An interview with NuSouth Apparel
Deep in the heart of Dixie, a new South is rising once again. Gone are the days of slavery, Jim Crow laws, violent lynch mobs and civil rights marches. Nowadays, a new revolution is taking place, and its mission is to enhance the lives of everyone. This movement's leaders, two young African-American entrepreneurs from Charleston, S.C., are dressing up the South with a new line of apparel that has become more than just something to wear. This new clothing line, made up of sportswear, dress wear and women's wear, has become the fabric of a new society — a new way of thinking — and its aim is not only fashion, but unity among the races. It also brings to the South a new symbol — a re-design of the old Confederate flag — which has stirred emotion in people of all races and genders.
Charleston, a tourist city with a population of under 100,000, but more than 5 million visitors per year, may seem an unlikely place for a grass roots movement to begin. But this old city, which makes its bread and butter from reliving the past and catering to out-of-towners who long for beaches and southern hospitality, is where Angel Quintero and Sherman Evans settled and started NuSouth Apparel.
NuSouth, barely a year old, has already created buzz in South Carolina. It has also made an impact in Las Vegas, oddly enough. NuSouth's clothing isn't just about looking good; it's about fighting prejudice and unifying races. This movement/business isn't funded by the NAACP or any other activism group. No, this is purely the brainstorm of Quintero, a Cuban-born ex-sailor in the U.S. Navy, and Evans, a Midwesterner and veteran of the U.S. Air Force. Neither man is a stranger to upstart businesses. Also, neither man is shy when it comes to expressing his thoughts on race relations in the today's society. They both started low-investment, low-overhead businesses in the past. Through hard work, they both made enough money to create second, bigger businesses. It was through these business ventures that the two met and a new way of expression was begun.
"I had a company called Rolling Records," Quintero recalls. "[Evans] had a store called Utopia (an urban contemporary boutique that began as a street market that sold clay earrings made by Evans and his wife, Beki Crowell)."
The two businesses came together in a mix of fashion and music that started in 1993, when Evans and Crowell were putting on a holiday fashion production called "Celebrating the Spirit of Youth." They needed audio effects for the production, and a friend referred them to Rolling Records and Quintero.
"Actually, our chemistry pretty much matched," Quintero says. "We stayed in contact after that because I needed someone to style my [music] groups. Sherman had a lot to offer."
Following the fashion show, Evans and Quintero decided to combine forces and work together on a new studio project, called Vertical Records, whose main act was a rap group called Da Phlayva. "[Vertical Records] became a Sherman and Angel project," says Quintero, "and it went on from there."
Just down the street from the South Carolina capitol building lies Charleston's historic Wentworth Street. Amidst the hustle and bustle of tourists shopping for relics of the Old South, a lone boutique stands out. It's the flagship store of NuSouth Apparel, and it's conspicuous because of a flag hanging in the window. At first glance, the flag might not look any different than the Confederate flag flying above South Carolina's state capitol building. But further review will show you that this flag has a personality of its own: the colors are different. Instead of the blue criss-crossed bars with white stars, an image that often stirs up frightening visions of Ku Klux Klan rallies and radical secessionists, this new flag has
stars and bars that are red, black and green — the colors of the African-American liberation.
This unique flag is now the logo of NuSouth, and it appears on every stitch of clothing Quintero and Evans make. But even before it became a corporate trademark, it was something altogether different, and it received both acclaim and judgment. This flag's roots aren't even in the garment business. It is music that created this new symbol for an even newer South.
While at Vertical Records, Quintero and Evans were preparing Da Phlayva for an upcoming tour around the Southeast. At the time, the two men were searching for a symbol for the group that would serve as a unifying message to the hip-hop community and make the relatively untapped Southern urban music scene noticeable.
"We wanted to make a big statement in the South," Quintero reveals. "So instead of just coming out with a picture of the group, we thought, let's give them something different. What's the biggest symbol in the South? We came up with the Confederate flag, but us being African-Americans, it was kind of a contradiction."
The two quickly had T-shirts and other promotional material produced for Da Phlayva's 18-city tour. When the group made its way back to Charleston, a local radio station aired a show featuring the group at a local high school. At the show, a 16-year-old student, Shellmira Greene, picked up one of the T-shirts Quintero and Evans were passing out. When Greene wore the shirt, which had the words, "The future is Da Phlayva," surrounding the altered Confederate flag on the front, and, "The past is the past," on the back, she had no idea what a stir it would cause at her school.
"She got suspended because they said the colors were inappropriate," Quintero says. "Everybody thought it was wrong. I mean, from what we've seen, white people and black people were united in backing this young lady up."
