In Fashion

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A few fashion seasons back, music icon and producer Sean “P. Diddy” Combs adorned his urban contemporary menswear collection with an estimated $14 million in gold and platinum medallions, collars and rings. That fall show, titled “Revolution,” was the most anticipated of the industry’s internationally renowned Fashion Week in New York. Even the staid New York Times declared that the $1 million spent on the presentation “was well spent.”

Blacks have made significant contributions to the fashion industry over the last century, but they never attained the level of success of their white counterparts until a flurry of creativity started brewing in the streets of the inner-city and celebrity-driven hip-hop clothing lines became a pop culture phenomenon. P. Diddy’s Sean John label represents a milestone in the success of Black designers. True, his celebrity status may have given him entrée into the fashion game without the requisite technical design skills, but it is the marketing aspect of the P. Diddy persona that drove the line to international success. P. Diddy, who admits to having learned the ins and outs of selling clothes from designer Tommy Hilfiger, positions the label at Fashion Week, where he manages to create a media frenzy by producing spectacles that fashion insiders describe as “a bold display of ghetto fabulousness.”

Impact of Celebrity Brands

Did all the media attention and publicity sell clothes? Joe Sweeny, a buyer of young men’s and contemporary collections for Macy’s East department stores, once said that, without question, Sean John was his biggest seller. Kal Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale’s’ fashion czar, echoed Sweeny’s observation in Newsweek in 2001.

Lamentably, other Black entrepreneurs are not capturing the same financial rewards because of the decade-long onslaught of such celebrity-driven clothing brands as Sean John. It’s an ongoing struggle for them, says Cathleen Laporte, executive director of the Black Fashion Association Inc., a New York City-based consortium of Black fashion designers the mission of which is to increase the visibility and viability of underrepresented designers. “Some of our designers and retail establishments in Harlem and Brooklyn were hurting more than other communities, especially, during this holiday season,” Laporte says. “I think the consensus has been that sales within their community have been low because they have the high cost of rent and are not able to reduce their prices as low as Macy’s and H&M can. Consumers can walk into H&M and buy a pair of jeans for $15. And if there’s a sale, you can get that same pair of jeans for $8.”

Even so, Black designers and Black retail establishments have experienced spurts of success. Many of them have had to become very creative to stay in business, LaPorte says. “Some have teamed with fraternal or professional organizations to invite them for tea or social gatherings at their stores in order to boost sales. After one of these events, one of our designers remarked that one day alone made her month, based on how poorly sales had been going,” she says.

The Urban Appeal

Still, no one will deny that the industry’s affinity for urban fashions represents a major shift in the world of fashion. The appeal began as early as 1990, when Carl Jones and T.J. “Thomas” Walker decided to design a clothing line specifically for African-American youth and founded Cross Colours. The company experienced instant success, grossing $40 million in its second year in business. Then, rap music mogul Russell Simmons founded Phat Farm, film director Spike Lee developed a hip-hop men’s and women’s wear collection and the rap group Wu-Tang Clan created Wu-Wear. Several artists have jumped on the urban gear bandwagon since 2000, and, in some cases, are getting much respect from the industry. They include Jay-Z’s Rocawear, Master P’s No Limit Urban Gear, Busta
Rhymes’s Bushi and Ice T’s NDX. Other Black-owned companies include FUBU, Mecca USA and Maurice Malone.

Not all of them were successful. Cross Colours reached remarkable success by 1993 and collapsed that same year because it could not meet client demand. While other lines such as Phat Farm and FUBU were thriving, however, no one was keeping track of this new niche market. Urbanwear was growing quickly, albeit quietly, into one of the most defining styles of the 1990s, thanks to the popularity of rap music. An estimated two-thirds of rap music sales was going to whites, according to a 1997 SoundScan study.  When white suburban kids started wearing baggy clothes as Black kids did, corporate America finally understood that cool clothes made by young Blacks were bankable commodities. “It may merely look like oversized jeans and hooded sweatshirts, but the $5 billion male urban-clothing niche is growing faster than any other apparel category except, perhaps, lingerie,” a 1998 Time magazine article commented.

Apparel Giants Want In

After the collapse of the Cross Colours venture, Karl Kani (born Carl Williams) bought the Karl Kani label from Cross Colours co-founder Carl Jones in 1994. A former associate of Cross Colours, Karl Kani returned to the apparel industry in 1998 as a solo act with Karl Kani Infinity Inc., a more stylized urban line of apparel and accessories for men, women and children. It’s not surprising that he was able to capture part of the niche market that he is credited with pioneering. By 2001, his company’s revenues had surpassed $6 million.

Another beneficiary of this fast-growing sector of the hip-hop economy is the FUBU brand, which, in 2003, was ranked the No. 1 minority-owned business in New York by Newsday, as well the “Best Trending Setting” brand in The WWD Book of Lists. Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) is the trade newspaper serving the fashion industry.

Such phenomenal growth in the urban brand category also explains why apparel giants want in on the hip-hop lifestyle. Music mogul Russell Simmons sold his popular Phat Farm brand, as well as Baby Phat, designed by his wife Kimora Lee, to Kellwood Co. for $140 million in January of 2003. And Liz Claiborne acquired the street style brand Enyce for $114 million this past December.

Other Black Influences

To a certain degree, the rise and popularity of Black urban wear lines has caused the demise in popularity of Black designers’ signature ready-to-wear lines. Nevertheless, a handful of Black designers, including Tracey Reese, b michael and Marie Claudinette Jean’s, continue to showcase spring and fall collections at Bryant Park during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. Reese and b michael have also managed to maintain a visible presence in fine department and specialty stores throughout the country.

It is also important to note other strong influences coming from such technically trained Black designers as Edward Wilkerson, who, unlike his predecessors, knew how to go for senior-level positions at established fashion houses for substantial financial gain. After 10 years with the Donna Karan Co., Wilkerson left to become design director for Lafayette New York 148, the $30 million sportswear company in New York, rather than start his own label. Prior to joining Donna Karan, he did a stint at Anne Klein & Co., then moved on to develop silhouettes and direct the main Calvin Klein collection.

Race No Longer Matters

Fashion power players are not necessarily concerned about one’s skin color anymore, for, no matter which ethnic group you belong to, the struggle is the same. These days, it’s the investors, marketing, designs, media hype and contacts that make a person successful, industry experts agree. Tommy Hilfiger, the model for “who wants to be a multimillionaire style maker,” pioneered the mass marketing of fashion through advertising and branding initiatives that have been adopted by fashion insiders worldwide. Whether or not success came to him because he saturated the globe with logo-filled casualwear, Hilfiger set the tone for the way business is conducted today.

Designers who want to compete in today’s market—one that is replete with established name-brand apparel—ought to realize that “people here [in America] are more oriented to business and selling and maybe they sacrifice more creativity,” according to “Is American Creative?” a 2001 Women’s Wear Daily article. For that reason, says Naima Turner, a market editor for style expert Lloyd Boston, with degrees in fashion design merchandising and fashion advertising and marketing communications, no minority entrepreneur should be in the fashion industry today without learning the business side of fashion. “The market is too crowded and there’s little room for growth,” says Turner. “Because at the end of the day, the bottom line is how much money you made.”