Building a Hard-Core Business
Gerard Murray went back to his roots to build his sportswear company
By Cheryl Ann Wadlington
When Gerard Murray, 35, founder and ceo of School of Hard Knocks, a sportswear company in Corona, New York, sold T-shirts decorated with inner-city slogans, he never thought that this side hustle, started back in 1992, would evolve into a burgeoning sportswear empire that, in 2001, earned $27 million in sales.
But Murray initially got the idea to vend urban-themed streetwear after watching sportswear companies such as Starter and Champion sell what he described as "simplicity," and another company, Washington, D.C.-based AADA, manufacture black-college sweatshirts. "[The company] was on fire," Murray recalls.
"We were one of the first stores to carry those black-college sweatshirts, but as [AADA] grew, we would not have certain goods in stock and it kind of pissed me off," explains Murray from his New York office. "So I decided I would do my own thing instead, and I'm going to represent a school I'm from. Because I did not go to those colleges, we came up with the name School of Hard Knocks."
But Murray never claims he made up the School of Hard Knocks cliché, since people have been using it for decades to express "what they have been through, to get to where they are today."
Murray began with four T-shirt logo designs, "School of Hard Knocks," "Five Borough," "Classic," and "SOHK Wild Style," believing that "anyone—a doctor, someone who's between jobs, a student, or a stay-at-home mom—who read the thought-provoking message could relate to it."
But mainstream apparel companies took notice of his company when he launched a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo "Queens 7," which pays homage to his local neighborhood. The "7" signifies Corona's only direct subway route. The T-shirt became such a bankable commodity that in 1998 Murray struck a deal with the Nesi Apparel Group Inc., a licensing and manufacturing company that specializes in men's fashion. This provided the opportunity he needed to mass market men's and boy's sweat suits, denim, and leatherwear in bold colors and graphics that depict the energetic vibe of city life. To date, School of Hard Knocks clothing is sold in 3,000 stores nationwide. Murray also snagged a nomination for an Urban Fashion Award this year in the denim design category with fellow urban clothiers Phat Farm, Sean John, and Rocawear.
Despite not having a formal college education, Murray has "strong roots" that helped forge his entrepreneurial nature. "I grew up in a very structured household, watching two parents work very hard to take care of their family by any means necessary," says Murray, who still resides in Queens with his wife, Carol, and their two children. "They have their own West Indian roots in them, so they were not into hanging on the street. You either had to be constructive doing some schoolwork, joining a team, doing some after-school activity, or bring your butt home."