October 29, 2020
The moving parts shuffling behind Eric Ndelo in his Camp North End shop, MacFly Fresh Print Company, amount to organized chaos. It’s a cacophony of different screeches, clicks, snaps, and flashes as the production crew moves heavy T-shirt printing equipment aside to test the angles of the newly placed cameras. The crew is moving in and out in harmonious rhythm and in pursuit of a common goal, getting ready for a live concert to be recorded.
As the owner of the MacFly Fresh Printing Company, a Congolese-inspired clothing line DRC ApeParel, and producer of Live From The Print Shop, an online concert series, navigating chaos is normal for Ndelo. As he sits in a chair that resembles a throne, he is aware of what’s happening across the store but is completely focused on our conversation. For Ndelo, the navigation of many moving parts is what made him who he is today.
Growing Up in Charlotte
As the eldest son, Ndelo took on greater responsibilities than his other siblings, as defined by the cultural guidelines of his parents’ home country Zaire– now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Charlotte, Ndelo’s father owned Bambi’s Food Store, a convenience store at the intersection of The Plaza and 36th Street. Ndelo worked the storefront, selling cigarettes and other common convenience store items in a neighborhood defined by drugs and violence in the ‘90s. He showed up to work even when his mother and father couldn’t make it. That was the responsibility expected of him, even if that meant driving from Charlotte’s Lexington Green neighborhood to NoDa at 12 years old.
“I would go straight down South Blvd. or go down to Archdale, make a left down Archdale, and get on the highway. Yes, I’m driving the highway. This is what had to be done. Parents are out of town, like, they’re not in the city. And that’s what my responsibility was to do.”
Ndelo’s grandfather was a senator in the Congo and, because of his position, spoke seven languages and traveled all over the world. As a result, he became exposed to different people, cultures, and customs. Ndelo’s father explained to him that people who have different skin colors or interests aren’t meant to be withdrawn from. To be different isn’t a negative, but something to welcome.
“It helped me embrace all types of people,” Ndelo said. “No matter what race, creed, religion; wherever it is that they’re from, I have a way to be able to connect with them.”
Being exposed to different realities was building him for the better. Ndelo went to Covenant Presbyterian Church on Sundays– a mostly white church– and Olympic High School during the week. But it was at Kennedy Junior High School, he discovered his passion for engineering, specifically civil engineering, after building a bridge out of toothpicks in his ninth-grade year. Ndelo’s project vastly outpaced his classmates and surprised his teacher Mr. E, who called his parents to encourage this trajectory.
When his father heard the news, he supported Ndelo in his budding engineering interest. A civil engineering career path changed to CAD architecture, but he eventually chose electrical engineering in 11th grade. That would eventually become his major as he started college at NC State.
The College Experience in Raleigh
For Ndelo, going to school in Raleigh was like a homecoming. Raleigh was the home to “Little Congo,” a conglomeration of Congolese people that call the North Carolina state capital home. Included in that group were some of his family, like uncles and cousins, who lived right down the street.
In 1997, Ndelo and his cousin Rod Vakala came up with the concept of DRC ApeParel, paying homage to the Congo– which at that time had just been renamed from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Central to the brand’s essence is the gorilla, an animal that projects a sense of dominance just by its sheer existence.
“The gorilla really is a peaceful animal unless they feel threatened,” Ndelo’s cousin, Vakala, said. “The gorilla is always with his family and is always willing to take care of his family…and because it is from the Congo, and we’re Congolese, it just made sense.”
Ndelo sat on the idea until 2004 when he and his partners Rod Vakala, Taj Polite and John Dawkins decided to finally launch DRC ApeParel. Incorporating different designs onto the actual shirts evolved in several stages. Ndelo started by heat pressing T-shirts, literally melting the designs onto a blank shirt through a hot press. After the heat press came a manual “cut and sew” of a design. Eventually, the brand graduated into a full-fledged operation with the help of his cousin Jessica, a fashion design major from Appalachian State.
Fork in the Road
By 2004, Ndelo had graduated with his first degree, but before he graduated, a choice needed to be made. His parents were proud of the progress in school, but he was having doubts about his original pursuit of electrical engineering. His newfound focus was on a relatively unknown medium at the time, digital media production. Stuck at an intersection in his life, Ndelo needed guidance from another party. Naturally, it was Ndelo’s father that ultimately guided him through.
“You said you wanted to do this, I push you to do it,” Ndelo said about his father’s support of his original electrical engineering pursuits. “But do what you want to do. It’s your life.”
Ndelo switched his major to digital media production and, admittedly, says that he felt conflicted, torn between what he wanted to do and what would make his parents proud.
“It sounds smart as hell,” Ndelo said of being an engineer, “like, ‘I raised a good one. Look what all the time and investment went to.’ An artist, it doesn’t sound as promising, but really the whole time, that’s what was true deep-deep down in my heart.”
He was about to embark into unknown territory, but ultimately, it would pay off in more ways than he could imagine
Post-college and the Present Day
Pursuing digital media immediately opened doors for Ndelo. He interned at a store in L.A. called Deluxe DVD. While he was there, Ndelo got to work on the packaging for artists like Jay-Z and was exposed to more developing technology, digital editing, and video production. After L.A., he found himself on the other side of the country in New York City, working in graphic art design and developing music videos.
Today, a one-time tough decision has manifested itself. DRC ApeParel is now headquartered in Ndelo’s Camp North End print shop. He and his partner Taj Polite co-founded the store, printing T-shirts for the brand and businesses. It’s a culmination of Ndelo’s entire skillset that has come full circle through his digital media pursuits.
The New Media World
Digital media has played a major role in MacFly Fresh’s operations, especially since the onset of the pandemic. The printing company used to have a significant focus on live events which meant traveling to community gatherings, festivals, and schools to teach and print T-shirts for the public at large. With the pandemic shutting those things down for the time being, Ndelo says the company has been pivoting to more digital offerings; but in the process, maintaining the core business.
“How can I still do what I love without sacrificing and going in a whole new direction,” Ndelo said of the new strategy. He added the way forward will be a “compact but chunky digital outfit,” utilizing more online services (including online classes), heat press services, appliqué, twill, and other areas that don’t involve using ink as much (which can be expensive).
Ndelo admits that his mindset at one point during the pandemic was bleak but, with the new direction, things have turned out to be for the better. “It’s allowed us to reach more people, and now we love it,” he said. “It’s become part of the strategy net when it might have been, like, something that you might have thought about doing later on.”
That’s largely included Live From The Print Shop, the bi-monthly, Youtube concert series that was being set up during the conversation and uses the Ndelo’s store as it’s basecamp. It’s the brainchild of Rhasaan Smith and Terance Murray, two former employees at Power 98 in Charlotte, but it’s also another example of business within Ndelo’s family– Murray and Ndelo are brothers-in-law. The goal of the concert series is to give up-and-coming artists the platform to perform and receive a customized T-shirt to market and sell in order to expand their brand. With the pandemic forcing live concerts to be virtual, it’s also become a primary medium to market the tools Ndelo has at his disposal.
With a diversity of skills and a willingness to adapt, Ndelo has been able to master the chaotic moments and navigate the intersections he’s faced in life. Looking back, he credits his mother and father for molding him and his siblings into the leaders that they are today.
“If you look back at it, we were all kind of following that path that my father had the mindset for, but even my mom was an entrepreneur,” Ndelo said. “It’s a blueprint of what they kind of did, but we took it a little bit further.”