The incident sparked national media coverage. MTV News and CNN both covered the controversy extensively, and the local NAACP chapter sued the school on behalf of Greene, charging that the suspension violated her Constitutional right to free speech. Especially, the organization said, since other students at the school were often seen wearing the traditional Southern battle flag without incident. The suit was eventually dismissed. However, it left a lingering effect that would spark a new voice against prejudice. Currently, Greene is still waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her appeal.
In support of Greene, both Evans and Quintero started embroidering the flag on all of their own clothes. "Everybody started asking about it," Quintero says. "The last straw came when we went to the Million Man March (held in October 1995 in Washington, D.C.). People were asking us where they could get it, was there a booth there that they could get the clothes? Right there, we decided it's time to come up with a clothing line. We decided, the war started in downtown Charleston, we were going to finish the war in downtown Charleston."
"When you see that little horse, you think of Polo," says Quintero, referring to Ralph Lauren's line of sportswear. "When you see the flag, you'll think of NuSouth."
These men have been through this before. Starting a business, that is. Their first order of business wasn't even the clothes. "We're marketing as a brand," he continues.
The initial NuSouth clothes were simple. Mostly they were embroidered or silk-screened shirts. But the interest on Wentworth Street grew so enormous that the two men turned their new concept over to the newest business medium — the Internet. Last year, they debuted a simple line of clothes featuring the flag on their Web site. The site was quickly turned into an online shop, a move initiated by Evans, a one-time computer science major at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta. "That's the wave of the future," says Evans. "That is the new catalog."
They couldn't afford online advertising, so they promoted their site through chat rooms, forums and link exchanges. A mention in a national magazine piece on young, urban apparel designers turned their small Web site into a host for nearly 60,000 visitors a week. It also attracted the attention of two national retail chains, which expressed interested in buying the young company. But Quintero and Evans weren't about to give up their concept and were determined to make it work by themselves. Eventually they made enough to open a physical shop.
"In the shop (on 52nd and Wentworth in Charleston), we basically bought plain shirts and embroidered or silk-screened them ourselves," Evans recalls.
What came next was a fateful trip to Las Vegas. There they would hit the jackpot, not in any casino, but at a magic show — The Magic Show, the world's largest wholesale apparel trade show held twice a year.
"We went there to not introduce the clothes, but introduce the concept," says Quintero. "The idea was that, yeah, we're in fashion, but our clothes actually have a statement."
Their concept landed them immediately on the main floor of the show, an immediate big hit. "We definitely got them buy the jugular," Evans recalls. "The thing you've got to realize is that as we go into the new millennium, people are looking for something that truly says that there's been change, that we've moved forward. That's what NuSouth really brings to the table. It's a positive empowering statement about the future."
On August 31, Evans and Quintero returned to Las Vegas with NuSouth's first full cut-and-sew line, which was offered for the Spring/Summer 1999 season.
"In the shop on Wentworth Street, we've carried silk-screened T's, embroidered shirts, denim shirts, but we didn't have the opportunity to fully construct the garments ourselves," Evans explains. "This is our first time to fully get to do that."
The new line will feature significantly more styles than available at NuSouth's shop in Charleston. It will have everything from hats to socks. "We'll dress you from top to bottom," Quintero muses.
NuSouth's clothes are for everyone, just as their concept dictates. It might be Easy, however, to assume that their target customers are young, urban hip-hoppers, particularly in the wake of the numerous urban clothing lines hitting large cities. But they are going after more mainstream competition, including Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, J. Crew, Nautica and Ralph Lauren. Their clothes are targeted toward college students and twenty- and thirty something professionals, who collectively make up the largest consumer group in the nation, regardless of race.
"It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. It's common sense," says Quintero.
"We always say it's for the sons and daughters of former slaves, and the sons and daughters of former slave owners," Evans adds. "Everyone fits into that."
How did two men, in their early 30s, with no apparel experience design one of the most talked about fashion lines in the country? Well, they just took advantage of others' experience.
"There are other people out there who are already in line to do it," Quintero says. "Do you think Tommy Hilfiger stitched a jacket? We knew how to hire and interview people. We have a relationship with companies who are manufacturers for major companies, and they took us on as a partner."
Who those companies are, he won't say. He will say that they have hired designers who have reputations but no lines that have been sold, as well as national sales teams who already had contacts in the business.
