It's 2001 and Ray Guilbault is attending the University of Miami. He has begun to customize his clothing with various logos. And soon, the numbers "8&9" catch his attention.
Guilbault calls his friend, Figgs, to let him know they're about to launch a clothing line. The reply isn't one of optimism.
"He was like, 'That's impossible,'" says Guilbault. "Literally, he said that to me. I was like, 'No, I'm pretty sure we can do that.'"
See also: Miami's Top Ten Rappers on the Come-Up
It was an era where urban fashion was overrun by Sean Jean, Eckō Unltd., LRG, and Rocawear, and other companies, many by some of your favorite hip-hop artists. Remember Eminem's and Snoop Dogg's lines?
After working on developing custom products and getting samples made with pattern makers in New York, Guilbault took all of his production to Pakistan. Then September 11 happened.
"Piece by piece, the initial order came in, but I didn't really get enough to sell to retail until spring of the following year," says Guilbault. "And then I had no complete size runs. I didn't have matching styles. It was like, one style, I might have no medium. One style, I have no large or extra large. So I basically had to create a whole new strategy because we weren't able to sell to retail."
To recoup some of his losses and save enough for major production, Guilbault had to sell clothing hand-to-hand in order to keep the name alive. His graphics were seen on cars at car shows. The company sponsored a motorcycle stunt team. The 8&9 name was used as a password phrase for entrance into clubs. And after partnering with DJs, it was used for reentry with the purchase of a shirt or two from pop-up shops.
Even today, Guilbault and team's marketing strategy is street level. They consistently invite the public to their showroom in Miami for parties, pop-ups, and other events featuring some of South Florida's top hip-hop artists, many of whom have also been used as 8&9 models.
Recently, Guilbault took some time to speak with Crossfade about collaborating with Jadakiss and Styles P, Diddy wearing an 8&9 shirt, and the future of his line.
Crossfade: What's your favorite meaning of 8&9?
Guilbault: I started the brand specifically because I wanted a name that would not pigeonhole you into a certain market. You know, in high school, "Oh, that kid's a skater" or "That kid's goth" or "That kid is hood," or whatever the case may be. I really wanted something that people could relate to in their own type of way. So my favorite meaning is the actual significance of the number, which is 8 is the symbol for infinity and 9 is a perfect number.
We always say "infinite perfection," which is not that we're infinitely perfect, but it is an infinite quest for perfection, which means to me that we wake up everyday, bust our ass, evaluate ourselves appropriately the same way other people do, make sure that we're always improving, we acknowledge our flaws, and we try to work on them and become better people, a better business.
See also: Miami's Top Ten Hip-Hop DJs of All Time
Over the last couple of years, your brand has continued to grow because of various trade shows, but the brand has been able to reach people such as Sway, Jadakiss, and other nationally known individuals. When did you know that 8&9 was becoming bigger than you expected?
There are those moments when you're humbled, like, "Alright, this guy is somebody that I look up to or that influenced culture so much." Take somebody like Diddy, for example. He can wear anything he wants, he has millions of choices, he has all the money in the world to buy anything he wants. And on top of that, anybody in the world will send him free clothes. So when Diddy chooses, out of everything he can buy, everything that's given to him, to pick up an 8&9 shirt, and then take a picture of the logo, and then Instagram that -- in our modern culture, that's a big fucking deal.
Then Sway's not the most famous person in the world. These kids don't care about Sway, but I respect everything he's done for hip-hop and what he's still doing. When you see somebody like Sway wearing a shirt, does that make me a dollar? No. I don't make any money. Nobody goes and buys a shirt because Sway wore it. But it's humbling that somebody that really has been through hip-hop culture for so many years respects what we're doing. And that's the same way with a Cormega or a N.O.R.E. or a KRS-One. People that don't influence fashion, but they influence your life.
Aside from more recognized artists wearing the brand, you've become invested in South Florida's hip-hop community, from DJ Bre to Prez P, Flo Kid, Mike James. These guys have become models for your line.
They do, but we also do a very good job of portraying real life, we portray what we live. So there becomes that overlap where it could be asked: Is this a person wearing 8&9? Or is this a model? And this is what we've always done. We've always worked with the people that we respect. It's just, from the very beginning, been about building a brand with like-minded people that have the same goals.
I don't care how popping you are, how successful you are, if I personally don't like you, I don't get that vibe from you, if it doesn't feel organic, if there's no symmetry, I have no interest in working with you. And there are artists out there that may be bigger than some of the artists we work with, but we're not getting invested in them. And that goes from the smallest artist to the biggest artist. We get calls every single day to put clothes on so-and-so, and at the end of the day, it's like, "I got to give $20 out of my pocket to you so that you could wear our clothes, and I don't even like what you stand for or what you do on your own? No, thank you." I'll totally pass on all those promotional opportunities.
Where do you see 8&9 going from here?
We're going to continue doing exactly what we've been doing. And we're going to do it on a bigger scale. Same formula, bigger scale.
One thing we've been huge on this year is just the Miami aspect of everything. Again, I'm from Boston, I've lived in New York, the person that started this brand with me is in New York, who's our vice president, he's still in the Bronx. But we're committed to putting Miami on the map in the fashion sense -- because, globally, I don't think anybody even cares about Miami fashion, to be perfectly frank.
You ask the average person what Miami fashion is like and they'll tell you Pitbull. And I love that guy, and I love everything he's done, but I don't wear pointy snake shoes. I don't wear tight khakis with my shirt tucked in.
If you look at 8&9's side of Miami, that's not what we represent.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Crossfade's Top Blogs
Follow Lee Castro on Twitter: @LeeMCastro.