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Urban fashion designers rule

WALK DOWN ANY STREET IN URBAN AMERICA--OR SUBURBIA, FOR THAT MATTER--AND YOU'RE bound to see toddlers, teens, seniors and those in between sporting logos of the hottest urban fashion designers today. Some of those making big waves on Seventh Avenue as well as on 125th Street in Harlem are FUBU, Sean John, Phat Farm, Maurice Malone, Mecca USA, Ecko Unlimited, Wu Wear, Triple 5 Soul, Enyce and Karl Kani.

Indeed, hip-hop is the hook for America's young, white suburbanites, who see black inner-city youngsters as street-savvy and independent and want to emulate the dress, music and attitude. Baggy, brightly colored hip-hop clothes have gone mainstream in American youth fashion, and the result has brought small fortunes to a cadre of black designers.

These designers have an ear to the street and know precisely what customers want and desire: innovative, stylish fashions. Consequently, the biggest growth in the fashion industry among blacks is in the urban market, and the powerhouse labels are attracting attention from corporate America. For example, Samsung America, the 10th largest company in the world, is FUBU's production and distribution partner.

"Everyone has embraced rap culture," says Teri Agins, senior special writer for the Wall Street Journal and author of The End of Fashion: The Mass Marketing of the Clothing Business (William Morrow, $25). "It has definitely given people an entree. That [oversize, logoed] look won't always be popular, and the companies that are going to survive are the ones who can grow beyond that niche. There is already a movement away from those trends. You can get your foot in the door by jumping on a fad. But the real test is keeping it going, and that happens by figuring out what people are going to want next year."

More than a few fashion insiders are concerned that consumers' enthrallment with hip-hop wear may be short-lived and urban fashion designers won't be able to stand the test of time in the fashion industry. In this article, we chronicle how urbanwear came to dominate the fashion industry and also look into the future of hip-hop clothing to assess whether it's a fashion trend for the ages or one that has short-term appeal.


Karl Kani (No. 32 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list) has come a long way since starting a fashion apparel business in a small storefront on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1989.

After merging with Carl Jones and T. J. Walker of the Cross Colours designer clothing company (also formed in 1989), the Karl Kani line became a part of one of the world's largest black-owned companies of the early 1990s. The company posted sales in excess of $97 million in 1993, but went bankrupt the following year because it had grown too quickly and its founders couldn't keep pace with the demand.

Karl Kani set out on his own in 1993, and today can be credited with pioneering the emergence of the fashion upsurge known as hip-hop or urbanwear. With sales of $78 million in 1999, he features men's suits in his Karl Kani Black Label line that retail from $200 to $1,000, and also manufactures jeans, golfwear, the KK2 women's line and men's leather that are sold in major department stores.

Kani was soon joined by top urban fashion design companies like FUBU, Phat Farm, Ecko Unlimited, Wu Wear, Mecca and Triple 5 Soul, which took the fashion industry and young America--both black and white--by storm.

"The fashion industry has been extremely receptive to the urban trend that's dominated the marketplace for the past five years," says Elena Romero, associate editor of Daily News Record, the news magazine of men's fashion and retail. "While urbanwear may have started in the inner city, it is now mainstream."

Kani, who says that his clothing is not created for any particular group, unreservedly agrees. "We target the person who wants to be fashion forward. The target is worldwide for everyone, and we have 20 different classifications of clothing to help us achieve those goals," he adds.

With $350 million in sales in 1998, including licensing, FUBU, which stands for "For Us, By Us" and was started in 1992, now has worldwide consumer appeal and has become one of the obvious front-runners. Not long ago, brands like FUBU--marked by vibrant colors, oversize styles and prominent logos--could only be found in small specialty stores in black neighborhoods. Large retailers finally realized they were missing a great sales opportunity by not stocking clothing lines by urbanwear designers.

Now FUBU is regarded as serious competition for powerhouse brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan and Polo. Its line is carried in stores such as Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Dillard's, as well as in specialty stores like Footlocker and Foot Action, and items range in price from $20 to $300.

Clearly, FUBU has wide appeal. However, there is no denying that its success sprang from its appeal to young, black men. With little money for advertising, co-founder and CEO Daymond John began by getting the clothes worn by stars of television shows such as In the House, New York Undercover and The Wayans Brothers. Getting celebrities like Will Smith, L.L. Cool J and Brandy to wear them didn't hurt either.

