The Fresh Prince of Streetwear
Wearing red Hermès sneakers, a gray smoking jacket-cardigan hybrid of his own design, and five pounds of pure gold draped around his neck, Jonathan Koon walks around his Midtown Manhattan showroom inspecting his new line of high-end denim. Nearly a dozen pairs of hand-washed, uniquely distressed and abraded jeans from his spring 2011 collection are laid out on a coffee table. Koon picks up one pair and turns a pocket inside out to reveal his signature sartorial touch—an ancient Chinese poem, "Bringing in the Wine," by the scholar Li Bai, inscribed in the fabric. "It basically says, 'If there's a chance to be happy, or a chance to drink, drink and be happy to your heart's desire,' " Koon translates.
It also describes Koon's philosophy. The precocious auto accessories mogul and ghetto-fabulous branding guru wants to be the Mark Zuckerberg of Asian streetwear couture. With the Jan. 3 launch of his Private Stock clothing line, Koon, 27, is hoping Americans will go as gaga for his Hong Kong-inspired jeans as they once did for Italy's Diesel brand. Maurizio Marchiori, Diesel's former U.S. marketing chief, is already a believer. "Jon has great potential," says Marchiori, who mentored Koon through the design process. "This guy's not a designer, he's a visionary."
While Koon may dress like a rapper and talk like a quant, he's already thinking like a mogul. "We'll be the next big denim company," he says. "A billion-dollar company." The first generation Chinese American has invested $2 million of his own money in Private Stock, which he's soft-launching with 11 denim styles (priced between $110 and $325) and roughly the same number of polos and button downs along with lightweight jackets, bracelets, and watches—all befitting a modern adaptation of West Side Story set in the streets of Hong Kong. Certain limited-edition styles will be sold for up to $1,195 per pair.
Unlike many aspiring fashion designers, Koon is already a multimillionaire, having made a fortune tricking out cars. While attending Manhattan's prestigious Stuyvesant High School, he and a friend launched Extreme Performance Motorsports with $10,000 of their personal savings. They opened wholesale accounts with Asian auto distributors and started importing custom body kits, aftermarket wheels and rims, floor mats, stereo systems, and all manner of specialized accessories that—in the age before MTV's Pimp My Ride—helped usher in the blinged-out car craze. "It was almost like a virus that spread," says Koon. "We struck a fair amount of success very quickly." Koon says he made a million dollars within a year.
After shuttering the business while attending Georgetown University, Koon struck gold again, in 2004, by patenting Dubz, a hugely successful air freshener designed like a spinning car rim. He subsequently launched Sparkz (a lighting accessory), Klipz (a cell phone holder), and Ionik (an air ionizer), which helped establish his brand among record label executives and rappers. In 2008 hip-hop star Young Jeezy made Koon the exclusive partner in his apparel line, 8732. The clothing company now falls under the umbrella of Tykoon Brand Holdings, which is based in his native Queens, N.Y. The 27-person, privately held company, Koon claims, is worth $80 million.
Soon after joining 8732, Koon's obsession with car parts was replaced by a fixation on street fashion. He traveled through Europe and Asia to scrutinize local styles and learned how to distress jeans at a denim washing house in Japan. Koon's curiosity soon led him to start creating one-off trousers for what he describes as "big-time pop stars in Hong Kong and Tokyo," though he declines to divulge their identities—"I don't wanna name-drop," he demurs.
Koon also caught the attention of Italian luxury goods designer Domenico Vacca. The two teamed up to create the Domenico Vacca Denim Collection, which landed in the designer's boutiques last May and now falls under the Tykoon umbrella. "It looks like an unlikely partnership, but each is bringing something to the table," says David Lipke, who covers menswear and denim for Women's Wear Daily. "Domenico Vacca has a base of loyal clients that like his approach to somewhat fashion-forward gentleman's tailoring, and Jon Koon brings a youthful attitude and some expertise in sportswear manufacturing."
Breaking into the premium denim market on his own, though, will be a tougher challenge. It's a highly competitive field, says Lipke, since it's an attractive starting point for upstart designers and entrepreneurs. "There are a multitude of brands in the denim category, and the ones that thrive have dedicated, astute people behind them who live and breathe denim," he says. Newer companies such as Hudson, J Brand, and AG Adriano Goldschmied were built from scratch and have come to saturate the marketplace. It's a constant battle to stay on top of the trends that can quickly swing sales each season.
Bearing the harsh reality of the dungaree trade in mind, Koon is planning a slow expansion. He's sinking an additional $3 million in Private Stock's fall 2011 collection, which will expand to 40 bottoms, including 16 variations of jeans, plus an array of cashmere, bamboo, and poplin coats, shirts, and knitwear. In the meantime, his spring collection will make its debut in about 75 boutiques in the U.S. with the hope of eventually landing in trend-setting department stores. "The company, especially in this market, needs to grow organically," says Marchiori. "It will be a long process, but if [Koon] follows his intuition and makes something that is really different and new, he will be able to do it."
While that process might undermine Koon's ultimate goal of becoming a billionaire by the age of 30, he's still preparing himself with the trappings of moguldom. In a stunt that would make even The Donald proud, Koon had his business cards custom made from 18-karat gold. Why this marriage of stationery and bling? Says Koon: "So that nobody would ever forget me."