Trevor Delmore knows how to continually adapt, survive and thrive. The best proof of that stretches way back to his junior high school days in the 1970s, when the transplanted Londoner landed smack dab in the middle of the Bronx, NY. During the first day of school, Delmore and his family stood before the entire school assembly where, apparently, the novelty of Londoners enrolling warranted a school-wide introduction. If that wasn’t nerve-wracking enough, this was during an era when fashions didn’t spread around the world at the click of a mouse. Delmore and his siblings were dressed like, well, an ocean separated their sense of style from their new classmates. To make matters worse, thanks to London’s good schooling, Delmore was moved up a grade. Unfortunately, that didn’t accelerate his physical maturation in any way. So, as Delmor recalls, “There I was: the short, smart, dork.” And, let’s not forget, with a strange accent to boot.
“It was definitely not an easy move and a major culture shock,” Delmore says, adding that a lot of teasing came with the new territory. “It took years of assimilation and dialing down my strong British accent.” So Delmore reached inward for his artistic talents and entrepreneurial drive to carve out a niche. As he fondly recalls during his London years, he and his siblings were always selling something to the other kids at school—T-shirts, baked cookies, candy, etc. “Whatever you couldn’t nail down, we sold,” he says with a laugh. “We were always very entrepreneurial and we continued to do that when we moved to New York.” Making T-shirts, in particular, proved to be a profitable venture and the way Delmore and his younger brother, Courtney, would later on break into the shoe business as salesmen for one of the fastest growing brands of the past 25 years: Fubu.
The abridged story goes like this: After surviving high school, Delmore attended Howard University—first as a chemistry major—but he quickly changed to liberal arts to better suit his artistic abilities. Meanwhile, Courtney went to Syracuse University where he studied acting. Upon graduation, Trevor took a job at the United Nations as a diplomatic pouch officer. On the side, he ran a T-shirt design operation that quickly gained street buzz and snagged several cool store placements. Upon graduation, Courtney, on a whim, interviewed at Kenneth Cole and Harbor Footwear Group. The latter hired him to work in its sales and marketing department. It wasn’t long before Courtney began showing some styles to his brother for artistic input. Soon after, Trevor started sketching some shoe designs that made it into future collections and sold well. From there, Trevor became a part-time sales rep for a few seasons while still holding down his day job at the U.N. and moonlighting with his T-shirt business.
Then came Fubu. You could even break Trevor and Courtney’s footwear careers into B.F. and A.F.—Before Fubu and After Fubu. Courtney told his brother about this hot, new clothing brand that was licensing its name to JSP Footwear, and he wanted Trevor to join him in the startup venture. “Courtney said it was going to be huge,” Delmore recalls, although he admits knowing nothing about the brand at the time. In fact, it was his screen printer that first clued him in on the growing popularity of Fubu. “He was making Fubu shirts and told me he had to put my line on the backburner because this new label was taking up his production capacity. “I was like, ‘What’s Scubu?'” Delmore says. Always the entrepreneur, Delmore looked at some Fubu footwear prototypes and, while not blown away, he couldn’t deny the growing buzz surrounding the brand. “It was a revolution that was just about to open up, so I decided to take the footwear plunge (first as Fubu’s Northeast sales rep) and I have never looked back since,” he says.
Just to get a sense of how explosive the Fubu launch was, Delmore’s vivid recount of the brand’s first appearance at the WSA show in 1998 says it all: “We were all the way in the back of the Sands Convention Center in a little wooden booth, while all the big dinosaurs were in the front. But we never had 30 seconds to sit down to take a break as the buyers found us and kept pouring into our booth. We wrote $10 million in orders in three days. Our assistants were giving us water breaks like we were Kobe and Shaq during brief timeouts. It was an experience of a lifetime.”
Delmore went on to become vice president of sales for Fubu. It was during this time that he learned the art of brand building. He credits JSP Footwear CEO Anthony Loconte with allowing him to make that career transition. “Tony asked me what I wanted to do in terms of direction for the brand. I suggested bringing in a design team to make Fubu footwear distinctive.” At the time, Delmore believed the company had a hot label but it lacked unique products. “If you keep putting out generic product with a hot label, eventually it will plateau because the brand doesn’t stand for anything distinctive,” he says. “We needed to take the bull by the horns and start showing the vibe of what that brand really represented.” Soon after, Delmore says those efforts paid off in the form of a Plus Award for design excellence from Footwear Plus which, Delmore points out, beat out Diesel, and receiving a Partnership award from FootAction among other accolades. In addition, sales were skyrocketing: “Ninety-nine percent of our accounts were experiencing, at minimum, 100-percent yearly sales increases, and some were up 300 to 400 percent from one year to the next,” Delmore says. “The brand just took off.”
