By  on April 5, 2007

Hip-hop fashion has grown up.

Inspired by the vibe of the streets, so-called urbanwear is veering away from logos and celebrity names. Brands such as Baby Phat and Rocawear are filtering deeper into mainstream retailers and consumers are demanding more design and better quality, although the clothing styles may still be inspired by what artists like Jay-Z or Beyoncé Knowles wear.

"In order for a brand to succeed, it needs to come from authenticity, inspiration, from the heart,'' said Russell Simmons, a pioneer in the category as founder and chief executive officer of Phat Fashions. "A brand can no longer come from a celebrity name alone. Who cares about the logo? It's the design that's important."

Simmons said being a designer requires 100 percent dedication to fashion — possibly more so than music.

"I'm sitting here on Seventh Avenue every day," he said. "If you aren't doing that, you aren't a designer. It's as simple as that."

At the start of this decade, hip-hop-inspired fashion became the business to be in. As artists such as 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Kanye West and Eminem became more popular in mainstream media, many young suburbanites adopted their styles along with their music. As these people became more interested in the music, the fashion business followed. By 2003, hip-hop fashion brands cashed in when major companies such as Liz Claiborne bought Enyce and Kellwood got behind Phat Fashions. Just this week, Iconix closed a deal to purchase Rocawear.

The urban clothing business clearly has grown as it has moved from the streets to the mainstream, although statistics for this apparel are difficult to pin down.

Challenges for the market remain. Many urbanwear executives come from the music world and are still learning the apparel business. They must keep a balance between mass appeal and street cred. And, many firms have seen their share of tough times on their way to the mainstream.

Sean John, which runs a successful men's line based on Sean "Diddy'' Combs' lifestyle, has promised to launch a young contemporary brand since signing with G-III Apparel Group in March 2006. Ceo Bob Wichser said the line is on track to hit stores for holiday. Sean John closed its Sean by Sean Combs women's contemporary brand earlier this year."Everyone is being very careful to make sure the line works," said a spokesman. "We aren't going to launch it until it is exactly right."

EckoRed, Marc Ecko's junior line, also has gone through a revamp, which will hit stores for back-to-school. The line has been upgraded.

"This is where we've always wanted to be with the junior line," said Emily Holton, director of merchandising for all Ecko-branded apparel. "After a lot of research, we know that this is what the line should be — more contemporary, for a college-age girl. The market has shifted, and we found that our customer is more mature. The customer we used to have just doesn't exist anymore."

Simmons said the new KLS Collection, designed by his estranged wife, Kimora Lee Simmons, is an example of where the market is headed.

"KLS is Kimora's closet," he said of the high-end contemporary label. "It is an authentic and an honest expression of her."

KLS, which will launch at retail in the fall, also showcases Kimora Lee Simmons' design talent and years of experience in the fashion industry. When she took over Baby Phat in 2000, Russell Simmons said it was her talent that made the brand what it is — an aspirational fashionable line at a junior price point. Baby Phat, he said, continues to sell well at retailers ranging from large department stores, such as Macy's, to national specialty chains like D.e.m.o.

Russell Simmons has taken his own advice with his men's wear collections. Phat Farm, which he launched in 1992, has seen its share of ups and downs at retail. Phat Farm is now only a collection of classics with a large emphasis on its signature argyle pieces. To move his brand forward and to hopefully latch onto a new set of consumers, he has launched Atman, a high-end jeans brand that carries the same brand name as his fragrance (his next fragrance, Atman Green, is in the works). Simmons also launched the Russell Simmons Collection and XV, two lines, he said, that reflect what he has learned after being in the fashion industry for 15 years."Phat Farm has sort of taken a backseat to everything else," Simmons said. "But that's OK. Everything I do is an honest expression of what I believe in and I think that's why I've been in business for 15 years."

Damon Dash, ceo of Damon Dash Enterprises, entered the urban fashion world in 1995 when he launched Rocawear with Jay-Z. Now Dash is on his own and trying to build a new empire, which he stressed is solely about fashion.

