Young Designer Succeeds Close to Urban Roots

CARL JONES grew up the son of an auto-wreck salvager in Watts. But he became successful enough at fashion design that he owned a Ferrari and 17 Harley Davidsons.

He eventually tired of designing neon-bright beachwear, though, and sold his house and everything in the garage to help bankroll another company.

The result is something more successful and closer to his urban roots: Cross Colours - a line of colorful young men's wear that is marketed with a hip-hop, antigang theme and aimed at inner-city black youth.

Almost overnight, Mr. Jones and fellow designer Thomas Walker have turned "homeboy" chic baggy jeans, baseball caps, and bomber jackets into a fashion de force. They have also launched a foundation to curb school dropouts and are exploring a new venture to bring jobs to South Central Los Angeles.

"The business we're doing today is something you know like the back of your hand," Jones says. "You know it. You feel it. At the same time, we hope to be able to help South Central L.A. - to give something back."

As Los Angeles searches for ways to rebuild after the worst rioting this century, everyone from preachers to politicians is looking for ideas that will work.

Carl Jones's venture typifies the kind of enterprise many analysts would like to see more of: a black-owned business and one that is interested in reinvesting in the community. His firm Solo Joint Inc., the parent company of Cross Colours, earned $15 million in sales in 1991, its first year of operation, and is projected to bring in $30 million this year, enough to put it on Black Enterprise magazine's top 100 list of industrial-service companies.

The firm's trendy line of clothing is cut from the bolt of today's urban fabric: oversized jeans, jackets, bags, belts, caps, and graffiti-emblazoned T-shirts in bold red, green, gold, and purple colors.

Although targeted at young African-American males, the clothing has transcended ethnic markets and is disappearing from men's and women's racks from New York to Tokyo.

"We want everyone to buy the clothing, like the clothing, and wear the clothing," the company president says. "But our main purpose is to design clothes that fit the African-American body and in colors that the African-American likes."

The young designer says the company gets its ideas from the "street" - ghetto living, rap music, music videos. Much of it is also apparel with a message. In its attempt to stem gang violence and promote racial unity, the company puts its epigram, "Clothing Without Prejudice," on virtually every tag. T-shirts carry Jesse Jacksonesque slogans: "Educate to Elevate," "We're All in the Same Gang."

Borrowing fashion tips from the "hood" is something Jones feels comfortable with. Although he was only 10 years old at the time of the Watts riots, the Tennessee-born designer remembers vividly growing up in hardscrabble South Central Los Angeles.

"My whole life influenced what I wanted to do," he says. "Everything I've done before this was just a stepping stone to get to here."

Jones studied fashion at a local trade school. In 1985, he jumped into the then-hot surfwear market with a line of bright beach clothes that he and Walker turned into a $20 million business. He eventually sold his interest to launch Cross Colours.

OLO Joint Inc. operates out of a two-story cinnamon brick building in the industrial heart of Los Angeles. It employs about 100 people. The garment-making is contracted out to a local firm.

The clothing company channels a portion of its spoils back into the inner city through a foundation, Common Ground, that seeks to keep youths in school and promote education.

Now Jones wants to do more. He has come up with a scheme to launch an apparel factory in the heart of South Central that would employ 800 to 2,000 workers in easily-taught sewing, cutting, dying, and other jobs. The venture would be financed with public and private money. It would handle contracts from companies across the city and perhaps the country. He hopes other manufacturers will follow.

"If we are able to pull this off," he says, "we would hope other manufacturers would set up similar types of operations."

Jones believes successful blacks cannot forget their roots.

The impulse, he says, to want to "get out, to have nothing to do with the past," has got to change. "It certainly did for me."

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