The way John Brown has been going on about the power of positivity—it's been nearly an hour now—you assume that the haze of incense billowing from a small altar in the cluttered lobby of his Santa Ana clothing factory is representative of his all-to-the-good philosophy.
But then Brown stops talking in midsentence and springs from his chair. He strides to the front door and irritably throws it open to let in fresh air. Then he heads for the altar, snatches the sticks of incense and emphatically grinds them out. He clears his throat loudly and deeply as if to expel the sickly sweet smoke from his lungs. He shakes his head, grimacing with displeasure. "I hate that stuff," he says. "All that smoke; it can't be good for you."
Turns out it's not positivity per se that is at the root of Brown's approach to life. It's goal-oriented practicality. That's how a poor kid from Compton has ended up—after 15 years in Germany, where he won a half-dozen Mr. Universe and Mr. World bodybuilding titles—on the cusp of a financial killing as an Orange County fashion designer. The incense and the altar? The employees in Brown's factory put it there.
"I'm doing the fashion business because I want to make $100 million," Brown says unabashedly, and somehow this out-there confidence makes you notice his award-winning physique, which is obvious even beneath a heavy black-leather jacket. It starts you wondering how much of Brown's big claim is just another version of the muscle-flexing poses he has been striking for years.
But then Brown makes the connection himself. "In bodybuilding competitions, they had what they called 'prejudging.' That's when they really decided who would win before the public competition was even held," he recalls. "The first-place trophy they eventually awarded at night was just the manifestation of the prejudging in the morning. It was just the completion of the agreement."
This concept of "the agreement" comes up often in Brown's conversation. "Some people need to wait for the trophy —for the agreement—to be certain of what has already happened, but I've never needed that," he says. "Whether the wait for the agreement is several hours or whether it's stretched out 10 years, I've always known beforehand when I had won. And I know now."
EOEO, Brown's new line of casual streetwear, was a smash when it debuted at the Magic apparel show in Las Vegas last summer. "I took $100,000 of orders on the first day, compared to my normal first-day orders of about $5,000," he says.
"By the third day of the show, I wasn't taking orders anymore." He says buyers' reactions were similar at the Magic show in February.
Now, back in Santa Ana, even as the sounds of cutting and sewing echo from his factory, Brown is getting headaches wondering how he's going to fill all the orders. But he insists that he will. "I just have to figure it out," he says. "To me, that's true of anything in life: you figure out the rules and master them. So ultimately, this will be no problem for me. I'll just do what I have to do, knowing for certain that I will—well, it's as if I've already done it. The payoff will come, just like those bodybuilding trophies."
Despite his attitude, Brown doesn't pretend to see the future. He can't even say just how he got to this point. "I credit my mother for getting me interested in clothing," Brown says. "She was really into sewing, and when I was a kid, she always had me on the floor, pinning together fabric and patterns."
He credits Cal State Fullerton, where he majored in art, for his fascination with color and design. He credits bodybuilding, with its emphasis on self-reliance and the contours of the body, for his awareness of personal possibility. And he credits a lifelong friend, J.D. Hawkins, for teaching him the tools of entrepreneurship.
Brown has made some previous forays into the apparel business. In high school, he would sketch out dress suits for his friends to take to tailors. In the early 1980s, he designed Lycra track suits for sprinters, including the late Florence Griffith-Joyner. By the mid-1980s, he was selling his gymwear at health clubs where he trained.
But the EOEO line—pronounced "eee-ohh-eee-ohh"—is where he feels ready to make his mark, mostly because the concept is so simple. It consists of T-shirts featuring '70s-style cartoon renderings of little black round-the-way girls and '60s-mod flowers and butterflies; denim jeans-and-jacket ensembles; bandannas customized with rhinestones; and a vinyl go-go dress in pink, green, white and yellow panels.
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"My biggest sellers," says Brown, "are the T-shirts and bandannas. I've been selling 20,000 of those bandannas every month, at between $4 and $10 apiece. It's insane."
Brown says "insane" a lot when he talks about EOEO's sales figures, and he says it with the kind of loud emphasis—"In-SANE!"—that makes you think he might mean it literally. And if he doesn't, you might.
Because while Brown is proud of his designs and his product and his work ethic, he acknowledges that the popularity of EOEO clothing may have a lot to do with the attractive celebrities he has enticed to wear it. The cover of the EOEO catalog features six beautiful, young, smiling actresses and hip-hop stars—Vivica A. Fox, MC Lyte, Spinderella, Regina King, Tashina Arnold and Lisa Ray—decked out in Brown's fashions. The photo has been transposed onto a hang tag fastened to every item in the EOEO line. Says Brown, "I want young girls to come into stores, see the hang tag and say, 'Oh, my God, those are my girls! They've got their own line! I've got to have that!'"
This idea isn't Brown's. He learned it from other designers. "I threw a party for a bunch of guys in the fashion business —I invited strippers, so I knew they'd come —and while they had all these girls in their faces, I asked them, 'What do I have to do to be successful like you?'" Brown recounts. "One of the guys—a guy from FUBU—just looked at me and said, 'All you got to do is get celebrities to wear your shit. That's all you need.' Everybody I asked said the same thing. It was the first thing out of their mouths. And those guys were right. Were they ever so right."