The history of urban clothing line Vokal is steeped in legend. To hear co-founder Yomi Martin tell it, the company was born a decade ago, not long after his mother moved to Virginia and left him a house in Florissant.
Martin, then a student at Maryville University, moved in with his cousin, Cornell Haynes Jr., who worked for UPS and toiled as a then-unheralded rapper named Nelly. Hoping to promote Nelly's group, the St. Lunatics, the two men designed and printed oversize T-shirts. With some help from their friends Ian Kelly and Nick Loftis, they founded Vokal Clothing and sold the shirts at shopping malls and concerts.
Universal Records signed the St. Lunatics in 1999, and the group sported Vokal's jerseys and graphic-print T-shirts in their videos. Two years later Nelly was a multiplatinum solo artist, and Vokal had secured national distribution for its wares.
Offering denim jeans, velour jogging outfits and sweatsuits the baggier the better Vokal joined the ranks of urban wear lines backed by various hip-hop celebrities, including Sean "Diddy" Combs' Sean John and Russell Simmons' Phat Farm.
During Vokal's peak years of 2002 and 2003, Martin says, the company generated between $30 and $40 million in annual sales from stores including Macy's and Dillard's. "We were on fire," he says.
Kelly is more cautious with his figures, estimating sales in this period to be "getting close to about $30 million." Like Yomi Martin, he declined to discuss the company's financial records.
"You can see what we've sold from previous interviews and quotes from Federated [Department Stores, Inc., which owns Macy's]," says Kelly, who now lives in San Diego. "There are quotes from them that we were the number-one brand back then."
"We don't report sales by vendor, by store or by division," counters Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman for Federated. "We report sales on a global company basis, and not any beyond that."
Vokal shut down production in June 2004 as a result of a legal dispute with its licensee, New York-based ALM International Corporation. ALM had been responsible for manufacturing and distributing Vokal's products.
"They had a different vision about where the company was going to go. But it was our brand and we were very protective of it, and we didn't agree," says Kelly, who also says he's not permitted to discuss the details of the dispute.
"It cost us millions of dollars to separate from them," Kelly maintains, "but it probably would have cost us the entire brand if we would have stayed with them."
A phone number listed for ALM has been disconnected, and a company representative could not be reached for comment for this article.
By the end of 2004, Vokal was prepared to re-enter the market. That November Martin told the St. Louis Business Journal he expected $25 million in sales for Vokal over the next eighteen months. He gave the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the same numbers.
But those figures seem to be a product of wishful thinking rather than a realistic business projection. Since the beginning of 2005, Vokal hasn't manufactured a single item for sale in the U.S. Its Web site hasn't been updated for two years.
In 2006 the company began selling clothes in Europe, but Kelly and Martin give wildly varying estimates of the company's sales there. Martin says they sold between $8 and $10 million worth of merchandise last year, while Kelly offers a figure twice as high before admitting he isn't sure.
"I'd rather just leave the numbers for Europe blank right now," says Kelly.
Nelly couldn't be reached for comment, and Nick Loftis declined to furnish sales figures. (Loftis quit working for the company in September but maintains a partial ownership.)
According to Russell Simmons, fabrication of sales figures is commonplace in the hip-hop fashions industry. "It is how you develop an image for companies," he said in a 2004 civil deposition, according to a report in the New York Times. "So in other words, you give out false statements to mislead the public so they will then increase in their mind the value of your company."
In a 2003 CNBC interview, Simmons claimed that his clothing line sold $350 million annually. The actual figure was $14.3 million.
"Why wouldn't you say that?" says Martin, who calls Simmons his "mentor." "You never show people your weakness. If you were promoting your product, and you're a businessman, a CEO, you're not going to do an interview and be all excited if your sales are $1 million. Of course, you're going to say $5 million, especially if you have projected growth. That only makes business sense."
Nonetheless, Martin stands by the numbers he's quoted over the years. "I don't exaggerate," he says.
He admits, however, that Vokal's sales suffered as a result of its hiatus. Shortly after it disappeared from store shelves in 2004, he says, urban fashion underwent a dramatic transformation. Baggy sweats were out dapper suits were in.
Martin points the finger at Jay-Z, another platinum rapper with his own clothing line. Jay-Z's song "Change Clothes," which was released in 2003 but became popular the following year, celebrated preppy, dapper attire. It single-handedly depopularized the type of sweat suits Vokal was famous for, Martin says.
"That just changed the whole game. There was nothing we could do. We tried. We did some button-ups, we did some cotton polos, but it didn't work. It just wasn't what we were known for."
Instead, the company focused on its women's-wear offshoot, Apple Bottoms, which was founded in 2002. Apple Bottoms apparel is now stocked by 3,500 stores around the nation, says Kelly.
Besides hocking jeans, dresses and tops, the company will soon offer lingerie, coats, purses with iPod ports in them and a body fragrance. "So altogether, for 2007, Apple Bottoms globally will be [worth] $100 million," adds Kelly.
The men are also working to revamp Vokal. They say it will re-emerge by the end of the year and reflect the evolution of their personal styles.
"Four or five years ago I was wearing triple-XL or four-XL, and Nelly wore it too," Martin says. "But now he's wearing L shirts or XL shirts, maybe. We just didn't want to keep wearing super-baggy jeans. We grew up; we started wearing suits more."
Kelly says the company is in negotiations with a new distributor, though he declines to name it. "Let's just say that what we're doing with Vokal is going to be very, very, very big," he says. "There's going to be huge PR behind it."