THEY SUIT THE STARS Brothers score big in the designing game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In life, there are opportunities, and then there are opportunities.

It's the difference between designing a suit for, say, an NBA world champion or a four-time world boxing champion -- and making clothes for a real world champion.

Or, to put it another way, how big could Isiah Thomas and Sugar Ray Leonard be compared to Nelson Mandela?

"Sports is great," says Everett Hall, fashion designer to the stars -- athletes, entertainers, politicians, you name it. "It's been tremendously helpful to us. The guys are beautiful and tremendously supportive. But to make a contribution to a country and a people who have been so oppressed, like our brothers and sisters in South Africa, to help them in some manner . . . " He pauses, catches his breath. "It's an honor."

The "contribution" he speaks of was a suit he created for Mr. Mandela to wear when the South African leader addressed Congress during his 1990 visit to the United States. Mr. Mandela had made it clear that he wanted as many African-Americans as possible involved in the details of his visit. A close friend of Mr. Mandela's daughter knew of Mr. Hall and his Silver Spring designing business. One call led to another and the next thing Mr. Hall knew, he was measuring one of his idols.

The job, he says, "was such a sense of euphoria."

Mr. Mandela's name is now at the top of the 50-name list of celebrity customers kept by the Designers Inc., owned by Mr. Hall and his three brothers.

Still, you don't get to dress Nelson Mandela without first 'N dressing Sugar Ray Leonard, Isiah Thomas, Art Monk, Charles Mann, Charles Barkley, Smokey Robinson, Johnny Gill, Stanley Turrentine, Donnie Simpson, Manute Bol and James Brown (the CBS sports anchor, not soul brother No. 1). Mr. Hall's business, which is 90 percent in the made-to-measure market, brought in nearly $1 million in 1990 and was projected to bring in more than that in 1991. He has a showroom in Manhattan, has been featured in GQ, Black Enterprise and numerous trade publications, and is making plans for a ready-to-wear line in major retail stores.

All in nine years. All at age 33.

"Everett's a cocky SOB," says Rick Mahorn, the former Bullets player who was Mr. Hall's first big-name customer. "That's why I like him."

"The product speaks for itself," says Edwin Hall, Mr. Hall's younger brother and the firm's vice president. The suits, tuxedos and casual wear are expensive ($800 for a suit, $200 for pants, $150 for a shirt), but so are his clients' tastes.

The Halls began getting good publicity early on, from Mr. Mahorn and James Brown, when both were based in Washington. Mr. Mahorn spread the word to his NBA colleagues, and Mr. Brown did likewise to the Redskins players he encountered on assignments.

When Mr. Mahorn joined the Detroit Pistons he invited the Halls to a game and introduced them around. His teammates were impressed by the cut of clothes designed for his 6-foot-10 frame. "Everybody bought something," he says.

Everett Hall really delivers for his celebrity clients. Mr. Mahorn is playing in Italy this year, and has his clothes sent to him. Mr. Hall also will send orders to hotels when a team is on the road -- or wherever a player is staying.

Athlete customers, many of whom rarely have the time or inclination to shop, often buy Mr. Hall's clothing sight unseen. Instead, they describe what they want and say, "Just get it to me in this size and this color."

As Mr. Barkley, a recent convert, put it, "I like my stuff, and I don't have to wait for it." Mr. Brown has ordered from the CBS studio in New York -- during commercial breaks. One athlete, whom the Halls will not name, ordered an outfit by phone from his team's locker room, moments after he'd been ejected from a game.

Players who patronize the Halls tend to get fanatical about them. They see something in the brothers that they don't see in other people who solicit their business.

"We relate to them," Mr. Hall explains. "They're in a business where charisma, style, positive image is important. They need clothes that carry that thought. And we're just like them. We're former jocks [high school and college]. We see the game pretty much the way they see it. They like the kind of people we are."

"They understand who they're dealing with," says Mr. Brown. "And we like to give them some business, help out one of us that's trying to do something. We're all on the same level."

The fact the Halls deal directly with the players -- it's hard to imagine Armani winding a tape around Patrick Ewing's neck -- helps, too. The Halls also are basketball nuts. They visit the Capital Centre often, and players invite them on the road.

"We're very close to a lot of them. A lot of them are so famous and popular, they need people who will go out and talk to them regular," Mr. Hall says.

Still, it takes nerve and a good sense of marketing to create such close ties with customers. Mr. Hall had a large amount of the former and a little of the latter when he started the business.

The idea, upon his graduation from Howard University in 1983, was to start a design business and tie himself in with someone famous. Since he and his brothers were sports nuts, and every football and baseball team eventually came through town . . . it all seemed so clear. "One thing was, we didn't see too many blacks doing for blacks what a Bob Mackie was doing for Cher," he says.

Before that, the Halls weren't even shooting for the stars. "Back in Springfield, Ohio, we never envisioned this," Mr. Hall says. "We just liked clothes." As youngsters, the Halls were impressed with the way their father, an auto-plant worker, dressed all the time. By the eighth grade, Everett Hall was sewing clothes.

By the time he arrived at Howard, he was winning fashion awards. By the time he graduated with a fashion merchandising degree, he had designed clothes for his professors.

Once he was well-established in the athlete market, Mr. Hall had the idea to sell to media stars. He and Edwin talked their way into WKYS-FM in Washington and pitched their wares to Donnie Simpson between songs on his morning-drive show. Once Mr. Simpson was won over, the exposure followed easily. Designers Inc. is now credited at the end of "Video Soul," Mr. Simpson's cable-TV show.

Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard's handlers got word of the designers and commissioned Mr. Hall to make the red-and-white-striped trunks Mr. Leonard wore in the fight against Tommy Hearns. By the end of the night, everyone was asking not just "How could they call that a draw?" but "What does amandla mean?" The word, which was on Mr. Leonard's trunks, means "power" in one of the South African dialects, and is a rallying cry for the African National Congress.

Which indirectly brought Mr. Hall to Nelson Mandela and his first brush with international patronage.

Now Mr. Hall is counting on Mr. Mahorn and some of his other basketball-player clients to spread the word in Europe. Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing will be in Barcelona this summer, playing in the Olympics and wearing Mr. Hall's clothes. Mr. Brown will be there, too.

And by the end of the year, Mr. Hall expects to have his ready-to-wear line in major department stores, within easy reach of buyers who earn less than $3 million a year.

"It's a lot of fun, it's a lot of work," he says. "But it's one accomplishment after another."

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