The Clothing Line That Sparked A Cultural Revolution Is Coming Back But It Needs Your Help
UPDATE: The Kickstarter campaign to re-launch the AACA brand ends at 9AM EST tomorrow (April 18). The campaign is seeking to raise $100K, and is currently at $84,253. To donate, click here.
Before Phat Farm, FUBU, Rocawear or any of the other iconic urban fashion wear brands, there was an iconic mark that was embraced by the Hip-Hop world, with a sense of cultural pride. The black “positive patch” of the African American College Alliance, with its distinctive gold embroidering, united Historically Black Colleges and allowed them to transcend regions to become national symbols of excellence. The AACA patch adorned sweatshirts, hats and other apparel that prominently featured the logos of venerable universities like Howard, Morehouse, Grambling, Malcolm X, Jackson State and so many others. Personalities from Redman to KRS-One, Martin Lawrence to Queen Latifah, proudly wore the colors as they rose to prominence and became some of the most important names in Hip-Hop culture.
The pairing of the AACA brand with the world’s culture creators was no accident. The strategy was the product of the hard work, imagination and brute force of a young Howard University alum, Chris Latimer, who was the liaison between the company and the entertainment world. He grew the company from $600,000 in revenue to $6,000,000 in his first 6 months and, in the next few years, turned it into one of the most powerful brands in fashion. For every dollar that he generated for the company, roughly 10% went back to the universities whose trademarks were being represented. The awareness and pride that the clothes engendered, also encouraged countless young people to seek college education as a life path rather than other, more precarious choices.
At the height of the company’s popularity, due to circumstances beyond Latimer’s control, AACA went out of business. Now, nearly 20 years later, he is returning to take the reins of the company himself, and re-launch the brand that inspired millions. At a time when violence in communities like Chicago is surging, the nation’s first African-American president is under siege, and it actually has to be asserted that Black Lives Matter, the need for a brand with such cultural significance has never been greater. However, before Latimer can re-launch AACA, he must raise $100,000, and he is seeking to do it for the people and by the people.
Read his incredible story below and click here to donate to the AACA Kickstarter campaign.
Ambrosia For Heads (AFH): How did the African American College Alliance come to be?
Chris Latimer: AACA was birthed from need and ignorance. Back in the day when [the] Starter [clothing line] was on fire, everybody was wearing that and then it also brought life to the big name history NCAA schools–the Syracuses, the North Carolinas. Cats was chasing colors, similar to what’s going on now, so first it was the teams, then it went to the colleges. This was Fall of ‘90/early ‘91. There was a store called Snyder’s on Georgia Avenue in Washington, D.C., down the block from Howard University. And, it was one of the hottest sneakers stores in D.C. because all the fly guys wanted to come over there and be close to all the girls who were at Howard University. It was kind of the show off store. Some kids from Howard went into the store and noticed that the wall had all of these predominantly White institution schools and not one Black college. So, being the revolutionary-minded kids that they were, they asked the manager at the store “well, how can you carry all of these PWIs right down the block from Howard University and not have our school here at all?” And, what ended up happening after so many complaints was one day somebody walked in and the owner was in there–Mark Van Grack–and he was a very accommodating dude, so he heard them out, and then he produced a sweat hood for Howard University. Then he eventually acquired the licenses [from Howard], and it blew up. He was an apparel guy so he knew he had to come up with a trademark that would polarize everybody and differentiate him from other brands that might chase this Black College movement, and that’s when he came up with the “positive patch,” which is the African-American College Alliance brand and trademark. Eventually, he couldn’t keep them in the stores. Everybody, from suburban kids to street kids was buying the hoodie, and he thought to himself “wow, this could probably rock out with other schools,” and he went on and acquired other licenses, and that was the birth of AACA.
AFH: Was AACA the only company making apparel for Historically Black Universities at that time?
Latimer: There were several lines out there–Champion and Rydell and a couple other lines. They were making them, but only for the [university] book stores. They didn’t see the opportunity or the connection of making Historical Black College hoodies for the black target that was buying all the sports-licensed [apparel]. So, he was selling the product and then he trademarked the logo on May 14, 1991.
AFH: How did you learn about AACA?
