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NEW YORK — “This is a defining moment in black history,” said Sean “Diddy” Combs, at a star-studded party at Manhattan’s Core Club celebrating the launch of his new fragrance, Unforgivable. “Black designers don’t get a lot of opportunities like this. But I am challenging all men and women of color to reach for the top.”

The dapper rapper — who arrived fashionably late to the bash, a good two hours after the start time — waded into a mélange of celebrities ranging from Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Nelly, Kelis and Ashanti to the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton, Pamela Anderson and Ben Stiller. Quietly talking in the sea of hip-hop stars and rappers were the corporate pillars — Terry Lundgren, chairman and chief executive officer of Federated Department Stores, and William Lauder, president and ceo of the Estée Lauder Cos., which is producing and marketing the scent. Warner Music Group chairman and ceo Edgar Bronfman Jr. also walked in.

Asked what he was doing at a fragrance party, Lundgren said: “When Sean calls,” he makes an effort. And for good reason. The fragrance has been on sale at Macy’s Herald Square for two days and already it has shot to number three. That is without the support of advertising, sampling, modeling or testers — just from walk-through traffic. “I entirely expect it to go to number one,” he said.

“I’m thrilled,” was the predictable response from Lauder. “He’s got a real sense of what is going on,” Lauder said of Diddy. “He’s got his finger on the pulse.” He said that Lauder’s relationships with Missoni, Tom Ford and Diddy all “open us to taking different directions in business, different possibilities. They give us what we need to stay fresh with those consumers.”

Nelly looked quite debonair in a cream-colored blazer and matching sweater. Flashing his diamond-encrusted grill, he brushed his shoulder off as Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” played overhead.

When later asked if he might find some new licensing deals in the surrounding swirl of rappers and high-wattage lookers, Lauder shot back: “Why not? Who’s here?” Looking around, he noted that he’s already signed some of them. “Pam’s already a part of the MAC family. And I’m not doing a ‘Zoolander’ fragrance,” he said, referring to Stiller.

This story first appeared in the February 3, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

One who’s apparently available is Jay-Z. Always the consummate businessman, he arrived wearing his signature Rocafella bling, schmoozing the crowd. After describing the fragrance as “incredible,” he declared: “Diddy’s a leader of hip-hop culture. He’s opened doors for us.” He then turned to his posse and was heard saying, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Unforgivable got a thumbs-up from Ashanti: “It smells sexy,” she said.

Nas is also a fan: “It’s hot.” He added, “And I’m a cologne connoisseur. I got very old bottles of cologne at my crib. What you know about Grey Flannel? But it don’t matter that he’s my man — if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t wear it.”

While showing off her black-and-white Miu Miu pumps to onlookers, Kelis, Nas’ wife, said she loved the fact that Diddy was launching a fragrance.

“It’s hot, it’s great,” she said. Indianapolis Colts’ defensive end Dwight Freeney agreed. “It smells nice. I like it,” he said.

Speaking of football — the career path that Combs originally planned to follow before breaking a leg in college — the rapper was still nursing a sports-related injury he’d sustained several weeks ago. “My son Justin’s football team was playing Snoop Dogg’s son’s team [both men coach their sons’ teams]. Justin’s team won, and he was so happy that he jumped on me and dislocated my finger,” said Combs with a grin, showing the splint still on his finger. “But that’s a good injury.”

Injured or not, little can keep Combs down, because the Diddy plays hurt. And he’s out in full force to support the launch, appearing on a host of shows from the “Today” show to “The View.” Last Monday, while taping a segment of the “Late Show With David Letterman” that will air tonight, he even tried a novel way of sampling the product: spraying Letterman’s mouth with apple juice in an Unforgivable bottle. Letterman returned the favor; both seemed to approve of the taste.

John Demsey, global president of the Estée Lauder and MAC brands, has overseen the Diddy project, including its controversial print ad, which was shunned by a number of stores. He pointed out that it hasn’t been since the days of Calvin Klein’s Obsession in 1985 that a launch has created such a stir. The ad features Combs, clad only in a sheet, in bed with two women — one of whom has her head on his bare thigh, suggesting a ménage à trois. It also is unusual to have a two-stage launch plan with a high-priced component in Saks Fifth Avenue last fall and a more mainstream version in department stores now. As a result, Lauder has upgraded its sales target from the top five to the top three.

But the boost from the suggestive ad also left some bruises. On Jan. 23, while Diddy was being transported across Broadway in a sumptuous, tricked-out van — outfitted with limousine seating, a full bar, a flat-screen TV and a wooden parquet floor — he shared his feelings about the controversy following the ad. “I was extremely surprised by it. And at first, I was just like, if this is going to be the new industry norm, then I’ll go along with it. But to be honest, I think that in some places, they didn’t treat me fairly. I wanted to fight to make sure that my vision and my products are seamless in the stores and the magazines. I’ve been so involved in this and focused on it that [the controversy] really hurt me a little bit, because it felt a little discriminatory. I’m not saying it was on a black level. I just felt like I was being treated differently.”

And he noted that it wasn’t just expected areas of the country —such as the Bible Belt, for instance —that were raising a fuss. “It happened in New York and on the West Coast, too,” he said. “It went over the Bible Belt and extended to the East Coast and the West Coast. Everybody knows culturally that fragrance ads are supposed to be sexy. That’s a part of the culture in America. I guess that means that I’m following in the steps of the great ones — the campaigns that have been banned from stores and publications,” he said with a laugh. “So I guess we’re getting something good out of it.” But don’t expect that rebellious spirit to be tamed. “Going forward,” he promised, “I won’t be that lenient about giving in.”

With contributions from Andrea Arterbery and Crystal Martin

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