Eccentric's Corner: The Alchemist

Fashion designer and entrepreneur Marc Ecko mixes business acumen with street sensibility and an eye for design.

By Matthew Hutson, published on July 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Name: Marc Ecko

Profession: Fashion designer and entrepreneur

Claim to Eccentricity: Took his high school hobby global

Like many guys, Marc Ecko (né Marc Milecofsky) had a chemistry set in his garage as a teenager. But instead of sodium and potassium, Ecko was combining elements of hip-hop and skate culture, graffiti and merchandising, paint and denim. After a stint in pharmacy school, he started a proper business and now sits atop six clothing labels (G Unit, Zoo York), a lifestyle magazine (Complex), and a video game studio. I talked with him at his company's Manhattan offices, which house all the business, design, and showrooms for his products, a recording studio for 50 Cent, a painting factory where Ecko collaborates with visual artists, and his private office, which features a full kitchen and half a basketball court.

What's your most disruptive act?

I like to throw ice water at my wife in the shower, then she does it to me. That's really good for your relationship, by the way. You have three kids, you need to do little pranks, you need to mix it up, you know? Act like a 12-year-old.

And I did the viral video hoax with a 747. [Ecko climbed a fence to spray paint "Still Free" on the side of a jet painted to look like Air Force One.]

Why did you do the video?

One motivation was I had just had an arm-wrestling match with the city of New York over some graffiti laws. I had permits to do an outdoor painting exhibition [on a mock subway car], and the city pulled the permits at the 11th hour, on the grounds that it would promote graffiti. I filed a lawsuit and we won.

And the baseball?

[Last year he bought Barry Bonds' 756th homerun baseball for $750,000 and put its fate to an online vote: Send it into space, send it to the Hall of Fame, or send it to the Hall of Fame branded with an asterisk. Option three won.] Here was this object that was unique to a moment in time. It's part of this great American legacy. And so is debate, so is democracy, so is this phenomenon called the Internet. This object is certainly a metaphor for all of these things. How often does this pop culture alchemy happen? I don't mind people calling it sensational because it created something you could emote around.

What were you like as a kid?

I wasn't so tragically cool that only the cool people came to my parties. And I wasn't so sheepishly mainstream that I wasn't aware of the cool sh*t. I was a good kid. I was heavyset, not athletic at all. I was very artistic, and I connected to graffiti because it was the first kind of masculine expression of being artistic. It had some teeth to it. A key ingredient to my success was my parents making a big deal out of the stuff, like hanging the art on the refrigerator. And I have a twin sister who was, like, my best friend. That helped a lot. I was very respectful of women.

You got your nickname from her.

My mother didn't know she was carrying twins. The doctor was like, "No, no, it's just an echo in the fluid." Then when Marcy was born, he said, "Here comes the echo," and five minutes later I came.

That's like a superhero origin story. If you could redesign a superhero's outfit, would you?

I have tremendous respect for historical superheroes. I don't really think I could outdo Batman—what am I gonna do, bring a different rubber to the table? I would probably invent my own superhero. I have thought about the power to freeze time and right wrongs. Maybe I'd put a horse's head in someone's shower right when they're planning something, and it's like, "That's a sign!"

Does the rhino logo mean anything?

As a kid, my dad had this wooden rhino that I would play with, instead of, like, a ton-ton from The Empire Strikes Back. [He recounts a scene, sound effects and all, then pretends to use the Force on my recorder.] Did you see that? I almost made it move. Yeah, so, the rhino. Over the years and hardships, the rhino became a metaphor for how I operate my business. There's a clumsy gracefulness. And they're survivors. Best employee I ever had.

Has ADD kept your business diverse?

It's partially because I'm ADD and I have a lot of itches I want to scratch, but it's also my core belief about how people consume today. Nike wanted to "Swish the world," and you could rhino the world, but that's too self-important. I can't be 100 percent authentic in the skateboarding world with *eckō unltd., but I can be 100 percent authentic in skate with Zoo York.

Was the transition from artist to businessman difficult?

Growing up and seeing my dad geeking out on, like, Isaac Asimov books, but at the same time listening to, like, Fleetwood Mac, gave me a good understanding of that right-left brain balance.

Do you feel you have enough creative engagement?

I never feel like I have enough. That's probably what haunts me the most. I'm intensely underwhelmed. People ask, "What does it feel like when you see people wearing your stuff on the street?" I guess it's the ADD thing but, like, I forgot that I did it. Even when I'm intensely hands-on, it's hurry up and wait. Maybe that's why I have that superhero fantasy. I never thought about that.

Is the painting factory a good outlet?

Now I can work on these special projects that act as a muse for a lot of the organization and are shaping a lot of our big ideas. It acts like a true laboratory. That sounds like a bunch of hocus-pocus, but in practice, it's real.