NuSouth also hooked up with the advertising firm DDB Needham, the largest advertising firm in the nation and number two in the world. The firm took on Quintero and Evans as a case study. "They wanted to see what they could do with a new company that just started today," Quintero says. "They wanted to see how they could build a brand before the new millennium."
Outside the business world, Quintero and Evans have garnered new experiences in activism. Last year, the two men were invited to participate in Fisk University Race Relations Institute's annual conference in Nashville, Tenn. The conference builds guidelines for how people should move forward to solve race relation problems. Quintero and Evans were the first to represent an apparel company at the event. Among the conference's other attendees were Bishop Desmond Tutu, James Earl Jones, and rap star Chuck D.
At the conference, NuSouth became a hot topic of conversation. Several debates were rendered to both support and argue whether or not the NuSouth flag will become an icon for race relations in the future. The conference's director, Dr. Raymond Winbush, has gone on record comparing the NuSouth flag's symbolism to that of the cross in Christianity.
"He said that the cross itself was a symbol of oppression, being the end of the road, and that symbol was turned around and embraced as a glorious and celebrated symbol," Evans explains. "That's how he sees NuSouth playing out."
"In one year, we've been able to open up an apparel shop, start a brand in the market, make it on the main floor of The Magic Show, which is unheard of," boasts Evans. "And we've done it all out of our own pocket."
NuSouth, Evans maintains, is 100 percent in-house owned. The funding for the company was grass roots, as the two men put up some money from their prior businesses and solicited funds from friends and family.
"We learned the most valuable lesson ever," Evans says. "Ownership is so important in this game in the future. We got to quit letting these
super-corporations just consume all these great ideas coming into the marketplace. We believe in ownership, and we're not turning it over. It's time for the people to step up and make the difference."
As the next century approaches, Evans' beliefs seem to echo a sentiment throughout young business owners today. Many experts are touting, in books and lectures, that the next millennium belongs to independent business owners. Do-It-Yourselfers seem to be the wave of the future in America.
"We're the cutting-edge of that wave," Evans says. "It is the future, and that's what threatens corporations right now. They know that there are people like Angel and Sherman out there refusing to bend over."
Another reason Quintero and Evans say they are loath to sell their business is that NuSouth was not created strictly for making money. "Everybody's always concerned about how much money we're making," Quintero vents. "How many lives are we touching? That's the important part of NuSouth."
It's that importance that prevents Quintero and Evans from allowing their company and its meaning to end up in the wrong hands. If there is any doubt about it, or any doubt that NuSouth has truly been creating a new South, just try to figure out what happened to the two men merely a month ago. Evans and Quintero say that they were approached by a "powerful" businessman who is credited with leading the campaign to raise a statue in Nashville to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who is credited with founding the Ku Klux Klan. Evans says the man made a "major, major offer" to purchase NuSouth, but was refused.
The year 2000 is only 16 months away, but the future of NuSouth could be sooner. Already, before its first full line has debuted, NuSouth is expected to make a major impact in the fashion world. The company has already grown faster than Quintero and Evans could have imagined. Although they won't reveal their numbers, they say NuSouth is already worth "millions."
"The bottom line is that we are going to take 10 percent of Tommy's [Hilfiger] business in 1999 and 5 percent of Ralph Lauren's," Evans predicted. "Those guys better watch out, because we intend to be a billion-dollar player in this game."
Quintero and Evans now employ approximately 20 workers, and their Internet sales are growing strong. Recently, they signed a deal to expand further and enter into a joint relationship with an Atlanta store, which will open for business "shortly," says Evans.
Their new line will be launched wholesale, but future plans call for shops to be opened all over the South. "We're still going to stay on the concept of moving into all 13 Confederate states," Quintero says.
Eventually, they believe they will be a global company because their concept has meaning to everyone around the world. Thus, NuSouth apparel will sell in almost any marketplace.
"Everyone understands oppression in one way or another," Evans says. "And everyone needs to be enlightened. They need to be free and liberated from it. That's what NuSouth does."
In the process of expansion, Quintero and Evans hope to get their message out to everyone, South, North, East and West. They also believe that the next century will bring a better connection between the races, thanks mostly to expanding efforts like NuSouth's.
"It's not that we discovered NuSouth," Quintero says. "NuSouth discovered us. Yeah, we built it, but as far as the true meaning and the philosophy, we didn't actually discover it. The people discovered it. We just saw people bonding with it and knew it was powerful, so we grew with it."
"At the [Fisk University] conference, I was talking to a black lady," Quintero says. "I asked her, 'When you see a white person walking down the street toward you, wearing NuSouth, how are you going to feel?' She said, 'Connected.'"
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