Willie Esco Interview

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It is generally understood by fans of Hip Hop that the 1990s served as the business infrastructure development period for the ever-growing culture before us today. Hip Hop’s culture is seemingly omnipresent and has been appropriated by many other cultures worldwide including every facet from it’s fashion, to the slang that it’s given birth to and of course the music itself. So it is no surprise that Coogi and Etonic, two highly recognizable brands from the 90s have been revived, with Hip Hop’s blessing, and prove that most things that reach an apex in popularity at some point will somehow make their way to the mainstream again. Just as they dominated in their early years, Coogi and Etonic are back in all of their glory and we are honored to introduce you to the man behind the revival – Willie Esco.

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Willie Esco has bounced between New York and New Jersey to further develop his artistry. As a pure product of the burgeoning Hip-Hop scene in the late 80s, early 90s, Esco knew where his heart was and wanted to immerse himself in the culture full time. He was into breakdancing and graffiti writing, but had to scale things down when he pursued college. Studying at Rutgers and the Fashion Institute of Technology gave Esco the ability to grow and come to an understanding of the path he’d soon pursue – fashion. Aspiring to be a fashion designer while rooted in the Hip-Hop community seemed like a dead end in the late 80s and early 90s, but Willie managed to make vital connections with people whom he worked with for free, and that led to his dreams coming into fruition.

SlamXHype had the pleasure of chopping it up with Willie Esco to learn about the early stages of his career, his come-up and what he has in-store.

SlamXHype: So tell us about the revival of the Coogi brand.

Willie Esco: It basically started in 2011. I had originally launched the brand in 2004 when it came out of bankruptcy. We relaunched it and wanted to maintain a luxury component, as well as address the streets. I wasn’t in charge like I am now – there was a lot of bureaucracy. We tried to stay luxury and eventually it led to Coogi doing things it had never done before. So, the growth on the urban side after 2005 was tremendous. That growth maxed out around 2011-2012. I came back to my partners and said “Okay, you guys have made your money. Allow me to take only the sweaters and let me do my thing.”

We made a little bit more of a conscious effort to do a little bit of men’s after Rag & Bone did their thing. We waited a couple of months before introduced a couple of key styles – like the Biggie sweater, which is one of the best sellers. We introduced two new techniques to let the knitwear community know that we aren’t stale. Camouflage is one, a fade version of the original Rag & Bone pattern we’ve done and leather – embossed leather goods, bags and satchels.

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What about the Etonic brand?

Etonic is a retro, late 80s, 90s brand revisited in every way, shape and form. The great thing was, in footwear there’s a limited amount of brand that have any kind of legitimacy in the marketplace. It’s hard to come up with a new footwear brand. You have your tried-and-true Nike, Adidas was second and you got your consumers that want what no one has, so they’re like, “Let me go find this old pair of PONYs or let me go find this old pair of Etonics.” That’s what allows a lot of these retro brands to come back. You have the consumer who wore it as a child or rediscovering it as a child.

So it launched recently and I see you have a collaboration. You’ve cross-pollinated the brands.

The clever thing was to cross-pollinate. It’s a no-brainer for me. Etonic is best known for signing Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984 – the year Jordan came out – and they gave him a shoe deal immediately. So Etonic was a trailblazer in that era by signing a rookie to a shoe deal. It is also the oldest footwear brand in America (1876) and that’s as heritage as it gets. Brooks comes after that, Saucony comes after that, Nike is way after that and Puma is way after that. We have a rich history. The Etonic came from my son wanting to get into the sneaker business. He’s now studying at Art Center of Design in Pasadena.

How do you use that model with the Coogi brand? Is it cross-pollination or is it more of a retail cross-pollination?

Coogi is going to experimental with the co-branding and collaboration as that collaboration process is sort of over-exhausted. It’s like, okay another collaboration. It’s like the new-and-improved logo on a box. With Coogi, I’d like to do slightly different things. Raekwon came up here and we’re talking to every rapper. Every person has a story about Coogi and what it means to them and I was amazed because I never wore Coogi. Now, when the opportunity calls and a collaboration is organic, yes, we’ll sit down and talk about it. The main thing is including the art world. We’re talking to Naturel and others. How can we take the art world and implement it in Coogi? I feel like Coogi is a work of art.

Fabolous is one of the big fans. We see him rocking it heavy.

Fabolous is one of the early adapters and understood what was happening. He’s unique because he was relevant in the 90s. He was a young cat then and now he’s got the Young OG project about to drop in a couple of weeks. He’s revisiting the 90s in a very heavy way. A young kid who knows nothing of it looks at me like, “Wow, you did something spectacular.” We’re poised to be the executives that make sure the representation of the 90s comes across in the right way and it’s not just rehashed.

Speaking of the past, can you catch us up on your career? How did you get into the game, where did you start out and how did you get involved with fashion?

I started as a breakdancer and graffiti artist. I witnessed the start of Hip-Hop. I feel my era was the best era. You’ve got Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson. So, if you look back at that moment in time, it’s tremendously rich with beginnings. Nike and Jordan and Hip-Hop were so unique as a child. I’m able to see that because I’m an artist and I know that art grows in value over time. It felt like second nature to me to go to Washington Square Park and breakdance for some pizza money, because I knew that I was a part of a movement. The music that we played was the thread that connected us. Breakdancing was number one, graffiti was my artistic touch. When I wasn’t dancing, I was drawing. I took it from there and started tagging.

