In an exclusive interview with The Shadow League, David “UNK” Huie likens the early days of growing his humble, NBA-inspired, hat-hustle from his cramped Queens basement to the ritzy doorsteps of David Stern’s NBA —to the journey of a drug boss.
His marketing genius is illmatic for sure. In locking down exclusive use of coveted NBA merchandising licenses and carving out a 17-year career in a fashion industry that has swallowed so many flash-in the-pan companies, UNK has established his brand as a true kingpin of the sports and fashion world.
His UNK brand and its imprint on NBA fashion may have began as a grassroots, underground hustle, but it's blossomed into a multi-million dollar company. During that time, Huie has matured from a young, personable entrepreneur into a sportswear fashion titan with a strong moral foundation and a positive outlook on the future.
UNK and Pac, two legends in the making.
UNK: It was like the drug game. I never liked or associated myself with drugs, but in the beginning, I’d make the hats. I’d stash them in the house. I’d have a little book that I kept. People would come over they’d give me money and I’d give them their 100 hats, and at the end of the week they’d come back with the money and I’d re-up and get more hats. I had street marketing teams in Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx so it was like the drug game only we were slinging hats.
Plus, like a new batch of bombastic hitting the street corners, Huie was using a material that no one else was using called Almond Lyrca. It’s a stretch fabric, and it was fashionable.
Although fashion is presented as more of a gentleman’s sport than rapping and drug dealing, it’s created, packaged, marketed and distributed similarly. The credibility and honesty you deliver in your clothes is what determines how large your empire grows and how long it lasts.
Nowadays, the 42-year-old Huie is a living urban legend and international lock-down, athletics wear defender. He’s the Black Hand of NBA fashion and The League’s unbreakable connection to street styles and off-the-court lounge wear.
UNK grew up in Jamaica, Queens during the ‘80s and ‘90s Crack Era, which ironically was also a cultural and innovative Golden Era for the borough. Queens was leaping over the mainstream wall and oozing with star power in the entertainment, fashion and athletic worlds. During that period, urban and athletic-based fashion exploded as well. In a nutshell, Queens Cats wrote the Holy Grail when it came to corporately interlocking the worlds of music, sports and fashion.
UNK: You know FUBU is out of Queens as well. We have a long tradition of taking local cutting edge fashion and transforming it into a national phenomenon. Where I’m from, if you are like me; I knew so many celebrities that I had to do something. So you either do music or clothes. When you know that kind of people you have to make use of it. It was easy for me to get De La Soul to put the hats on. It was easy for me to get Puff to put the hats on. It was easy for me to drive down to DC and have Ananda Lewis and them from BET wear my hats. I was on “Teen Summit” overnight.
You do it because you know people. Eventually you start to love it and you start paying attention to detail.
The Humble Beginning
UNK: I started the hat-line, Da Da Supreme, in '95 with Dwayne Lewis and Mike Cherry. We just had one hat with Da Da at first, dawg. I had a hat made for myself because my head just wasn’t looking right in hats. I went downtown and had a dude make a hat for me and it just came out crazy. He made it out of an Almond Lycra and it stretched to your head size and made your head look small but fashionable. We started making them and just started getting everybody to wear them. Soon, we had about six different hats. Eventually though, the original partners and I separated in ‘96 because of creative differences. We all had different visions of what we wanted to do and how we wanted to move. I branched off and started doing UNK.
The Jump Off
UNK: Around that time, I was always up in a place called Chaz and Wilson’s in the city (Manhattan) back then. It was a no joke. It was the hidden gem of New York. It was an open mike place with just 20 tables set up, and I knew the owner so I was lucky enough to have one of those tables every week.
I was a young cat, but to give you an example of how celebrity-ridden and crazy this place was, let me tell you what kind of company I was in. Next to my table was singer and producer mogul Baby Face The table to the right of me was Tupac, when he was in town. Madonna was up in there. Prince was up in there. It's stuff that people could never understand, but I could send all of the pictures of them just up in there chilling. It was amazing. Stevie Wonder would come and perform, and through that I was able to meet some of these celebrities and it made it easier for me to jump this shit off.
