Kitsch Is Key to Apparel Maker's Branding Effort

Mexico's NaCo Appeals to Hispanics, and Macy's, by Mocking Latino Tackiness

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When Marcos Hernandez, CEO of San Antonio shop FPO, signed on his latest client, he enthusiastically immersed himself in its world, painting his guest room in truly tacky bright colors and raiding his mother's house for Hispanic-kitsch touches -- a great-grandmother's photo, a picture of "The Last Supper," an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
What does your T-shirt say? Some NaCo phrases: 'Brown is the new white,' 'Se habla espanol,' 'Estar guars' (Star Wars) and 'N is for novela.'
What does your T-shirt say? Some NaCo phrases: 'Brown is the new white,' 'Se habla espanol,' 'Estar guars' (Star Wars) and 'N is for novela.'

It was just the right atmosphere for NaCo, a trendy Mexican apparel company trying to break into the U.S. Hispanic market with a mix of irreverent messages that appeal to emotions ranging from self-mockery to nostalgia.

In Mexican Spanish, naco is a derogatory slang term for lower-class tackiness, but NaCo has reinterpreted it as an inside joke that treats kitsch as cool. The Spanish-language slogan the company hopes to also use in the U.S. if enough people here understand it -- a topic of debate within NaCo -- is "Ser naco es chido" ("Tacky is cool").

Macy's gets naco
NaCo got its first U.S. break with a national retailer last week when 17 Macy's stores in Texas and Atlanta began stocking eight women's $25 T-shirts. (That happened after someone forwarded to one of the store's buyers, a Latina, a New York Times travel article about Mexico City directing visitors to go first to a "cheeky streetwear" NaCo boutique in the trendy Condesa district and buy a T-shirt.)

Macy's, however, quickly found that not everyone is amused by NaCo's sense of humor. Its T-shirt with the fashion-parody slogan "Brown is the new white" drew immediate fire from a conservative anti-immigration website, generating e-mails to Macy's threatening a boycott and online rants about racism and immigrants trying to take over America (one poster pointed out a possible link between Macys' red-star logo and communism). Fox News did a story, and Macy's pulled the "Brown is the new white" shirt.

Dean Schwartz, president-CEO of Naco USA, is unperturbed and said, "Macys has taken it in stride."

Mr. Schwartz, who used to head marketing and licensing for the National Basketball Association for Latin America, said, "NaCo does a good job of understanding the cultural and the humorous sides. There are double meanings."

New phrases
NaCo's inventory runs the gamut from a pink top stenciled with a quinceaƱera cake to edgier messages such as "Frijolero" and "B is for Beaner." Some images tug at cultural heartstrings, like an ice-cream seller, or paletero, on his bicycle cart, a familiar site in Mexico and around many U.S. Hispanic neighborhoods. For the U.S. market, NaCo is using less Spanish and beginning to create new phrases. To supplement retail sales, NaCo has developed online stores at its Mexican and U.S. websites. The Mexican site offers a "How naco are you?" quiz, and the U.S. site invites fans to e-mail pictures of themselves in their favorite NaCo shirts.
NaCo ads playfully mock Hispanic culture.
NaCo ads playfully mock Hispanic culture.

Founder Edoardo Chavarin said NaCo, with sales of about $1 million, spends no money on advertising in Mexico, relying instead on the brand's wild popularity with bands and other celebrities, including Mexican actor Diego Luna of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" fame, who is also an investor. (Of the hundreds of T-shirts he has designed, Mr. Chavarin said the best-selling "Se habla espaƱol" is his favorite.)

The U.S. budget is only a little bigger. FPO's Mr. Hernandez, in fact, used the deliciously tacky room he decorated to photograph two girls in NaCo T-shirts ironing their hair in preparation for hanging out at the mall. He also filmed a 30-second video, which is now on YouTube and has begun spreading virally.

He also plans a taco-stand media buy. "We'll put it on the taco stands outside clubs in San Antonio," he said. "The kids come out in their Versace [clothes] and go eat tacos."

Personal experiences
His intensive but low-budget research was done mostly hanging out on street corners. "It's kind of a Naco way of doing it," he said.

Grass-roots marketing will include NaCo Nights, underground parties with indie bands from Mexico, starting in Los Angeles on Aug. 8 with sponsorship from Volkswagen and MTV's Hispanic channel MTV T3rs.

Mr. Chavarin said NaCo is expanding its product line to hoodies for the fall and other accessories such as hats next spring. NaCo has a licensing agreement for Mexico and the U.S. with the NBA, and will release NBA T-shirts online in about a month with the slogan "Play duro. Juega hard."
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