Somos was born in South East DC, but was raised all over the city. He’s an only child and attended grade school in the north side of DC. He told me about a story from junior high, “I was in the AP classes carrying on and I got in trouble. My dad said, “Oh you wanna be seen huh?’ From 8th to 9th grade he made me wear a shirt and a tie everyday. He said, “You wanna be seen I’ll make you seen.” From then on, I learned, just fall back, speak when spoken to, but when spoken to make sure that you’re heard.” It made me realize that with a name like Somosyou don’t really have to do a whole lot to be seen. I’ve never taken that for granted.”
I caught up with Somos at Art & Soul DC a day after one of his program events. We sat down and had a lot to talk about!Somoshas a great respect for Nike and the innovation of the brand. We talked about product technology and the niche of our competitors. I could tell he was seasoned by his remarks and cultivated perspective on the fashion industry. He confided that one of his fundamental strategies was picked up from the Nike model. He shed some light on that secret during the interview. Somoshas been a creator and innovator for a plethora of clothing lines over the years. He helped propel the Blac Label line to Multi-Million dollar margins, and also been a director with Slow Bucks, Ecko, and his original line, self titled, “SOMOS.” Somos has been looked upon as a respected consultant in the brand startup arena. Most recently, he’s shifted his focus to the grassroots level with his new program titled “Design District.” From top to bottom, you have to respect Mos’ body of work, and his edgy perspectives are the matching accessories to an already dope fit. Peaks and valleys in this weeks #ShineHard conversation
So tell me more about the Design District?
Mos: Back in the city I was born and raised in, teaching kids fashion design, but most importantly the entrepreneurship aspect. Like anyone can come up with an idea, but its the paperwork, the manufacturing, the wholesale, the vendors, customs. The things people don’t think about. I’m still designing, but now focusing on an arts initiative for kids. I’ve started at Coolidge Senior High School in Tacoma, NW DC teaching the practical skills of graphic design and fashion. Tee-Shirts, stencils, fabric paint, acrylic paint, bleaching. It’s turned into what’s been my starting point. My flagship school. Starting October, it will be a solidified after school program and hopefully make it a part of the curriculum.
How did the Design District event go yesterday?
Mos: Yesterday was the exhibition. The event went great. A lot of the kids, it was their first time ever being in the gallery setting. Understanding what it took to build the display wall, understanding the blueprint that it took to get to this. To see their face when we came into the final exhibition it was like, “Oh wow, I’m blown away.” They were given an appreciation for the process. And that’s vital because so many people don’t have an appreciation for the process. Even adults!
Johnny: That Reminds me of something I wrote, “So often, people will see a machine being operated, but will not understand the mechanics of the operator.”
Who did you look up to growing up?
Mos: My dad. My dad has been a self-employed entrepreneur since the 1970’s. He tells me this story about his high school ring. He said, “It’s still brand new to this day because I’ve never worn it. The day I got it, I graduated and I started working as a photographer. I went from HS kid to grown man in an instant!” I’ve watched this guy go through the peaks and the valleys. A lot of money, slow business, and I’ve learned never panic, never lose your cool. If you hang around my dad it explains a lot of my values and my demeanor. We’re really like the best of friends.
Then, of course you got Michael Jordan for what he did and Allen Iverson for what he stands for. If you don’t like AI, get away from me *laughs*. I call him “Chuck” from all the years in Hampton. You start to become friends with his friends and actually hang around him. What Chuck stood for, ya know, is just being true to yourself. He never wanted to be anybody but himself. He wanted you to love him for him, nothing else. I’ve always felt the same way. Designer wise, um, of course you gotta say Jay. Just for how big he’s grown his brand. Not so much for the design, but just how far he’s come. I love Kanye West too, man. I love that he speaks for my kind and understands what I go through.
Tell me about the companies you’ve started…
Mos: Ok “SOMOS.” When I came to Hampton I didn’t hang with a lot of people from the DC/Maryland area and I took a lot of slack for it. I felt like college was to branch out and learn about your surroundings. I got there, Jeff Granger from New Jersey, Dwayne from Philly, and Calypso from New York, they took a liking to what I was doing and they embraced me. The North embraced what I was doing and I just ran with it. I let the clothes speak for themselves. When I wasn’t in class I was painting Tee Shirts. I was working on the marketing tactics of the brand. I’ve always been a Nike guy, always a Jordan guy. I saw that Nike’s thing was, find the best athlete, sponsor them up, and people will notice your brand. I signed Jeff up and I signed a girl named Rachel Butler from Dallas. All I asked them to do was, in between school product, wear THIS product that says “SOMOS.” It got to a point where they were wearing my socks on the court. And I’m sure Hampton had a Nike or Russel deal at the time. It got to a point where I just couldn’t supply the demand anymore. Then I realized I’m only here for four years. Why would I?
I started doing Blac Label from Day 1. I drew the initial designs and I was working with a guy named Mike Black from New York. He was living in Philly at the time. He was running the biggest African-American owned retail chain called Total Sports. They had 13 stores across the country. So Mike and I built the Blac Label brand and there’s a guy named Jeff Watson that funded the brand. I’m not gonna say we came up with the whole skull on the clothing concept, but our niche was that concept of clothing, for a guy that was bigger, that couldn’t find it to fit slim. A guy that saw the Affliction, tattoo inspired look, but he was a 2x, 3x. Where was he getting that from? Blac Label. We found the need and we supplied it to a point where he didn’t need to go anywhere else. Our other niche was the bright, fresh colors. Those were our two niches. It was a 2-lane highway and we road that highway.
