This story first appeared in the November 30, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Men’s wear was the launching pad for the Rocawear empire and remains the core of the brand a decade later, but the evolution of its customer has fostered a big change in the product, according to Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, the label’s co-founder and public persona.
“The Rocawear men’s customer has changed completely in recent years,” Carter said in an interview at his Midtown Manhattan offices. “In the beginning, we could slap the logo on almost anything and the clothes would sell. It was almost like he wanted to belong to something. He wanted to show that he’s part of the culture, part of Roc.
“Now he wants to have more of his own identity and own look, which has forced us to be more creative in our designs. It’s no longer about the logo. It’s about the design and the quality of the clothes.”
About 60 percent of Rocawear’s $700 million in retail sales comes from men’s merchandise. The men’s line is sold in more than 1,500 U.S. doors, with about 65 percent of those being independent specialty retailers.
The core men’s sportswear business is licensed to Roc Apparel Group, a company owned by Carter and a group of partners, including Norton Cher, an original investor in Rocawear. Roc Apparel Group was the original owner of the Rocawear trademarks before the brand was sold to Iconix Brand Group in 2007 for $204 million, after which Roc Apparel Group became the licensee.
Michael Isaacman, executive vice president of design and merchandising at Roc Apparel, echoed Carter’s thoughts on the current direction of the Rocawear men’s collection.
“Spring ’10 is contemporary and sophisticated. Fit continues to evolve but not change completely. It slims up a bit,” he explained. “Washed denim is a huge component, as are cut-and-sewn details on tops. Logos are still important as the icon of the brand, but with very subtle treatments.”
Denim comprises about 40 percent of men’s sportswear sales.
Other licensees in men’s categories include Elizabeth Arden for fragrance; Age Group for underwear and loungewear; Colors in Optics for eyewear; Soho Fashion for outerwear; M. London for belts; Concept One for hats and cold-weather accessories; Gina Group for socks, and Endurance LLC for big and tall apparel.
The company is in the market for a licensee for watches, according to Denise Grande, vice president of licensing for Rocawear at Iconix Brand Group.
Steven Faro, vice president of sales at outerwear licensee Soho Fashion, said he saw a broad audience for the men’s product. “It was labeled an urban brand in the beginning, but now I see it as a mainstream, young men’s streetwear brand,” he noted. “The Rocawear name crosses all demographics, and it’s for anyone who wants something with great style and a great price point.”
Faro’s colleague, sales manager Fatima Acosta, pointed out that at a recent Jay-Z concert, the audience comprised a wide spectrum of New Yorkers.
“When I tell people I work with Rocawear, their eyes light up,” said Faro. “They know the name because of Jay-Z. He’s on TV with Alicia Keys singing that New York song at the World Series. That kind of publicity for the brand is invaluable.”
Indeed, Jay-Z’s star power and widespread appeal has helped Soho Fashion sell Rocawear outerwear into Macy’s and Dillard’s, as well as chains such as Dr. Jays, Jimmy Jazz, Man Alive, City Blues, Downtown Locker Room and Eastbay.
“The fact this brand has an iconic figure that is known globally for [his] creativity separates Rocawear from the rest, and it encompasses an eclectic customer base,” agreed Sanford Hutton, president and owner of Colors in Optics, which markets Rocawear sunglasses and ophthalmic frames for men and women.
Since selling the brand and becoming the men’s sportswear licensee, Carter has remained intimately involved in the direction of Rocawear, say those around him. The Rocawear offices occupy two floors at 1411 Broadway, and also house offices for Jay-Z’s Roc Nation music venture with concert promotion powerhouse Live Nation.
“What’s great is this is the only New York office Jay has, so when he’s in New York, he’s here,” said Jameel Spencer, chief marketing officer at Rocawear. “He’s more involved with Rocawear now than ever.”
This spring, Iconix will launch a joint venture in China for the Rocawear brand with Shanghai-based Bosideng International Holdings to open up to 300 stores and in-store shops over the next three years. Other international
distribution partners for Rocawear overseas are Eastside Distributors and Multiprint (children’s wear) in Canada; Senri Bokei in Japan; Sidewalk Brands in Europe and the U.K.; Vibes International in the Middle East; TBC
Gestao de Marcas Ltd. in Brazil, and Diona Co. Ltd. in Russia.
