AN AMERICAN ‘REVOLUTION’
Byline: Melanie Kletter / With contributions from David Grant Caplan
NEW YORK — The theme of Sean John’s fall men’s wear show this Saturday night is aptly called revolution.
The revolutionary angle is fitting for a number of reasons. First of all, press coverage of the show will likely spark a small uprising, since it will receive the kind of attention usually reserved for a major sporting event. In conjunction with E! Entertainment Television and its offshoot Style channel, a two-hour “Live from the Runway: Sean John” television extravaganza will feature behind-the-scenes footage, as well as commentaries from fashion experts on the fashion runway presentation.
Of course, the media hype will only add to the already heightened attention designer Sean “Puffy” Combs is currently receiving, as well as representing the downside of the gangsta rap image, as he stands trial on weapons possession charges for a 1999 shooting at a Manhattan nightclub.
But the intense attention on the Sean John line is evidence of another revolution, maybe better called an evolution: the growing strength of the ethnic fashion market and it’s gaining recognition by the larger fashion establishment.
So far, it has been essentially more of a men’s wear phenomenon, but those who have made inroads have a patient, but calculating eye on women’s. Combs, in fact, said he is looking forward to getting into the women’s business. Originally, it had been on the drawing board for fall 2001. “I’m taking my time with that and don’t want to overextend myself,” he said. “Our women’s has been delayed to next year because I want to get it right. But it will be incredibly sexy, strong, approachable and hot.”
New York Fashion Week in recent years has become a key destination for young men’s firms. This current edition is slated to include runway presentations from Sean John, Ecko Unlimited and Avirex. Other companies that have shown in the last year are Pelle Pelle, Mecca, Maurice Malone and BC Ethic.
The young men’s market has developed steadily over the last decade, and was pioneered by brands such as Fubu, Ecko Unlimited and Triple Five Soul. Now, the market has evolved to include labels inspired by male hip-hop artists and celebrities. Among the most popular young men’s brands right now are those associated with musicians, such as Phat Farm, the line from music mogul Russell Simmons; Sean John; Rocawear, the line from rapper Jay-Z, and Ruff Ryders, the fashion firm associated with the Ruff Ryders hip-hop label.
At the same time, more mainstream brands have actively courted urban consumers. Guess, DKNY, Polo and Tommy Hilfiger are some of the brands that advertise heavily in ethnic-oriented magazines and have tailored their looks to appeal more to urban customers.
The proliferation of “authentic” urban brands — often backed by African-American entrepreneurs — is giving mainstream labels that appeal to the consumer segment, such as Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Jeans Co. and CK Jeans, “a run for their money,” said Jacqui Booker, a women’s buyer with 17-unit New York-based retailer Dr. Jay’s.
“It’s definitely taken food out of their mouth,” she said. “I’m sure it’s putting a dent in their business. Would you have seen Tommy’s stock hit the ground if all of this didn’t happen?”
Wendy Red, fashion director at the Up Against the Wall chain, said brands such as Sean John and Ecko are challenging the preeminence of the likes of Tommy because some minority consumers “can associate with urban brands a little bit more when they see a rapper than with a Polo ad with an American flag.”
As young men’s brands expand and seek out new customers, many are shying away from the term “urban,” preferring instead to consider themselves “lifestyle” brands that are not specific to a certain audience.
Firms such as Fubu, Ecko and Sean John are aggressively signing licensing deals to expand their message and garner more market share, and have upgraded fabrics and styling to reach customers in a more sophisticated way. Some of these companies have partnered with larger firms to build more muscle. Among the partnerships are Mecca with International News, Enyce and Fila, and Fubu and Samsung.
Sean John’s line is starting to rival the breadth of Tommy Hilfiger, which just a few short years ago was embraced by many in the hip-hop world.
In addition to its core sportswear line, Sean John now has outerwear and kid’s wear, as well as a new deal it just inked for underwear with OCC Apparel. The Sean John line can be found in core department stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Burdine’s, as well as in specialty shops such as Dr. Jay’s and Jimmy Jazz.
Red said minority shoppers eagerly embraced the Sean John line when it was launched because “they felt it was authentic and it had a message and it was real.”
In addition, Booker noted that race is “still an issue” for some consumers in determining which brand to support.
“You can’t overlook that+they will now pick up a Fubu shirt over a Tommy shirt,” she said, acknowledging the “For Us, By Us” moniker created by the brand’s African-American founders.
Red at the Up Against the Wall said many urban labels launched recently and backed by minorities are trying to muscle their way into the increasingly and lucrative market. But the mere fact that a minority owns the label is not enough to support a brand’s street legitimacy.
“There are a lot of lines I’ve noticed coming up and calling themselves ‘urban,’ which is a hard word to use because everyone has a different interpretation,” she said. “They think just because they are Afro-American and they can put together a line, that it’s going to sell — the line definitely has to have a message and authenticity.”
Ecko Unlimited is another young men’s brand that will show at the Bryant Park tents this season. While the company had some tough times in the last few years — in 1999 the firm grew a large debt and was rumored to possibly be on the way out — the company has pulled itself together, launched women’s and signed a host of licensing deals.
Marc Ecko, president and design director of the firm, said, “The situation has gotten very crowded. It’s going to be survival of the fittest.”