I was dealing with a lot of NBA athletes, too, at the time. They would all get these suits made and would go and buy five or six yards of fabric for the suit and then there was always like a half-yard left over. So they would send me that and I would make a hat to match the suit.
UNK kickin' it with Jada and Waka in Vegas.
That’s how Charles Oakley, Jalen Rose and Grant Hill—all of those guys—had matching hats when you saw them on TV. From that, people started calling me constantly for hats to match outfits. I wasn’t even in stores deep like that. All of my clientele were celebrities. Most people would have their stuff up in stores and chase celebrities to wear it. I did it in reverse. I had all of the celebrities wearing my stuff and was trying to get it in the damn stores (chuckle).
I did a great job of letting people see that celebrities were wearing my stuff. Remember back then it was all about who’s wearing who. There was a magazine called Beat Down magazine and I had my own monthly article in it, which featured pictures of all of the celebrities wearing my stuff, while I discussed what I did that month.
So at this point, I have all these people wearing my stuff. I had Eddie Griffin wearing it on the TV Show Malcolm and Eddie. I had The Fugees wearing it.
I had rappers like LL Cool J rocking it in classic videos. It was all over the place.
Hooking Up With Houston
UNK: We got the first license in ‘98 and around that same time, towards the end of the year, Allan Houston became a partner, and he’s been a blessing. He knows basketball. He’s the Assistant GM of the Knicks. I know marketing and people. You can’t read a bad thing about this man. We’re partners and we’re still best friends. He’s going to be in my wedding. Together, we do what we do.
Allan became my partner very naturally. I didn’t call him or solicit his support in any way. He actually called me when he was playing with the Knicks and started ordering hats over the phone. Long story short, he’d send me a check, I’d send him some hats. He started wearing them, and I started seeing them on the back pages of The NY Daily News and stuff. Now, you can’t buy that kind of advertisement. Here it is the (1999) NBA Finals and Allan just hit that legendary shot against Miami, and he’s wearing my hat on the back page and it says “UNK” clearly.
So now I send him more hats and the next time he sees me…Now you have to understand, Allan’s not cheap at all or a bad person,” Huie explained, “but he asks me, “Yo UNK, why do you keep charging me for these hats?"
Remember what I told you though. All I had was celebrity clients. If I didn’t sell to celebrities I wouldn’t make any money. So, he was like, “Hold up, you’re the only one doing this? “ He thought it was a big company. I was like, "Dude, it’s just me.”
UNK with business partner Allan Houston and Flo Rida.
So he started laughing and we decide to meet at a place called The All-Star Café, which later became ESPN Zone. From the time I sat down, I felt like I knew him forever. I made a decision to sell him a piece of the company and with that money I was able to do anything I needed to do.
A third partner, Derrick Alston, a 'Sixers player who’s now on the coaching staff of the Houston Rockets, also owns five percent of the business.
Allan became an official partner in '99. He signed a huge $100 million deal, and everyone knows how he suffered the injury and was never the same. It was a rough situation for him. For instance, Grant Hill took a whole year off after his injuries. The New York pressure didn’t allow Allan proper time to recuperate, and they rushed him back. It hurts to talk about it. As soon as they saw he could jog, they were like, “Man, you need to get out there and shoot that ball!"
That was a hard time for him because I remember after the game we’ll be in the car and he’s lying down with hydraulic stuff connected to his knee and he’s in bad shape trying his best to play.
All the while people in the papers and on talk radio are writing stuff about how he’s not really trying. But you know how people are man.”
The Sports Fashion Come Up (Golden Years 1999-2005)
So I went to the Magic Fashion Show in Vegas and had a booth there in 1999. I had a wall set up that said, “This Is My Supporting Cast.” About a 12-person contingent from the NBA walked up and just stopped and stared at my wall because it featured like 40 different dudes from the NBA wearing my hats.They couldn’t believe I had Olympians and all of these different prominent athletes and people wearing my stuff.
