By  on September 15, 2005

NEW YORK — Jay-Z has made Rocawear his priority.

In an exclusive interview, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter outlined his plans for Rocawear, the brand he cofounded in 1999, and explained why he's become increasingly involved with the company, which, in five years, has grown into a $400 million business.

But he was coy as to exactly what his new role is, at one point stopping himself before revealing too much. What is clear is that Carter wants Rocawear to grow — fast. There are plans to launch a licensed jewelry line for spring, followed by a watch line, and to step up distribution abroad.

But, Carter stressed, there are at this point no plans to sell Rocawear (despite speculation otherwise); show on the New York runways like its peers, Sean John and JLo, or open freestanding stores.

Carter is the face of the brand's fall ad campaign, stirring speculation he was taking full control of the company. Almost simultaneously, co-founder Damon Dash, who declined to comment for this story, has grown increasingly tight-lipped when it comes to matters pertaining to the clothing brand.

"Can I take you all the way back?" Carter asked, as he quickly put away his handheld device to focus on the matter at hand: Rocawear. Before he could discuss the future — or even the present — he laid down the foundation. Seated in a conference room in the Rocawear offices, high on the 38th floor of 1411 Broadway overlooking Midtown, Carter is dressed casually in jeans and a black T-shirt with "RW Marcy" emblazoned on the front, a nod to the Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn where he grew up, and "La Famiglia" splashed on the back.

It was 1999, and Carter and Dash had just started their boutique record label, Roc-A-Fella Records. "In the beginning, we really wanted a deal with a clothing line because I would wear Iceberg [apparel] to shows and when we would get to shows, we'd see the entire audience in Iceberg. We went to Iceberg and wanted to make a deal with them, but at that point, we hadn't sold a significant amount of records, so the stuff we were asking for, number-wise, was ridiculous," he said, laughing. "We knew what we were worth, but the numbers didn't match up at the time. We asked for use of the private jet and they were like, ‘You might want to go gold first.' When they didn't want to do the deal, we said, ‘OK, we'll do it ourselves.'"And with that, Rocawear was born.

Carter and Dash began creating T-shirts with the word "Rocawear" written from shoulder to shoulder. "We knew somebody with a credit card scam so we bought big, old sewing machines. We were so far off, we didn't know what to do. We had somebody sitting at sewing machines in our record company making T-shirts," Carter said. "It was awful."

Russell Simmons, a friend of Carter's and Dash's, introduced them to Russian investors Alex Bize and Norton Cher of the Comet Group, a clothing manufacturer, and together the four were equal partners, each holding a 25 percent stake in the company. Carter said Bize and Cher are still involved with the brand, but wouldn't comment on to what extent.

Unlike Simmons, who sold his Phat Fashions to Kellwood Co. for $140 million last year, Carter has no intention to sell the brand. "That's not in my plans," he said. "My plan is to grow Rocawear."

Today, Rocawear has outgrown the logo T-shirts and the old sewing machines in the recording studio. Now, the brand is a $400 million company and growing. "We did $400 million in wholesale volume in 2004," claimed Jameel Spencer, chief marketing officer for Rocawear. The women's collection, he said, accounts for $100 million of that. "Today, it would be just north of that amount and we continue to increase year after year."

"People have grown up with Rocawear. We'll grow as their tastes grow. It's about the quality of the clothes," Carter said, "not about seeing the word ‘Rocawear' from four blocks away."

He refers to himself as the "editor" of Rocawear — the man who approves or disapproves of designs. "I'm at the end of the process," Carter said. "I say ‘yea' or ‘nay' to what the design team does."

Earlier in the conversation, George Robles, creative director of Rocawear's men's collection, came in with T-shirts for Carter to approve, but Carter was concerned with the length of the sleeves. He thought they were too long and that they covered too much of his upper arm. "I've been working out," he said, smiling. "I want people to see that curve," he said, tracing his bicep with his finger. The designer retreated with the T-shirts.This spring, Rocawear will be showing three distinct fashion-forward and trend-driven groups. The first is its take on an Eighties party girl; the second has a Japanese-inspired theme incorporating fluid kimono-tops and Japanese-flowers, and the third group is called "African Rose" and features colors such as yellow, aqua, passion fruit and deep brown. Crochet tops and distressed denim also are thrown into the mix. The wholesale price range of the collection is between $10 for a T-shirt to $250 for some outerwear pieces.

Carter, unlike some of his contemporaries, isn't rushing to take the label high-end. At least, not yet.

"We didn't jump out of the window when everyone was doing fashion week and running to the tents," he said. "And that's not really a subliminal at Puff or anything," he said, referencing Sean Combs, who has put his men's line, Sean John, on the runway and has plans to do the same with his women's line, Sean by Sean Combs.

Instead, Carter has juiced up the brand's image by having top photographer Mark Seliger shoot the fall advertising campaign that features, in addition to Carter, model Ana Beatriz Barros, who has starred in Guess ads and graced the catwalks for the likes of Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier.