Delmore spent six years riding the Fubu freight train. He and his brother decided to hop off when the company took the brand in another direction. First the brothers tried to launch the action sports-inspired brand X02 (extreme oxygen) that Delmore says was ahead of its time. From there, the brothers consulted for a variety of brands, including Apple Bottoms footwear and Akademiks. Then Trevor jumped to Synclaire Brands as general manager of its newly formed Sports Couture division. There, he launched the Schmack and Azzure brands. In the fall of 2009, he joined the Secaucus, NJ-based Geoffrey Allen Corp. when the Coogi Footwear license opportunity presented itself. Courtney has since returned to his roots at Harbor Footwear as vice president of sales. The way Delmore sees the footwear business: There’s always a new opportunity, and one that could very well be the next big thing. Coogi, he notes, exhibits many of the brand qualities required to be successful in the premium urban market: a quality reputation, a long history (established in 1969) and style distinction. It’s also not over-distributed. As always, it comes down to making the right product—shoes offering a fresh, unique angle that catches the eyes of highly discerning, fashion-conscious consumers. “The Coogi customer has a taste level different than run-of-the-mill shoppers. They are looking for something totally different and fresh with quality and authenticity attached to it,” Delmore says, adding that color
plays an important role.
So far so good, Delmore reports. “In 2009, we did $9 million out of the gate,” he says. “This year, in light of a difficult economy, we expect to maintain sales and we are projecting growth in 2012 as we expand into kids’ and women’s dress categories.”
What brand qualities does Coogi possess that makes it a player in the footwear market?
First of all, it’s a premium brand with a long history of more than 40 years. The sweaters, which are the iconic feature of the brand, used to sell in Bergdorf’s, Neiman’s and Saks back in the day. They have a real following in terms of what they represent and still have a unique identity. Taking note of the fact that many brands come and go while others go up and down, this brand’s premium legacy lives on. It has a uniqueness that we can play on and embrace. We are creating premium product that plays into that lifestyle. And it’s not necessarily about building shoes for a head-to-toe hook-up, rather it’s to fit within the footwear industry as a premium brand.
Is Coogi an urban brand?
It is a premium urban brand. The urbanite fashion customer can be those kids that are into hip-hop and love flashy in-your-face fashion as well as kids who live far from any inner city. I don’t think Coogi has a color barrier. However, it is labeled as urban based on the categories that we use in this business. I would rather say it’s ‘urban evolved.’ That’s a fresh anointing of the category. In contrast, I would say Rocawear is directly urban. Coogi commands a higher price. It’s the top tier of urban; the Gucci of urban.
Are Timberland and Nike still considered urban brands?
They are broad-based brands. The urbanite still embraces Timberland for certain silhouettes, but they don’t embrace the brand across the board. Whereas Nike’s Air Force 1, Air Jordan and Air Max lines are definitely still being embraced by urbanites.
How do you stay relevant in the eyes of this consumer—a feat that most would agree—remains one of the most difficult challenges in the fashion business?
You really have to understand how this consumer evolves. The 20-year-old of today is not like the 20-year-old of five years ago. They are not like the 20-year-old of five months ago. They are constantly updating themselves. The kid just gets the iPod 2 and now he wants the iPod 4. You have to stay in the fast lane and understand how they breathe, what they eat, what they listen to, where they shop, what they wear, etc. And you can’t pigeonhole them. The minute you do that, you become irrelevant.
How do you keep up pace?
For starters, I have three sons. I’ll bring a few styles home from time to time for critiques. They each have different taste levels. My oldest, who is 26 and was an English major and now works at an S&P 500 firm, has a very conservative and sophisticated point of view. My middle son is very active, extroversive and ostentatious. And my youngest is laidback, but wants everybody to look at him. Then there are my nieces and nephews that all have their respective styles. Some of them attend Greenwich Academy in Connecticut, but all they have to do is hit a button to know what the next Lil Wayne song is and what he is wearing. They could be from anywhere and they are instantly on the same page of what’s trending.
