In the summer of 2012, Kanye’s stylist, Renelou Padora, reached out to Rob Garcia, designer of luxury streetwear brand En Noir. Padora, who had seen some of En Noir’s pieces on Garcia’s Instagram, was interested in pulling a pair of the brand’s black leather sweatpants for the rapper. En Noir hadn’t officially launched yet, but Garcia agreed to bring a sample he was still developing and later, at Padora’s request, show the rest of the collection. At the time, the line only consisted of leather pieces and T-shirts printed with Renaissance art. “I was still sampling. I didn’t really want to show them an incomplete thing,” Garcia tells me at his New York showroom, “but it was a matter of opportunity.” Kanye eventually took the collection to Miami for a music video.
That video wound up being for DJ Khaled’s song, “I Wish You Would.” Kanye arrived on set in a plain black T-shirt, Nike Air Yeezy 2 Solar Red sneakers, and black En Noir leather sweatpants. He wore the same sweatpants and a black En Noir leather tank top in the video.
By the time En Noir launched in August 2012, Kanye had made En Noir leather sweatpants his uniform. Later that month, he appeared alongside 2 Chainz in the music video for the hit “Birthday Song” in a black tank top with three gold chains tucked underneath, Nike Air Yeezy 2 Solar Red sneakers, a Just Don snapback, black embroidered leather gloves by London-based brand Kokon To Zai (aka KTZ), and the same leather sweats.
“It was insane,” Garcia says. “When I was developing En Noir, what we came out with was a small set of samples that Kanye wore. That was a small scope of a bigger collection that I was developing, but the wave started so crazy with that small capsule, that we just ran with that.”
Within a year of launching, public demand was peaking for En Noir. Everyone from Pusha T to Beyoncé was wearing the brand; fast-fashion retailers, like H&M, began selling their own imitations of En Noir’s designs. By February 2013, En Noir made its debut at New York Fashion Week and, one month later, in Paris. In June, it was sold at Barneys. “It caught on so crazy,” says Garcia.
En Noir’s success continued to skyrocket. In February 2014, the brand made its runway debutwith a show at the Park Avenue Armory, a historic building that fills an entire city block on New York’s Upper East Side. Daniel Arsham and Alex Mustonen of artist duo Snarkitecture collaborated on the stage design. Victor Cruz, J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire, Fabolous, and Meek Mill all sat in the front row. A month later, En Noir was named one of GQ’s Best New Menswear Designers in America.
Less than a year later later, En Noir went on an indefinite hiatus. “It was like playing in a game, and the game gets postponed,” Garcia says. “Even if I wanted to play on the field, there was nothing to play.” En Noir was poised to become one of the biggest menswear brands in fashion. So, what happened?
“I never really thought I could be a designer—ever.” Garcia is pacing around his New York showroom, occasionally tucking his hands in his pockets. Tall, with tattoos that snake down his body, he grew up skateboarding—an interest he inherited from his father, who was a punk skateboarder—and later played college football. He says he was always into fashion, but was unsure of how to make a career out of it. “Coming from L.A., it’s not like we have a Parsons or a Central Saint Martins. You don’t have this path where you could say, ‘Wow this guy did it this way.’ In L.A. it’s very DIY.”
He gave it a try. In 2007, he joined Michael “Mega” Yabut and Alfred De Tagle, formerly of streetwear brand HUF, to start Black Scale, a new streetwear label rooted in dark colors and themes that played with religious imagery and geometric symbolism. Garcia, who was 25 years old at the time, designed Black Scale’s cut and sew line, shoes, and accessories. “At the beginning, we were making no money, but we didn’t care,” he says. “It really was about the passion of building something different, and it ended up working. That was the starting point for me as a designer.”
Garcia learned the ins and outs of the business at Black Scale. In addition to designing, he worked with a factory in L.A. to produce Black Scale’s designs. Every Thursday and Saturday, for three hours each day, he took part-time design courses (in pattern making, construction of a garment, and draping) at Otis College of Art and Design in L.A. The rest of the week, he applied what he’d learned in class at the factory. “I was able to implement it in real time, with people who did it daily,” he explains. “Instead of me going to school for four years, learning everything I could [to] implement everything after, I was implementing it all right then and there.” When Black Scale opened its New York flagship in 2010, he enrolled part-time at Parsons.