KG, Busta Rhymes and Allan Houston at UNK's booth at the 1999 Magic Show in Vegas.
They said, “We don’t know what you’re thinking about doing with this but when you get back to NY you need to come to the office.”
The interesting thing is, the players and NBA don’t have a great relationship because of the divisive agents and different financial factors that add to the relationship being adversarial.
The ballers don’t really mess with the NBA executives like that. So I guess they saw a link between me and the NBA players. I went back and spoke with The League and ended up with the third biggest merchandising license at the time.
I ended up getting the denim license which turned out to be huge. I had denim jeans, I had hats. I had everything. I was able to do lounge wear, everything. With the denim, we originally had patches on them, but they weren’t patches. They were straight embroidery. We were selling those for $125 and that was a phenomenon. Everything took off. We sponsored (R-n-B singer) Jaheim’s Put That Women First Tour. We wrapped his bus and did the entire tour.
We sponsored Paul Wall and a bunch of other rappers, too. We had everybody wearing our stuff. We did about $12 million selling just three styles of denim. We did $11 million at Magic alone. That was unheard of for that time. Sure FUBU was doing their thing, but you gotta imagine, Footlocker never sold denim until we put it in stores. Footlocker was selling UNK denim for $125.
Since ‘96, UNK’s profits have fluctuated between this year’s projected $17 million and a high of $24.5 million in 2003. In this market, with all things taken in to account, Huie says those numbers are still right where we want to be.
Survival Tactics Transition
UNK catching up with Tyson Chandler and Jaheim after a Knicks game.
Until about 2005, things were rocking out really well for UNK. The NBA’s cyclical fashion taste buds and some intervention from Jay Z crushed and re-set, restructured and fine-tuned a lot of fashion and musical agendas. He personally killed auto tune and the relevance of singer T-Pain. But Jigga’s emphatic influence couldn’t crush the momentum of a brand like UNK, which is entrenched in the urban consistency and desired hipness of not only NBA fans but practical shoppers seeking a “cool” comfortable get-up.
UNK: In 2005. I remember the day clearly, Jay-Z said, “Man I’m getting too old to wear jerseys. Wear button ups.” The jersey thing shut down so fast, but we adjusted, weathered the storm and now we made it where it’s not even about the basketball. People don’t wear our clothes just to support their team anymore. They wear our clothes because we have a lot of different items and it’s fashionable.
See, I used to bring in celebrities to Magic. I knew everybody from Kool Herc to Lil JJ, I’d bring in Howard and Marcus Camby. I had all kinds of people there. Now, it’s all about business. So from 2005 to 2010, those are the years that we maintained. A lot of companies went out of business and disappeared. People that started when I started are gone.
What we realized was that if we bring the quality stuff, we are an amazing source for these stores in that they are giving out quality merchandise. Our $49 or $50 sweatshirt used to cost you $89. We’re able to bring our stuff to you at a reasonable price and the people selling the merchandise are still hitting their price points. It just makes sense. Business sense.
In today's tight financial climate, UNK became a fundamentally good product. It wasn't about the flash, or who's wearing it anymore. Huie says all of that became a plus and took a back seat to the combination of practicality, necessity and aesthetic appeal of the product.
UNK: Back then, I had the biggest and most visible celebrities wearing my brand: Queen Latifah, P.Diddy, Ray Allen, The Back Street Boys..man I had the Women’s Olympic basketball team rocking my stuff. So most people wanted to wear it just because of who was wearing it. But now it’s more of a mutually beneficial thing. I still have everybody rocking it, but it’s ...it’s a brand now.
The Future of UNK: Cornering the Market
Behind the leadership of Huie and Houston, UNK is currently working on expanding the company into “the” basketball brand in the US.