I also have a very young spirit and am always embracing new things. I guess it’s part of me as an artist—I live outside of the box. I’m always in search of the next best thing. I’m a diehard shopper. I can shop from Neiman’s all the way down to the Gap, and my wife can’t buy me anything because my taste is always changing and evolving. Whether I’m at the gym, walking on the streets, in my office talking with my designers and younger buyers, or getting feedback with our numerous focus groups, I stay in tune. You have to in order to stay relevant.
It sounds like a never-ending pursuit.
It is. But if you embrace it, it becomes part of you.
How has this customer changed of late?
They’ve changed in terms of their buying habits, silhouettes, colors and fabrications. They are looking more to slim cuts as opposed to full size. This customer was wearing Levi’s 501 and now he has moved on to the skinnier 514 and 511 styles. That guy who was wearing a baggy, 38- or 40-waist and showing his underwear has evolved.
Did someone send out a memo?
These customers now live on a viral highway. They see what is going on across the globe instantly. It’s no longer just their block. The world has changed and, thanks to the Internet, it is now like the Pied Piper where everybody chimes in and follows the new beat. And that beat determines what’s cool or not.
Back to that guy that was wearing the baggy jeans with the Timberland boots: that look worked. But you can’t wear a Timberland boot with straight leg jeans. You’d look like you want to climb up on a roof and start installing some tiles, right? So that guy is choosing to wear Nike’s Goadome boots or Creative Recreation sneakers, because they feature tighter lasts that create a more streamlined look from head to toe. Their footwear has to fit what the vibe is. The fact is this customer can see what’s going on in London or Berlin while standing on a street in Brooklyn. They want to be different but at the same time relevant. That’s how the skate look re-emerged: this young African American kid started looking like the kids from Orange County. The slight difference being that urban kids put their own spin on skate, which gave rise to brands like 10 Deep and Crooks & Castles. They put an urban twist on the skate look with color and fabrications. But the crossover all makes sense because these kids listen to the same music, go to the same types of parties, watch the same shows, eat the same foods, drink the same beverages, play the same games and on and on. Therefore, their needs and tastes become similar.
Where is this customer primarily shopping today? Are they sticking with traditional stores or are they shifting to online dealers?
Both. They are savvy. They want to see the product, but will jump on various websites to see what all the trends are and who might be wearing them. But they don’t know, for example, what a Common
Projects shoe looks and feels like until they touch it and try it on. More likely, they need to see what it looks like before they spend that type of money. In general, they are being wiser about the purchases.
How has Coogi performed at retail to date?
We’ve been very fortunate to have a few styles that have really rocked at retail. It has given us the opportunity to have another time at bat. While we expect to maintain our sales this year, it’s no secret that with the way the overall economy has been of late that business for everyone remains challenging.
With respect to this most recent economic jolt, what impact has it had on your consumers’ immediate shopping habits?
They are holding off and looking for product with a real point of difference. They don’t have the luxury of buying things more freely because the priorities have changed. Let’s be honest: Life has changed. But this consumer still embraces what’s new and fresh. If they see and understand it and they are so attracted to it, then they’ll buy it. If not, then they’ll take a pass. Consumers, overall, are being much more selective.
Has this year more been more difficult than others?
Well, that’s why I go to the gym every day (laughs). These days, you really need stamina. You really need to be on your toes as fashions change rapidly. We might deliver something and by the time it’s shipped to retailers that color isn’t as hot anymore. So we have to be very careful in our buying and have keen foresight in planning our business. We have to pre-select and be in closer contact with our focus groups so we stay on trend. And we have to be sharp with our pencils because, at the end of the day, price (Coogi ranges from $65 to $120 at retail) is always key.
Are consumers truly freaked out by the economy?
The reality is that the whole world went flip flop. As such, we need items that have a point of difference for that consumer to embrace it and say, ‘I really love this and I’m going to buy it.’ That’s why Coogi product has to look a certain way. We pay attention to last details, execution, colors, feel, touch, the way it is sculpted, etc. We are not just slapping a logo on a shoe—what I call Velcro marketing. Today, it also means dialing down our collections so they are not too broad. We must have smaller capsules that make sense. It’s a case of being more narrow and deep in our lines.
Are retailers embracing this mantra?
A lot of stores are not carrying broad collections from any brand. They are carrying just core items that they feel safe with and have a history of good turns. And if it turned well, then they might take a chance with the next silhouette. Everyone is being cautious.
What’s your take on America right now: Are we broken beyond repair?
