By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Dante Jenkins of Forest Park is a big fan of rap music moguls Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Jay-Z.
The 21-year-old business marketing major at Kentucky State University spends anywhere from $300 to $500 a month to "rock'' the rap artists' signature Sean John and Roc-A-Wear labels.
But he plays them on his back, not his CD player.
"Sean John and Roc-A-Wear are coming wit' it right now,'' Jenkins says while shopping recently in the young men's department at Lazarus-Macy's in Tri-County Mall. "They're the hottest clothing lines out right now, and you know you're looking at spending at least $100 for an outfit, if you want to do it right.''
Jenkins is among the hordes of young men and women in their teens and early 20s who regularly descend on Greater Cincinnati malls and shopping centers to scoop up pricey, rap-inspired clothing labels that have become the uniforms of the so-called hip-hop generation.
The cross pollination of hip-hop culture and fashion has created an urban-wear market that is one of the fastest-growing segments of the apparel industry, worth $2 billion in annual sales of sportswear, outerwear, children's wear and accessories, according to NPD Fashion World, a consulting firm that tracks the nation's apparel and footwear industry.
Twenty-one-year-old Carlos Tipton of Forest Park checks out new Sean John fashions in the Young Men's department of Lazarus-Macy's at the Tri-County Mall.
(Meggan Booker photo)
"This is no longer a fringe market,'' Dora Radwick, spokeswoman for NPD, says. "Hip-hop fashions have become a major force in the apparel industry.''
Shopper Carlos Tipton, who also attends Kentucky State, says the widespread appeal of hip-hop fashions stems from a desire to connect with the glamorous lifestyles of the rap stars who wear the clothes in flashy music videos and TV commercials.
"You see the music videos, and you want to be clean just like they are,'' Tipton says. "You want to stand out from the crowd, just like they do.''
While young men such as Tipton and Jenkins - both African-American - represent the original target audience of the black designers who launched the hip-hop fashion trend more than a decade ago, the designers' best customers today are white suburban teens.
"When this product category was first introduced to consumers, it was the African-American consumer who responded and helped us drive the business," says Gail Nutt, senior vice president for urban-business development for Lazarus-Macy's, a division of Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores. "Now our growth is being stimulated from our suburban stores.''
Shelf space at Federated
Federated was among the first major department store chains to sell Sean John and other urban labels and to give hip-hop brands premium shelf space.
But Federated, like most of its peers, was late to the party that began in 1990, when black designers Carl Jones and Karl Kani teamed up to launch the big-logo look Cross Colors sportswear brand.
Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons introduced his Phat Pharm label two years later, before selling it this year to apparel giant Kellwood for $140 million.
Both brands initially generated millions of dollars in sales in limited distribution.
But the designers found it difficult to sign deals with major retailers, who initially dismissed urban wear as a niche market for black and Latino audiences.
"Ten years ago, you could only get brands like Karl Kani, Fubu and Phat Pharm from specialty stores like ours," says Andrew Williams, owner of Rag's Men's & Women's Fashions in downtown Cincinnati. "The department stores didn't carry the labels because they didn't want black kids coming in with their pants down to their knees scaring away their white customers.
"But when they realized how much money those black kids were spending, and that their own sons and daughters were buying it, too, that convinced them to go ahead and carry the lines.''
For Federated, which began selling hip-hop styles about five years ago, the results "were immediate and quick," Nutt says.
"We started on a small scale as a test to see if these were viable brands and fashion offerings for our customers," Nutt says. "By the time we entered year two, sales had more than doubled, and we continue to see double-digit growth. The category drives our whole young men's arena."
Nutt declines to give sales figures for each of the five core brands in Federated's so-called "street wear" category: Sean Jean, Roc-A-Wear, Echo, Girbaud, Enyce and Phat Pharm.
But Federated CEO Terry Lundgren has said publicly that he expects sales of Sean John apparel alone to climb more than 54 percent this year to $74 million from $48 million in 2003.
Seeking new style
There's still a market for the baggy pants, XXX-sized NBA and NFL jerseys and outrageously expensive tennis shoes that have been the hallmark of hip-hop fashion since its inception. But future growth in the category will be driven by more refined looks designed to appeal to the early adopters of hip-hop style who are now entering their late 20s and early 30s.
"The street-wear audience has matured, and street wear is a more sophisticated brand now," Nutt says. "The bold logos that we knew six years ago have significantly diminished. Vendors are expanding beyond what we saw four or five years ago to include dressier elements that can be worn to work or out for special occasions."
Sean Jean, for example, is set to introduce a dressier line of tailored sportswear and clothing without the SJ logo that will hang in Federated's upscale Bloomingdale's department stores.
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