Shirt Happens

Budding urban-wear mogul takes Phoenix's MosDef label to the streets

Two months ago, celebrity wardrobe stylist Philip Block addressed an audience of clothing marketers, retailers, buyers and designers at Magic, the U.S. fashion industry's annual summit in Las Vegas.

"In the era of the too-perfect supermodel," he said, "young consumers relate more and more to performers who look like them, wearing styles that seem more attainable."

Meanwhile, on the pavement outside the convention center, Quincy Ross and a nine-member "street team" of mercenary promoters put up hundreds of graffiti-style stickers advertising the online catalogue for MosDef, Ross' Phoenix-based, underground, urban-wear clothing line.

Within days, Ross, 22, had a new stack of presidents under his money clip via fresh accounts with Contents, an independent clothing store in Denver, Colorado, and 11 Ya, a Tokyo hip-hop boutique.

In the era of the too-perfect glossy magazine fashion spreads, guerrilla marketing is where it's at. Ross knows this. He started MosDef early in 1996 and has since hustled the company distribution to stores all over Phoenix and in Las Vegas, Miami, Denver, New York City, San Francisco, Tokyo, Berlin and Calgary. MosDef's monthly sales are in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, with minimal overhead: no staff, no market studies. "My friends are my focus groups," says Ross.

U.S. sales of "urban sportswear"--casual, relatively inexpensive fashions that aspire to hipness--doubled from 1993 to 1998 to become a $2 billion-a-year industry. Why? The mushroom emergence of thousands of independent, streetwise clothing lines, usually owned and operated by one or two rebellious young designers who target a huge ready-to-wear market of young people eager to support other young people doing it for themselves.

The rise of street-wear clothing lines has paralleled, in other cultural mediums, the rise of indie (noncorporate, self-starting) rock and dance music record labels, independently promoted underground dance parties (raves), copy-shop fanzines and the resurgence of graffiti art.

"The one defining difference between the teens and 20-somethings of the mid-to-late '90s and the generations before them is the freestyle mentality they've grown up on," says Janice Midsom, a partner with the New York market-forecasting firm Sputnik.

A prototypical street-wear success story is Shabazz Brothers Urbanwear. Founded three years ago, the New York company posted $10 million in sales last year.

Ross has yet to make a million, but he's the Valley's biggest player in the fashion game dubbed "street styles."

"MosDef's marketing scheme is simple," he says. "Hit the streets hard, and get the right people wearing the shirts."

In MosDef's case, the right people meant hip-hop stars the Roots, Nas, DJ Premiere, MC Mos Def (clearly a natural pick) and members of the Rock Steady Crew (New York City's godfathers of breakdance). All of whom were photographed for national magazines, incidentally, wearing MosDef product Ross put in their hands, usually by smoothing his way backstage at concerts.

This style of unofficial celebrity endorsement is a cornerstone of street-wear marketing for two reasons: It's free (except for the cost of the giveaway product), and it works.

"Trends can start when a customer sees a brand on someone they respect, whether it's a rapper, an athlete, or just one of their friends," says Daymond John, president of FUBU clothing, whose $25 million in sales last year were helped by rapper LL Cool J habitually wearing FUBU gear onstage and at functions where paparazzi flock.

"When a celebrity wears a brand not just because they're paid, but because they actually like the clothes, that's the best kind of endorsement," John says. "These kids have a bullshit detector like a seismograph."

But they pay attention to which logos pop from the chests of celebrities with street cred. And MosDef's logos pop. One of the line's top-selling designs is a clever appropriation of the revered old-school rap group Run-D.M.C.'s signet. On a black shirt, between horizontal red lines, bold capital white letters spell MOS above DEF, instead of RUN atop DMC.

"It's not a rip-off thing, it's a respect thing," says Ross.
The rest of MosDef's line is typical of the street-style school: Heavyweight, long- and short-sleeve shirts with bold color combinations and a variety of tricked-out logos. MosDef has 15 logos, each available on several colors, created for Ross by Tempe-based Sik Graphics artist Ryan Lair. All share a certain graffiti writing/underground club flier/skateboard deck art melange of sensibilities. The idea, Ross explains, is to arc the line's appeal through the spectrum iconoclastic youth subcultures.

"It's not strictly hip-hop, it's not strictly rave, it's not strictly skate," he says. "It's just phat urban-wear."

