Michael Stoney Biography
Escaped Streets Through Police Force, Launched Dug with Only a Logo, Built Star Following for Dug
Michael Stoney seemed an unlikely candidate to lead a fashion revolution. An orphan, he was reared on a dual diet of poverty and crime. Instead of design school, Stoney attended the police academy, learning how wield guns and shields, not scissors and fabric. When a bullet forced him to retire, he became a man of leisure. That is when he realized he needed clothes for his new lifestyle. "[We] decided to build a fashion line based on my life," Stoney told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "I was on pension, I could afford to dress down, be comfortable. We equated being comfortable to success." The result was Dug—Down Under Gear. When it debuted in 1999, both Stoney and men's undergarments came out from under and found fame.
Escaped Streets Through Police Force
Michael Stoney was born in 1969 into a life marred by the ugly statistics of New York's inner-city. His father was unknown to him, his teenaged mother drug-addicted. At birth he was placed in foster care where he stayed until he was five years old. "I was taken from my foster mother who I loved," Stoney told CBB. "And after a court case, I was sent back to my mother who still had problems and couldn't take care of me. I finally ended up with my mother's sister who had seven kids already." Stoney spent ten years with his aunt's family in Hollis, Queens, before setting out on his own at 16. He told CBB that he "didn't want to have anything to do with anyone. I wanted to do it on my own."
Hollis was home to some of New York's toughest streets. "I saw most of the kids around me get lost," he told CBB. "Drugs, prisons, dying on the streets." However, Hollis also gave birth to legendary rappers Run DMC, Murder Inc. Records kingpin Irv Gotti, and Fubu fashion founder Daymond John. These were Stoney's peers, kids from the same bloodied streets who had found a way to channel the bleakness of their surroundings into creativity. Though Stoney got into some trouble—"knucklehead stuff. Riding motorcycles too fast, flipping over cars," he told CBB—he also seemed to know instinctively that he did not have to become another inner-city statistic, another boy lost to the streets. He decided to take the police test. "I passed it," Stoney told CBB. "That was a big turning point for me."
In 1992 Stoney became a New York City cop. Two years later he was promoted to detective and started working undercover in a Brooklyn narcotics unit. In 1996, during a high-profile case, Stoney was shot. "The bullet went in my left arm and the left side of my chest," he told CBB. Stoney lost 60 percent of his blood and nearly died. His injuries forced him to retire from the NYPD in 1997. He received several awards for his police work as well as a lifelong pension. He was just 26 years old. "I still had so much to do in my life," he told CBB.
Launched Dug with Only a Logo
Still recovering from the gunshot, Stoney teamed up with a chef to open Blue Goose Café in Queens. The restaurant featured late night jazz dinners and Sunday gospel brunches and was an initial success. It was not the right fit for Stoney, however. "It felt good to have my own place, but it consumed me," he told CBB. "I was a slave to the business. I wanted to make money, but also sleep." Stoney next became the personal assistant for an Italian businessman. "It was humbling to go from owner of a nightclub to someone's driver, but I needed to do it," Stoney told CBB. "Eventually he took me under his wing and said he would teach me more about business than I could ever learn in college. He said he was doing it because I had a driving personality, a passion for work and people that he couldn't teach to anyone with a business degree," Stoney recalled to CBB. Stoney was a quick learner and could have easily pursued partnerships with his boss, but as he told CBB, "I wanted to do something more creative, so I started looking for my next move."
Late in 1998 Stoney and childhood friend Jonathan Johnson were sitting around Stoney's kitchen table pitching business ideas when they remembered a pajama party Stoney had attended. Of the party Stoney later told CNNfn's Business Unusual, "after exhausting every opportunity to find something that was cool and comfortable and made a statement, a fashion statement, I realized that there was a void that needed to be filled." Stoney and Johnson decided to fill it with Dug, a loungewear line for men. The duo commissioned a logo of a man digging. "We didn't want to come across as being designers," Stoney told the Daily News Record. "We wanted a simple and understandable logo. Dug represents a hard-working, masculine, simple man who's digging. Every man, no matter what his color, can relate to him."
With the logo and little else Stoney and Johnson launched Dug. "We bought stuff off the rack and sewed on our label," Stoney confessed to CBB. "Then we got people to wear it. I knew people from my club days, some rappers, producers, video directors, and we began chasing after them. We didn't have a line. We had no clothes, no brand, but we built a story around the logo." It worked. "The logo has already been in at least 15 music videos, and it hasn't even hit stores yet," Johnson told the Daily News Record in 1999.
Built Star Following for Dug
Stoney directed his electric personality into promoting the Dug lifestyle. "Comfort is the new luxury," he said in an interview on the KriSeLen Web site. He repeated that mantra to anyone and everyone. "We got in front of our peers and were passionate about the story we were selling," Stoney told CBB. In 1999 Stoney attended Magic, a mega-trade show for the clothing industry. He and Johnson walked the booths, a few samples in hand, preaching the Dug lifestyle. Eventually they caught the interest of SaraMax, a woman's underwear and sleepwear maker that held licenses for Disney, Harry Potter, and Nascar.
