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Loose Threads : Cross Colours was once the clothing label of choice for the hip hop crowd. But the company's unraveling was as dramatic as its overnight success.

June 26, 1994|Lewis McAdams | Lewis MacAdams is a Los Angeles-based journalist, poet and filmmaker

So in love, so much in love . . . ." The sound system at Dejaiz is pumping All-4-One's silken remake out into the halls of the Fox Hills Mall, reeling in young African Americans in the mood for Hugo Boss and Guess? and Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein. At the back of the store, assistant manager Devin Smith is rummaging through a round-rack of marked-down T-shirts. "Two years ago kids were running in here saying, 'You got any Cross Colours?' "

Smith finds what he's looking for: an X-large T-shirt emblazoned with the Cross Colours logo--yellow ("for the sun"), red ("for the blood of the people"), green ("for the earth") and black ("for the color of our skin"). It looks like an African tribal banner when he holds it up. You remember Cross Colours? Hooded sweats, baggy knee-length shorts and sueded denims printed with phrases like "Stop D Violence" and "Educate to Elevate" and "Clothing Without Prejudice." It was everywhere in 1992 and so were its owners, Carl Jones, who was responsible for the concept, and T.J. Walker, who was responsible for the design.

Autumn, 1990, was a dicey time to start a business in Los Angeles. Real estate was contracting. The Gulf War loomed. The whole world was watching CNN and holding its breath the day Jones and Walker started Cross Colours out of Jones' house in the Hollywood Hills. Less than a year later, the company had shipped $15 million worth of orders and was employing 75 workers in a 30,000-square-foot office and warehouse in Vernon.

Until they came along, no one had ever mass-produced African American teen fashion. They saw a market no one else had--young black America and its many wanna-bes--and went for it. But Carl Jones and T.J. Walker were more than just fashion's latest flashes.

"Crafted with pride in South-Central Los Angeles," their promo materials boasted. Jones and Walker put their own pictures on their hangtags, so, Jones told a Los Angeles Times reporter that year, "that people would know what we look like. We weren't afraid to say we're black and design for black people."

In 1992, Jones and Walker were becoming culture heroes. "It happened right when it was cool to be black and MTV was first playing rap," says Eric Wical, a former merchandise manager for Merry-Go-Round, one of the nation's leading clothing chains. "I've never seen such a lineup of stars."

Arsenio Hall did his show in Cross Colours. Preteen rappers Kris Kross wore oversize Cross Colours backwards on MTV. Cross Colours dressed veterans like Stevie Wonder and newcomers like Heavy D and Mary J. Blige. At the Grammys, Parliament-Funkadelic looked dipped in Cross Colours. One day, Paula Abdul would pay Cross Colours a visit. The next day it would be Shaquille O'Neal. "It was like rock 'n' roll combined with the garment business," one former executive remembers fondly.

Cross Colours was the model of a progressive company. Women were in prominent, well-paying, decision-making positions. The work force was probably the most integrated in the business. Jones and Walker hired inner-city teen-agers who promised to wean themselves from drugs and gangs. They put on a benefit with KPWR, L.A.'s leading urban music station, that raised $50,000 for job training. They gave $200,000 in clothes to the Common Ground Foundation, a dropout prevention program in Watts.

They opened "Red, Black and Green" warehouse stores in Pomona, Compton and Downtown. Their store next to Larry Parkers diner in Beverly Hills was Jones' prototype for an "urban Gap" chain. In December, 1992, Cross Colours moved again, this time to 150,000 square feet in the City of Commerce. By now there were around 300 employees.

In an article in the California Apparel News, the bible of the West Coast garment business, Jones predicted that Cross Colours would book $100 million in women's line orders alone from Merry-Go-Round in 1992. That same month, Cross Colours surpassed Williwear as the largest African-American-owned business in the industry.

In 1993, Black Enterprise magazine named Threads 4 Life, Cross Colours' parent corporation, its "Company of the Year" and placed it 10th on the magazine's list of 100 top black firms, ahead of Black Entertainment Television and the parent company of Essence magazine. In 1994, Fortune magazine wrote that Jones and Walker were among "America's smartest young entrepreneurs."

Today, Cross Colours has all but disappeared, its manufacturing and warehousing operation shuttered, its vast staff a thing of the past. Creditors, including the Bank of New York and L.A.'s Imperial Bank, are picking over the bones. According to Ben Siegel, an attorney involved in the process, secured creditors might see a return of 50 cents or less on the dollar.

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