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Leather gifts earn Chicagoan street fashion cred

DJ Khaled (left) Martez Malone

DJ Khaled (left) and Martez Malone

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Updated: May 1, 2014 6:54AM

Who needs “Project Runway” when Instagram and a few celebrity encounters can take your fashion line from unknown to uber popular?

That’s what happened to Kenwood High School grad and Avalon Park resident Martez Malone, who skipped the proverbial fashion grind with his custom-sewn, leather jackets. Rather than try to influence store buyers, he decided to hang out in Los Angeles and gift his butter-soft outerwear to key influencers in the hip-hop community.

Five months into his experiment? Success.

Malone’s jackets have been seen all over social media on stars including Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Chief Keef and DJ Drama. Those celeb encounters are documented on his @iam_martez Instagram feed and explain how the entrepreneur gained more than 16,000 followers in a matter of months.

“I was in L.A. one day and he walked up on me in the Cheesecake Factory with a jacket, and I took some pictures,” says Don Cannon, the vice president of A&R for Def Jam Records. “He just runs into artists and gives them a jacket. I don’t know how he has the sizes right. His research must be amazing. But clothes are always good if it’s the right, for lack of a better word, swag.”

And as swag goes, the jacket (from $800) apparently has it in spades. True to his South Side roots (where fashion has always been a smidge over-the-top and colorful), his Yekim jackets feature custom-designed caricatures, colors and themes that riff off of each artist’s music or persona. A piece designed for DJ Khaled is stitched with “We The Best,” a take on Khaled’s “We The Best Music Group.” Another article in the line, designed for Cali rapper YG, features the artist’s “4Hunnid” insignia. After posting YG’s image, the orders poured in.

“I’ve just always loved to dress,” says Malone, who, interestingly, somewhat struggles to fully articulate his creative process. “I see a fabric and then I come up with the ideas for how it should look on your body. I want to wear unique clothes. And I watch the artists. I can listen to an artist’s song and say, ‘OK, this is what they need to wear.’ ”

Apparently the magic just works.

Malone’s work is featured in a new video for Keef, and, according to an Atlantic Records publicist, Drama also wore one of the jackets for a video shoot last week.

Keef aside, this kind of underground buzz pushes the envelope, according to Rita Lee, a Chicago and Austin-based entertainment consultant and promoter. Lee mentored Malone by giving him a job after he served time in the penitentiary for bank fraud.

“Once you have a felony, your opportunities are limited, so I help create opportunities so they don’t re-create opportunities to go back to jail,” says Lee, whose NuFace Entertainment company specializes in branding and marketing. Lee also helped Malone get his clothing to the right people. “Most [rapper’s] teams are focused on the main goals and maximizing where they can. We’re just adding value to things they should benefit from.”

This is a new life for Malone, a father of three, who spent a few years at United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, after being jailed for bank fraud charges due to running an elaborate check cashing/debit card scheme on students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the time, he was a student at Parkland College. He shrugs when discussing the 2005 charges. “I was locked up with the dude who did the Enron s---, and that was crazy,” says Malone. “But we were kids doing bad things. I was 19 and in college. It was only $100K, split between three guys. But the moral of the story is that I made it out of there.”

According to Malone’s probation officer, he “complied with supervision and completed it successfully.”

Lee and Malone connected in fall of 2007. A few years later, he opened an online women’s clothing boutique named for his oldest son (and a deceased cousin), except the name is spelled backwards. Yekim. Mikey. Now #Yekim denotes whenever someone rocks one of Malone’s creations.

And while some North Michigan Avenue shoppers may snicker, it’s no secret that today’s urban streetwear winds up on the fashion runways in a few seasons.

“Chicago is just different,” he says. “What kids go through growing up, the politics in the city, the school system. It’s different and that’s why [people like] Kanye are able to give the world a new vision. Anytime people from Chicago go anywhere, people get excited to hear about the next story.”


Twitter: @adriennewrites

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