Rickey Van selling Universal wares at 11 and U NW
Rickey Van selling Universal wares at 11 and U NW Credit: John Muller

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Universal Madness is back. The originator of D.C’s urban streetwear scene, whose storefront at Georgia Avenue and Kenyon Street closed in 2010 after 25 years in business, will return to retail stores this summer, with a dozen area DTLR locations carrying the definitive local brand.

In recent months, a street team of sellers has spread out on weekends to U Street NW, C Street SE, and parts of Prince George’s County, setting up tables with thousands of dollars of fresh merchandise. Utilizing social media and word of mouth, Madness recently held a pop-up shop at Georgetown’s UBIQ that attracted local rap impresario Shy Glizzy.

A single-file line of sneakerheads, hip-hop aficionados, and lifestyle bloggers gathered along M Street to get in. Among them was Miyesha Perry, 42, who says she has always supported the brand. “The Madness Shop was the place you went to get your clothes if you grew up in D.C. in the 1980s and 1990s,” she says. The ingenuity of the designs and variety of customization has kept Madness relevant, says Perry, who works for the Cafritz Foundation. “The generations are different, but its appeal is across generations.”

Organized by Chloe Chada’ Van, creative curator for The Quirk Group and daughter of Madness founder and street legend Eddie Van, the event was an informal gathering to introduce Madness to millennials and for those who’ve been sporting Madness since day one, decades before Wale—homegrown hip-hop star turned Lil’ Wayne collaborator—wore a Madness hoodie onstage.

The junior Van, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York, worked for Bad Boy for a number of years in artist promotion. Her father, a rock solid man in his sixties wearing a fluorescent green “Run Joe” Madness shirt, credits her for the brand’s rebirth. “I didn’t even tell her Sean Combs used to come to us when he was at Howard to promote his campus parties. She’s done this all on her own.”

A petite woman in her late twenties, Van speaks in a hybrid of streetwise and industry insider vernacular. “In New York I observed what was happening in my hometown,” she says. “The community of young artists, musicians, designers, and promoters has grown, and the city’s culture is ready for this new Madness.”

When asked what will distinguish Madness under her direction, the headstrong Van responds with mild derision. “People my age see Wale showing us love, but they don’t know Biggie Smalls rocked Madness,” she says. “I’m the bridge between these generations. Madness is for all our family and for the flyest leaders of the new cool.”

The younger Van sees Madness at a crossroads as it “refurbishes” itself in 2017. “We are trying to keep it fashion-forward to connect with the standards of where fashion is going but also being true to the original silhouette—the bucket hats, the sweat suits, the socks. But also keeping it real, keeping it trill, in the Madness way.”

In the beginning, on the uptown corner of Georgia Avenue and Kenyon Street, Madness Connection opened as a storefront in 1985. Since its genesis as the city’s premier black-owned urban fashion brand, many have followed and many have since closed or faded to the untouched reaches of your closet: Scraypuz, City Life, Shooters, H.O.B.O., ALL DAZ, Squash All Beefs, Zo World, DDTP, Da Link Went, and We R One. But Madness is still here.

On a recent Saturday, Rickey “Rickndabagg” Van, Eddie’s younger brother, showcased Madness gear along U Street, a recurring point of sales for a number of years since the Madness Shop closed its doors in 2010.

“Madness is just like your cousin you haven’t seen in awhile,” Rickey Van says as former classmate and “scoop mate” José Marquez, 42, approaches. The brand, Marquez says, “represents everything. This is us, this is our town.”

Marquez, a maintenance worker, adds, “I can go to Florida and they already know, ‘Oh, you must be from D.C. because you got on Madness.’ You know, every city has its own style. Since this represents me, it makes me feel good.”

With temperatures in the mid 80s and steady foot traffic, many people pass Rickey Van and his wares but don’t slow their step, perhaps thinking that whatever this is, it’s not for them. Van, the consummate salesman, doesn’t discriminate. “Madness is for everyone. If you’re here, we’re here for you.”

A black couple approaches, both with fond memories of Madness. The woman reminisces about how her children would receive free outfits from the shop after showing their Honor Roll report cards. While suburban kids ordered their embroidered backpacks from L.L. Bean, city kids had their backpacks embroidered at the Madness shop.

“Before they opened their first store, when they first started out, they were selling clothes out the trunk of their car,” says Eddie Huff, 42. “And growing up as kids out the neighborhood, it gave us a job to keep us off the street.”

Eddie Huff and his wife Credit: John Muller

With the city continuing to change at a breakneck pace, the full force re-emergence of Madness represents a feel-good moment of both nostalgia and renewal. As people and places in the city transform, Universal Madness, it seems, hasn’t gone anywhere—loyal to its hometown soil and evolving with the times.