Latimer: In December ‘91/January ‘92, [Mark] sent some apparel up to Classic Concepts’ office, which is the video production company of Ralph McDaniels and Lionel Martin [creators of the legendary New York music video show, Video Music Box]. To me, they basically are the innovators of Black music videos. So, he sent a box up to them and, at the time, the young lady at the reception area, that ran the office, was my girlfriend. When she got the box, she did as she was supposed to do to see if it would work with the stylist, but when you send a box up for Boyz II Men, [at the time] they’re wearing argyles with bow ties, so they weren’t going to wear sweat hoodies. So, they didn’t use the product and she brought some of the product home to me. At the time, I was a relatively big [party] promoter, but this was after the City College incident in New York [where 9 attendees were trampled to death and 29 were injured at a Puff Daddy promoted celebrity basketball game], and New York was anti-Hip-Hop events. So, it got to the point to where the club owners wouldn’t even return [promoters’] calls for about 2 or 3 months. So, I’m trying to diversify and figure out what I can do with my marketing and promoting skills, and here comes this box sitting in the living room of me and my girlfriend’s apartment. When I opened up the box, the first hoodie I took out of it was Malcolm X college. It struck a chord with me immediately because I’m good friends with Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm’s daughter. Then, the next one I pulled out was Howard University [Latimer’s alma mater] and I just had that moment where your life and your life’s meaning comes into perspective. I knew I wanted to figure out a way to be a part of this AACA movement, and the chase was afoot. The next day, my girlfriend went back to work. Mark Van Grack called her and said “hey, how’d it go at the video shoot?,” and she was forthright and said they didn’t wear it, and so he was like “wow, you know I need to get my stuff into videos, do you know someone who can help me market and promote the product?” And, she was like “I know somebody. He’s really busy, but I’ll see if he’ll do it.” Obviously, I wasn’t busy at all [laughs], because we had this whole blackout for Hip-Hop in New York City.
AFH: At that time, we were coming off Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet, and coming into the heyday of the Native Tongue’s movement. Did you see the ground as particularly fertile for launching a brand anchored in African-American pride?
Latimer: Yeah, with everything that was going on, it was beautiful. It was a beautiful moment and I knew everybody on all spectrums of Hip-Hop–Rakim, LL Cool J, Latifah, D-Nice, Chris Lighty. I knew everybody that was making it happen, at that time. So, I can agree the ground was fertile, but it wasn’t like when I looked at that box in the living room I was like “this is a perfect time for it.” That wasn’t it. It was color waves. It was Black Colleges. It was the Blackest brand that I had ever seen in my life, and I wanted to be a part of it by all means necessary.
AFH: So, how did you officially get involved with the movement?
Latimer: In February of ‘92, I went and met with Mark Van Grack. I tell him “I’ll promote the brand and get it in the videos. Just pay me $35,000 a year,” which was a lot back then. [He said] “alright, let’s give it a shot,” and I was like “hold on, there’s one more thing. I need an expense account because if I’m going to go in New York City and have to wrestle with these record label executives that have expense accounts and are always getting treated for dinner, I need to have some money to build the relationships.” So, he was like “how much you think you’re going to need,” and I was like “$10 grand, but I’m not going to go out of my way to spend $10 grand every month.” We left the meeting, we shook hands, I took some product with me, and AACA and my career began.
AFH: From that point what was your primary objective in growing the brand and getting it more recognized?
Latimer: Well, first and foremost, I had no money, no budget. So, I had to build [myself] up to those who didn’t know me, because this was very music industry-based, and I always had my ace in the whole which was Classic Concepts, because my girlfriend was the receptionist. Ralph McDaniels was my man because I used to hire Video Music Box to do some events, and I had a great relationship with Lionel Martin. I knew every video that was being made because my girlfriend would tell me what was on the list and who was calling. If I had a problem with a stylist, Ralph would make the call for me, and I always kept Lionel and Ralph fresh with clothes, so if they were behind the camera, they were always making sure I had a good look and the product was there, and they were kind of supporting Black colleges through their lens at the same time. So, the first game plan was just to make sure that I had everything hot coming through Classic Concepts, that I was on the set and I placed the product. At the time, everything hot came through Classic Concepts. So, my gameplan was twofold. First, I had to let the music industry know me by name, and I had a unique name, “Chris Latimer.” I started going to all the hot hangouts and restaurants, like the Shark Bar, Sylvia’s, and Copeland’s–all the hot Soul Food spots. Whenever I walked in there and I saw somebody that was making it in the music industry–a manager or an artist–I picked up their tab on [my] expense account, but I wouldn’t go over and meet them the first time. I’d write my name down on the receipt after I paid it with [my corporate] credit card and tell [the waitress] “just tell them ‘Chris Latimer picked up your tab.’” That started resonating around. At the Shark Bar, there was this table that was like THE VIP table. When you walked to the back of the bar, you walked up 4 steps to the little lofted area. Right to the left, there was this VIP table, and they would really not sit you there if you weren’t somebody. So, if that table was empty, you knew somebody was coming. So, I could just sit at the bar and just kind of weight for people in the industry. So, I’m sitting down there and I’m looking up and Andre Harrell [Founder & President of Uptown Records] would come through, and he’d be with all of his clients, and [people like him] were already the man but now it looked liked he was the Superman because [people] in the restaurant were just picking up their tabs, and executives like him already had expense accounts. So, Andre would come and I’d pick up his tab Russell Simmons would come, I’d pick up his tab. I even paid the bill one time for Tom Silverman from Tommy Boy. When I got to you the second time, I’d introduce myself and just be like “my name is Chris Latimer. I represent a clothing line called African-American College Alliance and we’re trying to promote Black Colleges. The line is on fire. The colors are great and it will work well with your artist. Whatever artist was sitting in that limelight, I’d work with. Andre had Jodeci, who I dressed, Mary J. Blige, who I dressed, and Father MC and Heavy D. And, that’s how it would work. I would just dress people. I’d have a relationship with the video director. I’d have a relationship with the stylist because I’m saving them budget money, so it just created an incredible lane where it was a win-win. I was giving them hot product. I was tying them to the Black Colleges. And, they were representing the Black Colleges.
