- Partners in protection: J. Brown (right) and his parents, Malcolm and Ernestine
The fancy-condom salesman leans back in his leather chair. The state of New Jersey wants 50,000 units of the best he's got. His biggest order yet.
He adds up some figures in his head, trying to remain unfazed by the prospect of wrapping whackers from Hoboken to Atlantic City. "Let me see what I can do," he says casually into the phone, his voice satiny-smooth. He drums his long fingers on his desk, letting silence well up in the receiver. "I think I can swing that."
J. Brown is the life force behind what Puff Daddy probably wishes he'd thought of first: designer condoms for the label-conscious hedonist. Encased in sleek black sleeves with silver lettering, Brown's Groove condoms fit nicely in the glove compartment of a Mercedes or between the folds of a fat wallet.
Unlike other brands, whose packaging seems designed to attract the niche market of hairy truck drivers, Groove condoms are marketed mainly to women -- especially African American women, who are disproportionately affected by AIDS. To foster an air of romance and glamour, they come with Altoids breath mints and a fine-art postcard designed by Brown's father, Cleveland painter Malcolm Brown. An "urban survival kit" of eight condoms costs $20.
"We're not trying to scream sex," says J., a product of the private University School whose family persists in calling him by his given name, Jeffrey. "The way it looks, it can be sitting on a table and not be offensive."
Rather than the traditional vending machines in gas station bathrooms, the 34-year-old hopes to eventually place his product in fine lingerie shops and better department stores. So far, though, Victoria's Secret and Macy's aren't returning his calls. "I've been told no by the best people," he says. "You see, designers use sex to sell their products, but when it comes to saving lives and prevention, hardly any will put their names next to contraception."
A former University of Michigan football star who once showed up in Sports Illustrated standing between Bo Schembechler and Bo Derek, J. swiftly rose through the ranks of a company that made embroidered college sweatshirts before he had his condom epiphany.
The idea for status prophylactics first struck him three years ago, when he was chilling in his New York apartment with his girlfriend. The creative juices were flowing -- he'd just cracked open his fourth or fifth Heineken of the evening.
Enthused, he called his mom a few nights later, partly for inspiration, partly to prepare her. "He said, 'Mom, I want you to just listen. Don't ask any questions,'" recalls Ernestine Brown, who runs a Shaker Heights gallery named after her husband. Like her son, she's a talker, so the preface was necessary, she says.
A warm yet businesslike woman who's comfortable in high society, Mrs. Brown was flummoxed by the news. "My son's going to be a purveyor of condoms?" she remembers blurting. "And he said, 'It's strictly from the health angle.' He started talking about a barrier of protection in all aspects of life. For the rain and the snow and slush. I mean, he's going on and on. Jeffrey's always been a charmer, and this was his way of selling it to me."
The introverted counterpart to his wife, Malcolm Brown had few reservations about mass-marketing his paintings on his son's contraceptive. Trips to Africa, where AIDS has infected 40 percent of the population in some places, sold him on the importance of safe sex.
The fluid, candy-colored paintings of late-night jazz musicians combine messages of art and intimacy, says J. What's more, his mom just happened to have a supply of the postcard prints already on hand.
Luxury latex hasn't made J. any money yet, but he's not worried. Building up the brand name takes time, he says. In the meantime, he's been throwing celebrity safe-sex bashes on both coasts, giving away sampler kits and signing on DJs-of-the-moment to promote the product in clubs.
Still based in New York, he's been busy fine-tuning his sales pitch. A recent afternoon finds him testing a new catchphrase: "Treat Your Coochie Like It's Gucci. I just came up with it," he crows. "Isn't that great? Now tell me your female friends wouldn't go for that."
Even if they don't, he's got a backup: "Please Groove Responsibly." It's a dicey business. Not only is he trying to get black women to buy the condoms; he's trying to get black men to actually wear them. For that reason, Groove condoms come in big-sounding "Urban Cut" and "Shaft" sizes. They don't stretch much farther than mainstream rubbers, but perception can go a long way.
The Superfly size is apparently still in the planning stage. "I told him he should get them bigger," says Chris Jackson, a Cleveland friend of Brown's who always keeps an Urban Groove or two in his car, just in case. "He's working on that. Because condoms break, and that's not a good thing."
While he waits for the in-crowd to find him, J.'s got other ways to make a buck. These include part-time fashion modeling, freelance promotions work, and owning the trademark for the Google -- the universal hip-hop symbol that's shaped like the center adapter on a 45 rpm record. "I just saw the trademark was up for sale, and I jumped on it," he says.
Besides New Jersey's Department of Public Health, another promising client has been the Cleveland NAACP. Development Director Andrea Walker reports that she's been handing out the free sampler kits like candy, at local churches and national conventions.
"His condom has meant a lot," she says. "I don't want to be the one to say this, but black men often say regular condoms are too tight for them. So it's been very popular among our distribution."
Black women are usually the ones who come up and accept the free condoms, though. "It's generating interest, if nothing else," adds Walker. "African Americans are very interested in knowing that an African American came up with this product."
Ernestine Brown isn't sure that women will be as willing to snap them up with a $20 price tag. "I thought he should have two lines," she says. "You know, a Rolls-Royce and one for folks who can't afford it." Hmm . . . Wrangler for Your Dangler? Better sleep on that one.