Hip Hop on Top

Urban Fashion Designers Rule

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Walk down any street in urban America–or suburbia, for that matter–and you’re bound to see toddlers, teens, seniors and those in between sporting logos of the hottest urban fashion designers today. Some of those making big waves on Seventh Avenue as well as on 125th Street in Harlem are FUBU, Sean John, Phat Farm, Maurice Malone, Mecca USA, Ecko Unlimited, Wu Wear, Triple 5 Soul, Enyce and Karl Kani.

Indeed, hip-hop is the hook for America’s young, white suburbanites, who see black inner-city youngsters as street-savvy and independent and want to emulate the dress, music and attitude. Baggy, brightly colored hip-hop clothes have gone mainstream in American youth fashion, and the result has brought small fortunes to a cadre of black designers.

These designers have an ear to the street and know precisely what customers want and desire: innovative, stylish fashions. Consequently, the biggest growth in the fashion industry among blacks is in the urban market, and the powerhouse labels are attracting attention from corporate America. For example, Samsung America, the 10th largest company in the world, is FUBU’s production and distribution partner.

“Everyone has embraced rap culture,” says Teri Agins, senior special writer for the Wall Street Journal and author of The End of Fashion: The Mass Marketing of the Clothing Business (William Morrow, $25). “It has

definitely given people an entrée. That [oversize, logoed] look won’t always be popular, and the companies that are going to survive are the ones who can grow beyond that niche. There is already a movement away from those trends. You can get your foot in the door by jumping on a fad. But the real test is keeping it going, and that happens by figuring out what people are going to want next year.”

More than a few fashion insiders are concerned that consumers’ enthrallment with hip-hop wear may be short-lived and urban fashion designers won’t be able to stand the test of time in the fashion industry. In this article, we chronicle how urbanwear came to dominate the fashion industry and also look into the future of hip-hop clothing to assess whether it’s a fashion trend for the ages or one that has short-term appeal.

Karl Kani (No. 32 on the BE Industrial/service 100 list) has come a long way since starting a fashion apparel business in a small storefront on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1989.

After merging with Carl Jones and T. J. Walker of the Cross Colours designer clothing company (also formed in 1989), the Karl Kani line became a part of one of the world’s largest black-owned companies of the early 1990s. The company posted sales in excess of $97 million in 1993, but went bankrupt the following year because it had grown too quickly and its founders couldn’t keep pace with the demand.

Karl Kani set out on his own in 1993, and today can be credited with pioneering the emergence of the fashion upsurge known as hip-hop or urbanwear. With sales of $78 million in 1999, he

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