AFH: At your apex, who are some of the biggest names that you can remember rocking the clothes?
Latimer: Snoop Dogg was a beast when the product first came out. I mean he rocked it everywhere. Once Snoop gravitated to it, and I was there for him and he was a new artist, when he blew up, he was there for me too. He really, really looked out for me. Biggie, but obviously there were some size challenges. One of my biggest placements was Biggie. I think we might have been at Jack The Rapper, and I had one 5X Morehouse T-shirt, and he’d always been driving me crazy. “Lat, you ain’t got my size. You ain’t got my size.” Mark Pitts, his manager, an I went to school. He was on Puffy’s [who also went to Howard with Latimer] label, and B.I.G. was just a great dude. So, I guess the top 3 is Snoop, Biggie, Tupac.
What were some of the TV shows where you placed product?
Latimer: I rocked TV. TV was nuts. I rocked TV because I was under their radar. It was kinda like how FUBU covertly placed themselves in the GAP commercial [when LL Cool J wore a FUBU hat when starring in a GAP commercial and said their tagline For Us, By Us]. What I did set that up. It was like our own secret. Like we knew what was going on. The celebrities gravitated to the Black Colleges because they were ours–the schools were–and the color waves worked with what was going on in the street at that time, and the stylists gave it a bow because they knew what it was and it was saving them budget money. There was this wonderful moment because the artists were getting so many props for supporting the Black schools, in Black America.
That one time that Will [Smith, on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air] wore that Howard University Hoodie with the HU on it, I can only imagine every city and the pride and the “thank yous,” from old women 75 that are AKAs all the way down to the 18-year old that just enrolled at Jackson State. One of the major forces that really got me on television was Martin. Me and Martin developed a great relationship at Def Comedy Jam and then the big transition from Def Comedy Jam and Martin’s big stand-up tours was the Martin show.
AFH: How did you and Martin cultivate your relationship?
Latimer: One of my biggest “sabotages of good” was the Def Comedy Jam. I’d already taken care of Russell at the Shark Bar. I was great friends with Bob Sumner [producer of Def Comedy Jam]. So, before they started filming Def Comedy Jam, Bob was like “Lat, Lat. Come on, man! Bring your clothes through! I love what you’re doing.” And, Bob was the guy on the ground. Russell was the guy that they introduced at the end of the show. He was the Executive Producer and he handpicked some of the comedians, but Bob was the muscle. First, they had Kid Capri DJ’ing, and I had probably done about 20 parties by then with Kid Capri, so he was easy. I just dressed him. Then, Bob took me and introduced me to Kenny Buford, who was Martin’s right hand man, at the time. Kenny and I hit it off and then he introduced me to Martin and walked me in the room to show him my stuff. I had his size and everything. I knew he was a smaller guy and I just laid out all these great sweatsuits. He started seeing them and he was like “Oh wow. These are those clothes that are hot in D.C.” I’m like “Yeah. This is it.” He gravitated right to them because it was a triple for him because, a. he was wearing the Black Colleges, b. the clothes were hot, and c. the line started off in D.C. where he started off. So, he started wearing the brand everywhere.