There are many brands like AND 1 and Under Armour, trying to tie into that wave, but UNK is the official NBA brand and Huie says they are just trying to solidly that space, give customers quality merchandise, never let them down and keep moving and changing. “It’s not about us. It’s about them (customers) and the brand,” Huie insists.
It’s obvious most things have worked. UNK is still growing and relevant after all of these years. The company has had a movie reel worth of success stories, (which can be seen on unklife.com) and has boldly and meticulously ventured into everything from underwear, to active wear, to lounge wear to track jackets and varsity jackets.
A full ladies line is just launching in Forever 21, one of the most popular stores for women’s lounge apparel. The UNK line is also in every NBA Arena except The Barclays Center because Adidas owns the rights to the Barclays Center.
UNK: But what’s interesting about that is we’re killing the Brooklyn Nets market because we have such a huge presence at Modell’s, which is right across the street from The Barclays Center. Not for nothing, we’re like the No. 1 fashion brand in sports. So our stuff sells and speaks for itself. We have yoga pants and things for ladies that they like and fits them well.
Just last week I had a meeting with actor and comedian Mike Epps and we’re working on a great deal with him for a luxury line that’s going to be incredible. When people think of Mike Epps they think of the Friday movies and the character Da Da he played.
But he’s a phenomenal dresser. He has over 2.1 million twitter followers, and when he sits in a meeting, he’s not cracking jokes. He’s talking business. He makes a lot of sense. Working with him is something that I’m looking forward to. It’s going to be an UNK line by Mike Epps. A quick, exclusive line: some Tees, some nice, high-end varsity jackets designed by Epps. This is not a finished deal. He and I are on the same page, we just have to figure out what’s the best way to go about it with the NBA.
Competition Is One
UNK and Hov shortly before both took over their respective fields.
Allan has always been a Nike guy. I wish we did have a relationship with Adidas because they are the big gorilla. They own the on-court rights. See Adidas is our competition, but we can’t compete with Adidas. But we can compete with the people who like fashionable items from Adidas, because they’ll come to us. If you like the Knicks you’re gonna like the Knicks. We have a full license. An amazing license. Not only do I get to make Lakers and Knicks and all 30 teams, but I have rights to Kobe Bryant. I have rights to LeBron James. We make James’ stuff.
I have one of the biggest licenses you can have. You name it I got it. I have denim rights, Big & Tall, ladies license, men’s vests and I have a toddler line coming out with onesies and everything. Don’t forget our signature lounge wear and underwear too.
Our stuff is in over 1000 stores nationwide and you can go on NBA.com, DRJAYS.com, Modell’s, Jimmy Jazz. We’re there. Right now we’re hitting everybody and most markets. From fans and people who just like sports to people who just want athletic wear. Brooklyn is the No. 1 represented city in the world and its close proximity gives us a great advantage. Grandmothers, everybody reps Brooklyn. If you come to a Brooklyn game you will see that every sixth person has on our shit.
It’s a blessing to have and people often ask me, “How did this happen?” It just came from us having a great relationship with The NBA .
Key To Victory: Consistency
UNK has held offices at 38th street and Broadway, right near Times Square, since 2002. UNK clothing has secured the entire 16th floor to also be used as a showroom. An irreplaceable 15 to 20-person staff of designers and multi-purpose fashion mavens keep UNK clothing relevant, viable and marketable.
UNK: We’re still there. That means something. I speak to the same dudes who rocked my stuff way back in 1996. When I go out to Vegas to see Eddie Griffin, he’s still rocking my stuff. Ain’t nothing changed. Same address. Same number. We’re blessed with good timing and great work ethic.
The NBA is very tight with these licenses now. I haven’t even heard of the NBA giving a license in many years. All of the categories are basically full. New Era has the hats. Adidas has on-court. Our niche is fashion. Our lounge wear is to me the No. 1 lounge wear out there. It’s all over Marshall’s and Burlington Coat Factory. The kids love it. Its kid safe. It’s fire proof.