Johnny: That’s Dope! Blac Label was an epidemic when it dropped.
So how did things turn out with Blac Label? What happened next?
Mos: Well, what happened was, Jeff had made about 30 million dollars off Negro League licensing. Blac Label had become an eight headed monster. I think we did like 10 mil first year, around 30 mil at retail and you could see it growing. What happened was, Jeff started producing the amount of product he wanted to make instead of how much product we were actually selling. It was like he wanted to catch every customer, but you really cant. Once you make about 30 million dollars, there aren’t many mom & pop retailers left to get into. You end up being next door to a store that you’re already in. We were already inDowntown Locker Room, Sneaker Villa, Doctor J’s. Those are the big street retail chains. When over-saturation happens, now you sell yourself to the devil. The devil is AJ Wright, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s. When you’re a streetwear brand you can’t survive that.
It all ended like 2010 and uh, it was painful man. You wake up one day and you got this baby, you’ve been nurturing this baby every day and you know everything about it. It’s Your Baby. And then… that baby is gone in the blink of an eye. It takes a minute to bounce back from that. It’s hard because you just wanna fall back and not really speak about it, but everybody still buzzing like, “Oh, you do..! This is..!” It’s like how do you tell people you don’t own your baby anymore? It’s a tough conversation.
Johnny: Dam bro. That’s definitely a tough conversation to have. It takes resilience to bounce back from a blow like that, but it seems like you’ve done that with Design District.
Tell me, what is your passion and when did you know?
Mos: I’ve only had 3 passions. Basketball, kids, and designing clothes. For years now, I thought my passion was designing clothes. I see my passion now is developing the youth. I teach the kids, so maybe these challenges won’t happen to them or they’ll at least see it coming. Teach them how to handle it. I just want to prepare them for all the things that are out there. I teach S.V.E: Structure, Vocabulary, Experience. Most of my days are busy working on a strategic plan to partner with other clothing brands to help me with these kids.
I realized fashion when I was 14. Me and my dad would go to the bookstore. I would pick up a slam magazine and he would pick up a GQ. When he put the GQ down, I would pick it up and start flipping through it. And then, I learned about aesthetic from watching this older kid I went to school with. Aesthetic is what your look is. Certain things that people do that they just always do. I’m able to pick up on aesthetics as second nature.
What part of your journey has really inspired you?
Mos: Blac Label allowed me to see the world. A guy named Jeff Staple summed it up for me so well. He inspired me by what he did from the 80’s, 90’s into the 2000’s. He always said that the tee shirt would be my magic carpet around the world and I wholeheartedly believe that. He’s a designer.His brand is called Staple Design. The tee shirt took me to China, Spain, Canada, LA, Miami, New York. I mean, it really has taken me around the world.
What type of things motivate you to succeed?
Mos: Other than being a black man? Because that’s one thing. Especially from this city. But yeah, so there’s a drug, and I’ve never taken drugs in my life; But seeing people in your product is probably worse than any drug that’s out in the street. Once you see somebody using, wearing, speaking highly of your product? You almost can’t even sleep. It will have you so wired up! 4 in the morning, 6 in the morning, 8 in the morning. I’d just throw on a leather jacket and head right back to the office.
What’s been your biggest challenges as a young designer thus far?
Mos: Artistic integrity. It’s one thing to come up with the concept, but it’s another thing when you don’t fund the project. It’s a struggle. That’s one of the biggest things Kanye always speaks up for. It’s been a few times where Black and I were the voice for the consumer, but because we weren’t funding things we had to compromise. Artistic integrity. From the business side of it, you have to stay true to what you came in this game with, and it’s never to just be a part of anyone’s machine.
What frustrates you the most about today’s culture?
Mos: What frustrates me isn’t so much about the culture but more so how technology is set up. Technology is, well I love it. Apple is a great brand. They make their products where people can start today. “You buy this product you can start a brand today!” I understand, I can’t knock that. But, when I started designing clothes it was a special gift. But now technology makes it where everybody can do it. There’s a traffic jam in this apparel lane every day, because there’s so many people jumping in this lane. The question is how do you maneuver to stay in the front of this line? I mean, it gets frustrating at times, but it just makes you work harder.
What’s the #1 factor behind your success?
Mos: I’ve never really figured that out. All I can tell people when they ask me is just timing. Timing is everything. Example, I’m at Woodrow Wilson HS. I’m in love with North Carolina A&T. I’m waiting on that acceptance letter. It never comes. Prom night I get the Hampton University acceptance letter. I’ve never seen the school. My aunt and cousin graduated from there. “Alright, I’ll go there.” Four years later, I meet someone at school that takes me to this guy that owns this licensee, who knows this guy that has a similar interest in a brand. That sh*t is timing. If I don’t go to Hampton, who knows how things turn out for me. Just know I was at the right place at the right time.
What advice would you give to young designers that desire success in fashion?
Mos: I just tell them to see their concepts all the way through. Never be afraid of the concept. If you’re thinking it, go with it. If it doesn’t work, that’s OK. Look for another concept. Just as a creator; You come up with a million ideas all the time. At some point you have to not second guess yourself. You have to look at them all and just figure out which is the strongest one. Give the others time to develop. Stay true to what you believe and to yourself, and that’s it.
Johnny: Absolutely. Stay true my brother. @ShineHardFamily
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