"The consumer that used to buy urban has evolved," he said. "So we have to evolve with them. They want real fashion by real fashion designers. They don't want fashion that comes from a rapper just because he's a rapper. It's just not that way anymore."

Dash said that because of this, he has changed his outlook on his apparel business. Coming from the music side, producing and managing various hip-hop artists, Dash has shifted his focus to fashion.

"I've really slowed down my music involvement," he said. "In fact, that part of my career is pretty much dead now. Fashion is my life. I live and breathe the fashion industry."

Dash, who set up offices in the old Tommy Hilfiger space at 25 West 39th Street in New York, said he has become a student of fashion, choosing to surround himself with creative, talented, fashionable people who are on the pulse of the trends. In November, he brought in Marianne Tesler as president of apparel and footwear. Tesler's background — she was president and ceo of Givenchy from 1999 to 2004 — instantly impressed Dash. Her role at the firm, he said, has been a huge influence on him and his wife, designer Rachel Roy.

"Rachel is fashion and, I believe, the future of urban fashion," he said. "It's designs like hers, which hang at Bergdorf Goodman, that urban consumers strive for."

Dash's own men's line, CEO Collection, just launched at retail, selling to select specialty stores nationwide. Soon, he said, he will start a women's element of CEO.

"I can easily connect and directly talk to urban since that is where I come from," Dash said. "The difference now is the quality and the design rule and I am a true member of the fashion community."Before, he said, he was known more as a music executive who was dabbling in fashion.

Jameel Spencer, chief marketing officer at Rocawear, also has seen an evolution in the urban fashion world.

"In many ways, the clothing has grown along the same way that the music has," said Spencer, who headed Blue Flame Marketing, Sean John's advertising and marketing company, before joining Rocawear. "You used to be able to tell who was a fan of hip-hop and who wasn't just by looking at them. Today, the reach is much more diverse, and you can no longer tell who is and who isn't a fan of hip-hop — the music has hit the mainstream, and so have the clothes."

Spencer said the equation for launching an urban brand used to be easy. Consumers associated the brand with the artist — Jay-Z is to Rocawear as Combs is to Sean John. That, he said, used to be enough to satisfy the shopper.

"Now it seems like the brands have surpassed the names," he stressed. "Consumers have gained an appreciation for the design and a demand for quality."

To fill consumers' needs, Rocawear has launched Bella Roc, a higher-end contemporary women's line for fall selling.

"One of our biggest challenges now is to find ways to get new customers interested in the product," Spencer explained. "Bella Roc is a perfect example of what we are doing. It's a collection that concentrates on higher-end design, great fit and quality. It is more expensive, but that's OK, since the Rocawear junior customer we started with is more grown-up — she wants more from us and will pay for it."

Paul Boyea, president of G-Unit Clothing Co., owned by Marc Ecko Enterprises, agreed that quality is key. Even though 50 Cent is behind the G-Unit line, his name alone isn't enough to sell the clothes.

"You cannot rely on a name — you have to have the product," Boyea said. "And I really see an evolution happening here and the market is at a very good place. Consumers have to be able to tell the difference between your brand and someone else's and it's no longer about having a huge logo."Boyea said that, while 50 Cent gets involved in the design process, he is busy with his music projects. The designers behind G-Unit, he said, have worked to elevate the product while keeping in mind what 50 likes to see women wear.

"Our girl wants people to know she's wearing G-Unit, but that doesn't mean she wants a big G-Unit logo plastered across her top," he said. "There are other, more creative ways to let people know what brand she's wearing."

Russell Simmons said that, although brands have to move forward and grow into the mainstream in order to survive, staying true to core beliefs is necessary to survive.

"Authenticity is key, without it, you have nothing," Simmons said. "If your licensee is trying to push you into something that doesn't go with your brand, something that isn't you — don't do it. If you don't believe in it, it will never fly."

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