I don’t think so. I think we’ve just got to re-evaluate our values. We need to look where our traditional values are and determine what’s viable and what makes sense. Sometimes we push ourselves a little too far. Maybe this is a wake-up call to reel back and gain perspective. For example, the average American thinks America is the whole world, but it’s not. It’s a big world out there. Along those lines, how many Americans are bilingual? Not many. I chose to learn Spanish because I embrace new and different things. I don’t live in a box. I think it’s time for America to get out of that box and realize it’s a big world. Similarly, why are Asians graduating at the top of their class in math and science? Because it’s their passion to excel in those fields. Why isn’t that Americans’ passion? Why isn’t our educational system ranked in the top five? You have to always be inquisitive and want to learn new things. It’s OK to learn new. New doesn’t hurt. Maybe, for example, we need to get some manufacturing back in the good, ol’ USA?
Do you see that happening any time soon?
I would like to be part of that think tank. We need to definitely embrace manufacturing in the U.S. Nothing beats a stamp of ‘Made in the U.S.A.’
Is it tougher to be successful in the shoe business today than compared to your Fubu days?
Oh, for sure. When you have a brand that was a runaway horse and all you had to was pull back on the reins, that’s pretty easy. In comparison, now it’s like riding a horse and you have to use that whip once in a while. With Fubu, the stars aligned: Hip-hop was becoming a global revolution, the brand was exploding in apparel and we came out with a fresh interpretation of product. It all just clicked. At that time, the athletic brands stayed mostly to their core businesses and there was no real lifestyle brand. Fubu became that brand of choice. We went from $0 to $50 million in just six months.
Is it all about the brand or the shoes?
Consumers embrace brands, but product is the point of difference. If you have a collection of eight shoes, you’re lucky if two rock the socks at retail. Right now, Coogi has three or four, thank God. But how long are they going to continue to sell? Sooner or later they will hit a crescendo where we will have to introduce replacements. Retailers are always looking to us for something different each season. If you are in the fashion business, it’s a must. You can’t take steps backward or rely on introducing an old shoe. You have to show the new shoes and sell retailers on why they need and want them. The consumer is demanding the same thing. If they see the same shoes in the store for too long, it becomes a case of, ‘I already have two of those. My closet is good.’ We need to always push new silhouettes and new direction, which helps Coogi send a message that will be embraced by that customer with the good eye. Once you have their attention, they might even develop an impulse to buy your brand.
With that approach in mind, what are some of the freshest things you have seen come on to the market recently?
I really like what BMW has been doing—their hybrid cars and night vision features. That’s cool. And iPhones are still relevant. Have you ever seen an Apple store empty? It’s always packed. From a fashion point of view, Levi’s is fresh again. They have experienced a rebirth, so hats off to them.
There’s always room for innovation, regardless of how poor the economy may be.
You cannot kill true passion or shut down the entrepreneurial spirit. Our industry needs to promote that spirit. It’s what brings great new products and brands into the marketplace. Who knows? Something can come out of nowhere. I believe in miracles. I’m standing and breathing today—that’s a miracle. Hopefully, I’ll have tomorrow, too, so there’s always an opportunity. You just have to get your mindset out of the goldfish bowl and identify the needs of your end consumer to see what the opportunities can be.
Where do you see Coogi in three years?
Ever evolving. Things change so rapidly these days that three years is looking way out. We could change a whole lot in three months. But I would say we will still be relevant to our target consumer and hopefully we have gained more momentum in the marketplace.
If you could tell retailers one thing, what would it be?
To hold down the fort. To keep up hope and stay connected to those companies that have their best interests at heart, because we are all in this together. We need each other in order to survive. I’m a big relationship guy, and that all ties into credibility. Strong relationships go a long way in this business. They can involve selling a particular shoe or just grabbing a cup of coffee to talk about life. Forget about shoes for a minute. This business can’t strictly be about the numbers. You must have ethics as well.
What do you love most about your job?
Every day is different. It doesn’t get old. I also love product. I love to build it—the entire design process. I travel to Asia often to put my little two cents in. But I also love being involved in the marketing, sales, PR, merchandising and development aspects. It all comes naturally. I’m a multi-focused person. It why I also love sculpting, photography, painting and life drawing.
It’s not just the money that drives you, right?
Of course, the money drives me (laughs). I’m not in this only for my health—that’s what I go to the gym for. Seriously, I love the whole process. I love to give birth to brands and see consumers embrace them, and I love seeing the tangibile result when they get validation at retail. Once you hit one out of the park, you want to see if you can do it again. Fubu is where I first got the taste. Once I got that, I have never looked back. —Greg Dutter