Jay-Z's Blueprint for Rocawear

Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter has laid out his vision for an empire.

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Carter and Damon Dash in 2002.

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Appeared In
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WWD Milestones issue 11/30/2009



Many say Dash left the business because the longtime friends had a major falling out. While this may be true, it’s just another thing Carter would like to keep private.


“Dame did a great job when he was here,” Carter said. “I just feel that I have a different way of running things, which I think is working out well. I let people make mistakes, and push them to be creative. I let a design team design. When they feel good about something they have created, it makes them want to do more. It makes them want to do their best. People are happy here. I’m not a controlling manager and I have a great team that makes me confident that things can run well when I’m on the road, and I’m proud of that.”


Carter said letting the designers have their freedom is key — especially since he isn’t one himself. First and foremost, he’s a musician, he averred, and while Rocawear is very much a part of the hip-hop lifestyle he leads, he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not. He’s a natural in the world of rap, but even after 10 years in the apparel business, he said he is far from a natural at the design table.


The idea of starting Rocawear came about in 1997 when he and Dash, his partner in Roc-A-Fella Records at the time, noticed a clear new business opportunity.


“I would be onstage performing, and I noticed that all the kids were wearing Iceberg jeans,” he said. “The same jeans that I would wear. So we thought, ‘Why should we let Iceberg get all this business when we can do it ourselves?”


Acknowledging they knew nothing about running a fashion business, the two scored a meeting with Iceberg executives.


“We went in there with a plan to have our own line with them. We were going to bring them into this culture, which was on the rise,” he reminisced. “But in the end, it didn’t work out. We were naïve and were asking for way too much.”


So Carter and Dash set out to do it on their own. They went to a store and purchased three sewing machines and set them up inside the Roc-A-Fella offices. They had a plan to make T-shirts with the Rocawear logo on the front. In no time, they thought, fans of Carter’s music would rush the stores to buy their shirts.


“We didn’t know how to sew, and we didn’t really know people who knew how to sew, so we quickly realized that this just wasn’t going to work,” he laughed.


When that plan fizzled, Carter and Dash went after the advice of Def Jam and Phat Fashions founder Russell Simmons. Often referred to as the “godfather of hiphop,” Simmons set them up with Alex Bize and Norton Cher, who had a great deal of experience in apparel manufacturing.


“We met with Alex and Norton, and that was it — we started Rocawear,” Carter said.


To this day, Bize and Cher are silent partners with Carter on Rocawear and handle most of the manufacturing for the apparel.


The naïveté Dash and Carter carried early on also has faded. Though Carter’s fame has skyrocketed since 1997, he refuses to call Rocawear a celebrity brand.


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