He said there are a few movements going on that are clouding “how the genre is perceived.”
“There is a bunch of companies that have emerged as me-too brands that are very low priced and do a poor job of marketing,” he said. “Then there are brands that are music inspired and directly related to music and hip-hop, including Sean John and Rocawear. Then there is the group that is more streetwear-oriented and self-made. This group includes us, as well as brands such as Triple Five Soul and Maurice Malone.”
Ecko said his core men’s line should fetch $100 million in sales this year, while licensed products are on track for $60 million, and the women’s business, which has been around three seasons, should reach about $25 million. His growing empire of licenses in the men’s arena includes products such as outerwear, gloves, bags and footwear.
“Our strategy has been to have very managed growth and secure our niche,” he said, noting that his next step will likely be to open his own stores.
Ecko agreed that the overall fashion community has embraced young men’s and urban fashion “to a certain extent.”
“I think there has been a pool of talent that has been embraced by the fashion and design community,” he said. “However, the traditional fashion press has not given us the same attention. Unless you are linked to a celebrity, they are not interested.”
While many of these firms have been around for several years, their distribution has largely been limited to specialty chains and smaller retailers. However, as department stores continue to look for ways to differentiate themselves, young men’s brands are receiving more attention from department stores and more established retail players.
But as the young men’s brands continue to gain strength in men’s fashion, women’s fashion has been a different story. While the urban men’s wear market has grown dramatically, there hasn’t been a comparable movement in the women’s apparel scene.
Companies cite a number of reasons why women’s hasn’t evolved in the same way as the men’s. Fit is more complex, for one thing, and design for women is more detailed and complicated. In addition, launching a line is often expensive and female artists who want to enter the fashion world may need to find the right design partner.
Plus, many female stars choose to wrap themselves in well-known luxury brands, such as Channel, Gucci and Christian Dior, rather than in fashions that seem to specifically target an ethnic population.
But that’s not to say there isn’t potential for more women’s brands to enter the field.
From music to movies and from Jennifer Lopez to Serena Williams, Latina, Asian and African-American female celebrities are playing an increasingly critical role in shaping many areas of popular culture, and some of these celebrities seem perfectly suited to start their own fashion lines.
Sonya Owens, owner of the two-unit Atlanta chain Mack’s Cab Co., said Jennifer Lopez should follow in the steps of her bad-boy partner and launch a line of clothing because “she’s going to give them sexy urban.”
If Lopez launched a line, Owens believes “the Puerto Rican community will come out for her because they love and support her.” But Owens is quick to add the Lopez persona is one that extends beyond any one race or ethnic background.
“I think Jennifer messing around with Puffy right now will make her line really hot because now they look at her like she’s one of us and one of the girls — there’s no color barrier,” she said.
Meanwhile, a host of women’s magazines has sprung up that are tapping into the broader ethnic market, including Latina, Honey, Latin Girl, Savoy and Girl, which offer a venue for up-and-coming fashion firms.
In the last few years, several popular young men’s brands have launched women’s lines, including Fubu, Karl Kani, Mecca, Phat Farm and Enyce. Although the women’s offerings from these brands still have relatively small distribution, they are starting to gain acceptance among retailers and consumers. Many of the crossover brands feature styling that is dramatically different from the men’s counterparts that inspired them, and often have product that is tailored and fitted.
Kimora Lee Simmons, wife of Russell Simmons, is the president and creative director behind Baby Phat and has been instrumental in launching that line, which started shipping last spring.
“We have had great reception and we feel like there is a lot of potential for the brand,” said Keith Foy, vice president of sales at Baby Phat. “When we started, we had more reception from specialty stores, but now department stores are starting to become more aware of the urban market.”
Among the stores Baby Phat is currently distributed in are Pacific Sunwear’s Demo division, as well as Macy’s East and Dillard’s.
Baby Phat has already signed four licensing deals and will likely add a few more soon, said Michelle Perez, marketing director for the company. Baby Phat’s second ad campaign for spring is starting to run this month in a number of magazines.
Fubu Ladies, the women’s line from Fubu, launched in 1998, and now has a variety of licensed products.
“We have always avoided the term urban,” said Leslie Short, president of marketing and advertising. “With our women’s line we have gone softer and more feminine, and our styling has gotten more sophisticated.”
Lady Enyce launched nearly two years ago, and was one of the first junior lines to evolve out of the young men’s scene. Now in about 150 doors, Lady Enyce is expected to have sales of about $15 million this year, according to president Evan Davis.
As mainstream companies continue to target a wider audience, they have to take some time to figure out how to best market their message.
Up Against The Wall’s Red said mainstream labels have adapted their advertising in recent years to capture the attention — and spending dollars — of minority consumers.
But, said Owens, slapping a black face on an advertisement — such as the Steven Klein-shot, fall 1999 CK Jeans ad featuring Foxy Brown — doesn’t make an brand urban, nor does it necessarily warm the hearts of minority consumers.
“Just because she’s wearing (a pair of CK Jeans), that’s not making the brand urban,” she said. “I think they’re just trying to cater to the kids who are urban, who are black and that’s not going to do it. He just put Foxy Brown in a pair of jeans — he didn’t make another line to cater to these kids.”