Wearables Business

Urban Wear – corporate wear with hip-hop influence

Urban Wear – corporate wear with hip-hop influence

Eric Peterson

Shown from left are Imagine Apparel’s Sollo Jacket shown with the Cross Town Sport Messenger Bag from Toppers’ Xtreme Collection; Enzi’s EVJ200 Varsity Jacket; the Jockey High Vee Heavyweight Jersey from Premium Wear; the Glacier Parka from Alpha Industries worn over a ringer tee from Delta Apparel; the 5440 oxford nylon/microfleece lined vest from Boardroom Custom Clothing; and the Urban Techno Bonded Commuter Jacket from Ash City.

The under-30 set has long embraced inner-city fashion, and they are bringing their tastes to corporate America.

hip-hop styles lead the fashion parade

If you honestly envisioned this day, you had your finger on the pulse of a cultural crossover that’s become more ubiquitous every single day for a quarter-century.

Ever since enterprising DJs first began to recite rhymes over record scratches at Bronx block parties in the early ’70s, urban hip-hop has been a phenomenon on the rise. And while hip-hop arose in a cash vacuum — those first DJs patched their turntables into the power boxes of streetlights — it didn’t take long for the recording industry to realize the genre’s moneymaking potential. In 1978, the first hip-hop hit (“Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang) broke new ground at the record stores and on the airwaves. Twenty years later, hip-hop records outsold those of every other format, eclipsing the long-standing industry kingpins of country and rock.

Initially, the culture of hip-hop was overwhelmingly urban and black. Its widespread success, however, stems from the fact that it successfully crossed over from the major inner cities to the ‘burbs: current estimates hold that white kids buy about 70 percent of all hip-hop records.

Not that hip-hop is just about music: It’s an all-encompassing lifestyle. There are hip-hop sitcoms and hip-hop movies. There’s hip-hop art and hip-hop slang.

There’s also hip-hop fashion, which represents big bucks to the industry players. New York rap impresario Sean “Puffy” Combs’ clothing line, Sean John, tallied $100 million in sales last year alone. Other hot retail brand names, like Abercrombie & Fitch, FUBU and Tommy Hilfiger, owe quite a bit of their flash and popularity to the urban world of hip-hop.

And now, at long last, the world of promotional wearables is finally welcoming the urban hip-hop influence with open arms.

The urban fashion parade

Maybe this acceptance is a sign that hip-hop’s cultural crossover is nearing its completion. Notorious for being five or 10 years behind the fashion times, the promotional wearables industry was perhaps one of the last American outposts to resist the urban invasion. In its acknowledgment of the trend, the promotional industry has recognized that hip-hop is an established pillar of youth culture. However, the industry didn’t make this jump all on its own: If there wasn’t a demand for up-to-date fashion in Corporate America, the bandwagon for urban-influenced promotional styles would no doubt look a lot less crowded. That demand has been brought about by the emergence into the workforce of young people immersed in the hip-hop, urban lifestyle in their youth who are now entering the workforce in droves.

While modern hip-hop fashion might leave the Baby Boom generation scratching their heads, that reaction is far from original. Indeed, the Baby Boomers themselves grew their hair long, wore bell bottoms, tie-dyes and love beads, almost all in an effort to separate themselves from the “establishment.” While Boomers vowed to “never trust anyone over 30,” you can always trust that the under-30 crowd will do whatever it takes to put their own stamp on the world, and fashion often leads the parade. That fashion parade today is decidedly urban.

One of the first companies to bring the styles of the city to the promo realm was Los Angeles’ Kima Alexander, with its Enzi line. Debuting way back in 1992, Enzi’s 75 men’s and women’s styles are not exclusively in the domain of hip-hop, but that is the chief inspiration.

“I grew up in the inner city,” says Kima Alexander CEO Fred Lewis, “so, when I design the line and create new products, that influence is always there.”

Kima Alexander’s mission: “We want to free the industry’s mind and bring it forward.”

“Young people don’t want to dress like old folks and old folks want to look like young people,” explains Lewis of the increasing emergence of hip-hop sensibility in promotional apparel design.

“Young people determine what the world wears,” he adds. “This is driven by the younger generation, but everybody wants to retain their youth, even if they’re in their fifties or sixties.”

