Somewhere right now in Los Angeles, a hipster is wearing a furry hood with wolf ears. He is at a nightclub, maybe, or a bar. The furry hood makes him look like an animal. It makes him feel like an animal. Girls want to pet him. Guys want to kick his ass. (Women also wear these hoods. This is not a gender-specific fashion trend.)
"Like a pheromone that you wear on your head" is the description offered by 33-year-old Ashley Haber, one of the four young men who design and sell these Spirit Hoods. In addition to wolf, they come in owl, leopard, bear and panda. They're weird, but against all odds, they have caught on.
How does this happen? How does something utterly bizarre become popular, and how do four 20- and 30-something men with little knowledge of the fashion industry become kings of a fashion niche? The answers reveal something about fashion and marketing — and the zaniness of L.A.
Spirit Hoods are the work of four men: Haber, Alex Mendeluk, Chase Hamilton and Marley Marotta. But the idea for the first hood was Mendeluk's. He is a free-spirited, creative guy who says he always wanted to be a wolf (and who has been known to howl at women at parties).
So as a Christmas present for Hamilton, Mendeluk made the first Spirit Hood. "What is this?" Hamilton's girlfriend asked, with disdain.
Hamilton wore the hood to a bar, where guys called him "fag" and tried to fight him. "Let's do it," said Hamilton, pulling off his jacket (but not the furry hood). But for every guy who wanted to beat him up, there was another who wanted to be just like him.
Shortly thereafter, in 2009, Marotta sewed a prototype. Within a month, they took the hoods to a trade show in Vegas, where one of the show organizers asked: "Do you have your price points and your line sheets?"
"Yes, absolutely," Mendeluk said in the grand tradition of faking it until you make it. Then he whispered to Marotta, "Marley, what's a line sheet?"
For Mendeluk, the trade show marked the "Shit, this is real!" moment. He and the other boys ran around the convention hall wearing the hoods. They bit people. They howled. They played.
And retailers placed orders for the hoods.
So Mendeluk and Marotta called Hamilton, the business-minded member of the pack. They wanted startup money. "Dude," they said, "we need $10,000."
Soon the hoods were in production.
Haber, a photographer with the Wilhelmina modeling agency, then had a party at his house, which was attended by singer Ke$ha, who was working on her first album, Animal, and used to sleep on his couch.
Ke$ha put the wolf hood on her head and Haber snapped a picture. "She didn't know we were going to take advantage of her that way," he jokes now. Later, when she toured, she made her band wear Spirit Hoods.
From Ke$ha, the furry hoods idea went to singer Bruno Mars. From Bruno Mars they went to his gamer fans. From the gamers the hoods went to a girl who was friends with hip-hop star Fergie.
"Every night we'd go to clubs, we'd go out as a pack," Hamilton explains. Each donned a hood and its attendant animal persona: Hamilton is a lion; Haber is a brown bear; Marotta is a wolf; Mendeluk is a leopard (although internally, he claims to be a flying squirrel). To this day, the four wear the same ones. You bond with a hood, they say, and it "feels like betrayal" if you wear a different one.
They wore these things to Drai's, Teddy's, Bordeaux, Avalon, the Echoplex. Then the girls at Roosevelt started wearing them. The effect became almost Pavlovian: The bouncers would see the pack coming down the street in their animal hoods and immediately let them in, and soon the furry hoods became a kind of VIP pass.
"None of us like to party. We just sacrificed," says Mendeluk, drawing peals of laughter from the boys.
One night, the pack went to a party at Lindsay Lohan's house. Mendeluk snuck into her closet and pulled on her sequined tights while wearing his leopard Spirit Hood and regaled the crowd. Soon, Lohan started wearing the leopard hood and was photographed doing so.
"There was an obvious impact on our sales," Hamilton says.
Then actress Vanessa Hudgens was photographed wearing one. Her photo ran in the tabloid weeklies, where writers from Conan O'Brien's show saw it. They wrote the hood into a segment. Hudgens brought one on the show — a white husky — as a prank gift for O'Brien, who promptly put it on and prowled around atop his desk. "Did you kill an Ewok?" he asked.
The day after that, the Spirit Hoods website got 17,000 hits.
The Spirit Hoods found the perfect breeding ground in L.A., with its abundance of artists, actors, models and musicians — people who aren't afraid to wear their inner animal on their head, for whom the line between ridiculous and renegade is usually blurry.
"If we'd tried to launch in New York, we'd have gotten shot," Mendeluk says. "The West Coast is more open."
"We were never trying to compete with the fashionistas or high fashion," Haber says. "Our target is not super style-y but outdoorsy, adventurous. People who are into alternative sports. Animal lovers."
For those who need an extra little push, there's a humanitarian aspect to the hoods. When someone buys a hood, a portion of the proceeds goes to save wolves or cheetahs or jaguars or whatever.
To date, there are some 30,000 hoods in the wild. The original gray wolf with black lining is still the most popular. Hikers wear them on climbs up Mount Kilimanjaro. Hipsters wear them to clubs. Cancer patients wear them when their hair falls out from chemotherapy. "We're not saying it's gonna cure cancer," Marotta says.
"But it could," Mendeluk finishes.
The Spirit Hood is no longer some freakish accessory that gets you beaten up at bars. It is a whole commercial enterprise of freakish accessories. Marotta no longer minds so much when people ask him what he does and he has to answer, "I make furry hoods and sell them."
The hoods now come in some 30 styles, including a tiger with custom-printed fur. The hoods are carried at Fred Segal; Disney is collaborating on Kermit, Miss Piggy and Gonzo Spirit Hoods for the upcoming Muppets movie. They were approached by Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic; the latter eventually knocked off the hoods.
The boys have a large, industrial-chic loft office downtown with cute, sexy intern girls skulking around in tight pants and short skirts and furry panda and cat hoods.
The success of the hoods occasionally gives the boys pause. "It is weird," Haber says. "I've spent my whole life trying to find somewhere to put my money without blowing it out my ass."
"I mean, I came here to pursue acting," Mendeluk says, scratching his head. "What the hell?"