“[Black Scale] gave me the opportunity to have a vehicle to learn, but also to create and to have people see my viewpoint,” he adds. “That was the first step for me and the biggest step because [streetwear] is where I come from.”
But by the end of 2011, Garcia had aspirations of starting his own, more upscale line. “I knew I wanted to do something higher, but it wasn’t gonna be something at Black Scale,” he says. “When the opportunity presented itself, Mega and Alfred were more than supportive of me.”
In early 2012, Garcia left Black Scale and began working on what later became En Noir. What he envisioned, as he describes it, was a “cool, awesome essentials brand.” He recruited his friend, John Elliott, who at the time was working sales for G-Star, to handle En Noir’s sales and help build the brand. “I was instantly intrigued because of my respect for Rob as a designer and his overall taste level,” says Elliott. “I had been planning on starting my own project, John Elliott, with Aaron [Lavee] simultaneously and having the opportunity to work with Rob was another reason to make the jump.” Elliott worked with designer Simon Miller on his denim in the mornings and spent the rest of the day with Garcia. “He lived three or four blocks away from me, so we would spend each day at my place, just formalizing the brand,” Garcia recalls. They sketched out computer-aided designs, discussed merchandising, and learned to construct garments as well as use Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. Once they had a clear vision of what En Noir’s first collection would look like, they began working with Austin Sherbanenko, designer of Los Angeles-based brand Odyn Vovx who had a small sampling factory in Skid Row where he built bikes. Garcia remembers this time fondly. “[John and I] would literally be building this brand during the day and then hung out later at night, drank Jameson, and got drunk.”
Elliott eventually expressed an interest in designing his own label. “At one point I was helping Simon Miller on his project Fabric Brand while working with Rob on En Noir and still trying to build my brand,” he says. “I was in Hancock Park at a gas station, I had like $200 to my name, and I was OK. I realized that I needed to just focus on my project or it was never gonna happen.” So, he and Garcia took the blocks they had designed together—the parent patterns used to generate most of a brand’s products—and split them. “I’m pretty sure that the day he developed the leather sweats was the same day I got the first sample back of the Villain [hoodie]. We were trying them on in a garage in Skid Row like, ‘Oh shit.’”
“WE WERE ALL ECSTATIC,” SAYS CAMARGO. “THAT WAS IT. WE WERE EN NOIR NOW.”
“At the beginning, En Noir and John Elliott were pulling from the patterns we were developing this whole time,” Garcia adds. “The blocks we developed were the foundations for both brands, for sure.” Garcia insists there were no ill feelings. “It was perfect timing because I wasn’t even at a position where I could keep him on as sales for En Noir because we didn’t have any sales. I didn’t need John to do sales. And he was built to design.”
Garcia continued to develop En Noir. At first, he held it down on his own. But once the brand had gotten some buzz, he assembled a team: Darryl “Curtains” Jackson, who he met at Black Scale, as brand director, and Jason Wolter, Garcia’s best friend from college, as creative director. All there was left to do was sell the apparel.
“That shit you got, I don’t know what else it is, but that shit is fire,” Mike Camargo, a sales and marketing consultant, remembers telling Garcia over the phone from a Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Long Beach, Calif., in 2012. “You need to sell this.”
Camargo previously saw some of En Noir’s pieces while assisting April Roomet, who at the time was Big Sean’s stylist, and was immediately impressed. “It was like everything I had never seen—leather sweatpants, $400 T-shirts not from Givenchy or whoever,” he recalls. “It was a motherfucking L.A. n***a tatted up. That was just the aesthetic and it spoke to me.”