I went to private high school and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went to Rutgers for two years and after that I decided to go with fashion. I put a portfolio together and took steps to transfer from an accredited college into a fashion industry that was not as prevalent as it is today. I knew that I’d work for someone in fashion that did just women’s but I was going to be okay with it.

What was your first gig? Where did you land?

First gig was, well I went to F.I.T. so after two years of Rutgers, I sort of educated myself and I knew I was really focused on excelling there. Relative to these kids coming in from high school, I was already two years into it. I’m going into fashion illustration only to get into fashion design. I took the avenue of the least resistance where my talents lied in art and stayed there for two years. I started exploring fashion, finding out that as a heterosexual, Hip-Hop kid trying to do fashion in the late 80s was like square peg, round hole. I could understand its primarily homosexually-driven dynamic and I had to assimilate – letting people know that although I’m not gay, I love fashion. I put myself in a position where when Hip-Hop popped, I was like, “I got it.” I knew its history, I participated in it and now we’re talking about clothing? Out of school, I got to work for a screen printing company in Jersey and I knew I was a vet. I started to hook up with people that were in the game. Daniel Hastings was the first guy I offered my services to. I said, “I’ll be your in-house stylist, but keep the money. I just want to be on the scene.” Maybe kids don’t do it today, but I did it because it was a pleasure to learn the process and I knew it was an asset more valuable than invoicing.

So fast forward to you launching your own line.

So Esco came about through a series of moments where I’m working  9-5. I moved out of Jersey and just had a baby – I’ve got to get serious about fashion. Fortunately, I was at a spot where there’s a sewing machine on site and the guys liked me and had done a lot of great things in fashion. Basically, I was an assistant designer and they were kings of a lot of private labeling. Private labeling is like, “Here, I’ve got this sweatshirt. I’ll sell it to Costco for, you know, $5. Give me 20,000 units.” I loved it.

I met Leonard Rothchild who sought help and my boss was his friend, so they sat me down and said that they had an idea. Lenny owned the licensing rights to Pelle Pelle underwear and at the time, the underwear business was on fire. Once again, like Daniel Hastings, I said I’ll do it for free. I knew that it was going to lead to something good. Did it for free, gave it to him and he made $2 million at a Magic show. “I made $2 million, Will. Forget this license, lets get you your own thing. You’ve got talent!” I said this is it. Latinos were always on the scene, but never really represented in fashion. I wanted to be the first one to say, “I’m proud of who I am. I’m Latin and by the way, I have a clothing line that’s just as cool as Fubu, just as cool as Mecca, just as cool as everything else out there.”

Nas worked with you at some point, right?

I was coming under Fubu, so expectations were high. They were making sure Esco was purchased. I had to ensure the same success. The Latin market was there, but it was growing. African-American consumers were like, “That’s Nas’ line.” You’ve got LL for Fubu, but they wanted to see Nas. I’d rather it grow naturally. I had the brand equity without having to enlist him. One day Nas comes through the door and (we had) great conversation. Initially there was a minor bit of tension, but it was early on in the game – enough for him to be become proud of the line being out. He helped expose this brand and the name Esco. I gave him some product and he wore it immediately. That stabilized the brand. It helped the brand grow and still continued my message of being a Latin-based clothing line.

You spoke about business collaborations and some artistic collaborations with rappers. What are some other important collaborative moments in your career?

The most important one that stood out? I’ve had some moments where there was no support from the Latin side, with key Latin figures in the culture and that was very disappointing. The one guy who was 100% was Big Pun. Big Pun was like my long lost brother and understood. I knew the dynamics of what happened behind the scene and that gave me so much confidence to move on. I didn’t need any other support after that. The buzz in the industry was, “You’ve got to watch out for this cat.” To have his support before he went platinum was amazing to me. TO have Daniel Hastings co-sign me before anyone knew who I was, was amazing to me. From that point, it sort of gets cluttered because you have this exposure.

What’s in-store for you?

We’re doing a lot of things here. I’m finding out that I can do more than one thing, because I’m a creative person. I’m finding out I like to relaunch things and have the infrastructure behind it to support it and let it go where it goes. I’m not offended if it doesn’t work. When I started with Esco, I knew ‘urban’ was a young man’s sport. Rap is a young man’s sport. You cannot stay in this but for so long. That holds true for 99%. Jay Z is an exception to the rule, but one day he’s going to go, too and let the young cats on the scene. I knew, when I did Esco that this phase of dressing is going to go away, not to get too close to it and to prepare for when the desire for Esco is no longer there. The next thing I did was acquire the global rights for Tupac Shakur. I did Makaveli Branded and I did what I wanted to do because no one hated Tupac (laughs).

When I relaunched Coogi, it allowed me to continue what I wanted to do and learn the business better. It also allowed me to start my project – a brand called GN Therapy. I basically age all of my denim collection naturally over a period of a year in different locations around the United States. It’s 12-15 pairs of jeans and I bury them in what I call an eco-aging bed – a location that houses the jeans and they just age naturally. It allows me to create a sustainable brand that doesn’t harm the earth and is also and artistic view on denim.

I’m in the process of launching something with Thirstin for Lo-Lifes. That’s a huge endeavor. Like what A Bathing Ape did with Nike is what we want to do with Polo. I’m not a Polo person, but I appreciate his genius. We also have some interesting things with French Montana.

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