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Those famously former paramours found fortune on MTV and the silver screen. Now which one can build the bigger fashion empire?
This story first appeared in the February 7, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Being embraced by the fashion industry is no small feat — especially if you’re a rapper who beat a gun rap, a waning music producer and a J.Lo discard, just to name a few of Sean “Puffy” Combs’ recent media incarnations.
His vision of the good life, as captured by the paparazzi over the years in such cosmopolitan backdrops as St. Tropez, Paris and East Hampton, include walkabouts with a parasol-toting man servant, elaborate fetes featuring A-list celebs swilling Cristal and the ultimate in bizarre, jet-set behavior — riding a wave-runner in the Mediterranean with a robe on.
While such glitzy antics and behavioral excesses would usually lead fashion insiders to turn the other cheek, part of Combs’ success has come from his ability to keep everyone’s curiosity levels piqued.
He has managed to sustain a vigilant public with his bold, arrogant statements, like referring to himself as “one of the top five designers in the world,” officially changing his moniker to P. Diddy, his over-the-top parties, like a birthday bash in Marrakech thrown by King Mohammed VI of Morocco, and his regular sightings with the likes of Donatella Versace, Naomi Campbell and Anna Wintour.
Yet what often gets lost in the morass of his “ghetto fabulous” life is Combs’ business savvy. Retail sales for his Sean John line, which he founded in 1998 and which now includes men’s, boys’, outerwear and loungewear, reached $450 million last year, according to Combs. But he has even bigger plans on the horizon.
Combs is now looking towards women’s, fragrances and accessories along with “different joint venture partnerships, more concentration on the worldwide global distribution and brand building of Sean John.”
According to sources close to the company, Combs will preview eight women’s looks at his men’s show at Cipriani’s 42nd Street venue Saturday.
Of his impending women’s line, Combs had this to say, “It’s not going to be like an undersized version with different fits, but the same type of concepts. A man and a woman are different. There are times a woman wants to be like ‘your boy,’ but if you treat her like ‘your boy’ too much then she’s like ‘hey hold up, I’m a queen, or I’m a woman, you gotta treat me differently.’ So it’s having a happy medium of giving them some of the stuff that they like from the men’s, some of that attitude, that swagger, but first and foremost treating a woman like a woman.”
What exactly that will look like in Combs’ world remains a mystery for now; however, one can be sure that the designer isn’t taking any of his Sean John dealings lightly. Combs remains strident about his devotion to his men’s line and his focus on developing the label’s retail presence. Along with opening a Sean John store in New York this year, Combs is looking to open stores overseas. He’s also planning on fine-tuning his presence in department stores.
“We’re also trying to expand on the business by getting more retail space in the actual department stores we’re in, really serving that customer well and doing more to really support those stores,” said Combs. Sean John is currently sold in more than 1,500 doors nationwide, including specialty stores and department stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Rich’s and Belks. Combs also has a major celebrity-driven advertising campaign hitting the March/April publications of GQ, Maxim, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Details and featuring DJ Mark Ronson and Vincent Pastore from the Sopranos.
Yet despite what seems to be some industry perception that Sean John is heading toward a more tailored, high fashion direction, Combs is actually keen on creating a lifestyle brand.
“[Sean John] has a sort of edge but also a diversity to it…it goes from the casual sexy up to the elegant. I think we could do it all and do it well so it fits your lifestyle, being young, being hip, being sexy, being into fashion. Some of it’s high fashion and some of it’s medium fashion, but at the end of the day, it’s fashion, however you want to categorize it.”
The concept of a lifestyle brand has been inspired, to some degree, by the success of Ralph Lauren, the ultimate purveyor of WASP sensibility and also a man Combs refers to as a hero and “one of the fliest cats I’ve ever seen.” Yet Combs maintains an entirely disparate image.
“Everything about his brand is leveraging the kind of urban hip-hop ghetto-goods look, the sense of some centrist urban culture that he as a person represents,” said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys Inc., a brand and consumer loyalty research and consultancy firm. The image comes despite the fact that Combs was raised in suburban New York.
