LL Cool J Plays the Name Game As He Launches Ready-to-Wear

LL Cool J wants to be the real deal in fashion.

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NEW YORK — LL Cool J wants to be the real deal in fashion.

Instead of trailing the flock of musicians who have jumped into sportswear with little more than a well-known name, the rapper is kicking things up with a well-edited ready-to-wear collection. And he is using his given middle and last name — Todd Smith — not the one that made him famous.

“This brand is not about the rapper LL Cool J,” he said after a preview at the Carlton Hotel here Thursday. “This is about Todd Smith, the guy you don’t get to see and the lifestyle I live when I go home to Long Island.”

He was on Long Island watching his daughter’s soccer game and talking with Ronald Gallo, a friend and longtime Seventh Avenue executive, when they came up with the idea for a luxe label. The pair cofounded Standard Fashion LLC, which produces Todd Smith Luxury and TS Todd Smith. The latter will be sold exclusively at Macy’s. Gallo will continue to work at the Rose Group, where he makes outerwear for Bill Blass, Tahari, Nicole Miller and others.

Smith has dabbled in fashion, having worked behind the scenes for Troop, a nonfashion, insider hip-hop line, in the mid-Eighties and then Fubu in the Nineties. His signature collection, however, is definitively not urban. The Italian-made clothing is driven from classic tailoring, but is fluid and sophisticated.

“There is a danger associated with rap artists having a line,” he said. “It could be a certain cliché. I saw this as an opportunity to do something different. Sometimes there is a lack of caring on the part of the artist when they are doing these lines.”

Smith showed a sophisticated lineup for fall, an unexpected surprise of rich flannel wrap coats and tailored pants that had a relaxed elegance along the lines of fashion icon Giorgio Armani. For evening, he showed intricately pleated gowns and cocktail dresses that were tasteful and tailored. While Smith is deeply involved, he did bring in consultants. His design team has worked at Dolce & Gabbana and Marni, which should presumably keep this line on the right track. Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman are among the stores that have shown interest in the 35-piece women’s fall collection, which will be priced to compete with Chloé and Marc Jacobs, Smith said.

This story first appeared in the February 10, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I’m sensitive to pop culture, but I’m also sensitive to how brands affect people’s perception in a social environment,” the rapper said. “I think one has to be wary of what a brand represents. You may have a beautiful line, but because of a lack of taste, the brand takes on a losing connotation partially because people don’t like what the brand represents. Then people won’t buy it even if they like the clothing.”

Having a clothing line is something Smith has hoped for since he was a teenager cruising the streets with his girlfriend, he said. “It’s not that I’m a designer. I’m an artist and a rapper. I’m doing fashion for the same reason Calvin Klein went into home furnishings. It’s kind of in my spirit to come up with an idea and to bring it to fruition. This could be a movie, or a song. It’s me expressing myself as an artist, not just with fabric. It’s about creating something beautiful that makes people feel good. It’s not about the fashion, per se.”

While Smith aspires to hold a show at Bryant Park in the big tent, he’s pacing himself. He also backed away from making any first-year projections. “I don’t expect to make $100 million overnight or to be an overnight explosion. My only benchmark is to be profitable and to do well. This is not about me trying to sell six million coats at Wal-Mart.”

It’s also not about any licensors or silent partners. “I sprang for this,” he said. “There’s no guy behind the scenes writing the check. I wrote those checks.”

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