While we were walking the Agenda Trade Show in Long Beach a few weeks ago, we stumbled upon a literal gem. Cross Colours, the iconic brand that gave new meaning to "urban" apparel is re-launching. Regardless of race, gender or economic background, if you were a teenager in the early '90s, odds are you loved rap music and you religiously wore Cross Colours. Credited by some as being the first official streetwear brand, Cross Colours was truly unique with its vibrant, colorful patterns and statement pieces. Launched in 1989 by Carl Jones, a young designer from South Central Los Angeles, this new wave of intelligent, often politically satirical apparel built on the on premise of “Clothes without Prejudices” became part of the DNA of American youth culture. It was worn by rappers, actors and athletes. It was worn by rich kids, poor kids, white kids and black kids. Cross Colours was not about class or social ranking; it was promoting a positive message through expression.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Carl Jones and discuss what it was like to start an experimental brand that eventually defined an entire generation and became a household name.
Tell us about the beginning. How did you get into the clothing business?
I had my first "streetwear surf" line in 1987 called Surf Fetish and we sold it at ASR (Action Sports Retailer), which was coincidentally also at the Long Beach Convention Center, the same building that Agenda shows in. It was a great show — we did really well. Surf Fetish was basically oversized, printed, elastic waistband shorts and tees. I just thought it would be really cool to do huge shorts with repeated prints and graphic t-shirts. Make a real statement. It was a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Being from southern California, I was influenced by both surf culture, and of course, street culture because of where I grew up. My parents originally moved to California from the South, and we lived in Watts at 103rd and Central, which is down the street from the Watts Towers. From there, we moved a little further southwest and I attended junior high in South Central. My parents started to do well in business and then we moved to Englewood and I graduated from high school there.
When did you first discover this talent for design?
I went to junior college for a year and decided that I really liked art, printing and graphic design. I took a Home Ec class so that I could sew, and it was really cool because I was the only guy in the class and there were lots of beautiful girls that were really inspiring. From there, I went to Otis Parson's School of Design to learn more about color theory, art, and the history of fashion. Simultaneously, I was also going to a school called Trade Technical College to learn more about pattern making and how garments were really made. They taught me the basics like how to think about construction, but they didn't really teach me how to survive or even work in the industry.
What was your first foray into the industry?
After school, I started a small graphic studio because I really became interested in graphic design and screen-printing. All the artwork was done by hand with a black pen, and there were no computers at this time. You would burn the screens from your film and make your prints. I would run around the industry and solicit garment companies to make their graphics, and I actually got a lot of work. One of my big clients then was Guess. This was in 1983-1984, and Guess was just starting then and I did graphics for the men's line. I learned the rhythm of timing, seasons, deadlines, and deliveries this way. It was a great lesson for me. I worked with a lot of designers, production and development people, and during that time, I decided to start Surf Fetish.
I began to do some private label stuff with a chain called Merry Go Round, and I learned that they had what I considered a huge "urban" customer base. I began to look at what I thought that customer bought, and at that time, they were buying Guess, Get Used, Major Damage, and Marithé + François Girbaud. I just felt like I could do something that was more street-oriented that the customer could relate to. Everything was really commercial and I wanted to do something that was a little more edgy and risky, if that makes sense.
So, I resigned at Surf Fetish and I started to work out of my home. I developed a few pieces and showed them to a friend who worked at Macy's at the time. She was a young men's buyer from Orange County with blonde hair and blues eyes, a real typical California girl. I was like, "What do you think about this?" I wasn't sure if it was too urban or too drastic. She thought it was great. She loved it. I was really inspired by that. From that conversation, I took it to the next step. I went downtown and rented a studio, hired a pattern maker and began to do fittings and make samples. This was in October of 1989. We were preparing to debut the line at Magic in Las Vegas in February of 1990. Imagine being the only streetwear brand at an entire trade show. We were either going to explode or we were going to die, and we exploded.
How did you end up developing such a cult celebrity following?
We were working in the studio developing this product and we just kept asking ourselves, "How do we let people know what we are doing?" David Stennet, who was my marketing guy at the time, was such a brilliant guy. I suggested that he call up the wardrobe stylist at The Fresh Prince of Bel Air to see if they were interested. Of course, he figured out a way to do it, and got through to her and took some samples over. We had these overalls with African prints and they kept them and every single piece we brought over. The next day, there is Will Smith wearing my garments on the show. We hadn't gone to Magic yet — this was a few weeks before — but that was the first real exposure we got. Then we started cold calling other shows like In Living Color and they loved it, so we started custom making stuff for them. It was crazy.