In response to the economic downturn of the past year, Rocawear has aimed to increase the fashion and quality appeal of its products while maintaining its retail price levels, executives at Roc Apparel said.
“It’s been less about lowering prices and more about increasing our price value,” said Ronald DeMichael, chief financial officer and chief operating officer at Roc Apparel. “We want to make sure that things like our $68 jeans look like $128 jeans to our customer.”
The company also creates aggressively priced pieces each quarter, dubbed “category killers,” to drive retail traffic and sales. “These items, like the Big R polo at $48, have done very well for us,” he added.
Unlike competitors including Sean John and Marc Ecko, Rocawear has resisted risking capital to open its own stores and has remained focused on its wholesale business.
“We don’t actively have a plan to open retail stores,” said Spencer. “We know what we’re good at. And with Iconix owning the brand now, they are not in the business of opening stores. They are in the business of owning brands and partnering with licensees.”
As part of the deal to sell Rocawear, Carter and Iconix also formed a joint venture, called Scion LLC, with the intention of buying and building other young men’s brands. Artful Dodger, acquired in 2007, was the first deal under that agreement.
Artful Dodger is one of many next-generation streetwear brands — along with labels such as LRG, Crooks & Castles, A Bathing Ape and Public School — that have dramatically reshaped the young men’s landscape. The newer brands have combined the urban and contemporary/premium aesthetics — including slimmer fits, less-obvious logos and distribution in higher-end boutiques, rather than department or chain stores — which appeals to a younger generation of streetwear consumers. This trend is most obviously seen at the MAGIC trade show, which used to devote an entire hall to the urban marketplace, but has now focused on reorganizing these new brands into the S.L.A.T.E. (progressive streetwear) and Premium sections, which is where the action is for buyers.
These fresh brands have catered to a younger generation of consumers growing up in a different cultural environment, one that blends musical tastes and fashion sensibilities among Generation Y consumers (and those who are even younger), who have grown up in the Internet age with easy access to new media and information from many different sources, including blogs, YouTube, Facebook and hundreds of cable channels. As such, original players like Rocawear, Sean John and Ecko have shifted gears as well.
Other brands, such as Eminem’s Shady, Nelly’s Vokal, Young Jeezy’s 8732 and 50 Cent’s G-Unit have either shuttered or largely disappeared from retail in the past couple of years, either because the concepts ran out of steam, the companies that produced the product did not adapt to the changing marketplace, the stars behind the brands saw their popularity decline or they could not compete in a streetwear environment that saw heightened competition from the newer brands, as well as retailers who lost interest in the urban market due to weak sales.
Younger consumers also have grown up in a society that is more multicultural than ever, and this has impacted their tastes in both music and fashion, all of which has influenced trends in the young men’s market.
“We have to recognize that this is a new generation. The party has changed,” said Spencer of the evolving marketplace once known as urban. “When I was in school, when you went to the cafeteria, all the black guys would sit at one table, all the Asians at another. But today it’s all mixed up. It’s a smorgasbord. If you look at the average guy’s iPod, he’s got old-school hiphop, N.W.A. and Coldplay and U2 on it.”
As the young men’s market fractured over the past few years, some big retailers, such as Pacific Sunwear’s D.e.m.o. chain, shuttered, leaving that customer underserved.
“It created an environment where the customer became confused on where to go to find the cool looks he needs in his wardrobe,” said Spencer. “The urban kid is still out there, but his buying patterns and cultural norms have changed. He’s now comfortable wearing a lot of different labels, and he is much more of an individualist than he was. He used to look to brands like Rocawear and stores like D.e.m.o. to create cool looks for him in a head-to-toe outfit. Now he has access to a wealth of information and distribution channels — Internet, boutique stores and vertical retail in the mall.”
In response, Rocawear has focused on offering cleaner styles — such as its R+ sublabel — that appeal to a wider range of consumers, including contemporary customers. It’s also continued to use Jay-Z and other celebrities in its upscale advertising campaigns, including new TV spots directed by Spike Lee and print ads shot by Mark Seliger, to burnish the brand and keep it top of mind.
“You really have to stand for something, and for us that’s a lifestyle and attitude, as represented by Jay, and that’s what people are buying into with the Rocawear brand,” said Spencer. “It’s aspirational and makes people feel successful on their own terms, whether they work at UPS or a music studio. The strategy is working for us.”