“It’s hard to separate him out with all of the music, acting, restaurants and clothing,” said Passikoff. “He’s kind of the Martha Stewart of urban ghetto culture…there is always a danger when a brand is invested in an actual person, and Martha Stewart is the most recent depiction of that kind of risk.”
The strength of the Sean John label, however, lies not just in Combs’ outsize image, but in a strong business model.
“Celebrity brands have become relatively a fact of life. Most come and most go quickly,” said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon Associates. “I think Sean John is probably an exception, largely because beyond the celeb buzz that he got, the product was right on and in tune with its target customer’s expectations. And number two, ironically, the production, the distribution and the marketing execution were really superb.
“It was the intersection of the right time, the right place, the right name and targeted very well towards its core audience and the business execution was really terrific. It has created more of a staying power than the usual celebrity labels, which rise and fall on the celebrity of their namesake.”
And as long as Combs stays in the proverbial spotlight, but stays out of trouble, his Sean John business will likely continue to flourish.
It is one of Bloomingdale’s most successful brands in the men’s division, second to Ralph Lauren, according to Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s. “He has a line with a great future. Many people ask for it by name. He’s very smart and now that he’s going to do women’s, we’re really excited,” said Ruttenstein.
Some of the line’s strengths, according to Ruttenstein, include the colors and the flow of merchandise. “Plus, the brand is recognizable, and it’s not just an inner-city brand. People from all walks of life in all locations buy it.”
And as far as the designer’s runway shows, which are known for their opulence, Combs is intent on putting on a “show.”
“It’s showing off. Showing off the clothes, your artistry and your work, that’s where the swagger comes in. That’s why you have models and photographers and Anna Wintour in the front row with her shades.”
He’s also intent on taking a different approach to designing. “The beauty about me is that I don’t want to learn too much. I want to stay that designing consumer. I don’t want to be that high fashion designer with pins in a pad on my arm and doing my own needlework. I don’t want to get too, too close where I can’t step back and judge it for what it is.”
There’s the body, of course. And then the men — from Puffy to Ben; the marriages; the music, and the movies. Not to mention those eye-popping red-carpet appearances.
Jennifer Lopez’s life has long been tabloid fodder. The story of the girl from Queens cultivating her image and her talent into a multimillion dollar business has been played over and over again — thanks, in no small part, to her public proclamations of how she’s still “Jenny from the Block” juxtaposed with her ostentatious displays of wealth: the shopping sprees, the bling-bling, the Bentley.
However, the public has long espoused Lopez’s crossover appeal. Her beauty and style have allowed her to straddle the line between neighborhood “home girl” and couture-wearing celebrity. So it wasn’t surprising when she took advantage of her fan base to add clothing designer to her lengthy résumé of actress, singer and restaurateur. Taking what appeared to be a cue from former beau Sean “Puffy” Combs’ successful Sean John clothing line, Lopez formed Sweetface Fashions and launched a junior sportswear collection in 2001. But despite her popularity, especially in the teen market, her JLo by Jennifer Lopez line missed the beat.
While it was highly anticipated, when buyers saw the first set of samples, some weren’t happy. It was logo heavy and the styling wasn’t what people expected from Lopez. But Lopez and her team are nothing if not dogged; according to Denise Seegal, president and chief executive officer of Sweetface, after listening to the wants and needs of the customers, things have changed for the better. And Lopez isn’t above learning — and taking — from her ex-beau Puffy: Sweetface last year lured away Sean John designer Heather Thomson to help design the Lopez collection. Seegal said the line now has exceeded its revised annual volume of $65 million and plans for high-double-digit increases next year.
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, initially thought the JLo line was a good idea, but didn’t end up buying it for his store. Since the line has been tweaked, though, Ruttenstein says he’ll take another look. “It sounds like it has improved. Denise is a great merchant and Heather is a great designer.”
