Jeffrey Tweedy remembers well the day he got a call from Sean Combs about this new apparel collection he was planning to launch.
Although Tweedy had worked for some of the best-known names in the fashion industry — Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss among them — he was drawn into the hip-hop artist’s vision and decided to take the plunge.
He was Sean John’s first employee.
Twenty years later, Tweedy is still there. With the exception of a two-year stint from 2005 to 2007 — when he joined G-III as president of its sportswear division, he has been the engine behind the growth of the Sean John business since its inception.
Combs said it best when elevating Tweedy to president in 2012: “Jeff was the first employee of Sean John, and nobody understands our brand DNA better. He’s dreamed further for this brand than I even I have. Without Jeff, there would be no Sean John.”
Tweedy was also at the helm at the end of 2016 when Global Brands Group Holdings Ltd. purchased the majority stake in the brand that today boasts retail sales of over $525 million in the U.S.
Looking back at the journey, Tweedy credits Sean John’s longevity with Combs’ willingness to truly learn the industry before starting the brand.
“He took the steps before he took the elevator,” he said. “He went to shows before doing his own shows. So when he finally did his first show, he was embraced by the right people. They gave him the chance because he had been around.”
But when Sean John launched, the competition was fierce. It was the height of the urban trend when brands such as Fubu, Karl Kani and Phat Farm were flying high.
“When we started, there were 36 brands doing what we did, but a lot of them didn’t have vision,” he said.
But Combs did.
“He wanted to establish a lifestyle brand for the Millennials who enjoy music, entertainment and fashion and were big followers of his,” Tweedy said. “He wanted to create a Ralph Lauren for the younger consumer.”
À la Ralph Lauren, Combs’ offered his followers a peek inside his idyllic world. “Beautiful women, beautiful clubs and the most beautiful suits,” Tweedy said. “It was Ralph Lauren with a contemporary feel.”
Customers responded and “we knew we were onto something,” he added. “We were offering something for the young consumer who wanted fashion but didn’t want Tommy Hilfiger or Polo.”
Within two years, the brand was in 1,200 stores and had sales of $200 million.
At that point, Combs was already a wealthy man. He had negotiated a multimillion-dollar partnership stake with Arista Records in 1993 so he “didn’t need the money.”
But he’s nothing if not ambitious. So Combs turned his considerable energies into building his fashion business, graduating from the trade show aisles to the catwalk. His first collection consisted of 11 pieces, including denim, coveralls, twill bottoms and velour hook-ups.
Bloomingdale’s was the first retailer to jump on board, launching the line with a star-studded event that featured Anna Wintour, Iman, Steven Meisel and others.
By February 2000, Sean John had grown enough to prompt Combs to hold his first fashion show during New York Fashion Week. The next year, he spent over $1 million to stage a show that was televised nationally. And in 2004, after being nominated for four years, he won the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s men’s wear designer of the year award.
“Puffy was always thinking outside the box,” Tweedy said.
Sean John even caught the attention of billionaire Ron Burkle, whose Yucaipa Cos. invested $100 million in the brand in 2003.
But like many businesses, Sean John wasn’t immune to the ups and downs of the fickle fashion industry. So as the urban market declined and shifted, Sean John had to pivot. The collection shifted to focus more on fashion and less on basics and the company signed an exclusive distribution agreement deal with Macy’s to be the sole distributor for its sportswear.
By then, Sean John was operating under a fully licensed model, with other department store retailers still able to carry the tailored clothing, furnishings and other categories.
Tweedy recalls that when Sean John first sought to license its business, Combs was resistant. “Puff didn’t understand licensing,” he said. “He wanted us to do everything ourselves, but I said, ‘Slow down, cowboy.’”
Tweedy won that battle and licensing has proven to be a smart business move. “We work really closely with our partners and look at it as more of a joint venture model,” he said. “Most of them have been with us for over 12 years and our contracts are structured in such a way that we approach the product design and marketing together. And we approve everything.”
Those licensing partners include PVH Corp., Parlux, Peerless Clothing and Global Brands Group. All told, there are 18 licensed categories with sportswear, which is held by GBG, representing about half of all sales.
Because of GBG’s relationship with Sean John, it made sense for that company to acquire a majority stake when the brand was seeking an outside investor to help it grow.
Two years before the purchase, Tweedy and Combs set plans in motion to build Sean John into a $1 billion business, one that would include international expansion, retail stores and the move into more categories. But going up against such powerhouse brands as Calvin Klein, Polo and others was going to require a global company with deep pockets.
Hong Kong-based GBG fit the bill. The company is a spin-off of Li & Fung Group and is projecting $5 billion in group sales by 2020.