To this end, the 35-year-old Lewis looks to teenage designers who are on the cutting edge of all things hip-hop for new ideas.

“They let you know what’s going to happen,” as opposed to what has already happened, he says. “Too often, we don’t give young people credit. Their minds aren’t cluttered, like ours might be as we get older.”

By tapping into the styles of “designers you’ve never heard of,” Lewis is occasionally able to foretell retail trends before the latest cuts land on the racks at the mall. “We stay in line with what’s at retail and sometimes we get ahead of the game,” he boasts.

On men’s urban fashion, Lewis explains, “Everything is more free-flowing. It’s loose. These are things that promote the freedom of expression of hip-hop.”

The end result: Enzi’s men’s jackets and shirts have an open bottom, the colors are less restrained, and many products meld elements from the old school of Corporate Casual with what is seen on MTV.

“With women’s, we’re typically going the other way,” Lewis adds, highlighting the sleeker styles of Enzi’s baby-doll tees and tapered shirts. “The women’s collection is designed very much to enhance a woman’s body.”

Additionally, there are a handful of retro styles (see sidebar) in the Enzi line, including full-zippered bowling shirts, as the’ nostalgia cycle never stops churning. As a whole — and this can also be said for all hip-hop-inspired wearables — the Enzi line is mainly targeted towards the younger demographic (“About 80% of the line is for that 18 to 35 group,” says Lewis) and its price point is on the higher end. “It’s not the least-expensive product on the planet,” Lewis explains.

Significant rewards

Lewis firmly believes that distributors who are seeking to expand their business will see significant rewards by targeting Corporate America’s hip-hop generation. There are numerous other suppliers who see the urban influence as the industry’s next big thing, tomorrow’s equivalent of today’s women’s-specific boom.

“As we’re seeing where the women’s wear is growing strong and emerging, (fashion-forward, urban wearables) will become a pretty big part of the market as more younger people become decision makers in Corporate America,” predicts Tim Klouda, president of Minnetonka, Minn.-based PremiumWear. In January 2001, PremiumWear began shipping the newest brand name that it’s brought to the promotional marketplace, Jockey, and it is a line clearly influenced by the urban trend.

The younger, urban demographic “is specifically the market we’re going after with Jockey,” Klouda says. “We felt there was sort of a void of upscale product for that customer. The customer base is the companies that are full of people under 30 years old. They’re full of people under 25 years old. This is what they wear when they’re not working.”

Two design features stand out in PremiumWear’s Jockey products: One, the shirts are designed not to be tucked in, with longer tails than a traditional top. Secondly, says Klouda, the products are meant to be worn as layering pieces — a shirt over a shirt.

“This is the way you use it in the youthful market,” he says.

A big reason for the growing demand for hip-hop fashion, says Klouda, is the recent information technology boom. “The youth of today is a lot more connected to that technology than the over-40 crowd,” he notes.

Young demographics

Vancouver, B.C.-based Boardroom Custom Clothing is one supplier that knows this techie customer quite well. Along with the dot-coms and technology companies of the world, the companies buying Boardroom’s jackets, vests, and tops include ski resorts, music companies, microbreweries, and soft drink bottlers.

“If they’re targeting a young demographic, they’ll get our stuff,” touts Boardroom President Mark Trotzuk. “If they think of something young, something edgy, they think of me. If they think of golf, they’ll never think of me. I don’t even put a golf shirt in our line. Just too many people are doing it.”

In the past, distributors were weary about marketing with-the-times fashion to the staid conservatism of traditional businesses, Trotzuk remembers.

“Nobody wanted to stock the cool stuff because nobody wanted to buy it,” he says.

However, when a Hollywood production company came knocking on Boardroom’s door for a stylish jacket in 1997, the floodgates began to break down. “They wanted something that was a bit more baggy and looked cool,” Trotzuk says. The result: a black nylon jacket with a contrasting white topstitch, a product that evolved into the company’s best seller, the Boardroom Jacket.

“If you look at all the fashion in our industry, it’s pretty safe,” Trotzuk adds. “It’s pretty Corporate Casual. But about 5 percent of the companies out there are going to want something else.”