Rocawear's image got a further boost this week when the brand cohosted an intimate party at Frederick's, a swanky lounge here, with Vanity Fair. A Venn diagram would best have represented the party, which celebrated fashion week, as the Rocawear and Vanity Fair worlds morphed into one. Guests included Carter, the host, as well as his girlfriend, Beyoncé Knowles; Diddy; Pharrell Williams; Steve Stout, and Jeff Tweedy. Alan Katz, Vanity Fair's newly appointed publisher, was also on hand, along with Lisa Robinson, contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and Seliger, the magazine's contributing photographer.

Carter makes it known his brand is no longer classified as urban, a classification that seems as outdated as logo T-shirts. "‘Urban' means s---," he said matter-of-factly. "It means black on the low. Fashion is fashion. Our competitors include everyone who has a store — from Louis Vuitton to Marc Ecko to Sean John to Gucci."Eric M. Beder, senior vice president of Brean Murray & Co., a research-driven investment and merchant bank based here, believes this market is flowing in two distinct currents. "There is a shift with these brands to create a premium type label, like we've seen with Sean John or Phat Farm," he said. "But there's also the consumer who is still logo-driven. You're likely to see a consumer buy an entire outfit from one of these urban designers."

Carter's appearance in the ads seems to be a one-shot deal, a move many people suggest reflects his deeper involvement with the brand. "[My appearance] was more an introduction to my new role as…," Carter said, hinting that he indeed was occupying a new role, but then he quickly recovered, "…my new attention and focus and reinvention of the brand. Being in the ads is not my intention," he said.

His attention, he said, is due in part to his new position at Def Jam Recordings, Vivendi Universal's illustrious rap label, where he was named president and chief executive officer in January. Universal also purchased Roc-A-Fella when it hired Carter in December.

"When I was an artist 24 hours a day, it was difficult to sit down with you without being on stage or in the studio," Carter explained. "Now that my life is more as an executive over at Def Jam, I'm more grounded and I have a little more time to invest in the company."

His enthusiasm for the brand has excited retailers and is breathing new life into Rocawear. "It might be good for the company, now that Jay is backing it up," said Ted Assis, president and head buyer for Mony, an 11-unit streetwear retailer based here. Assis, however, said he carries less Rocawear in his stores now than he ever has. "There was a lot of friction between Jay and Damon, but I think as long as they have good designs and don't put the logo on everything, they'll be OK," Assis said, referencing the rumored troubles between Carter and Dash. Both Carter and Dash have dismissed such rumors.

"I think the numbers and the look of the line reflect the stability of the line, not who's in the office," Carter said. "But I like that ambiguity. It makes us interesting."Beder, of Brean Murray & Co., is certain that Carter's increased visibility can only help the brand, though it won't squash any speculation as to what's going on behind the scenes. But how much does that really matter? After all, consumers tend to gravitate toward fashion lines attached to a celebrity. "I think that, frankly, no one knows what's going on [between Dash and Carter], but in terms of marketing, putting the focus on Jay-Z is a better marketing plan," Beder said. "They're refocusing the brand with him as the spokesperson, and people want to wear what the stars wear."

Rocawear is sold at department stores and streetwear specialty stores. Distribution, Carter admits, is tricky.

"You don't want to have [Rocawear] everywhere so that it's not special, but you don't want to be exclusive where it's not for everyone. We don't want to bastardize the brand or whore it out," he said. "It's like when I was making records. You don't want to make a song that's too commercial where everyone is throwing rocks at you, but you don't want to make such an underground record where you can't sell records. I've been walking that fine line my whole career," he said, laughing. "I like it."

But for retailers, distribution is crucial. Assis of Mony said that, in his opinion, the brand has been distributed too widely. "They need to take care of distribution," he said.

Carter is looking to push the brand forward and that includes a jewelry line, licensed to Lucas Design, launching for spring, followed by a watch deal that's still being worked out, and distribution overseas. "The interest for this brand in London is incredible," Carter said having just returned days before from a trip to the British capital. "They want it bad. They are thirsting for the brand."

If and when they do plan to distribute in London, Carter said they will target department stores. "It's funny how it works over there," he said. "Over here, specialty boutiques are a big deal, but over there, it would take you a lifetime to build a brand in specialty stores. Over there, it's the department stores. Building a business in a specialty store over there will take you 30 years. I don't have 30 years."One thing Carter is clear on is his stance on freestanding boutiques. He said he has no plans to create Rocawear stores now, or in the future. "If you look at all those stores, they're losing a ton of money," he said. "It serves as a great marketing tool and you can write it off as a great marketing experience, but they lose money."

"Retailers do retail and people who manufacture clothes shouldn't do retail unless they're selling high-end luxury products, like Louis Vuitton, " Spencer added. "It works for them."

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