Sift through the sale rack at your local Forever 21 mall store and you may come across a T-shirt with a picture of a girl staring into shards of a mirror. Retailing for $14.90, it is a seemingly edgy but ultimately innocuous shirt. It has no particular brand affiliation, no band or product or company to promote: It's an enigmatic graphic tee in a sea of throwaway, enigmatic graphic tees. It could have bubbled into the world fully formed from the collective teenybopper consciousness.
Instead, the tee came from the Rule Garment Manufacture factory in downtown L.A. It was created -- designed, manufactured and printed -- six months ago by one of the factory's owners, 26-year-old Joey Hernandez. Forever 21 ordered 3,000 pieces, and they have moved briskly. "It's sold 40 percent so far," says Joey, sitting at a computer in his factory's office. "You get no credit as a designer, but you get paid."
Does he ever. Joey was 19 when he went into business with his 21-year-old uncle, Anthony Hernandez. By the time Joey was old enough to order a beer legally, he was a millionaire. And the Hernandezes, now in their late 20s, consider themselves grandfathers of the T-shirt biz.
They come from a family of entrepreneurs. Anthony's dad came to the United States from Mexico, broke. He'd paint rooms, fix roofs, repair stucco. Gradually he built up a construction business. Anthony, who grew up in South El Monte, is the youngest of 12 siblings, self-made millionaires all. His brothers own contracting businesses. His sister, who owns a company that cleans air ducts, earns the most money.
It was a foregone conclusion that Anthony would be an entrepreneur. The truism "It takes money to make money" certainly applies. He and Joey started with $50,000 worth of savings, plus $350,000 from Anthony's brother. They launched an apparel-design company, creating T-shirts for their own label, Deceiver.
Anthony played the calm and collected businessman; Joey is the creative, impassioned, "flies-off-the-handle" graphics guy. He'd design shirts for men to go clubbing in -- blinged-out affairs spangled with Swarovski crystals and crazy, off-kilter graphics of a style eventually popularized by Ed Hardy and Christian Audigier.
The Hernandezes sold the shirts to store buyers at garment and apparel shows. The tees were an instant hit.
A slow smile creeps onto Anthony's face at the thought of his shirts making their way out in the world. "In the beginning it was a trip when I'd see them in stores. Like, 'Oh damn. I made that shirt.' "
Lil Wayne wore one. So did Justin Timberlake. Joey was up watching MTV one night and spotted one in a music video. It was a $220 shirt. Soon athletes and rappers were wearing them, too.
In 2006, the Hernandezes made their first million. "When you make a lot of money, you spend like it's always gonna be there," Anthony says. "We started partying." They'd drive to Vegas and blow $10,000 in one night, wining and dining their customers and sucking down $700 bottles of vodka. No big deal when the next invoice is worth 30 grand. No big deal when you're partying with other millionaires, guys who think nothing of dropping three times that amount. The bouncers would parade them in like celebrities, past the poor schlubs in line staring, trying to figure out who they are. Joey laughs: "And I wasn't anybody."
They shopped. Prada sunglasses for Anthony. Eight-hundred-dollar jeans for Joey. "They didn't even look $800," Anthony says. They bought cars. They walked into the Mercedes-Benz dealership, chose matching black S550 sedans and paid in cash.
They partied for one year, then another. Then the third year, when Joey turned 23, the market changed. The economy hit the skids. At the apparel show in New York, where before they'd take in $250,000 worth of orders easy, Anthony and Joey barely scratched $50,000. Suddenly, no one was buying. Crystals and bling and $300 shirts were played out. "My designs sucked, and they never sucked before," Joey says. "Weird thing is, I thought it was the best stuff I'd ever made."
Back in L.A., they called an emergency meeting. They all were pissed off at one another. There'd be no more table service at Vegas clubs. No more gambling. No more shopping.
Abandoning their label, they switched from design to manufacturing. The sewing, garment dyeing, pattern making and printing usually are separate in T-shirt companies. Anthony and Joey's company became the first in L.A. to do it all in-house, full package. They began taking in other people's designs and manufacturing them. There was no fame or glory in it but plenty of profit.
"Honestly," Joey says, "it was the best thing we ever did."
Today, he is still the graphics guy. Anthony is still the production manager. Joey cranks out five to six designs a day. The Hernandezes' shirts can be found at Nordstrom, Saks, Bloomingdale's, Marshalls, Mervyns and Ross. Not that you'd know they made them. The shirts retain no mark of their original authorship.
The apparel industry, Joey says, is a strange, volatile business. He's seen brands powering along at $50 million in annual sales disappear overnight. Something that hot can never be hot for long. "No way style is gonna stick around forever," he says. "You've got two to three years max. After your first year you get copycatters. Then you get cheap copycatters. Then you're screwed."
Tees virtually identical to those he was wholesaling for $90 now can be found for $5 in Santee Alley bargain stores. He shrugs. "You can't ever tell who's copying who."
Nevertheless, kids come to Joey and Anthony with $500 and a dream, determined to get into the business. They hire Anthony to produce their tees, thinking one day their designs will blow up. When the shirts don't sell, they wind up giving them away to friends. Anthony never sees these kids again.
Sometimes, he doesn't even want to take their money -- it's in his interest for his customers to survive to give him repeat business. Occasionally, he'll lecture neophytes on the grim realities of sales: "Unless you're a real hustler, and you're gonna make your brand real well known in your vicinity, you're not gonna make it," he tells them.
"Me and Joey never had a business plan," Anthony says. "We just did things ghetto." The other businesses his brother invested in -- a milk truck, a magazine, a hair salon -- died. "And they had better business plans."
Though not quite meteoric, the Hernandezes' profits are on a steady, upward climb. The boys are living a more careful lifestyle. The high life, they've realized, can easily end.
Five nights a week, Anthony sleeps in the warehouse, modest accommodations that suit him just fine. But he still drives his Mercedes. "I know I could become a millionaire again," he says. "I believe I will be in the next five years."