That something else, in the case of Boardroom’s offerings, is their trio of youth-oriented product lines: Boardroom, the company’s stock program; Raill, a custom men’s line; and Chix, custom product for women.

“If our stock stuff’s not cool enough for you, we’ll make it,” declares Trotzuk.

Available in lots of 120 units or more, both Chix and Raill offer the promotional marketplace a chance to splash any color on custom looks that mimic retail. With the Boardroom factory’s Vancouver location, turnaround usually runs three to four weeks.

Tech companies respond to Raill and Chix, says Trotzuk. “One of my ad specialty guys says, ‘Yahoo! loves your clothing.’

“People are all over this stuff,” he adds. “Why shouldn’t they be able to buy it for a corporate purpose?” However, for distributors pitching hip-hop style to buttoned-down businesses, there’s a certain amount of touch necessary. “A lot of times, the buyers just don’t get it,” Trotzuk says. “There’s an educational process. People just aren’t used to being able to buy what they get at retail.”

On sales calls, Trotzuk recommends wearing some edgier apparel in order to educate the consumer. Focus on the long-term corporate trend toward youth, the fact that the clothing is not going to end up buried in a closet, and the hip connotation that such products can carry over to one’s brand image. Sure, it’s new, but so is almost every other wearable on the market short of inexpensive T-shirts and ballcaps, he notes.

The retail mirror

Regardless of tradition, “This is what this market needs,” says Scott Alterman, co-owner of Aflanta’s Alternative Apparel. “It was very saturated with price-point driven products.” Alternative, which supplies the industry with youth-oriented shirts and headwear, has sought to “mirror retail as it’s coming out,” says Alterman. “We said that we wanted to bring the Abercrombie & Fitch look to this market.” Many of Alternative’s products have that “softer, more worn-in look,” with a good portion of the product being pigment-dyed.

As Alternative works with offshore manufacturers for production, Alterman often gets a sneak peek at upcoming retail trends.

“We see what Ralph Lauren and Nike’s next season’s lines are going to be,” he says. Then, the company experiments, “mixing and matching” various retail elements that will be up to the minute as new fashions hit the stores. There’s a delicate balance, however.

“We don’t want to get it too far ahead of (ourselves); because the industry might not be ready for it,” Alterman notes. “That’s the negative: We’re not always going to hit the mark, but we’re aiming to hit it 90 percent of the time.”

When it comes to Alternative’s market, Alterman doesn’t discount the more traditional companies.

“We’ve been surprised,” he says. “When you show it to the Coca-Colas and the Delta Airlines of the world, they appreciate it and want that hip, young look. I, wouldn’t close the door on anybody.”

The companies that represent Alternative’s end users have one thing in common: They don’t pinch pennies. Says Alterman: “(Our products) are not targeted towards the end customer who’s concerned only about getting the lowest price.”

Fashion sense meets common sense

With one foot in the retail market and one foot in promotional, Vancouver, B.C.-based leather jacket specialist Bishop — The Garment Company is quite familiar with balancing style with price. In 1997, the company began supplying the ad specialty industry with its same fresh, urban jackets that it does for retail private labels.

“People are getting more fashion-conscious with their wearables,” says President Norm Bishop. “They don’t want to wear what was in three seasons ago. They want what they can find now.”

To this end, Bishop offers wool and leather jackets that have many landmarks of the urban look. Bishop’s new Wool Eldorado has clean, straight contours and s cell phone pocket. in the sleeve that allows users to thread an earplug through a grommet for calls on the fly. Bishop’s “hoodies” — hooded wool jackets with a zippered front — embody “the street look,” he adds.

“For women, short and fitted is in,” Bishop notes, highlighting leather jackets with princess seams and a “motorcycle feel.” Nylon vests and jackets, often with reflective piping, contrast topstitching, and micro-fleece or mesh lining, are also indicators of the hip-hop influence in Bishop’s products.

Bishop points to one familiar drawback: “A lot of what’s happening at retail will not work in the promotional market. By and large, you have to cater to the whole mix. You’ve got to cater to a lot of different body types. It’s fashion sense meets common sense — restraied hip-hop.”

