This is what happened to Fubu: They oversaturated the market.
"The biggest mistake we made with the brand was buying more inventory than we needed. This was around 2001," said Daymond John, a Queens native who founded the label in 1992 and brought on his friends J. Alexander Martin, Keith Perrin and Carlton Brown as partners. John has pivoted from a bottle-popping Fubu presence in rap videos to a buttoned-up entrepreneur and regular judge on ABC’s Shark Tank.
When Fubu, which stands for "For Us, By Us," was hot, it was in over 5,000 stores, and in 1998 its yearly sales were more than $350 million. But after co-opting a Gap commercial via LL Cool J in 1999, outfitting pop acts like *NSYNC, and spending $5 million to make The Good Life, a compilation album under Universal—remember "Fatty Girl?"—the team decided to retreat from the U.S. market in 2003.
That doesn't mean Fubu was removed from the cultural consciousness. Solange's song "F.U.B.U.," released in 2016, became a mantra for marginalized people seeking ownership of their culture and their existence. And last year, during the second season of Donald Glover's Atlanta series, an episode titled "FUBU" followed a younger Earn, who purchased a Fubu jersey that he and a classmate wore on the same day, which led to a humiliating game of "which one is fake?" that lasted until classes were dismissed.
But Fubu didn't really capitalize on these moments. They've made attempts at comebacks and relaunches over the last couple of years, and collaborated with brands and retailers including Puma, Pyer Moss, and Urban Outfitters, but Perrin said that was just testing the waters. Now, with a Century 21 partnership, they're legitimately back. They've created a capsule collection that will sit in the retailer's Next Century space, which has a separate entrance on Dey Street in Lower Manhattan. Next Century is devoted to younger consumers interested in streetwear, vintage, and a curated selection of discounted designer pieces.
Brown said working with Century 21 covered a variety of bases. Firstly, it's a retailer that resonates with the team, who all grew up in New York. But it's also a way to reintroduce the brand to a younger customer—they are targeting 18-to-34-year-olds—provide nostalgia for those who remember it, and connect with international tourists who are also familiar with Fubu. While Fubu has been relatively dormant in the U.S., it's been able to sustain itself with a series of international licenses in countries like South Africa, Japan, China, Saudi Arabia, and Korea, where John said Fubu is positioned as a skate brand.
"I think overseas respects and values the hip-hop culture in America, and Fubu is synonymous with hip-hop and streetwear," said John. "But today I consider Fubu American classics. I mean, there was a time when we had a really successful bedding line."
The Century 21 collection, titled "Can't Resist a Classic," is a play on retro Fubu styles including hoodies and sweatshirts covered with the FB logo. The line, which Martin designs, launches on March 1. The goal is to expand to more Century 21 doors and grow business on Fubu's e-commerce site. This is also the start of a bigger push that will include Fubu hotels, licensing deals for suits, underwear, eyewear, a women's line, Fubu Radio, and Fubu TV. The brand also operates three Fubu Mobile cell phone stores in Brooklyn.
"We feel like we haven't touched the surface on how big it can be," said Brown. "Fubu is not just a clothing line. It's radio, television, and hotels. It's a lifestyle that can play [in] many categories."
Fubu was in a class of rap-adjacent streetwear brands that did big numbers during the late '90s and 2000s and then went away, were no longer cool, or became shells of themselves. But unlike many of their peers, Fubu's founders, who also own Coogi and at one point had the license for Kappa in North America, have always maintained ownership of their label. They were in a deal with Samsung that helped with distribution, but that's no longer in effect.
"The story goes like this. When we signed our deal with Samsung, they said if you make $5 million in your first year, you can keep your name. In the fall of 1996 and the spring of 1997, we did $30 million," said Brown. "I always say it's like we signed a record deal. They manufactured our goods, but we owned our masters."
Whether they will sell the business in the future is undecided, but with luxury brands like Gucci, Burberry, and Prada making racially offensive design decisions, it's an interesting time to be a black-owned brand with "For Us, By Us" messaging—although Perrin wanted to make it clear that the brand isn't only for people of color.
"Fubu was always built on hip-hop culture. When we came up with the name, we were thinking about how we spend so much money making other brands rich, but it wasn't only meant for black people," said Perrin. "We were trying to say that we are of the culture and for it."