Rami Mona moves down a long white table covered in his creations. He shows off a pair of wine and gold Cleveland Cavalier shorts and a denim jersey with “Lakers” and “Bryant” airbrushed in yellow. He pauses at a tie-dyed hoodie for NFL wide receiver Jarvis Landry.
“I’m putting the Dolphins logo right here,” says Mona, his tattooed fingers passing over the orange and blue dye, “and his last name on the back and No. 14. One of the games coming up, if you watch, you’ll see him warm up in this for sure.”
The tie-dye is a bit out of the ordinary for the young luxury sportswear designer, who typically deconstructs licensed athletic apparel and adds his own flair using leather, denim, camouflage and, his favorite material, snakeskin.
“That’s what I love about these athletes; they let me do what I want to do,” he says. “I send them different mockups, and they give me the OK.”
The Sterling Heights resident, who just turned 26, has designed custom sportswear for such superstars as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller and New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Detroit rappers Big Sean and Dej Loaf have repped his Cardoni collection, as has Justin Bieber, Lil Wayne, Wale and Khloe Kardashian. At last season’s Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons defensive line sported his hoodies.
He’s perhaps the most sought-after, high-end sportswear designer in Detroit. Yet Mona started from nothing in his mother’s basement. Skipping college, he sold his shoe collection for money to start Renzo Cardoni at age 21. (Renzo is a nickname; Cardoni nods to Detroit’s Cardoni Street, where a late friend lived.)
“I didn’t have connections. I didn’t have resources from college,” says Mona, wearing gold-rimmed glasses and a black Detroit “D” cap. “I took something from nothing, and I built it.”
Mona moved production from Shelby Township to the second floor of an Eastern Market mixed-use space a few months ago. He now has 10 seamstresses, two cutters and several interns working on his “team.” A sports fanatic, Mona frequently drops sports analogies to describe his company that produces 50 pieces a week.
“This is a team. If one person is injured, we keep going. We can’t just slack,” says Mona, intimating he’s the key player. “Like, I’m LeBron. If LeBron doesn’t play, we’re not going to win the championship.”
Merging his interests
While attending Fitzgerald High School in Warren, Mona hung out with rising Detroit rappers. He wanted to be part of the industry, but he didn’t rap. His interests were sports and fashion. So he merged the two and marketed his product to musicians.
As a test, Mona took the first jersey his mom bought him in sixth grade and embellished it with snakeskin fabric. At the time, sportswear designer Don C came out with hats featuring snakeskin and sports logos.
“I was like, ‘This is it. When he’s doing that with hats, I know can do this with jerseys,’ ” Mona says.
His first item was a Michael Jordan jersey. Mona turned the No. 23 into python snakeskin and the mesh body into leather.
This was around 2012. As Mona puts it, “leather was hot.” He popped on the fashion radar soon after. The first big-name artist to support him was rapper Fabolous.
“He took me in like a little brother. He respected what I was doing and where I was coming from,” Mona says. “Being 21, not a lot of people have the vision of just trying to start their own brand.”
Flash-forward to today, and Mona names Beckham Jr. as his No. 1 fan. Before games, fans can often spot the Giant warming up in a Cardoni hoodie.
“He was my client, but we grew to be like brothers,” Mona says.
Yet his “biggest moment,” he says, was when Stephen Curry’s wife, Ayesha, wore a Cardoni snakeskin-lettered Warriors jersey.
Grinning, Mona launches into the story: Curry’s brother, Seth Curry, contacted him to buy a Golden State Warriors jersey. Thrilled, Mona sent it as a gift. Seth wore the jersey to a few games before giving it to Ayesha, who wore it like a dress the night her husband won the NBA Championship.
“You know how you get married and you frame a picture with you and your husband that will stay with you forever?” Mona says. “This picture with her, her husband, their two kids and the trophy — with my jersey on — that will go down in history.”
That, and the time TV personality Khloe Kardashian wore his yellow Tristan Thompson jersey to a Cavs game. Kardashian, who’s dating Thompson, bought the No. 13 jersey from a Cleveland store owned by Mona’s friend.
“Later that night, we were watching the game. I guess her boyfriend scores a point, and she gets up, and you see the jersey. At that moment, it was just crazy, because it was like two iconic females in, like, less than a week wearing my jerseys.” Mona says. “… Right there, I knew that’s another lane I’m going to work into — making female sportswear and kids sportswear. Not just men’s.”
Customized pieces can reach nearly $1,400 for a jersey and $400-plus for shorts. More affordable merch, including $175 Cardoni hoodies and $95 tees, also is sold online.
Growing up with a mother working two jobs, he understands the prices aren’t cheap.
“I’m not trying to charge people this much because I want to,” he says. “It’s because I have to. We put all this time and effort into a piece; you have to make sure it’s worth what it is.”
Thursday morning, Bree Russell bent over a machine, sewing a red Toronto Raptors jacket.
“We spend more time taking things apart than putting them together,” says Russell, explaining that she removes the waistband, trim and logos from licensed apparel. “Then we add in our own touches: zippers, the snakeskin.”
The 33-year-old Westland resident started as a seamstress two years ago, after she found the job on Craigslist.
“It’s been a really interesting experience to watch this company take off,” says Russell, acknowledging the demand from athletes and celebrities. “It’s always fun when you open Instagram and you’re like, ‘I made that! And that person is wearing that!’ ”
The next collection
Mona always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but his mother served as his motivation to work hard.
“One of my goals was to make her quit her job, like, ‘You don’t have to work no more. I got you, mom.’ And that’s what I did,” he says.
Now Elham Mona only works part-time as an assistant store manager to avoid boredom.
But there were days she left the house at 7 a.m. and didn’t return from work until 11:30 p.m.
“They didn’t even see me,” she says of her three boys, now 23, 24 and 26.
Thanks to her eldest son, she also moved into a new house.
“He supports me now,” says Elham Mona, 57. “I’m so proud of him.”
When he’s not traveling to such places as Los Angeles and Oregon — where he partnered with Nike to give 200 high school football players hoodies this summer — Mona spends most days in the lab trying to create “the next hottest thing.”
“I’m already working on stuff for 2020,” he says.
Coming up, he’s releasing an orange and black Jordan jersey for Halloween. He’s also designing trunks and a robe that boxer Manny Pacquiao plans to wear this fall.
Detroit rapper Gary Thomas, known as GT, recently wore a Chicago Bulls camouflage hoodie while performing at Summer Jamz 20 at Joe Louis Arena.
Thomas, 25, says he’s supported the brand from the beginning and loves its vintage flair.
“I get a lot of compliments from older people,” he says.
Of the hundreds of pieces Mona designed, he can’t pick a favorite.
“Every time I make a new jersey, I get inspired,” he says. “I still get that feeling I get when I made my first one. As far as I came, I still feel like this is just the beginning for me.”
Mona could move to New York or Los Angeles, where there’s materials he can’t buy in the Motor City, but he’s a Detroit hustler. And he wants to stay to help create a “fashion district,” which doesn’t exist — yet.
“It would be dope to see that one day Detroit has a Detroit Fashion Week,” he says. “Hopefully … I can be an influencer and motivate people to build Detroit as one, maybe we can have that one day.”