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Nate Willis won big at the 2011 BET Awards. No, the South Central Los Angeles native didn’t take home a trophy. As a matter of fact, he didn’t even attend the show. But when superstar rapper Drake hopped on stage to accept an award, rocking a black sweater with a gold owl emblazoned on the front from Willis’ FLAUCY clothing line, the designer and his fledgling neo-urban apparel enterprise were thrust into the spotlight.
“The next morning, I googled ‘Drake and owl’ and discovered tons of people talking about the sweater on their blogs and social media,” recalls the 33-year-old. “There was so much feedback. And to know that the idea actually came out of my head and that I printed that in my garage–that changed my confidence. They say your network is your net worth. Somebody that I knew happened to know Drake, and he just happened to be a stylist. It was perfect timing.”
But FLAUCY is no overnight success story.
Long before Willis was the CEO and founder of a successful clothing company, the devout sneakerhead toiled away as a salesperson in stores like Nordstrom, Foot Locker and Foot Action before landing an internship with FUBU, which led to his first Magic Market Place tradeshow experience.
“I saw all the retail companies that I was working for actually coming to Magic to buy products,” says Willis, who stayed dressed to the nines as a youngster and often reaped praise for his sharp duds from the ladies at his church. “That’s when I realized there were ways to climb the corporate ladder in retail that didn’t [involve] being a salesperson on the sales floor. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a distributor.”
Shortly thereafter, he created FLAUCY (F-ashion L-ifestyle A-rts U-nifying C-ultured Y-outh). More than a clothing line, Willis calls his edgy, budget-conscious street wear designs a colorblind, culture-rich movement targeted to the youth-driven consumer market. Since its debut on national television, FLAUCY has gone on to woo high profile buyers and witness a sevenfold increase in the number of retail outlets that carry its merchandise.
“My sell-through report was at 70% for a good nine months [after the awards],” says Willis. “This time last year I was in 80 stores. Right now we’re filling orders for roughly 600 stores to deliver by November. It’s one thing to see your product on a celebrity, but to see your shirts flying off the shelves from a credible retailer…that’s when the light clicked.”
A slew of athletes and entertainers such as Swizz Beatz, Sean Kingston, Kendrick Lamar and Soulja Boy have lined their closets with FLAUCY baseball tees, tank tops, sweatshirts and, of course, the owl sweater, which has become a bestselling staple.
“This year I stepped it up,” says Willis. “I’ve got satin-silk bomber jackets, men’s button down shirts, and crewnecks with patchwork and embroidery. I’m segueing into accessories, and I have a line of eyewear and sneakers coming out in the spring as well.”
Other brand extensions include Money Gang, a line inspired by Hip Hop recording artist The Game, and FLAUCY QUEENS, a sporty, chic women’s line co-designed by Parisian contemporary designers, the Sachika Twins.
“People are always like, ‘oh, you need a lot of money to start a brand.’ Actually, you need concept and product,” says Willis, who cites fellow self-taught designer Karl Kani as a trailblazer and close mentor he can turn to for advice and feedback. “And obviously you need connections but most of all you need God and timing. And on that day, God and timing came into play.”