Rags To Riches

Hip-hop moguls use groundbreaking designs and star powerto challenge major clothing labels and become a forcein the $164 billion fashion industry

On a mild February evening, New York’s glitterati are out in full force. Gathered in the opulent catering hall of Cipriani’s, a swank Italian restaurant in the heart of Manhattan, a mix of celebrities and business powerhouses mingle and sip champagne. They await one of the most talked-about events of Fashion Week — the industry’s prestigious semiannual coming-out party. Those in attendance represent a select group of luminaries who received invitations on an embroidered white linen handkerchief inside a velvet box, complete with a pair of silk-knot cuff links.

As Frank Sinatra tunes fill the room, a series of male models, dressed in natty three-piece suits, cashmere overcoats, and military-style tuxedos, saunter up and down the runway. At the end of this sartorial display, the man responsible for the $1.2 million extravaganza emerges onto the catwalk. Sean Combs — better known as “Puff Daddy” or more recently “P. Diddy” — takes his bow. At this event, he’s not the multiplatinum-selling rap artist and producer. Combs is the designer-entrepreneur who just introduced Saville Row to the hip-hop world. On this evening, the mogul unveils his classic men’s line and, at the same time, comes closer to reaching the goal he set when he started his 3-year-old enterprise: “To bring entertainment to fashion.”

In just a few short years, Combs has grabbed Seventh Avenue by the lapels. By building one of the hottest fashion houses, he has gained considerable clout. In fact, at the beginning of last February’s Fashion Week, the audacious entrepreneur appeared with Terry Lundgren, president, chief operating officer, and chief merchandising officer of Federated Department Stores, one of the largest such chains in the world, to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange — an act typically performed by business heavyweights.

It’s not surprising that he would be bestowed with such an honor. Sean John, the apparel arm of Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment, has rung up mammoth sales. Its 2001 estimated revenues: roughly $250 million.

The rise of Sean John represents a major shift in the world of fashion. Hip-hop moguls are creating new patterns in the industry and, consequently, sewing up market share. A decade ago, hip-hop artists were decked out in Timberland footwear or Tommy Hilfiger apparel, rapping about these brands in their lyrics. Just a few years ago, hip-hop entrepreneurs who produced their own lines were either shut out of major fashion shows or relegated to urban apparel ghettos within department stores.

Now, when models blaze runways at the make-or-break Magic Marketplace fashion show — a major industry event held semiannually in Las Vegas — styling a snazzy double-breasted, three-button white dress suit from Sean John or a sporty V-neck velour two-piece stitched by rapper Jay-Z’s Rocawear women’s collection, they dominate the show. These hip-hop — inspired designs are also steadily capturing market share from such iconic labels as Ralph Lauren Polo and Donna Karan. By creating trendsetting brands, they’re reaping huge financial rewards from the $164 billion domestic fashion industry.

Clothing companies launched over the past decade by Combs, Jay-Z, and Godfather of Hip-Hop

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