By Zakiyyah El-Amin
Miskeen Originals, a Philadelphia-based manufacturer of hand-painted custom apparel, was launched in the fall of 2000 and can be found at over 300 retailers across the nation including Macy’s East/West, Up Against the Wall, Dr. Denim, and USA Boutique. With 45 employees, the firm grossed $502,000 in 2002 and projects 2003 revenue at $4 million.
Miskeen (which means “poor” in Arabic–a tribute to starving artists everywhere) is the brainchild of Kenya Abdul-Hadi, 34, chief operating officer; Mark K. Allen, 30, CEO; Ibn Anderson, 31, creative director; and Bariq Cobbs, 33, lead designer. Miskeen manufactures apparel that uses clothing as the canvas. Its repertoire includes denims, jackets, T-shirts, jeans, and hand-knits. Prices for the couture run around $70 for shirts and up to $625 for leather jackets.
Cobbs and Anderson, with Abdul-Hadi, met while Abdul-Hadi was attending Howard University and in 1989 sold an Afrocentric-themed T-shirt line. The three men eventually separated to pursue other business ventures. One venture, which was headed by Cobbs and Anderson, attracted Allen, who revamped the business. Abdul-Hadi then reunited with the group and Miskeen Originals was born.
Financed with $2,000 of personal savings and a $30,000 line of credit, the foursome purchased T-shirts, paint, tables, and other supplies. The friends were now prepared to enter into an industry saturated by rapper-based clothing brands. “We understood that we lacked the same popularity that surrounds entertainers in this industry,” says Abdul-Hadi. But the Miskeen founders assert that there is not one T-shirt identical to another under the Miskeen Originals label, unlike other brands that reproduce the same image on their clothing–something the clothing lines of hip-hop artists cannot boast.
Growing pains were inevitable and the owners found it challenging to service all of the stores. In the beginning, Miskeen Originals did not limit the number of T-shirts or other apparel that stores could order. However, as the label became more popular, stores had a difficult time keeping the shirts on the shelves and placed larger orders more frequently to keep up with consumers’ demand. As a result, Miskeen’s owners had to devise a strategy that would allow them to take control of their growth spurts while continuing to fill orders. Despite demanding and oftentimes, infuriated retailers, the owners limited stores to 24 shirts per week but increased the number of stores in which their products were carried. This allowed the entrepreneurs to take control of the surge in business, while satisfying the demands of retailers and consumers.
The four entrepreneurs also developed a more efficient way to mass produce the hand-painted T-shirts. “We developed an assembly of artists to work in a format similar to that of the automobile assembly line,” says Allen. Now the artists produce an average of 3,500 hand-painted T-shirts each week. Miskeen Originals later relocated to a 5,000-square-foot warehouse from its original 2,000-square-foot facility.
Looking ahead, the business partners have taken their label abroad to Japan, parts of the Caribbean, and South Africa. They have also expanded their contemporary line to include casual wear, sports wear,