With a $3 million investment SaraMax bought 75 percent of Dug, and Stoney and team launched their first line. It included tank tops and matching boxers, t-shirts, jogging pants and jackets, pajamas, and hooded robes. Fabrics included silk, velour, micro-fiber, and mesh. Colors ranged from basic grays and whites to ice blue, teal, and lemon. Stoney's ambition expanded with the line. "We want to be the male Victoria Secret," he told the Daily News Record. "We might be starting in underwear and loungewear, but eventually we want to move into categories such as bath, home, beauty, accessories, razors, condoms, and aroma-therapy."
Stoney's flair for publicity propelled Dug into the limelight. At the 2000 Magic show, he rented ten booths, three 50-inch flat screen televisions, and hired a full-time DJ. "We started getting a lot of press," Stoney told CBB. "We were featured three times in DNR (a men's fashion magazine), also The Source, and Sportswear. I was on CNNfn.… I just shared my line and my passion and met a lot of people. We spread through word of mouth and ended up with a lot of celebrity fans." Singer R. Kelly wore the label on the cover of an early album. Leonardo DiCaprio was photographed in a Dug tank top. Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, Toni Braxton, Usher, and Ja Rule were all spotted sporting the Dug logo.
Sold Dug to Apparel Giant
Despite the hype, Dug was having trouble getting retail buyers. "We didn't have the corporate power behind us," Stoney told CBB. The solution was typical of Stoney's creativity. "We ended up hiring a couple of white actors, corporate-looking guys and put them up in our offices. We painted a picture of being more corporate than we were," he confessed to CBB. It was starting to work. Orders for boutique shops were coming in and business seemed ready to take off. Then 9/11 hit. In the aftermath, Dug lost several deals. Then both SaraMax and Johnson decided to pull out. Though dejected, Stoney refused to be defeated. He hired another childhood friend, Robert Crawford, to take Johnson's place and trudged off to the 2002 Magic show. "We were a featured vendor, but we had nothing left, no money, just our passion," Stoney told CBB.
On the plane ride home, Stoney struck up a conversation with the man seated next to him. He related the Dug philosophy and showed off a few samples. "It turns out he is with Kellwood," Stoney told CBB. Kellwood, a publicly-traded clothing manufacturer with sales in the billions, was looking to expand into the urban market and Dug seemed just the vehicle. Kellwood bought Dug in March of 2002 and made Stoney CEO of the line.
Kellwood pushed Dug into several major retail outlets including Macy's, Marshall Fields, and Hechts and Robinsons. Ads popped up on billboards and phone kiosks. Stoney told the Daily News Record, "Now that Kellwood is behind us, we have the power to make Dug the lifestyle brand we believe it can be." Kellwood agreed. "Dug is the absolute most exciting thing I have seen in this category," a top executive said in the same article.
Infused Spirituality into
Clothes and Life
The honeymoon between Dug and Kellwood was short-lived. In 2004 Kellwood acquired Phat Farm fashions from hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. It quickly became the company's preferred avenue into the urban market. "Dug began to be overlooked," Stoney told CBB. "It was phased out of department stores." After two years with Kellwood, Stoney decided not to renew his contract as Dug's CEO. Instead he offered his talents on the open market as a consultant to apparel manufacturers.
One of Stoney's clients was Avirex, a wholesale manufacturer of aviation themed clothing and accessories. In 2004 Avirex asked Stoney to launch a new brand. "It's called THElabel," Stoney told CBB. "It is a high-end, high-fashion line for men. It uses exotic leathers, cashmeres, silks. High quality, attention to detail, all done with the same focus and passion I gave to Dug." Expected to launch in January of 2005, THELabel would feature another one of Stoney's innovations—an audio CD hang tag. Stoney hired a composer and spoken word artist to create a series of tracks to go with the line's different items. "The CD will be included with the tags on each piece of clothing. It is about how you get dressed, what your clothes mean to you," he told CBB. "I don't want to get too spiritual, but we feel the clothes you wear are a reflection of your inner spirit."
Inner spirit is something Stoney has long understood. It propelled him from inner-city kid to fashion visionary. It is also a trait he has used to reach kids who, like himself, faced despair almost from day one. Because of the fame Dug brought him, Stoney has been invited to speak to at-risk kids at schools and half-way houses. "It can turn out to be a blessing in disguise to have a tough childhood, it makes you stronger," he told CBB. He continued, explaining the philosophy he has shared with kids, "You need to get into the core of who you are and understand who you are. I focus on the spiritual aspect of who you are, letting the past go and the present come." If he gets his way, that present is going to be both fashionably and spiritually well-dressed.
Business Unusual (CNNfn transcripts); December 22, 2000.
Daily News Record August 19, 2002, August 28, 2000.
"Interview with Michael Stoney," KriSeLen, www.kriselen.com/reviews/DUGlife.shtml (December 22, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Michael Stoney on December 28, 2004.
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