In the world of youth fashion, few things are more important than a distinctive and visible logo.
Tommy Hilfiger has sold the hip-hop generation a zillion shirts emblazoned with his bold red, white and blue flag. Ralph Lauren's tiny polo player has been going strong for more than a decade. Nike has its ubiquitous swoosh.
Empty symbols, declares upstart clothier Sherman Evans. Meaningless.
Evans and his business partner, Angel Quintero, both in their early 30s, are taking on those household names with a distinctive logo of their own: a Confederate flag recast in the African liberation shades of red, black and green.
The striking label is the trademark of their fledgling clothing line, NuSouth, which has its headquarters in a downtown Charleston, S.C., boutique. In the only state in the union that still flies the Rebel flag atop its capitol, the two black men have proudly reshaped a racially divisive symbol into a statement both fashionable and political.
"It's the only clothing line that starts a dialogue," Quintero said. "Any time you wear it, it's a conversation piece."
Indeed, few emblems are as simultaneously loved and reviled as the Confederate flag. Embraced by some as a treasured reminder of Southern heritage, to others the flag is a symbol of slavery and hatred.
In NuSouth's back yard, South Carolina Gov. David Beasley has waged an unsuccessful campaign to have the flag removed from its perch above the Capitol in Columbia. In 1993, Georgia Gov. Zell Miller failed in his effort to change that state's flag, which incorporates the battle flag. Hillsborough County commissioners voted in 1994 to replace the county seal featuring the Confederate flag, sparking heated debate.
Evans and Quintero are fully aware of the controversy surrounding their chosen logo. But by giving it new colors, the two believe they have created a modern, inclusive symbol.
"One of the representatives of the Sons of the Confederacy was in Charleston visiting," Evans said. "He came in. He just wanted to know what NuSouth was about. We had a great conversation."
GQ magazine found the concept intriguing enough to merit a five-page Style story in its November issue, headlined "Confederate Chic."
Quintero grew up in Miami, Evans in Columbus, Ohio. Both claim the South as home.
"We all are native Southerners," Evans said of African-Americans. "(The South) is our Ellis Island."
The store and its catalog offer an array of casual fashions, including crisp white dress shirts, fitted tees, fleece jackets and ball caps, all stitched with the NuSouth flag in various sizes. Already established businessmen _ Quintero owns Buff-It, a car detailing business, and Evans owns the clothing shop Utopia _ the two plan to compete with the Hilfigers, Nauticas and Polos of the fashion world.
"We're going after Nike's market," Evans said. "We want to be the No. 1 apparel company in the next five years."
Evans and Quintero came up with the NuSouth idea while promoting the Charleston rap group Da Phlayva under their Vertical Records label. In search of a logo, the two decided to tinker with the flag.
"The biggest (Southern) symbol is the Confederate flag," Quintero said. "We decided we needed to do something to it."
In 1994, about 30 teenagers wore promotional T-shirts emblazoned with the revamped flag to Stratford High School in Goose Creek, S.C. After some white students complained, the T-shirt wearers were ordered to change their clothes or face suspension from school. 16-year-old Shellmira Green refused and was suspended for 10 days. The action sparked NAACP protest rallies and coverage from MTV and CNN.
"The shirt seen around the world," Evans said.
NuSouth officially opened its doors and a Web site (http://www.nusouth.com) this spring, and Evans and Quintero have sold to a wide variety of customers ranging from college professors to skateboarders. Plans are in the works for boutiques in Atlanta, Montgomery, Ala., and Washington.
"Then we're just going to act like a virus and go all over," Evans said.
No Tampa Bay stores carry the NuSouth label. To order a catalog, call (803) 805-7050.