As car horns and sirens blare on a cold spring morning in New York, Concepts owner Tarek Hassan and rapper Fabolous talk quietly about life and work while standing in the doorway of the Manhattan flagship, dressed almost entirely in the retailer’s private-label collection.
Though the two men have met before, this is their first opportunity for a lengthy one-on-one.
On the surface, Hassan and Fabolous couldn’t be more different. One is a Boston transplant by way of Lebanon, who helped shape streetwear retail after years in the brown shoe world. The other is a rap superstar born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Despite making a name for themselves in distinct worlds, the two have much in common.
For starters, both Hassan and Fabolous are widely respected in their fields and have maintained positions atop their ultracompetitive professions for decades. And both have made a significant impact in the fashion space.
With Concepts celebrating 25 years, the rapper joined the retail leader to discuss Hassan’s decades of success and what the future holds.
Below is the candid discussion between these two powerhouses, edited for clarity.
FABOLOUS: I want to talk about your history in retail and coming up in Boston. How did this whole thing start?
TAREK HASSAN: I left Lebanon in the mid-’80s when I was 16 years old, not because I wanted to but because there was a civil war going on. My parents wanted to send me somewhere safe and I had an uncle, [Sam Hassan], who lived in Boston, so I went there. He owned a shoe store called The Tannery in Harvard Square and I started working there. My first job was street marketing, passing out fl yers on the sidewalk. From there, I worked in the stockroom and then stepped up into sales on the floor, then became the manager and then buyer. I went through every aspect of the business.
FAB: From the basement to the penthouse.
TAREK: I loved every experience.
FAB: Would you say that helped shape who you are as an owner, knowing every level of the business?
TAREK: Absolutely. It’s a great way to understand everyone who works with us. The person doing stock, I know exactly what he’s doing and what he’s going through, and [the same] if you’re a buyer or in marketing.
FAB: Talk about the transition from The Tannery to Concepts in ’96.
TAREK: I started in the brown shoe business. The Tannery was mainly a comfort and outdoor store. But my passion was snowboarding and skateboarding, and the other thing I loved was fashion. I wanted to bring that passion to my work. With Concepts, I wanted to open a snowboard and skateboard shop, and I knew for a lot people it would make no sense to have that inside a shoe store. I came up with a vision for Concepts and went from there.
FAB: You built this store and created this gumbo of three different worlds. Where did your vision of the marriage of sneakers and streetwear and high-end fashion come from?
TAREK: My passion is what got me to do all of this. It was unique and different back in the day. Not many understood it. You would walk into Concepts and see Gucci footwear next to skateboards, which back then was [different].
FAB: Sometimes that person who snowboards likes Gucci too, and he likes Nike when he goes skateboarding. You made it a one-stop shop.
TAREK: [For example], we were trying to get opened up with Burton Snowboards. They came to visit the store when Concepts was in the back of The Tannery and you had to go through 20 tables of comfort shoes before you got to the snowboards, which was unusual. There weren’t many brands that believed in us. They thought, “How could you buy a snowboard inside of a shoe store that sells handbags and comfort shoes?” I will never forget the comments I would hear. “How are you going to be able to get kids to go to the back of the store?”
FAB: Different usually isn’t accepted right away. Different has to be proven. Later on, it’s appreciated. From that, how has Concepts, which started in 1996 and now it’s 2022, evolved over the years?
TAREK: We went from underground in the back of a shoe store to being on one of the most important streets in Boston in Newbury Street. Back then, our store was 500 square feet. Our store now is 4,500 square feet in Boston and 2,500 square feet here [in New York].
FAB: When you arrived, it was probably like pulling teeth trying to get products in your shop. But now, you get to be selective.
TAREK: Like anything else, you struggle in the beginning. Brands want you to be proven, they want to see your actions and what you can do differently. We’re in a good place now, we have great relationships with great brands and we work closely with a lot of brands like New Balance and Nike, who are great partners for us. We’ve paid our dues.
FAB: Why would you say you’ve been able to have staying power? There are a lot of shops that come and go.
TAREK: It’s a few things, but No. 1 is passion. If you’re passionate about what you do, that on its own will keep you standing.
FAB: Passion is also one of those things that will keep you from giving up.
TAREK: And I’ve surrounded myself with talented people. Deon Point has been a part of Concepts for the last 15 or so years and is still passionate. And the young generation that has joined Concepts — as part of the hiring process, the first thing I look for is passion. When you find it in that person, you can teach everything else.
FAB: A passionate person is also eager to learn.
TAREK: And this is how you discover talents, too. We love to promote within the company.
FAB: How do you avoid burnout?
TAREK: It’s tough, but I’m getting better at it. Working out, running in the morning. We just got a new dog — that forces me to get up in the morning. Anything to get me outdoors, that’s where I can relax.
FAB: What do you do here that separates you from other shops?
TAREK: Quite a few things. Experience, that’s key for us. Concepts is known for storytelling, we feel like we own that. We take pride in our collabs and projects with partners, and the deep relationships we have with brands. We’re able to leverage those relationships.
FAB: Twenty-five years, that’s a long relationship.
TAREK: The other thing we’re very proud of — and is massive for us right now with big potential — is private label. That’s a big part of what differentiates us from the competition.
FAB: What’s different in the footwear industry from 1996 to now?
TAREK: There’s big positive change in the last 25 years. Today, everyone cares about community. We’re paying attention and we care about climate and sustainability. Back in the day, these things didn’t really matter. That on its own is amazing.
FAB: How have you been able to discover young talent and surround yourself with younger people to keep the brand going?
TAREK: I use my instincts, and we’re on the ground all the time, always in front of people and surrounded by the industry. I like to discover talent within the organization as well. Some of the team has started as salespeople and now they’re leading the brand.
FAB: When I walked in, you asked how I was and the first thing I said was trying to balance family and work. So now I’m going to ask you, having a 25-plus-year business, how do you balance the two?
TAREK: It’s tough.
FAB: There’s no recipe.
TAREK: It’s a work in progress. I’m lucky to have an understanding wife and an amazing family. But I’d be lying if I said I had it figured out. The older I get, it’s definitely getting better.
FAB: You spoke on private label earlier. What role will Concepts’ private label play in the company’s future?
TAREK: It’s a massive opportunity. We’re going to continue to build on it and scale it, not only on the apparel side but [to make it] more of a lifestyle [brand]. Every collab we do with our partners, we build a collection around the storytelling and the vision of what that is. A great collection was built around the Nike Air Max [collab this month], it’s one of my favorite projects for the year. Private label will be our biggest focus moving forward.
FAB: What are some of Concepts’ biggest goals of 2022?
TAREK: [Aside from] becoming a lifestyle brand, the other is to grow brick-and-mortar. We’re excited about what’s going on in the metaverse and with NFTs — it’s a big world for us and we’re putting a lot of energy there. And we’ll continue to build on our relationships with collabs and projects, and keep pushing ourselves.
FAB: I’m interested to see how cryptocurrency and NFTs affect retail.
TAREK: We will definitely be a part of that, there’s a lot of excitement and we’re still learning about it.
FAB: You have locations here in New York, Boston, Dubai, Shanghai and Beijing. Are there any more coming in the future? You have to share that with the world.
TAREK: There’s definitely a plan for Concepts to be in other states and countries. Right now, we’re putting much of our focus on New York because this is fairly new — it’s less than a year-and-a-half old — and Boston as well.
FAB: Personally, I’m glad y’all came to New York. Any brand that’s been around 25 years needs its flowers, so I want to give you your flowers for creating a brand that represents you and speaks to other people as well. It’s an amazing feat.