Now, here’s the tricky thing. When people are doing production [for Def Comedy Jam], they don’t really look at the strategy of looks. There was no real stylist. Every comedian wore their own clothes. So, when they film Def Comedy Jam, they film the whole season in 2 days. In Martin’s mind, I’m giving him great suit after great suit, but when the show aired, it was like “this guy Chris Latimer owns Def Comedy Jam!” Because when the show aired every week, it was another suit, another suit. [People were saying] “Oh my god. Oh my god. This is unbelievable!” Martin would throw to Kid Capri and Kid Capri would have it on. And then, after about 2 or 3 shows, Russell was like “What is going on?? Where do I get some of these clothes??,” and I started providing him with outfits. I gave him everything. And, with Russell, I put him in clothes with the schools that everybody knew. He’d get Howard. Then, he’d get Grambling. And, I always gave him the best colors because Russell was the king back then. Then, Russell would come walking off the back and it’d be him and Martin on the stage with the same brand on, hugging each other, at the end of the show, and it just took over. When Russell Simmons was editing Def Comedy Jam with Bob Sumner, Russell was sitting there like “Wow. AACA is everywhere. This is crazy. I have to start a clothing line.” And, that was the birth of Phat Farm.
AFH: So, you’re cruising at 100 mph now. Everything is going great. What happened?
Latimer: I was an employee, so there were things outside of my control. So, I didn’t control the back end administration or anything of that nature, and I started noticing that Snyders [the D.C. store where AACA started] started closing down stores. Mark Van Grack became a bit overwhelmed between the 2 entities, so something had to suffer. As we got further in the game, the quality of the product wasn’t as good as it was. What eventually happened from there is that the factory [that made the clothing] was owed so much money that they came in and closed down the mark, because [they hadn’t been] paid in so long, and the brand just went belly up.
AFH: You were the face of the brand, but you were not the owner, and the owner was not African-American. What was the impact of people learning that the company was not Black-owned?
Latimer: In ‘93, Hip-Hop was the major force behind all the licensed product that was selling. There was a show where all the retailers and the managers of the big retail chains came to schmooze, and it was in Atlanta. Eventually, the artists started walking through. When they came by our booth and [workers] started introducing people to the owner, [the artists] started feeling some kind of way. I’ll give Mark credit. His whole staff was Black. Everybody was black, but he’s still the owner and, visually, when people see that, you get a reaction. I remember that started bubbling around a little bit. Some artists stopped wearing it cold turkey, and others would give me issues about it. I remember the biggest person that kind of felt some kind of way about it was KRS-One. It went from me dressing Kris everywhere to where it was like “Yeah…I’ll holler at you, Lat. I think I might have been wearing it too much. I’ma switch things up a little bit.” Once he found out who Mark was, it kind of lost its Black connotation.
AFH: Several years have passed since the company closed. When did you get re-involved?
Latimer: I started working on the deal to acquire the brand about 18 months ago.
AFH: Why did you think that the time was right to bring the brand back?
Latimer: The times are a perfect collision right now, in a good and a bad way. The bad way is young Black males are getting killed out in the street. And, not that Black colleges can prevent that, but Black colleges might keep them out of the street, and pushing education to the forefront might have their walk a little different and keep them out of situations. The disrespect for Obama. Here’s one of our greatest Black minds, and [he’s] being disrespected by the color of his skin, which shows you that, God forbid you’re uneducated, the kind of disrespect you’re gonna get. On top of that, all of this throwback stuff coming back. The brand immediately does something for the community. When I sell it to the retailer, the school gets a royalty. When the retailer puts it in the clothing store, he creates a story around the brand and around the colleges. When a kid buys it and he walks out on the street, that old 65-year old man that might be like “these kids are crazy. I don’t even want to talk to them or be near them,” now he’s got a reason to have a conversation with [the kid]. “You know I went to that school.” “Oh, you did Mr. J?” New level of respect in the community. Then, when he wears it to school, now his teacher can have a different conversation with him. “Do you know the great people that went to that school?” That’s some of the good.
AFH: In the time AACA was in business how much money was going back to the schools?
Latimer: When I started in February of ‘92, I took the brand from $600,000 in orders when I started to $6 million in 6 months. So, probably about $600,000 to the schools, and that’s in 6 months.
AFH: What is your objective with your Kickstarter campaign and the re-launch of the company?
Latimer: I want the people to feel like they’re a part of the re-launch of the brand. I also want them to hold me accountable. The model is this: We’re all about the schools making money because, as a company, we believe those institutions are probably the single most important thing in the world to young Black males and females, outside of their families. So, we’re going to do everything we can to help the schools raise money. We’re not going to be just this brand that makes money and we just happen to have some school licenses. We’re schools first, style and fashion second, and pushing higher education third.
Chris Latimer is currently raising money to re-launch the iconic and historic AACA brand. There is a kickstarter campaign with a goal of $100,000. Currently (April 5), he has raised $42,165, with 12 days to go. Click here to support the AACA campaign and bring back clothes that look good will doing good.