AFRICANGLOBE – The words are plain and almost stark. It takes a moment to let them register: Black Owned.
This is the name of a retail store that will open Saturday on Elm Street in Downtown. The words are also emblazoned across every item of clothing sold by Marcus Ervin and Cam Means.
The words speak to pride and principal and inspiration. They also speak to money: people buy the clothes because the words speak to them.
The two owners are Black, so Black Owned can be taken literally, but it does not have to be. “We like to say “It’s a state of mind, not a color line,”” Means said.
Ervin and Means, known collectively as “Merk and Means,” have been selling their clothes out of the trunks of their two Honda Accords for 3 years. “It’s been old school,” Ervin, 29, said. They’ve gone to high school basketball games, nightclubs, concerts, anywhere they could find an audience for their products.
But now the demand has grown enough that it is time for a storefront where they can sell their t-shirts, sweat shirts, leather hats and jackets and pocket squares among many other items. If they don’t have the item you want, they can make it.
The two men are busy painting walls and building shelves and fixing floors in their new location. They are working on their website and their inventory. They are doing it themselves to save money and to make it all perfect. “Now it is going to be more than a purchase, we’re selling an experience,” Means said. He talks that way a lot.
They are starting from scratch. Last week they had a phone line installed, and received their new phone number. Then they realized they did not own a telephone.
Ervin grew up in English Woods, Means, 27, in West End, Cincinnati. Putting this store on Elm Street, with a Lebanese restaurant on one corner and a German deli on another, and with the top of City Hall visible through their window, was not done on accident. Ervin and Means wanted to place their store in a stretch of town not particularly known for Black retail.
“We want to become a destination. We know people will come to us,” Means said.
Pushing boundaries, geographic or racial, may come naturally to Ervin. His great-grandfather, James Childress, was the first Black man to be promoted to detective through the examination process with the Cincinnati Police Department. Childress provided protection for Martin Luther King Jr. when King came to Cincinnati in 1964.
Merk and Means are in this business, however, to make money, so they have no interest in offending customers. But they do understand that the name of their business and on all of their clothing is provocative.
One of the first things they did at the shop, was paint the words “Black Owned” across the glass store front. That has already begun to do exactly what they wanted it to do: started conversations.
“People come in and say, what’s this about?” Ervin said. “We tell them it’s about ownership of self. As a Black male in society there are a lot of challenges,” Means, finished for him. “I own me. I own my own destiny. I am responsible for me.”
The message appeals to people. Last week, Tanisha Custard, 26, stopped in at the still-unopened store to pick up a sweat shirt for her and one for her nephew.
“They name says it by itself. I support Black businesses,” Custard said. “It makes me proud to support young Black men.”
It would be difficult to be more committed to making a company work. Every time he leaves his house, Ervin is wearing clothes that represent his brand. They knew from the start they could make a living selling clothes which combine “street wear” with a bold statement.
Means made some for himself at the beginning, and right away, people started asking him how to get some. Ervin became his business partner immediately.
“Never had a day, since Sept. 30, 2011, when I wasn’t wearing this,” Ervin said last week wearing a sweat shirt and sweat pants with the words across his body.
Means was wearing a leather baseball hat with Black Owned across the front. “It helps with marketing and you cannot ask somebody to buy something if you are not willing to wear it,” Means said. Then he offered to sell one, “$50 for the hat, but $40 if you buy a sweatshirt to go with it.”
Both men have particular skills and both know to “stay in our lanes.”
Ervin is good at sales and “getting things done.” Means is the ideas and marketing person. He has mastered the art of getting well known people to wear Black Owned gear.
Rappers Rick Ross and Young Jeezy have worn Black Owned. As have journalist Roland Martin, boxer Adrien Broner and singer Jennifer Hudson.
Means says the trick is to not send the item to the star because it will be ignored. The key, he said, is to find a person close to the star, send that person two, and let him or her start wearing it around. Once they star sees “Black Owned,” he or she suddenly wants one.
Once a photo appears, it goes on the Black Owned Instagram account. It’s invaluable marketing.
But selling clothes with the name Black Owned across the chest can be difficult. Some people do not get it and do not like it. “It’s hard for them to put it into words, but I can see it on their face,” Means said. “It just makes them uncomfortable.
And then Ervin asks the question that might be most important to answer. “I understand that. But what is racist about Black Owned?”
By: John Faherty
Black Owned Outerwear
Where: 822 Elm Street, Cincinnati.
When: Store opens Oct. 18.