UTSC grad knows his Roots

By Melissa Joseph

It was a simple theory of labour productivity that helped catapult Adrian Aitcheson (BA 1988) into a career as a fashion entrepreneur whose must-have t-shirts have been worn by rap stars Mary J. Blige and Ice Cube.

For this former UTSC economics student, the success was a long way from working two jobs to pay his tuition. And it keeps getting better.

After creating and founding the ultra-hip Too Black Guys boutiques in New York City and Toronto in the early 1990s, Aitcheson turned toward fashion consulting. Today, he works for clothing retail giant Roots, where he has given pizzazz to the official togs donned by the Canadian, U.S. and U.K. Olympic teams. Aitcheson is also responsible for the Toronto Maple Leafs products and Roots menswear.

According to him, the road to success began in class when a favourite professor, Michael Krashinsky, presented a theory that stuck. The marginal revenue productivity of labour suggests that the employee is only valuable if the revenue generated from his or her performance is higher than his or her wages. From this Adrian determined that the best way to ensure your value in the job market is to work for yourself.

“This theory made me want to start my own business,” he says. He just needed to find something to build his business around.

Enter Orville Ellis. A chance meeting with the local designer at a UTSC fashion show led Aitcheson to an intern opportunity with Ellis to learn more about fashion and design.

“I was really enthusiastic about his products and basically offered my help,” says Aitcheson. “I was developing his wholesale and also worked in his retail store.”

In 1990 Aitcheson felt ready to make his mark. He partnered with friends and developed the label Too Black Guys. They opened a store in Toronto and eventually started wholesaling in New York, capitalizing on the urban hip-hop scene’s explosion into popular culture.

Mary J. Blige wore one of Aitcheson’s designs in the video for her mega hit “Real Love”. “It was a baseball shirt with ‘Too Black Guys’ printed on the front,” he recalls. “That was huge exposure for us.”

By 1993, growing interest and sales led to a Too Black Guys store in Manhattan in a building owned by filmmaker Spike Lee. Soon Ice Cube was wearing Too Black Guys in his videos. Quentin Tarantino also wore a piece in Lee’s “Girl 6”. 

Several years later, Aitcheson was itching for something new. That’s when Detroit native Michael Budman, co-founder of Canadian clothing giant Roots, came knocking and offered him a job. In 1999, he closed his business and joined the chain.

“Roots provided opportunity for new challenges, an international stage, and access to the kind of infrastructure that would allow me to do basically anything that I wanted in terms of product development and design.”

Aitcheson’s designs for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, including the UK’s parade uniforms and casual wear, as well as full lines for Canada and the US, started a frenzy they never expected.

“It was a combination of so many different things,” he says. “We had the home country at a very patriotic time in history, and I think we had good product and good placement and we had the mechanics in place to move that kind of product.”

Had it gone to another manufacturer, Aitcheson says, they would not have been able to respond as quickly to demand. “Most [retailers] have their products made overseas and aren’t able to make quick turnarounds,” he says. “We have our own factories and almost everything is made in Canada. We were literally making berets during the Games.”

His advice for other students: “You can turn any job into a good career if you really enjoy it.” Grateful for how he got his start, and admiring of UTSC’s co-op philosophy, he hopes to develop an intern program at Roots.

One of Aitcheson’s Too Black Guys designs is on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. While he no longer lives in Scarborough, he still plays basketball every week in UTSC’s summer league.