Don’t call it a comeback.
Before there was streetwear, there was urban streetwear, which consisted of brands that were a direct product of hip-hop culture.
Walk into any retailer today, whether it’s a big-box chain or a luxury department store, and there are traces, reinterpretations and sometimes replicas of urban streetwear pieces from brands such as Fubu, Phat Farm, Rocawear, Sean John and others that hit their peak during the late Nineties and early Aughts.
While brands including Guess, Nautica and Calvin Klein have capitalized on this Nineties trend with capsule collections targeting a younger consumer — Guess partnered with A$AP Rocky and Nautica tapped 19-year-old rapper Lil Yachty — urban streetwear brands have yet to do the same.
In some cases, it’s intentional as former teen favorites have opted to grow along with their customers and stop chasing a fickle young consumer. But for others, the industry says it’s impossible to make a major comeback given the current marketplace.
“I don’t want to make clothes for Millennials,” said Russell Simmons, who founded Phat Farm in 1992. “That’s not my brand.”
Simmons is instead concentrating on his new Los Angeles yoga studio and active line, which are both called Tantris — during the phone interview, he requested that flower petals be scattered around the studio’s Om — along with Argyleculture, a men’s wear brand he introduced in 2008 that’s sold exclusively at J.C. Penney.
Argyleculture caters to a multicultural customer Simmons calls the “urban graduate,” who has grown up with him and is looking for an alternative to Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.
The idea to abandon Phat Farm and create a new brand for a new customer came from Glen Farraye, president of the Simmons Design Group, who was tasked by Kellwood Corp. with reviving Phat Farm when it acquired the label in 2004 for $140 million.
“Phat Farm’s business had basically dissolved and nobody knew why,” said Farraye. “I said, ‘Russell, you can’t connect with teenagers because you are 50 years old. You need to reconnect with your audience from a mature point of view.’”
Both Simmons and Farraye agree it would be hard for urban streetwear brands, including Phat Farm, to reassert themselves in the market in an impactful way. But Farraye believes this is the typical trajectory of young men’s brands, which are usually hot for 10 to 15 years before losing momentum, whereas brands that don’t chase a youth-oriented customer have a longer shelf life.
Kevin Leong, who used to design for Phat Farm and is presently the creative director for Lil Wayne’s Trukfit collection, agrees.
“The youth culture always wants something different,” said Leong. “The younger brother doesn’t want the same thing as his older brother. During the Nineties, brands like Polo and Tommy solidified their position in the marketplace as classic and core aspirational brands, but urban brands were never able to do this because they were always replaced by a new version.”
Leong said young shoppers are interested in graphics, colors and prints that urban streetwear brands touted, but they prefer a more tailored silhouette. And instead of wearing full ensembles from one brand, they pick and choose pieces from a variety of popular streetwear lines with somewhat morose names, including Fear of God, Anti Social Social Club, Brain Dead, No Vacancy Inn and Off-White.
“Right now kids are interested in brands that have a perspective and people that have a perspective,” said James Whitner, owner of the Whitaker Group, which operates a chain of streetwear and sneaker specialty stores throughout the U.S., including Social Status, Prosper, A Ma Maniére and APB. “Look at Anti Social Social Club. The kids are going crazy about that brand. They are interested in those brands because they are curated really well, distribution is very tight and their stories matter and resonate with them.”
Simmons thinks the main reason urban streetwear brands can’t reintroduce themselves is because of distribution decisions made in the past.
“We made a mistake by selling in Macy’s,” admitted Simmons, who added that many urban streetwear brands didn’t have the financial wherewithal to compete with other department store brands. “Doing that killed everything.”
According to Simmons, the ripple effect went something like this: Major department stores picked up urban streetwear brands and took them out of regional specialty stores. Those specialty stores went out of business because they lacked flagship brands that could draw other emerging lines, and now because these stores don’t exist, urban streetwear lines don’t have the proper network of distribution.
“It would be hard for a brand like Phat Farm to reel it back in and make it into something cool again,” said Keith Tran, co-owner of Black Market, a men’s streetwear and sneaker boutique with locations in Dallas and Arlington, Tex. “A good example of that is Billionaire Boys Club. It started as extremely niche, but once they merged with Iconix, they blew it out. Now they’ve changed their model again and want to scale things back, push prices up and reintroduce new cuts, but it hasn’t done as well as they’ve wanted it to.”
Whitner isn’t interested in carrying urban streetwear brands of yesteryear but he will be selling Roc 96, a line created by Kareem “Biggs” Burke, cofounder of Roc-a-Fella Records and Rocawear. The Roc 96 line plays off of lyrics from Jay Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” album, which marked its 20th anniversary this year. Burke has learned from the mistakes of the past and rather than going for a wider distribution, he created a 14-store collection that dropped nationwide in December and included 14 capsules that are exclusive to each store.