Our ladies line is tremendous. No names mentioned, because alot of NBA dance teams have contracts with other brands, but we have dance teams from many, many NBA teams who call us and just buy our goods to wear it when they’re just lounging around. They get free stuff elsewhere, but would still rather wear our stuff, so they buy it.
Light Bulb Moment
Huie says being honest and talking to everybody has been the key to his success as a businessman in the competitive and seemingly impenetrable fashion world.
UNK recently started his own marketing company called Vio/K Marketing Group. The firm specializes in connecting companies and charities with people of their needs. One of Vio/K Marketing Group’s most recent clients is Soledad O’Brien and The Powerful Launch of Starfish Media Group.
UNK: That was only right, because I’m not a clothing designer. I’m a people person. I’m a socializer. I’m not running from nobody. I speak the truth. I’ve got nothing to hide. That’s been a great thing.
UNK’s philosophy extends to his friendship with Houston and anyone else he meets. Huie treats everybody the same. His open approach gained the ultimate stamp of approval during a chance meeting with Madonna back in the days.
UNK and ATCQ: Often replicated, never duplicated.
UNK: One night, we were at Chaz and Wilson's and Madonna was just sitting there, and that’s one of the times that I realized that you should talk to everybody and be honest with everybody. She was just sitting at a table with her friends and I was at the table with my friends. I told the guys I was with I was going to go say what’s up to her. This is when she had a baseball movie out called “A League Of Their Own.”
I was like, "Yo, I’m going to holler at her," and everybody was telling me to don’t even think about it. I got my ass up I went over there. I sat down and said, "Look Madonna, how you doing? Before you say anything, I have to tell you something. My friends are over there waiting for you to tell me to get the hell up, so I need to sit here for a minute." She started laughing and said, "We are going to do one better. We'll order you a drink." I sat back and chilled, my friends mouths were open. I could have made up some story to tell her, but I was honest about trying to look good in front of my friends and it paid off.
That taught me even Madonna understands simple conversation. That’s how I met so many people. My rolodex is ridiculous. Same thing with Dana (Queen Latifah). She wore my stuff for one of her best photo shoots ever, just because I was talking to her normal. It’s just what it is. If people don’t like normal, honest talk then it is what is it is. You do what you can, but I always talk to people straight-up. Everybody the same way. Everybody’s good at what they do.
Huie says there are three defining moments in his career:
1. In 1996 I was always moving around, hustling all over the place, and a lady named Leah Wilcox, who works with the NBA, just took a liking to me. She knew me before I had a license. She was like, “I got you! Don’t worry.” So long story short, I was sitting at home watching the 1996 Olympics and she had the Gold-medal Ladies Olympic basketball team wearing my hats. They were traveling and competing against people from all over the world. The world was watching. I had seen celebrities wearing my hats before but that was in NY and the surrounding cities. It let me know that I could reach places and do things
2. In 2003, when UNK was the talk of the town. We couldn’t even deal with all of the stuff that was coming at us that year. We did the $24.5 million and no one was expecting that. The whole operation went blast! We were at the top of our game.
3. It just recently hit me that I’m doing something really good still. I ended up on the phone with baseball legend Reggie Jackson and we’re planning a celebrity Poker Tournament.
At that moment I realized my company has some real reputable people who care about what we’re doing. We still know what we’re doing, people respect us and listen to us about certain things. I’m making an imprint that inspires me to continue. Sometimes you have to sit back and really think about the opportunities you’ve have, and how you’re blessed.
UNK: I’ve made some decisions in the past which I probably regret, like not putting my foot harder on the gas pedal in 2003 and going for the gusto. I took a minute to enjoy the success and smell the roses, which is something my friends and family always tell me I never do.
You have to stay true to what you do though, and looking back, I wouldn't change anything. We’re growing with our customers the right way. Our relationships with all of our stores are strong. We don’t end up with inventory. We sell it and move it, our business is done right. We discuss what we’re going to do. We’re not just winging it and making random stuff and telling everybody shit. We make individual stuff for individual people. There’s a lot to this game to keep it going the way it is.