Byline: Valerie Seckler

NEW YORK — Lifestyles, not labels.
That’s the best single way to appeal to today’s female African-American fashion customer, according to marketing experts. And she’s an increasingly important one, spending roughly $4 billion on apparel alone each year — and about $7.6 billion annually when accessories are included. Those fashion consumption figures for 2000, the most recent available, are from Cotton Inc.’s Lifestyle Monitor, and mark a 31 percent surge over spending on apparel and accessories by African-American women in 1999.
The notion — early in a new millennium — of marketing based primarily on race seems absurd to many marketing experts contacted by WWD.
Instead, more than a dozen observers contacted suggested the time has come to make fashion marketing appeal to people with diverse racial roots based on psychographics and lifestyles common to several of those groups, who may or may not share certain demographic traits. Indeed, when it comes to marketing fashion, demographics such as age and language are seen as far more significant than race. Of course, how to do that is a matter of debate.
“Lifestyles are expanding across racial lines, much more so than along age-based differences,” observed Lois Huff, a vice president at Columbus, Ohio-based management consultant Retail Forward, where she specializes in consumer shopping behavior and demographics. “Bodies and budgets tend to change a lot more with age than race.
“Fashion tastes are converging, too,” Huff continued. “So, it is smarter for marketers to go after a lifestyle that spans racial differences.”
Leta Gandolfini, president of Ashley Stewart, the first fashion brand known to hawk its plus-size appeal, aimed at African-American women, on a Times Square billboard, agreed. “If it’s a great ad that appeals to a lifestyle, it works,” said Gandolfini, whose chain, with sales of about $170 million annually, aims to operate 180 stores by May. “That’s a very modern approach. I’m Italian-American,” Gandolfini added, “and I don’t think of myself as Italian.”
“Lifestyle, without a doubt, is the biggest factor in appealing to the African-American market,” observed Pamela Macklin, fashion director at Essence magazine. “The African-American market is not used to being romanced, so if a product is marketed to address a person’s lifestyle, they will probably buy into it anyway.
“It’s a market that has just as many segments as any other, but marketers still think of African-Americans as some strange oddity,” Macklin maintained. “There’s an upper, middle, and lower class, just like other groups.
“And don’t just give me one image — i.e., Li’l Kim — and think she speaks to an entire market,” Macklin emphasized, in citing the African-American, hip-hop songstress. “I didn’t treat my African-American customers differently from my white, Asian, or Hispanic customers.” Essence had a circulation of 1.05 million readers as of December, according to Audit Bureau of Circulation data.
At the same time, marketing experts advised there are still needs specific to the African-American fashion customer and they cautioned it would be a mistake for marketers to ignore those distinctions. “I deal with African-American attitudes as we’re a multicultural research consultant,” said Ron Franklin, president of Insight Worldwide, the research arm of Southfield, Mich.-based GoldenHue, a multicultural marketing communications company. “Lifestyle is an important part of whatever marketing communication should be, but so is talking to ‘me,”‘ Franklin stated. “African-Americans don’t want to be one of the crowd. Marketers have to communicate personalized needs.”
It’s a perspective, Franklin added, that was driven home during Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony.
“The Oscars should have revealed to the world that the relevance of being African-Americans is getting bigger,” Franklin offered in citing the best actor and actress winners Denzel Washington and [Revlon model] Halle Berry — a precedent-setting event that marked just the second statue in the category awarded to an African-American man and the first to an African-American woman. “It was a hallmark occasion,” Franklin observed. “When Halle Berry got the best actress award, the first thing she said was about blackness. She thanked her predecessors, like Lena Horne, and acknowledged the hope her award represents.
