By Elena Romero
Ten years ago, the idea that music producer Sean "P. Diddy" Combs could be considered a serious rival to Ralph Lauren was as laughable as the notion that George W. Bush could be President of the United States. But no one's laughing now. With his Sean John line, Combs is being taken very seriously by the fashion industry (and not only because they want tickets to his parties). He is one of a growing pack of fashion entrepreneurs with roots in the music business. These brands - the likes of Sean John, Rccawear, Phat Farm and Nelly's Vokal - have started off catering to a teen and young adult nriarket.They aspire to the same market that Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein have, but they're doing it through different means. For instance, they start with the image already in place through the activities of their iconic founder. And they are "untraditional" in terms of the fashion expertise of those thunders. The backgrounds are music rather than fashion; their business is image rather than style. But they live their target market and understand all its subtleties. "Back when urban culture was really supporting the established guard, we wore designer product as a symbol of status and the designers looked at the urban brands as being a step below theirs," says Kevin Smith, buyer for Double Play in Santa Monica, California. But the urban brands have raised their game, aiming to put themselves on a par with the likes of Tommy Hilfiger.
With Bloomingdale's and Macy's stepping up to carry Sean John and Enyce, the department stores have reaped the benefits of the highest sell-throughs.That has closed the gap very fast," adds Smith. The business model for many of these companies is Ralph Lauren. Originally a tie salesman in New York, Lauren's background is hardly that of the traditional fashion designer learning his craft in a Paris atelier. Here is a man who loves clothing, celebrates good product and is perfectly in tune with his audience. Not so dissimilar from the would-be successors from the music business.
Mark-Evan Blackman is menswear chair at the New York-based Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.). He says: "Ralph Lauren, to the best of my knowledge, never studied how to sketch fashion, But he always had a specific perspective. His genius has been to surround himself with people who have been able to give him three-dimensional versions of his visions. If you see the right jacket, can fabricate it correctly and know how the fabric is going to work, you don't have to make the pattern of that jacket yourself. You simply need someone who can."
Similarly, Sean Combs started his career in music and applied his business sense to his innate trendsetter abilities. He hired seasoned apparel expert Jeff Tweedy as his executive vice-president. Tweedy, who has built an impressive career on his acute ability to predict shifting trends in the fashion industry, has a diversified resume that lists Britches of Georgetown, Willi Wear, Ralph Lauren (naturally), Hugo Boss, Karl Kani, Spike Lee's Joint and Mecca USA. Since Sean John's inception in 1998, Tweedy has been able to successfully execute Combs' vision into an almost $200 million business. While Tweedy admits there is a synergy between Sean John - the brand - and Sean John Combs - the man - he says the key to Sean John's success has always been design. "We separate the man from the brand," he says. "He's a genius at marketing. He is a designer as well, but we don't really use that vehicle. What he focuses on is product. We've launched this collection with Puffy but the focus is now on product." High quality and high standards have allowed Sean John to separate itself from its immediate competition - using only the "premium" of fabrics from velvet and leather to denim. To beat Ralph you have to be like Ralph, it seems. Menswear currently stands at $142 million and is projected to grow to $180 million by next year. Other Sean John categories include loungewear ($12 million), boyswear ($30 million) and outerwear, But finding a Tweedy ain't so easy.
There have been several high profile crashes, memorably Sisqo's Dragon Collection, Master P's No Limit, the Cash Money Millionaires line and Busta Rhymes' Bushi. "It's very easy to make mistakes when you don't have expertise in a specific field," says Blackman at F.I.T. "The clothing component is not: because I wear jeans I understand how jeans are made. It doesn't work that way. People are very much at risk of making decisions that are not wise.They are at risk of being someone who really talks a good game but doesn't have the skills to back it up. "The premium aspect of Combs' brand is where he draws the possibility of longevity - and what has most surprised the fashion pack. This is no cheap, opportunistic line. In fact, the main difference between the successors and Ralph 'n Tommy seems to be in the arena of marketing. Models and ads aren't creating image to the same extent, they simply enhance what is already in place. Rocawear, for instance, takes a synergistic approach with its music counterpart, Roc-A-Fella Enterprises. Multiple impressions are achieved by cross promoting with its platinum artists, the likes of Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek and Beanie Sigel. This seems to be working thus far, but we'll have to wait to see if fashion's history books remember P. Diddy and Jay-Z as design greats. But, as Blackman has it: "If these people entering the market sustain their success over the next decade or so, there are going to be many more people following in their footsteps." A new and diverse generation calls for new measures, according to Daymond John, CEO of FUBU. "When Tommy started his business he was selling to a certain kind of consumer that looked like him and who identified with him - the same with Calvin and Ralph. It's another generation [now]."