“It was amazing,” Whitner said of the response to the line. “Jay Z manages to stay relevant. He’s crossed every generation for the last two decades. So he and the 20th anniversary of ‘Reasonable Doubt’ gives the line legs that other older streetwear brands don’t have.”
Burke said he’s investing in creating brands rather than trying to reestablish old ones because the Milllennial customer is looking for newness and instead of going mass as he did with Rocawear, he wants to create multiple small brands under one umbrella.
“A comeback is going to be tough for those that have been out there and have gotten to a certain size because when kids see an old logo name, it’s kind of tainted,” said Burke. “With Roc 96 and Fourth of November, we are giving stores certain merchandise in small amounts. We want the customer to feel like they’re getting something there’s not a lot of.”
Rocawear, which was acquired by Iconix for $204 million in 2007, is still in existence and sold at stores including Dillard’s, Amazon, J.C. Penney and Dr Jays. Aleesha Smalls, vice president of digital, marketing & e-commerce at Iconix, who has worked for Rocawear since 2001, said the goal is to cater to the core customer with its product, which she said hasn’t strayed too far from its original aesthetic, and partner with influencers to speak to a younger audience – earlier this year, DJ Khaled was named the face of the brand.
“I wouldn’t say that we have said, ‘Let’s create a capsule collection for x, y and z,’ but I think it’s more about allowing the brand to live in different spaces through the lens of these ambassadors and influencers as a way to tap into a different audience,” said Smalls. “But if something is trending, we bring it back into the collection, like our velour tracksuits.”
Sean John, which received a jolt of press when Rihanna wore an original pink velour tracksuit from the brand on the street last year, is operating in a similar way. The company, which revealed that Global Brands Group purchased a majority stake, now spans 16 categories — suits, watches, fragrances, boys’ and girls’, etc. — and is sold primarily at Macy’s. According to Jeff Tweedy, Sean John’s president and chief executive officer, the brand has integrated vintage-inspired pieces into its existing assortment and plans to bring back the Sean John script logo next year, but there haven’t been any special collections to speak to a younger audience. Tweedy added that, similar to Argyleculutre, Sean John’s men’s wear customer is now 30 to 40 years old.
“This is the problem, if you are out of sight, you are out of mind,” he said, adding that many urban streetwear brands didn’t create classic items that could be sold for decades. “Fila had that velour suit, Champion had their sweatshirt, Calvin Klein had that jean that Brooke Shields wore in all of their campaigns. I don’t think a lot of these brands made any of those iconic pieces that people remember.”
Will Wagner, the owner of Deep Cover, a boutique located in New York’s Lower East Side that specializes in vintage Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Champion, Nike and Calvin Klein, said he doesn’t get a lot of requests for urban streetwear brands, but he is interested in older Fubu pieces.
Daymond John, now a regular judge on ABC’s hit TV series “Shark Tank,” started Fubu, which is still privately held, out of his mother’s house in 1989. Fubu hit its peak in 1998 when sales were more than $350 million. In 2003 it mostly left the U.S. market to focus on overseas sales and in 2010, Fubu launched a legacy brand that John contends didn’t succeed due to the recession. The brand currently distributes footwear in Wal-Mart Stores and suits in Korea, the Philippines, South Africa, Spain and Australia. John said every so often he makes special pieces, mostly hats, to put on social media and give to celebrity friends and will be collaborating with Ebbets Field to create the brand’s popular jerseys and hoodies.
“Fubu was the one that really catered to the urban market,” said Tran. “People were wearing Tommy, Polo and Guess, but those brands weren’t made for the urban market. Fubu was the first brand to say this is for us, by us, and I think there is more of a legacy and heritage there that still means something today.”
Farraye also believes that many urban streetwear brands haven’t jumped on capsule collections in the same way Nautica and Tommy Hilfiger have because it isn’t a profitable business, but Aaron Levant, founder of streetwear trade show Agenda, doesn’t agree.
“Urban Outfitters is a decent-size retailer so there’s money there, but brands do these things to get a new generation interested in the brand and that can translate into long-term financial growth down the line,” said Levant, who noted Kith’s recent collaboration with Iceberg, a brand that was popular with rappers in the late Nineties and early Aughts. “It is possible for these brands to make a comeback. It just takes the right person from the right era and the right retailer to reenergize it. But many of the people who own these brands are disconnected and don’t have any interest in doing that.”
Instead of one-off collections, Farraye says the real opportunity for urban streetwear brands is to create a more mature version of that line and not attempt to cater to the younger consumer.
“You can’t just reinvent the brand. You have to present something with new branding that is for an older audience,” said Farraye. “Unfortunately that customer grew up and left those brands, and teenagers coming in don’t want them, but there’s an enormous opportunity to reconnect with that urban audience if they would connect with that adult guy.”