“Working with GBG has been a plus for us,” Tweedy said. “There’s a wealth of synergy there that will help us build the brand and grow it internationally.”
He said that since inking the deal with GBG 14 months ago, “I’ve had more international meetings than I’ve had in 20 years.”
Although nothing has been finalized, Tweedy said he expects Dubai and the U.K. to be the first markets to expand Sean John outside the U.S.
“When you look at Puffy’s social platform, he’s popular everywhere,” Tweedy said. Combs has nearly 10 million followers on Instagram alone, he said.
Although Combs may have only retained a minority interest — believed to be around 20 percent — he’s still closely involved in the Sean John brand. “Of course he was more involved in the past,” Tweedy said. “But it’s still his name. He laid the foundation and the brand DNA was his culture and vision. Today, he runs a lot of companies, but he’s still there when I need him.” He reviews the collection four times a year and will often visit the offices to give “pep talks” to the team. “He gives it to you raw,” Tweedy said.
It’s that sense of authenticity that has been a hallmark of the brand over the course of its history.
Although Sean John was among the pioneers of the urban fashion trend, the company doesn’t feel the need to crow about it.
“We don’t need to raise the flag for victory,” Tweedy said. “But we know we accomplished what we set out to accomplish. There’s a consumer who loves what we do and they’ve been shopping with us for 20 years.”
But with the brand’s dependence on the department store channel, which has been struggling to reinvent itself, it does present challenges for Sean John as well.
“The retail platform has changed,” Tweedy said. “But if you have good product, people will find you.”
That was one of the reasons Sean John brought back Scott Langton, the original designer of the brand, as vice president of design. He worked for the company from spring 1998 to summer 2004, and was most recently the creative director of vice president of design for Punk Royal. He’s also held design jobs at Phat Farm and Ecko Unltd. and was the founder and creative director of the streetwear brand Artful Dodger.
“We knew for our 20th anniversary we needed to prepare for our next 20 with the right talent,” Tweedy said.
In addition to punching up the mainline, Sean John is also planning a number of collaborations and special events to mark the anniversary.First off, the brand is bringing back its original script logo, which should appeal to both nostalgia seekers as well as new customers.
“We think there’s going to be a sense of discovery for the brand among 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds who weren’t even born when we started,” Tweedy said.
One partnership that he expects to appeal to this crowd is a collaboration with the estate of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. A capsule collection of nine styles of T-shirts, denim and sweatshirts will launch at Macy’s in mid-February and will retail for $49 to $169. Among the key pieces will be a Pez denim jacket and a T-rex sweater.
Tweedy said the late artist’s influence on culture transcended race, class and art and his legacy resonates with the hip-hop community.
Then in the late spring, a collection of Gallery T-shirts will launch that will “pay homage to the icons who inspire Puff,” Tweedy said. These include Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Notorious B.I.G. and others.
Tweedy also said there are plans for Combs to revisit his off-the-charts White Party in the Hamptons this summer. Combs hosted the event for a decade, with the last one being held in Los Angeles in 2009.
The company is also holding talks with Bloomingdale’s for a higher-priced, more elevated collection and a pop-up this fall to commemorate the store’s launch of the label, and Tweedy said there are plans for other collaborations “including women’s.”
One thing the brand won’t do, however, is reenter the women’s business, which was tried in the past but never succeeded. “We did it twice and…I think we’re better at collaborations,” Tweedy said with a smile.
Overall, he characterized Sean John’s business today as “good, not great, but we’re in a good place. Could it be better? Yes. But in this climate and political world, we’re laying the foundation for the future.”
The target customer is 25 to 35 years old, but the brand can appeal to men of all ages. “We want to make great product for you, no matter your age,” he said.
Over the years, the fit has evolved to reflect the times, and the logos were toned down. “When we started, everything had big logos. We had a 3 ½-inch script,” he said.
The top categories continue to be sportswear, followed by suits and then children’s wear.
The brand is also benefitting from the current streetwear craze. Tweedy pointed to Rihanna wearing an original pink Sean John tracksuit, while the company’s new ad campaign, Dream Big, has used influencers including Jacquees, the singer behind “B.E.D.,” and YFN Lucci, the rapper behind “Everyday We Lit.” Going forward, ambassadors such as Khloé Kardashian, Dwyane Wade and others will also be tapped, Tweedy said.
Then in September, during New York Fashion Week, the 20th anniversary celebration will culminate in a retrospective installation at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s new atrium space, followed by a dinner hosted by Combs, Tweedy said.
It’ll be a good way to mark the milestone while embracing the future.
“No one thought we’d be around in 20 years but Puff and me,” Tweedy said.
They’ve proven everyone wrong.