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BlaCk OWned, Bengals Team Up To Earn Their Stripes

Means Cameron went from selling clothes out of the trunk of his car to a wall of fame in his Elm Street storefront.
Means Cameron went from selling clothes out of the trunk of his car to a wall of fame in his Elm Street storefront.

Means Cameron, who as a little kid used to knock on these same neighborhood doors and run away, is staying put.

Nowadays he can walk out the door of what he calls his "shop," that houses one of Cincinnati's high-rise fashion brands, turn to his to left and look down Elm Street and see a slice of the stadium where his mom's favorite team plays.

"You should see her basement," Cameron is saying as he thinks about those Bengals high heels. "There's a Fathead. Bengals cups and glasses. Bengals Cornhole. My mom introduced me to the Bengals. She's the biggest Bengals fan I know. Single handed."

On Tuesday, Cameron and the Bengals introduced another civic landmark when they unveiled "Stripes Don't Come Easy," a partnership between Cameron's company and his mom's team. BlaCk OWned Outerwear, which Cameron began a decade ago selling shirts out of the trunk of a gray 1991 Honda that are now being worn by celebrities such as Jennifer Hudson, has been enlisted to design six custom Bengals items.

"It means everything," Cameron says at the end of a year he made one of his goals to find a professional sports team to forge a venture.

And what a year.

"To push a bigger message, it's a beautiful thing," he says. "It says a lot about the city and the progress that we're making. 'Stripes Don't Come Easy' means nothing happens overnight and it's not going to be easy. But if you have people that put the work in, you get there. And in the year 2020 the Bengals wanted to make that statement, the statement we've made over the last decade. It's beautiful we have that support."

While his social worker mom raised him and his three siblings in the 1990s in downtown Cincinnati and later on the west side with an open-door policy for those in need, Cameron grew up with a sense of community. But it wasn't until he earned a full scholarship to Miami University that it became a passion.

As the only African-American in his early business and marketing classes, the kid who majored in economics simply because he was on Dater High School's economics team began to see a legacy instead of a license and set about inspiring kids like himself.

"I was getting a lot of experiences at Miami that I had never had. Visiting with friends over summer vacation. Fraternities. Classes. It gave me the opportunity to see the potential that I had to be an owner," Cameron says. "Through our brand, it's our goal to challenge African-Americans and minorities to think about ownership and not just being employees."

About the same time Cameron, 33, made one of his 2020 goals working with a pro sports team, Elizabeth Blackburn joined the Bengals as the director of strategy and engagement. Blackburn, 28, also introduced to the Bengals by her mother, had made one of her many goals reaching out to local businesses to not only develop relationships but support them in a spirit of community.

The daughter of Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn and the fourth generation of her family to work for the team, Elizabeth Blackburn had been intrigued by an NFL initiative allowing teams to join forces with a retailer as part of a local business program. While May turned into June and July, the intrigue turned into inspiration as Blackburn learned of Cameron's story.

When the team's Positive Community Impact Committee met, Blackburn put Cameron and his portfolio in front of the panel that represents players, employees and ownership and the fit was like a perfect play call through a wide-open space in the middle of the line.

"The partnership itself aims to represent unity and coming together in a time when that's especially needed," Blackburn says. "It also aims to show people that the Bengals are committed to finding new and creative ways to support local organizations and be involved in meaningful ways in our community."

Check out the limited-series retail collection called "Stripes Don't Come Easy." This campaign aims to unify the Cincinnati community through designs intended to create the healthy dialogue, represented by this partnership. Bengals featured include Vonn Bell, Giovani Bernard, Tyler Boyd, Sam Hubbard, Khalid Kareem, C.J. Uzomah and Shawn Williams.

Tight end C.J. Uzomah, a member of the committee, had seen the brand but didn't know the story behind it. Not only does he love the passion as well as the clothes ("I want to buy all of it"), he likes what the partnership says as a guy that always gets involved in community endeavors.

"This is something that's tangible. This is something we can put our stamp on," Uzomah says. "It's something the community and the city can see what the Bengals are doing to give back besides the behind-the-scenes work we do, like Zoom calls with kids and things like that. It's awesome and it's tangible."

The Bengals stripes have come full circle. Bengals founder Paul Brown wanted them to celebrate his team's tenacity and fierceness. More than 50 years later the franchise is calling on the stripes again for another celebration.

"This campaign is meant to celebrate people's stripes – their life experiences," Blackburn says. " It tries to spark new conversations and friendships by appreciating different "stripes" or different perspectives. Communities, companies and teams succeed when they work together, work hard and every individual can contribute their full-potential -- that is what I hope this campaign inspires: better, more unified communities."

At about the same time the Bengals took to the practice field for the first time this season, Cameron and his company of nine employees went to work on the project.

"It is amazing the pace that we have moved," Elizabeth Blackburn says. "It is all Means and BlaCk OWned. They created, designed, produced and executed a custom retail line in a matter of months. The amount of hard work that was put in is amazing. And it speaks to the power of local business being able to move so quickly. It's so impressive."

Cameron is used to moving fast. After the first couple of years working off social media and making deliveries to customers at restaurants and gas stations, the business moved out of the Honda to his apartment in Avondale. The landlord loved the idea but not the traffic.

That's how he ended up with the place on 822 Elm St., right next to the coffee shop he owns, the Black Coffee Lounge at 824. Instead of looking into a trunk, he's looking at a wall of fame and the autographs of his celebrity customers. Outkast. Cardi B. Jeezy.

View some of the limited-edition apparel from the "Stripes Don't Come Easy" product line.

But he's still hustling. "Cincinnati is the kind of city that appreciates the hustle," he says.

Even when he moved into the building and got a call from Bengals cornerback Adam Jones. Jones, a popular figure in the community, had noticed the brand. Not only that, he saw it every day because his teammate, defensive end Wallace Gilberry, was always wearing something from BlaCk OWned.

That's how Cameron built it. Word of mouth instead of words on billboards.

"I'm seeing everybody wearing this. Why doesn't Pacman have any?" Jones asked. "Bring what you have in my size."

No problem. Like the old days, he loaded up the car with everything he had and drove out to Jones' place. Ever the city kid, Cameron saw his trip to Cincinnati's eastern fringe as a haul on I-275. His mind raced.

"Wow, I have all these clothes in the car and I'm headed to meet with a professional football player," Cameron says. "And when I got there, he bought everything. I'll never forget it."

Now he can just look down the street.

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