By and  on June 23, 2005

NEW YORK — Urban fashion is having an identity crisis.

In fact, even as the market for such styles tops $1 billion annually, its progenitors are searching for ways to maintain their momentum and tap into a broader market.

"Urban is definitely at a crossroads," said Tim Bess, a retail consultant with the Doneger Group, the large buying office here. "Now, people are selling a look, not a brand. Some of these players have been selling their name and logo for eight years, and all of a sudden their customers are saying they don't want that anymore. Now there is room for more upscale, fashion-forward designers in the urban contemporary market with a crossover appeal."

Urban brands are more mainstream than ever — just look at the fact that the St. Louis-based Kellwood now owns Phat Farm and Baby Phat. But the question becomes how to interpret urban fashions for a suburban customer without losing the inspiration that created the brand in the first place.

As a result, achieving longevity in the urban market remains a major hurdle for even the top brands, such as Sean John, Phat Farm, Ecko Unlimited and Rocawear, which have had to evolve with the consumers' needs.

And the challenges mean there are fewer and fewer new entrants in the market previously defined as "urban." Rather, urban brands are not only offering men more polished, less-logoed collections, but are expanding into the women's category with lines that are sophisticated, stylish and more expensive.

In addition, more and more of their sales are coming outside of major cities. Instead, ironically, it's the suburbs that are now the urbanwear focus.

"It's a misconception that this customer is only an urban customer," said Lou Ann Bett, president of the D.E.M.O. retail division of Pacific Sunwear of California. "It's much more of a cross-section. Actually, our number-one store is in Hawaii and [we do really well] in malls, in places like New Jersey where you have a suburban base."

Bett said the average customer is between 15 and 25 years old, wants to make a statement and craves "constant newness." Particularly popular at the store has been head-to-toe dressing in a specific brand, which the company has dubbed "The Hook-Up."Lines such as Baby Phat and Apple Bottoms have been very successful for D.E.M.O., as well as its private label brand Anisette, said Bett. And, she added, there has been no price resistance for brands such as those, or any other that has cachet with teens.

Merchandising urban brands in suburban department stores is another clue to hip-hop's total immersion into conventional mainstream life and fashion.

According to Irene Cheng, assistant buyer for Macy's West streetwear buying office, Baby Phat and Rocawear are an all-store buy across the company's 114 doors, whether the stores are urban or suburban. "It's consistent merchandise and merchandising across the board," Cheng said. "The customer either loves the brand, or not."

Trevor Pitzak, manager of Seams, a Long Beach, Calif.-based urbanwear store, said the key to winning over his customers is a unique offering that helps customers make a statement. The store, which caters mostly to 16- to 22-year-old suburban kids from high-income families, sells lines such as Stussy, 55 DSL, Diesel, Paul Frank and Nike White Label, which has been their most sought-after line.

"They are trying to find out who they are and make a statement at a young age," said Pitzak, who added that this group is particularly into looking good, because "they're still in high school and college and are more active going to clubs and parties."

The same holds true for the Web, where suburban shoppers gain access to urban brands.

"Urban is not a trend, it's a market. Kids are the youth culture and they want to express that," said Ed Foy, co-founder of efashionsolutions.com, a Web marketer and retailer for 13 brands — more than half of them catering to the urban, hip-hop market. Foy said the Web is a "major benefit" when it comes to reaching teens across the country who don't have access to freestanding urban stores or department stores carrying urban brands.

"Instead of just walking into a mall and seeing just jeans and T-shirts, these kids see how the brand is developed. It's a lifestyle to them," said Foy. On the Internet, Foy noted, teens see the brand represented in its entirety, as opposed to the urban consumer who walks into a mall or freestanding store and sees just what the merchandiser wants her to see."For the middle-American consumer, online is the flagship," Foy said.

According to efashionsolutions.com, a number of states registered significant growth in orders in suburban areas for Rocawear, Baby Phat, JLo, Apple Bottoms and XOXO. Purchases from consumers in rural areas in Montana (excluding zip codes of major urban areas) jumped 102 percent from May 2003 to May 2004. Suburbanites in South Dakota placed 174 orders in 2004 for these brands — an increase of 83 percent over 2003.

Hawaii's orders, from suburban areas, increased 137 percent from May 2004 to May 2005. Orders in Alabama increased from 515 in May 2004 to 839 in May 2005 — an increase of 63 percent.

Marc Ecko Enterprises, the $1 billion global urban apparel company, has 37 freestanding annex stores across the U.S that are outlet-mall based and, consequently, in rural areas. There is one full-priced freestanding store in North Attleboro, Mass., with another slated to open in Times Square here next year. But its method of reaching the suburban consumer is clear.

"Definitely the Web," said Rob Weinstein, vice president of marketing for Marc Ecko Enterprises, though he went on to say that the brand's online sales mirror its retail sales. "We sell the most online in the same area that we sell the most in stores," he said. Weinstein said the company also uses radio promotions and in-store events to get the word out.

"We don't need to send a watered-down version to a kid in the Midwest," said Weinstein. "They're just as savvy as kids in urban environments. Kids across the board are getting the same message."

"Retailers that never ever thought they'd have to understand hip-hop culture — in Sheboygan, Wis., or Des Moines, Iowa — are selling urban brands every day," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group.

In just five years, the market for urban designers has grown from virtually nothing into $1.1 billion in full-priced retail sales in the U.S. alone, encompassing footwear, accessories and apparel, according to NPD Group. Given that the total apparel and footwear market is $200 billion in the U.S., pure urban brands make up 0.5 percent of the industry."It's nothing to sneeze at," added Cohen.

