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

offers FUBU’s line for women, a denim-heavy trendy brand for juniors.

Department store buyers and consumers alike have been attracted to the trendy styling. Today’s fashions include large, tunic-length T-shirts and sweatshirts, huge zip-front warm-up jackets, and ultrawide pants in any material. But the hottest-selling item is blue denim, a classic hip-hop look now debuting at the high-fashion level, says David Wolfe, creative director for the Doneger Group, a New York City-based fashion-forecasting group. The “low-rise” classic hip-hop look can be traced back to the jeans first donned by rap artists over a decade ago. “The newness and excitement generated by the hip-hop music world has infused fashion with the most influential energy level of the last couple of decades,” Wolfe says. “There is no limit to the success or influence…if the designers and companies realize that they must coexist within the big market and not limit themselves to thinking they are ‘niche’ suppliers for specialized urban retailers.”

These entrepreneurs have no intentions of being pigeonholed and have made a major foray into the fashion mainstream. The so-called hip-hop consumer market has matured, and African American designers have developed new designs to meet its needs. Says Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of the menswear design program for the New York City-based Fashion Institute of Technology: “What’s happening now in the hip-hop market is that many [de
signers] are trying to cross over into established traditional menswear.”
Leading the runway: Sean John.

CREATING BRANDS WITH BROAD APPEAL
Sean John doesn’t want consumers or the industry to think its apparel caters to just the hip-hop crowd. To Combs & Co., all companies in the fashion universe are potential rivals. Sean John Executive Vice President Jeff Tweedy defines the line as “global sophisticated urban” — clothes tied to lifestyle, not to any specific age or ethnic demographic. Think hip-hop goes upscale. “We try to use as a blueprint what Tommy [Hilfiger], Ralph Lauren, or Levi’s has done,” explains Tweedy. “Those are global brands that have been around for years.”

For instance, in terms of menswear, Tweedy says his main clientele would be men between ages 25 and 45 who choose clothing based on their lifestyles. “We want the cat wearing jeans to school during the day or a nice outfit to the club at night,” he says. On average, Sean John menswear retails anywhere from $32 for a T-shirt to as high as $6,000 for a shearling topcoat or pair of mink pants. To give Sean John attire a classic and timeless look, the designers pay attention to every detail such as keeping the logo small on each item.

The company, which is expected to gross $325 million in 2002, is in expansion mode. Sean John unveiled boy’s wear a year and a half ago, men’s underwear about eight months ago, and outer garments such as topcoats and leather jackets over the past few months. The fastest-growing business, however, has been its Big and Tall offerings — men’s clothing up to size 60. Since launching Big and Tall about 18 months ago, the line

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