"Major retailers have picked up a lot of these young men's lines based on what celebrity images they're connected to," says Tiffany Ellzy, ethnic and youth marketing director of the Fashion Association, a New York-based, nonprofit marketing and public relations association.

Leslie Short, president of marketing, advertising and public relations for FUBU, says the four 30-something owners of FUBU spend a lot of time talking to the people who buy their clothes. "They are the consumers; they are out there in the clubs as well as in the boardrooms," says Short. "They see the people who are passionate about the clothes."


Like FUBU, urban fashion designers are making their mark by staying current with consumer tastes and demands.

"Phat Farm reflects the style and philosophy of our founder, Russell Simmons, who has unerring instincts for design and what's hot," says Marcie Corbett, president of Phat Farm's parent company, Phat Fashions L.L.C., which was started in 1992 and had sales of $100 million in 1999. "Fashion trends have always originated on the street. It's a question of who is smart enough to figure out what's hip first. And what's hot on the street will continue to pave the way for future fashion trends."

Some new names on the scene include Maurice Malone, Enyce and the newest kids on the urbanwear block, Rocawear, Akademiks, RP55 and Scan John, hip-hop producer and artist Sean "Puffy" Combs' new line.

"A lot of these designers that are coming out of the box have their own points of view," says Shaka King, a Brooklyn, New York-based men's wear designer. "If that designer wants to succeed in the mass market, he should never forget that fashion needs to have broad appeal."


To further widen their appeal many urban designers are moving away from using the label "urbanwear" and moving toward "contemporary" or "metropolitan" says Ellzy of the Fashion Association.

"The word `urban' has grown outside that definition," says DNR's Romero. "The lines of what can be considered for those particular markets have been blurred. It started with the oversize denim and basic T-shirts, and has evolved to tailored clothing for men and women's wear collections."

Combs' foray into fashion runs the gamut from T-shirts to denim suits to tailored suits and luxury leathers and furs. Started in 1998 and generating sales of $24 million by 1999, Sean John apparel can be found in more than 410 stores nationwide. Combs is the first African American designer to be nominated by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) to receive the Perry Ellis Award for Menswear at the American Fashion Awards 2000 on June 15. (Winners had not been announced at press time.)

"There were successful black designers who opened doors for us," says Jeffrey Tweedy, vice president of Sean John. "There is a new swing toward the X Generation--it's younger and more street-savvy talent. The younger generation is becoming more creative. Our consumer takes the best of a designer and mixes them all together [to create their own] personal style."

As a result of African American designers' tapping the global youth market and mainstream customers' demand for hip-hop clothing, major department stores have reserved significant floor space for their clothing lines. But those who have achieved such premier status are few.

"Most of the black designers that I know couldn't produce the quantity that the big stores are demanding," says Audrey Smaltz of the Ground Crew, a New York-based company that produces fashion shows, photo shoots and special events. "They don't have the millions of dollars it takes to meet the demand of a Bloomingdale's."

Smaltz adds that despite the success of black urban houses, many designers lack financial backing to become successful on a mass-market level.

"There is going to be a point when hip-hop looks are going to fade," says Anthony Mark Hankins, a Dallas-based designer. "You have to redevelop yourself after a couple of years because your customers don't need any more of that look It's important to be ahead of the game and redefine yourself."

According to Romero, urban designers will become well-rounded fashion houses: "From jeans to suits to home furnishings, they are going beyond apparel." On the upside, because urban clothes and hip-hop music are intricately linked, as long as the future of rap is bright, the future of urban clothing is intact. And bright it is. Like urban clothing lines, rap music used to sell mainly to blacks, but now, according to a recent SoundScan study, an estimated two-thirds of rap sales are to whites. At $1.4 billion in 1998, rap is popular music's fastest-growing category.

The major influences of urban fashion--black hip-hop music, lifestyle and culture--will set the tone for this fashion trend in the future, as well as the ability of its creators to evolve with the times and anticipate changes in consumer trends.

"Creative minds need to be business savvy," says Romero. "Creating fashion is more than just technical skills." Indeed, for urbanwear designers to endure, it will require that they have vision--not only for their unique style but also for building their brand.
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Title Annotation:the popularity of urban fashions
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2000
Previous Article:Going Solo.

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