Suburban teens get the hip-hop message via advertisements in teen and entertainment magazines instead of urban/hip-hop magazines. A spokesman for Baby Phat said advertisements in magazines such as Teen Vogue and Elle Girl help push the message that urban brands are not just for city dwellers.

"We're not just for black girls," said the spokesman. "Once you see mainstream city girls and celebrities wearing our clothes, the rest will follow. The hip-hop woman is a cultured woman who wants to be ahead of the fashion."

The American consumer, however, is constantly on the prowl for originality, and urban brands have to meet their demand. "Because the urban brand consumer is driven by originality, very few brands stay popular for long. For example, Wu Wear was big in '97, Fubu in '98 and Ecko and Rocawear in 2000," said Irma Zandl, president of The Zandl Group, a trend and research company here. "As more rappers/performers start their own lines, the market gets increasingly fragmented. And, of course, as the performers run out of steam, so do their brands, for example, Shady Ltd.," she said referencing Eminem's clothing line.

"It's not enough to have a celebrity affiliation," said Bernt Ullman, president of Phat Fashions. "While the celebrity association is useful and can absolutely give visibility, at the end of the day, visibility of the brand is determined by the product."

But Andy Hilfiger, co-founder and director of Sweetface Fashion Co., the masterbrand for JLo and Sweetface by Jennifer Lopez, believes a celebrity can help — sometimes.

"There are only certain celebrities that can pull it off long-term and that individual really has to have a great fashion sense, like Jennifer [Lopez], Puffy and Gwen Stefani," he said. "Everyone can't get into this business."

For younger consumers, styles have been toned down so that designs are not so logo-driven. Doneger's Bess noted that even the "true urban" consumer isn't as interested in logos as he once was, so in order to increase urban and suburban sales, urban brands need to make their clothing more preppy and shrink the logos."Nobody wants to be a walking billboard anymore, even the loyal customer," said Bess.

The Baby Phat spokesman agreed. "If you can't afford the Cavalli and the Gucci, you can still get the fashion with Baby Phat. It's all about the style."

Toning down the design elements of traditional urbanwear obviously helps the brand become more palatable to a wider audience. "Developing a more classic, total wardrobe approach is also a way to grow market share and capture more customers," said Zandl.

Foy, of efashionsolutions.com, said veterans of the urban/hip-hop genre have latched on to the idea that less is more. "Five years ago, urban was something different," he said. "But then the Russell Simmonses of the world realized that all you have to do is tone it down a little bit."

Hilfiger said urban has evolved into a true lifestyle concept. "It was all about the logo, but then that was phased out, now it's just about the fit, fashion and price point," he said.

Still, urban, as a category seems to have hit a wall. "It was a very fast category, once upon a time," said Ullman. "The brands have the ability to grow, but I don't know what the category is anymore."

Brands such as Phat Farm and Baby Phat are exploring options overseas. Russell Simmons, founder of Phat Fashions, said he's about to open Phat Farm locations in London and in the Middle East. "We'll have three stores in Dubai by the end of the year. They want to be up on American fashion," Ullman said.

One image of the new urban comes from perhaps the best litmus test for pop culture: MTV. At this year's MTV Music Video Awards, Jay-Z and Nelly both showed up in polished suits, rather than archetypal hip-hop gear.

"It's apparent how the urban look is evolving, and that suits have arrived," said Zandl. "Urban is transitioning from 'clothes' to 'fashion.' It's clearly an opportunity for high-level urban designers to make their mark."

Ullman, of Phat Fashions, said urban brands have moved on to a more premium price point simply because the consumer has moved on. "I don't think you're wrong to say that the urban handle has outlived its viability and usefulness," Ullman said. "A lot of the brands have moved on, for both men and women, and as the brands become more sophisticated, they transcend the handle."Ronnie DeMichael, chief financial officer for Rocawear, believes that there still is an urban consumer willing to spend money. "Puffy's trying to do something different, and that's OK," he said referencing Sean Combs' new women's line, Sean by Sean Combs. The collection, which is slated to launch for holiday, wholesales between $63 and $847. "There are a lot of premium brands out there that the consumer latches on to, but that doesn't mean that the consumer is going to stay there."

Since the more powerful urban fashion companies have taken that route, urban as the industry formerly defined it, has disappeared.

"The idea of an urban streetwear brand is completely dated," said Stephen Stoute, music mogul, consumer brand marketer and force behind Carol's Daughter, a new affordable luxury cosmetics brand with backers including Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith and Thalia. "What needs to be displaced in beauty and fashion is speaking through a lens to white people and speaking through a different lens to African-Americans and segregating the fashions and marketing that way. Urban is a mind-set, not a type."

For What It's Worth
Today, urban brands are doing some soul-searching to figure out who they are and where they're going. Here, a look at the retail price ranges of some of the top brands in the category.

  • Sweetface: $150 for hoodies to $600 for sweaters.
  • Sean by Sean Combs: $125 for blouses to $6,000 for a coyote-cropped coat with leather trim.
  • Baby Phat: $59 for jeans to $1,500 for the Baby Phat Diamond Diva watch, part of the Simmons Jewelry Co.
  • JLo: $29 for long-sleeve T-shirt to $225 for outerwear.
  • Ecko Red: $28 for T-shirts to $85 for blazers.
  • Rocawear: $22 for T-shirts to $450 for limited-edition outerwear, jeans and tops.
— With contributions from Michelle Dalton Tyree, Los Angeles

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