nurturing environment to impoverished children.

Ecko's friend and CEO of Marc Ecko Enterprises, Seth Gerszberg, took a trip to the Ukraine and returned, Ecko said, as if he just "came back from Mount Sinai -- metaphorically, white beard, big cane."

"He said, 'You have to go to Odessa,'" Ecko recalled. "There's this orphanage that is completely run backwards.' He's so passionate about it that I went out there with him and connected as well." Since they became involved the orphanage has expanded from 70 kids to more 300.

Ecko seems to have the golden touch, whether it's business, style or charity. He is no longer, however, the cool 20-something who built one of hip-hop's largest and most successful enterprises. So how does he stay on top?

"Gotta be the real deal baby," he explained. "Gotta be the real thing inside and out. Just gotta be cool."