Camargo, who later become En Noir’s sales director, told Garcia he was going to be in Las Vegas for the MAGIC tradeshow, a tradeshow for brands to showcase their latest footwear and apparel collections, and wanted to help put En Noir into stores. “I was like, ‘Listen Rob, if you really wanna get this shit, I know motherfuckers that’ll buy [En Noir] right now. And they’re here [in Vegas].”
“[PHARRELL] CALLED ME ONE DAY AND SAID, ‘EN NOIR IS MY FAVORITE BRAND. I THINK YOU GUYS COULD BE THE NEXT GOYARD,’” RECALLS CAMARGO.
“Mike took the reigns for sales at En Noir,” says Garcia. “I didn’t know sales, I’m just creative. Mike’s strength is sales. He came to me at a time when we had no idea how to do sales, who to open to and who not to.”
Garcia admits he wasn’t certain he wanted to show the collection just yet. “It was a small snapshot of a much bigger thing. We were just talking about leathers and tees. That’s not a collection, that’s not a story.” But, he adds: “It wasn’t like I had the money to just continue sampling.” So, he booked a hotel suite at the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas, where he showed the collection to buyers and store owners. (“We knew we weren’t gonna show at the tradeshow, so I got the hotel,” says Garcia). That same day, En Noir landed its first accounts, including Creme in Virginia, Social Status in Charlotte, and Next in Cleveland.
“We were all ecstatic,” says Camargo. “That was it. We were En Noir now.”
When En Noir officially launched on Aug. 6, 2012, it presented a monochromatic and minimalist collection: black leather pieces (sometimes in croc and python leathers)—shorts, sweatpants, a hooded vest—tees printed with Renaissance art, and wax gradient tees. The collection fell in line with street goth—a style trend characterized by a mix of streetwear and high-fashion, defined by a dark, gothic-inspired aesthetic. “[En Noir] kinda tapped into this whole new movement that was going on,” says Robert Rosenthal, co-owner of Next. “It was very goth, very dark. It was thematic and different.”
It was also one of the first luxury streetwear lines at the time. “It was dope,” says Vice senior editor Wilbert L. Cooper. “It bridged that gap between the high-fashion stuff and streetwear, which I think everybody was just starting to get interested in.”
By 2013, the celebrity endorsements were piling up. Pusha T, Beyoncé, 2 Chainz, Big Sean, A$AP Rocky, Miley Cyrus, Kevin Durant, Drake, Usher, Tyga, Ciara, LeBron James, Meek Mill, and Kendrick Lamar were all wearing the brand. Pharrell was a fan and asked for custom pieces. “[Pharrell] called me one day and said, ‘En Noir is my favorite brand. I think you guys could be the next Goyard,’” recalls Camargo. “He wanted us to make him a toiletry kit, a bag, and hats.” (En Noir never delivered these because of timing and sampling issues). Once, Pharrell commissioned a custom white leather conductor’s hat with a black leather brim for his “Happy” music video. He didn’t end up wearing the hat due to issues with the sample but, Garcia says, “just being able to talk to him about anything creative is one of the best things we’ve been able to benefit from.”
Retailers followed suit. At the end of May 2013, Garcia tweeted: “Youngest American designer on designer floor of Barneys… En|Noir is delivering this week…” Within a year of launching, En Noir had been picked up by boutiques known for its premium streetwear and luxury brands, including Union L.A., SSENSE, and Riccardi. “In a year, we were the hottest thing since sliced bread, and nobody could say shit,” says Camargo.
“IT WAS A GREAT SHOW AND IT WAS AMAZING, BUT WOULD I DO IT AGAIN? NO, I WOULDN’T,” SAYS GARCIA. “I KNOW BETTER.”
But in 2014, the dominos began to fall. En Noir didn’t deliver most of its Fall/Winter 2014 collection. “We ended up pretty much getting fucked on that,” Garcia says now. “We were told that the leathers were gonna get delivered, and all of a sudden, they didn’t show up. I would say that was the beginning to our delivering issues—and issues as a whole.”
En Noir presented its Spring 2015 collection but, Garcia says, they weren’t able to deliver the line as well. “I’d say that was the initial beginning to our hiatus.”