“The relevance of being African-American involves both one’s self and one’s community,” Franklin added. “We are still there and we do not want to ignore that fact.” Discount giant Kmart, for one, is intensifying its efforts to address its African-American customers, launching Monday the first part of its new multicultural marketing program, with rollout of national radio spots in areas where African-American shoppers have a strong presence. The spots, featuring original music performed by Chaka Kahn and BeBe Winans, reflect Kmart’s latest effort to target the multicultural customers who, it estimates, account for 11.7 million of the 30 million people who shop its 2,100 stores each week. Most prevalent among the broadest-based attributes of African-American style sensibilities is a strong sense of pride in their appearance and belief that they can put together a look best for themselves, versus head-to-toe dressing in a single brand, sources told WWD. At the same time, they acknowledged the danger in making sweeping statements about the purchasing activity, let alone broader characteristics, of any particular group. Also present among many African-American women is a greater comfort with the entire range of body types, from petite to plus-size, and a greater willingness to take fashion risks, marketing experts said.
These dynamics, in part, helped force African-Americans into becoming individual fashion/lifestyle trendsetters during the 20th century, noted sources. This was further spurred by the absence of aspirational, African-American models in much marketing aimed at the “general market,” which is the PC catch-phrase currently used to describe white consumers. This is the same dynamic that has put another underserved market, gay consumers, into a trendsetting role, marketers pointed out.
For now, ad campaigns with images of diverse populations are about as close as most fashion marketers get. Within that narrow band, they’re widening their scope, starting to use a more diverse range of white models; for instance, making a conscious effort to avoid ads crowded with too many blonde-haired, blue-eyed visions.
While the notion of sprinkling style-driven images with a rainbow of consumers (think United Colors of Benetton) seems passe, a well-executed multi-racial media campaign can still fail to meet the broader reality it represents, at retail. There’s often a disconnect between the marketed image and the merchandising shoppers find in-store. A case in point: Gap Inc., whose flagship chain has regularly used multicultural models in its ads, but whose stores have mostly stuck with basics and faltered badly when chasing fashion items, like those that could well appeal to many African-American fashion customers, who sources said tend to be more adventurous in their tastes.
Though sources generally avoided speaking too broadly about the tastes of any particular group, Essence’s Macklin offered: “You could safely say that in the African-American culture, being individual — having a piece of clothing that is different — is a big part of forming one’s identity. It is also a culture that tends to be more label conscious and loyal to those brands. An aspirational luxury label like Gucci or Prada is very important.”
So are items from mainstream designers, such as Yves Saint Laurent’s Mombasa, an African-inspired handbag with a horn handle that recently bowed at retail, for $595, and those from designers beyond the mainstream, like leather handbags from Marvin Sin; hand-appliqued evening jackets from Champagne & Grits, and Afro-centric apparel from Damali, who works in fabrics sourced in Africa, including kente cloth and kuba cloth.
To find offbeat and Afro-centric items, shoppers usually have to range beyond department stores, and into specialty boutiques, like The Brownstone, here in Harlem, and 1800 Belmont East, in Washington, D.C., noted Washington-based, Afro-centric marketing expert Diane White, who is the former owner of Blackberry, an Afro-centric boutique there she closed last year.
When asked to identify the most effective media through which to convey a marketing message to African-American women, experts most often cited print, radio and grassroots efforts, say, a promotional event for body-conscious styles at a Destiny’s Child concert. The experts liked print, of course, because it captures a fashion look, and cited Vibe, Elle and Essence as especially effective magazine titles, while also listing In Style and Vogue as productive vehicles.
“From a strategic standpoint, we find print is the most effective medium to showcase fashion or hair care products,” stated Dawn-Marie Gray, marketing vice president at The Additive, an 18-month-old, multicultural agency based here. “For fragrance, music, and alcohol, we find radio, music videos, and the Internet work best.
“We have a culture code at The Additive that goes beyond basic demographic data,” Gray said, noting the agency’s clients include Timberland and Wella, which makes, among other things, the UltraSheen line of hair care products. Overall, she added, African-Americans spent $24.7 billion on women’s, men’s and children’s apparel in 2000, with more than one-third of the group buying between $1,500 and $3,000-worth of items in the fashion category.
But much of that purchasing power remains untapped and fashion brands still have a long way to go to reach the African-American customer with their messages. “Marketers have to respond to the reasons their customers are loyal to them. Sometimes it’s subtle, like a fashion brand’s involvement in community affairs,” said Gray. “One of the main things when you’re speaking to this consumer is looking beyond the obvious, to get into the reasons for her loyalty to various brands.”