Hip-hop ground zero

“We can’t go too far over the limb,” echoes Myles Roth, the director of design at Imagine Apparel Group, located in Manhattan next door to Def Jam Records, or, in Roth’s words, “hip-hop ground zero.”

“You want, to create something very simple,” he says, “but you don’t want to be too simple or it will look like a paper bag.

Imagine’s urban locale shines through in its Fusion’ Jacket, a sanded micro-nylon piece with a box bottom and a fleece lining. Explains Roth: “We were looking to combine a board jacket — for snowboarding or skateboarding — with a jacket someone would wear out to a club at night.” Another Imagine jacket, the SoHo, emphasizes fashion over everything else, “something you might grab as almost an afterthought,” says Roth.

Rather than looking to the retail shelves for design inspiration, Roth takes cues from the busy SoHo sidewalks.

“We take it more from the streets,” he explains. “A lot of the kids around here customize their own clothes.

“The birthplace of urban fashion is obviously the big cities in the United States,” Roth continues. “Then it spreads at an incredible rate of speed around the country. Even at a mall in Kansas, kids are emulating Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs. It’s born Out of a need to be different in an urban environment.”

Adds Frank Gordon, president of Pineapple Clothing Company, an Oceanside, Calif.-based jackets, shirts, and pants supplier: “When it’s in the store, that’s one thing, but when you see it in the streets, you know it’s been sold.”

The constancy of change

Even some of the industry’s heavyweights are starting to see the cold cash at the end of the hip-hop groove.

“So many people have only that ‘me too’ look’ says Jack Pieklo, national sales manager for Toronto-based Ash City, which debuted its Urban collection — three jackets and a pair of vests — this year. “Our position is, we’re more towards creating new sales opportunities for our customers. (The Urban line) allows the distributor to show something new.”

“The looks are clean and uncluttered and incorporate the newest in features and fabrics,” adds Jackie Whitfield, Ash City’s head outerwear designer. “The whole feeling can be summarized by saying you wear the clothes — the clothes don’t wear you.

“The urban wear is an integral part of the fashion scene now and to ignore it would be to ignore the whole concept of what creating style is all about,” says Whitfield. “After all, the only constant in fashion is change.”

“I think there is kind of a generation gap with the buyers now,” says Byron Reed, director of marketing at Weatherproof/MV Sport. Several of the Bay Shore, N.Y-based new styles fall squarely into the hip-hop camp, with boxy bottoms, retro looks, and “very Banana Republic or Gap” influences.

As the old guard of buyers is dethroned by the hip-hop generation, Reed sees the urban influence only gaining speed.

“This is the beginning of a new trend, this isn’t the middle of it,” he says. “This is what the college students are wearing right now.”

Sure, the jury’s still out on this stuff, but it’s hard to dismiss one of the biggest and longest-lasting cultural phenomena this country has ever seen. For nearly 30 years, the hip-hop explosion has reshaped our culture, with its influence rippling out from the Bronx to suburbia with undeniable impact. The ‘ripple looks like it’s almost complete, and Corporate America’s wearables may just be hip-hop’s final frontier.

Eric Peterson is a contributing editor to Wearables Business who also writes’ the E-Merging E-Commerce column.

Retro goes fashion-forward

Fashion is cyclical. What is in style today will inevitably be fodder for tomorrow’s landfills. However, everything is bound to bounce back into vogue, and most fashions that were once cool are likely to go in and out of style until the sun goes into supernova mode.

Bowling shirts that look as if they’re straight from 1955 are the style of choice for many of today’s urban youth, a trend that has not gone unnoticed by the promotional wearables industry. Both Kima Alexander and Boardroom Custom Clothing make shirts that originated in the bowling alleys of yesteryear and migrated to the nightclubs of the 21st century.

One example: Boardroom’s Cosmo (named after Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer), according to Boardroom’s Mark Trotzuk, is a “retro bowling shirt with fashion-forward flair,” featuring a vertical stripe on the front. It sells in volume for $19 and is available in a plethora of hues.

Weatherproof/MV Sport’s vegetarian leather jacket has a sleek, retail-influenced style, says Director of Marketing Byron Reed, Director of Marketing Byron Reed, selling for $27 in volume. “It’s got that retro ’70s look,” he says. “We’re seeing them move real good.”