“We were literally at a stand-still,” he adds. In February 2015, he had given up hope and announced he was launching a namesake line. “I wanted to do another line because as a designer, I need to stay relevant. I have ideas I wanted to get out.”
No single reason led to En Noir’s fall, but during interviews, Garcia and Camargo (Jackson and Wolter declined to comment) revealed that issues with delivery and production, lack of investments, as well as financial mismanagement prevented them from moving forward with the brand.
“We didn’t have a showroom, I didn’t have a business card, but we were doing runway shows at the Armory,” says Camargo. “That’s like having a token and a Rolex. There were things that should’ve been put into motion and expenses that should’ve been made way before we did certain things.” Those things, he says, included bleeding through their money to make custom pieces for artists when they should’ve been designing full collections, and spending thousands at a club just to get noticed. “That was like our faux marketing. We’d go to these events or parties and buy 30 bottles of Champagne to stunt. People would ask who we were and we’d be like, ‘We’re En Noir,’” Camargo says. Garcia doesn’t deny this, but will only say it wasn’t intentional. “There was definitely no strategy behind it,” he clarifies.
On Garcia’s part, he points to the Park Avenue Armory show as an example of financial irresponsibility. “That show was a lesson,” he says. “That show obviously cost a lot. But that wasn’t really presented to me. We didn’t really have those people [to tell me that]. It was a great show and it was amazing, but would I do it again? No, I wouldn’t. I know better.”
Money woes aside, Garcia says that above all else En Noir’s downfall was their lack of business savvy. In En Noir’s inception, Garcia and his team invested their own money into the company. But as the brand grew, and loans from friends, family, banks, and credit card companies were no longer enough, they finally had to seek investors. But finding the right ones was tough. “I feel like we took money from the wrong couple of people, people who were much more seasoned than us in business and kinda set us up,” he says. “They kinda pretty much outsmarted us. But I wasn’t really thinking about all of the backend, the finances, and all these legal things, like contracts.”
He continues: “At the end of the day, we were never short on cool designs and we were still in demand. Our Achilles heel was the business part, delivering, production, and all these backend things. It just wasn’t our forte.”
Camargo is quick to say that it wasn’t all Garcia’s fault. “It was all new to him,” he says. “And this is his namesake and baby at the end of the day, and he had a lot more to lose than we did. I respect him. I don’t blame him entirely. It wasn’t entirely his fault for folding under that pressure and for making the wrong decisions. I think it was perpetuated by all of us. Somebody should’ve stepped in and said no.”
Garcia chalks up the hiatus to a learning experience. “It was tough to be in a position where you have to take a break when everything is going so well, but we weren’t built structure-wise, business-wise, to sustain that kind of success. It was inevitable.”
He continues: “But it didn’t put us out of business. It put us in a place where we had to get things right.”
This summer, En Noir will release its Fall/Winter 2016 collection—its first in two years. Unlike previous lines, “En Noir 2.0,” as Garcia calls it, is less about leather. Tailored pieces, corduroy trucker jackets, cotton cashmere tees, denim, knits, and shirting in buffalo check, plaid, and tartan patterns dominate the line. Leather is only used as accents under the collar, in the pockets, on the sleeve hems, and on the inside seams. The lone throwback is the leather sweatpant, but that’s being reintroduced in a more athletic fit. “I definitely wanted to make sure people didn’t forget what we did well, which was predominantly leather. Leather’s always gonna be a staple for us,” says Garcia. “But I also wanted to give them something refreshing.”
It’s still unclear if the new collection will be a commercial success, or if En Noir can come back from a two-year hiatus and be the phenomenon it once was. But what is clear is this: Garcia is ready to take on the challenge.
A tattoo on the right side of his neck, peeking from underneath the collar of his denim jacket, reads Fortune favors the brave. His explanation of his ink is earnest: “Starting something on your own is never easy. It’s a quote that speaks volumes about that time of my life [starting En Noir] but also just me as a person. I’ve never been afraid of change.”