Fashioning a niche for black awareness

SWEAT SUCCESS

February 06, 1991|By Sujata Banerjee | Sujata Banerjee,Evening Sun Staff

WHAT DO Dwayne Wayne, Theo Huxtable, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and the Wayans brothers have in common?

They all wear stylish sweat clothes on their TV shows that are cut off, belted, slouchy -- the distinctive work of Baltimorean Rod Jones. Jones' silk-screened New Heritage sweats have graphic designs ranging from a Zulu warrior to a schoolboy toting books. The constant underlying it all is African-American pride.

"I saw a trend happening -- black awareness," says Jones, president and owner of New Heritage, his clothing company. "In the market up until recently, there weren't progressive black figures on sweats. I saw a hole."

Jones, a graduate of Cardinal Gibbons High School, graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology. He went on to work as an illustrator at Daily News Record, the menswear companion to Women's Wear Daily. He also worked as creative design director at Florida Adams, where he designed silk-screened images of people playing croquet and billiards. Jones decided he could do a similar thing better on his own.

"I wanted to be in business for myself," says Jones, who left Florida Adams in 1987 and returned to Baltimore to start up his business with childhood sweetheart Belinda Wells-Jones, who is now his wife.

Jones' retail scheme was simple and sound. He bought plain T-shirts from a source in New York and silk-screened them himself. He rented a pushcart at Mondawmin Mall and sold enough over six months to return to New York to start a large-scale, wholesale operation of T-shirts and sweats, which he sells to about 60 stores nationwide.

"It was hard work, but it developed and grew," says Jones about the New Heritage business. In 1989, he opened the first New Heritage boutique in a popular tourist mall across from the Apollo Theater on W. 125th Street in Harlem. He opened his second store in Mondawmin Mall last August.

The store name reflects both African history and the progress of African Americans with designs such as "Stepping," a group of young men dancing in the manner made famous by black fraternities. To date, his most popular design is "Trio," a stylish group of men in slouchy blazers and fedora hats. Prices range from $12 for a short-sleeved T-shirt to $25 for a long-sleeved sweat shirt. Colors are electric -- purple, orange, red, gold, green and red. To set the clothes off to advantage, the New Heritage stores have modish black and white checked floor and walls.

The T-shirts and sweats began flying out of the stores in the last year, after Damon Wayans, a performer on the popular "In Living Color" program on the Fox Network, splurged on over $200 on sweats at the Harlem store. He and his brother Keenan Ivory Wayans began wearing New Heritage clothes on camera, which in turn alerted the costume designers for "Cosby," "Different World" and "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." New Heritage pieces have been worn by "Cosby's" Theo Huxtable, "Different World's" Dwayne Wayne and Ron, and the "Fresh Prince." New Heritage now sends samples of its latest T-shirts and sweats to all the shows.

"It has been helpful," says Jones about the TV coverage. "People see [the clothes] and they come in the next day." In fact, Jones is about to launch a kid-sized line of his designs because so many children watch the TV programs.

Although to date only male actors have worn his fashions on TV, his stores also stock designs created especially for women "Sisterhood," two little girls giggling in party dresses, and "Working Woman," a dressed-for-success business executive.

"It's always something positive without being radical or hard-edged," Jones says about the message behind his clothing.

Political consciousness is also present through accessories from other sources Jones sells at his stores. Pins and necklaces featuring Martin Luther King and baseball hats and beads colored in the red, green, yellow and black representing black pride all sell well. A popular local trend has developed in decorating such baseball hats with pins designed by Jones -- mini-reproductions of his silk-screened designs for $3 apiece.

Jones' ultimate ambition is to move beyond sweats into designing "funky, contemporary" women's sportswear. "Everything will be graphic," he says, staying true to the concept that made his sweats a success.

There are other big plans in the hopper. Jones would like to create franchises of his store to be run by entrepreneurs across the country, similar to what Benetton has done. He also plans to market a full-color, national mail-order catalog of New Heritage fashions.

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