ITHACA, N.Y.—With the sun out (in some parts of the country) and the Super Bowl looming, Malik Dupri Morris’ sunglasses brand has had some major traction.

During his graduate doctor of physical therapy program at Ithaca College in 2017, where he also played on the football team, Morris co-founded Savage Ruthless, a fitness clothing brand, alongside University of Nebraska-Kearney student Corey Van Dorn. Van Dorn had begun printing “Savage Ruthless” shirts as part of a marketing class assignment, and demand had only increased after the initial batch. Morris brought the company to both Ithaca’s local and college communities, and the company continued to grow as Morris and Van Dorn marketed it by word-of-mouth and social media.

“I was working at Silky Jones and we would have Savage Ruthless Nights. I was building the brand and I was learning how to run a business myself. I kept working on it through graduation, and got my DPT in 2018 and I started working as an adult. COVID came in March 2020, and my physical therapy location closed, and I was furloughed,” Morris said.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding COVID, Morris saw the experience as a chance to throw himself into his passion project — enter Malik Dupri, the brand.

With the entrepreneurial experience that he had gained from his company with Van Dorn, Morris began selling sunglasses out of his house during the summer of 2020, sourcing them from within the States when possible. “It was crazy. People were coming at all times, at 2 a.m., to pick up glasses. I stopped doing drop-offs and started shipping. That was the push to get a kiosk so people could leave me alone and get their product at the location.”

The sunglass display inside Malik Dupri. (Photo provided by Malik Morris)

The brand had such reach that Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals team’s quarterback, began wearing the glasses on Instagram and during press conferences. The sunglasses, designed by Dupri, have been part of Burrow’s rise in popularity, with his pregame outfits drawing praise during the Bengals’ unlikely run to the Super Bowl, which will be played on Sunday, Feb. 13.

One Bengals teammate said the glasses are Cartier at one point, but Morris says they’re his and they certainly match his inventory.

“I designed them with inspiration from the Cartier style, I wanted to make a more affordable version of those,” Morris said. “Most of my glasses feature the rimless look. But the guapo collection is the most popular.”

There are subtle differences in the design that differentiate the Dupris from the Cartier versions, though they do look similar. Burrow could not be reached for comment through the Bengals.

“It was crazy. Through his agent, [Burrow] got the glasses and he basically just put them on,” Morris said. “That’s a lot of what the brand ends up playing out to be. There are a lot of celebrities that wear it, too, and people close to them think they’re cool. It’s wild because [Burrow] wears them on national TV, now I’ve got ESPN asking about them,” Morris explained, mentioning that he hasn’t yet been able to get in touch with Burrow to set up an official partnership.

Most recently, in June 2021, Malik Dupri’s first brick-and-mortar location in the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island, expanding the brand to include clothing and other accessories to help fill out the store.

“I started the clothing when I opened the store, the brand was based around the sunglasses,” Morris said. “I can’t have a whole store with only sunglasses, it would look super empty. I already had all of that experience of creating a clothing brand from another company, so everything I’ve done has led to today. Even if I hadn’t gone to Ithaca, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

“I feel like that’s the perfect demographic for what I have,” Morris said of his goal to eventually open another location on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. He’s there this weekend to network and, if he’s lucky, meet Burrow. “The goal, really, is to get into Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters so that you can get national distribution — hundreds of stores, that’s when you’ve made it.”

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...