Alternative Apparel’s A-Game collection features jerseys with this “old-school, retro look” as well. Start with a raglan-cut baseball jersey, says Alternative’s Scott Alter-man, and decorate it with an eye for nostalgia. “You just throw on a one-color, crackly print and it looks like something from the 1960s.”

In-your-face color

Hip-hop fashion means two things when en it comes to color: more splash and more options. “Hip-hop influence brings out a lot more brights,” says Kima Alexander’s Fred Lewis. “We’re not going to be restrained by navy, khaki, and gray.”

According to Pineapple Clothing company’s Frank Gordon, orange is the next promotional rage. “It’s been fashionable for two years, and it’s time for the promotional market to recognize it.”

Many of the most hip-hop of suppliers — namely Boardroom Custom Clothing and Alternative Apparel — hedge their bets by offering custom fabrics and dyeing. Boardroom’s Mark Trotzuk labels hip-hop color schemes as “in your face.”

Ask Weatherproof’s Byron Reed and you’ll get a different picture as to what hues are most urban: It depends on the metropolis in question. “New Yorkers tend to wear a lot of black, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the country is wearing it.”

Hip-hop means hats, bags and ‘clunky” shoes, too

Okay, so you’ve got the baggy pants. You’ve got the styling jacket. You’ve got the flashy shit. But, for some reason, that hip-hop look isn’t complete.

You’re going to need some additional gear to cover your head, carry your stuff, and protect your feet from getting stampeded on the sidewalk.

As far as covering noggins goes, Alternative Apparel — which was once known as Alternative Headwear — has caps that fit the hip-hop bill to a tee. Alternative’s fitted ballcaps feature a pre-curved bill, because; says co-owner Scott Alterman, “That’s what the kids are looking for.” The price point is high, at $2.50 to $4 apiece, but the fitted, garment-washed style is a rarity in the promotional arena.

Thorofare, Pa.-based Toppers also offers a wide array of youth-oriented hats that wouldn’t look out of place in a rap video. The company’s sport visors mimic the styles of Adidas and other retail brands.

“That’s pretty much straight out of the hip-hop scene,” notes Russ Rowan, Toppers’ director of product development.

Another Toppers’ product that is lust about as urban as promotional gets — the Pocono Knitted Cap — has been on the market for five years. These black acrylic caps have been in vogue in the urban scene since Public Enemy’s heyday, circa 1990. Rowan’s appraisal: “We do very well with it.”

AS is the case with other hip-hop wearables, you can go too far by following retail too closely. “You’re always going to have people who want the standard baseball cap,” Rowan observes. “If you’re not sure (a new style) is going to go over, you can really get burned. Sometimes it is better to be a year behind retail and see how it goes over.”

Messenger bags are another hip urban accessory making waves in the promotional marketplace. Toppers’ new Xtreme Collection includes the Crosstown, a prime example of the ultimate urban carrying case, with its packet for a Walkman or Discman and a grommet for headphones and durable, nylon-polyester fabric combination.

“This line has been very well received.” Rowan appraises. “It’s already met our expectations and it’s only the first month of the year.”

Salt Lake city-based Ogio International has also takes the urban trend into account with their bags.

“Corporate America is younger'” says Nick Wright, national sales manager for promotional products. “With that generation comes the demand for sportier looking bags,” i.e. Ogio’s Jack Pack and City Corp messenger bags. “People said we were crazy with flashy colors and catchy designs,” Wright adds, “but it’s not just old days smoking cigars anymore People want to make a statement.”

The hip-hop feel even carries over to Ogio’s golf bags, as Wright puts it. “breathing life into a blah industry” with colorfully stylish links luggage. “Guys like Tiger Woods have made and impact in our market. There aren’t the boundaries there once were.”

That leaves only the feet. If they’re not wearing brand-name tennis shoes with a terrifying price tag, kids tend to sheath their tootsies in tough-as-nails work boots.

As Pete Laumeyer, program director for Lenexa, Kan.-based Instep Promotions, puts it, the demand is for “Doc Marten type of things — the clunkier the better.” Highlighting Instep’s Chukka Boot, adds Laumeyer, “The style is fast-forward compared to the laced-up, brown leather things their dads wore home from work.”

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