While Ruttenstein, in his “humble opinion,” thought the design and quality initially were a problem, he conceded that casual and contemporary looks were the right direction for the brand. But he also believes Lopez and her team could do something more fashion forward. “I think the clothes should reflect Jennifer. They should be sexy and sharp. Her new video is a good example; she wears a powder blue fall suit with a very short miniskirt and a fur collar. She wears other really sexy outfits. The clothes have to be sexy for customers to relate…think Donatella.”
While the company produces a sportswear line, eyewear, swimwear and girl’s wear, it’s the fragrance, Glow by JLo, that is driving the business by staying in the top-three position since its launch last summer.
“There are four other fragrances that I am aware of that have sold $40 million in their first four months on counter — CK One, [Lancôme’s] Miracle, [Chanel’s] Allure and [Christian Dior’s] J’Adore,” Bernd Beetz, chief executive officer of Coty Inc., told WWD in late December. “Now, Glow, Jennifer Lopez’s fragrance for us, is joining that exclusive club. We think we’re well on the way to [a] $100 million [launch year].”
For the spring line, which just hit retail floors, it has been divided into three categories: denim, urban and trend. This way, according to Andy Hilfiger, cofounder and director of Sweetface Fashions, the brand can compete with all of these markets within the junior clothing sector.
“I’ve heard that the line has gotten a lot better,” said Jane Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a market research and consulting firm focusing on Generations X and Y. “No one really believes that she is designing the clothes herself, but I am sure she throws a fit when it isn’t what she wants. There’s no guarantee as to how long a line like this can last, but she is obviously a smart businesswoman.”
The denim category consists of denim jeans, shorts and skirts, but also includes the denim jumpsuit, a style that’s been a top seller since the inception, said Heather Thomson, now the vice president and creative director of the JLo by Jennifer Lopez line.
The urban category includes other signature pieces, such as velour sweatpants, shorts and jackets, as well as sweats and T-shirts in fabrics like cotton jersey and mesh.
On the more trendy side are halter tops and T-shirts in bright colors such as fuchsia and electric blue paired with white or khaki cotton pants, as well as colorfully graphic printed tops to go with jeans.
As for the new logo, Thomson said the period has been dropped (it used to read J.Lo) and it will be much smaller on the clothes. For example, where it used to be large and embroidered in a different color than the garment, it will now appear smaller and the same color as the piece. Also, the logo will not appear on every piece, but will remain on the velour and jersey sets.
Seegal said the brand has recently expanded overseas, first by opening up to specialty stores in Canada and in the fall it will open to stores in South America. While no further licenses have been signed, Seegal mentioned that such products as accessories and footwear could happen soon.
Wendy Red, co-owner of the Washington, D.C.-based Up Against The Wall stores, said she has carried the JLo line since the beginning and sees a major improvement.
“We continue to do very well with it,” she said. “All the velour sets sell and the fit on the jeans and jumpsuits are great. The line has improved a lot. It’s less logo-driven, which is very smart since the customers are looking to wear the Jennifer Lopez style rather than the logo.”
Macy’s East has also carried the line in its Herald Square location since the beginning. According to Robert Jezowski, executive vice president of ready-to-wear, the store expanded its assortment and created a larger shop-in-shop on the junior floor for the spring.
“We are doing very well with the line,” he told WWD in October. “It is the best junior performer in the store to date. They have good management, are more focused than before and they have good product.”
The company, which carries mainly a large assortment of the velour pieces, recently extended the JLo line into other Macy’s East locations in addition to the flagship in Manhattan.
Since the launch of the JLo brand, other performers have taken notice and chosen to launch their own lines. Gwen Stefani plans to launch her line, L.A.M.B., in the fall and rappers Eve and Eminem are also planning to add the fashion designer title to their names.
“The celebrity Pac Man is on our tails, and we can’t rest now,” Seegal said. “We were the first celebrity brand to launch for the female audience and this means we are seen by others as a business model. We have to stay ahead, continue to move faster and we plan to do just that.”