Top Young Bosses Barbershop & Hair Salon in North Philadelphia was one of Trey Brown’s first stops selling T-shirts with a lion logo. Taken with the 12-year-old’s poise, shop co-owner Nell Moore recorded him on his phone. “My name is Trey Brown. I started my own clothing line,” the youngster says on the video. “The name of my clothing line is Spergo and Spergo is a catchy name that I came up with. I got a lion right here because it’s the king of the jungle and I’m a young kid.”

Hip hop-influenced streetwear is having a resurgence and Trey, now 15 years old and the CEO of start-up clothing brand Spergo, is cashing in. Spergo opened two mall stores this year including one at King of Prussia, operates an e-commerce site, and struck a $300,000 investment deal on ABC’s Shark Tank in November. On the reality television series, entrepreneurs pitch ideas to a panel of celebrity investors.

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Daymond John, the founder of the apparel company FUBU, agreed to put up the money for a 20% stake in the brand, valuing Spergo at $1.5 million. Trey said on his episode’s taping that Spergo is on pace to pull in $2.2 million in sales this year.

Humble beginnings

Trey, who lived with his mother, Sherell Peterson, and younger brother, Amir, in Southwest Philadelphia when he launched the company three years ago, started with $178 in birthday money, contracting with a Philadelphia custom-printing apparel firm for his first T-shirts. Media companies have exulted in the African American teen’s uplifting story of a precocious entrepreneur — “don’t let nobody get ahold of your talent or your mind. Lionhearted,” he says in an ad campaign.

Peterson, who drove Trey around Philadelphia hawking hoodies out of the trunk of her sedan, describes the Spergo clothing venture as something of a lark that took off. Trey did the research into clothing lines, reinvested profits into the business and grew his confidence. Sean “Diddy” Combs has publicly endorsed him. Now the mother-son duo — Trey is CEO and Peterson is chief operating officer — face the daunting task of taking Spergo to the next level in the fad-driven streetwear market.

“Because we have done so much on our own, what we need is a team, a solid team,” said Peterson, 38, who has an accounting degree from West Chester University and a master’s in education from Eastern University. “So not only are you looking forward to getting a financial investment, but also gaining a partnership with people that have systems already in place and can connect you with people who can get you where you need to go.”

Peterson said that the Shark Tank funds could go toward hiring a fashion designer and taking the brand global.

The way forward

Trey’s next steps will be pivotal, experts said. Spergo will have to expand its product line while maintaining sufficient inventory for quick delivery to customers who won’t want to wait weeks for luxury-priced, cool clothing. Spergo’s line of brightly colored clothing includes $80 sweatshirts, $98 hoodies, $90 track pants and $68 women’s body dresses.

Two stores are not enough to justify a valuation of $1.5 million, said Fred Hurvitz, a business professor at Penn State. “So, they will try to take this bigger. My biggest concern is that it’s a fad item. What’s the next generation of the clothing line?”

Sheri Lambert, professor of marketing at Temple University, said that Trey “hit the sweet spot. He has a rapper endorsing him and he’s on Instagram.” Trey has 100,000 Instagram followers on @ceotreybrown. Lambert added that streetwear is “trending now and you have to keep that going.” But, Lambert added, that for Spergo to scale it may have to be bought out.

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Michael Solomon, a marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University, said that Trey “did get lucky but you also have to make your own luck. The streetwear craze has been building for some time and he entered this space at the best time, particularly for a minority entrepreneur.”

Solomon added that with streetwear “the brand is the story and it’s really helpful when you don’t have to fabricate it.”

Name game

FUBU, the popular clothing line of the 1990s, stands for “for us, by us” — a slogan of self-empowerment for the Black community. Trey came up with the Spergo name by combining parts of “sports” and “heroes” and nailing “go” for go-getter on the end. Triple Play Sports, a silk-screening, digital-printing, and custom embroidery apparel company on South Ninth Street, helped with the logo design, based on Trey’s ideas, and manufactured the first T-shirts, Peterson said.

“Everybody is starting a clothing line,” said Jeremy Guida, Triple Play Sports’ sales manager. “We have fun with it. Some people who come in have great ideas. It’s really how you market yourself. We are happy watching his success.”

As Trey sold T-shirts and hoodies around Philadelphia, WHYY did a story on him in December 2018. INVESCO, the Atlanta-based investment management firm, learned of Trey through the WHYY piece and featured him on a 2½-minute documentary-style film that ran on CNN to shine a spotlight on early-stage entrepreneurs and to market one of its financial products. It was part of Invesco’s “Investing in Greater Possibilities Together” marketing campaign.

In 2020, Combs announced with Ellen DeGeneres that he would give Trey a $25,000 entrepreneur grant. Trey — who has plowed all his profits back into the business, Peterson said — thought he would put the funds into pop-up stores in Texas, North Carolina, and other states. But the pandemic kiboshed that idea. Instead Spergo opened a store in Brewerytown. “Philadelphia gave us a lot of love,” Trey said.

Spergo closed the Brewerytown store in September. Peterson said the building was sold. But Spergo opened mall stores in King of Prussia and in the Pentagon City Mall in Washington. Trey’s grandfather, Steven Hite, helps out at the King of Prussia store. Peterson said Spergo is considering a store in Atlanta. They now live in Lansdowne.

Trey attends a learn-from-home cyber school and, though almost 16 years old, is still too young for a driver’s license. During an interview at the Spergo store at the King of Prussia Mall, Trey said his initial idea was to hit as many Philly barbershops as he could to sell his Spergo T-shirts. “We would just go to different ones every time. There are a lot of barbershops in Philadelphia. Normally, they will turn the music off just to hear me speak.”

Top Young Bosses’ co-owner Moore said his barbers, stylists, and customers were rapt when Trey came into his store with his duffel bag of T-shirts. Moore even began cutting Trey’s hair after he met him. And Moore said he would see Trey around the area, still selling. “I would drive down the street and I would see him going into stores and they weren’t even barbershops.”

Trey and his mother put many, many miles on her black Kia Forte in those days. “By the time the car payments were up,” Peterson said, “so was the car.”