And for now, it's shirts only, retailing for $18 to $25. Ross says he'll start making baby-doll shirts "for the ladies" soon, along with "jeans with legs so big, they'll go over the shoes," backpacks with slide-in skateboard pockets, and "little raver pouches that go over the neck, marsupial-like."

That's where MosDef will start invading Mintek territory.
Russ and Alissa Ramirez, who own Swell records in Scottsdale, started the unisex Mintek line in 1993. Mintek (stands for Minimal Technology) is a "cut and sew" line of from-scratch nylon pants, jackets, skirts, hats, bags and accessories (whereas tee shirt lines like MosDef design and screen-print graphics onto precut, blank-canvas apparel).

Alissa Ramirez is the designer of the line. She conceptualizes, makes and sizes all the patterns, stitches up samples, and oversees production of the line in a small factory (22 industrial sewing machines) in the back of the Swell store. Russ Ramirez is one of the heaviest rave promoters in the Southwest, and a who's who of rave DJs have appeared in electronic-music magazines sporting Mintek.

The average retail price of Mintek items is $60. Alissa weaves a picture of the line as "clean, technical-looking clothes with a music-oriented feel." Her apparel is also designed with function in mind: special shirt pockets for keys and laser pens, Velcro ID pouches, and front pants pockets big enough to hold a water bottle. "It's hands-free party clothing," says Alissa. "Comfort is the key."

The Valley's newbie on the dance-culture-focused, street-wear tip is PLUR, which stands for "Peace, Love, Unity, Respect," which has long been a popular catch phrase for the ethos of rave culture, which meant it was only a matter of time before someone trademarked it.

A tee shirt line similar to MosDef, PLUR is owned by Grant Stousland, who also runs the largest screen-printing facility in Arizona. Stousland got his start in the clothing business selling tee shirts to Deadheads under the name Blue Hair back in his hemp-salad days, when he used to follow the band around the country.

Earlier this year, Stousland hooked up with a circle of local rave scenesters and launched the PLUR line, which quickly made a cannonball splash. Already, PLUR is carried in Urban Outfitters stores nationwide, and well-known underground boutiques in L.A., Toronto, NYC, Chicago and San Francisco. Visually, the line pops like a string of Black Cats, ignited by reactive inks that glow under black light, and the impressive mind's eye of Sik Graphics designer Ryan Lair, who--wait a minute--also designs MosDef's graphics.

Hmmmm. Mr. Ross?
"Yeah, I don't know about that. I think it's wack to start selling a universal thing like 'Peace, Love, Unity, Respect.' That's cheesy. But they're making money, and I guess that's their job. It's mine, too, but my stuff stands way, way alone from that kind of thing."

Other up-and-coming Valley street-wear lines include No Player Haters--whose owner, Brian Hooks, scored a coup last year when commercial hip-hop mastermind and consummate player-who-is-hated "Puff Daddy" Combes was spotted wearing the gear--and Flow Ethics, started by Dion Terry, 22, a graffiti artist who grew up on the Fort Defiance Navajo Reservation.

Terry's line consists of hip-hop-informed tee shirts ("All work and no rhyme makes Jack a dull boy") and "hoodie" sweatshirts with gold-tipped RCA amp plugs for drawstring handles.

Terry says the psychic nudge for starting Flow Ethics was "seeing stuff in Urban Outfitters with some goofy spray paint kid graphic, and knowing I could do better."

"Besides," he says, "I'm not even looking to see my shit in Urban Outfitters. Then the message is destroyed. All these little lines, they're about keeping things looking fresh, but staying chill, low cost, you know, on the real."

Also newly in the mix is Skilit, a tee shirt line started by local artist Rudy McCoy, best known for his Phunk Junkeez album art, and partner Tony Cruz, a professional rock-band tour manager (oxymoron, anyone?) with prime contacts across the states.

Asked to break down his new line's aesthetic vibe, McCoy, 28, thinks a moment, ponders the maroon scab on his left elbow from a recent dirt-bike mishap, then spits this out: "It's like when you're 8 years old, and this fine blonde chick is riding you on the handlebars of a fat BMX bike, and there's a massive ramp up ahead, and you're going to jump over your two best friends."

Uh-huh. Well, what's Skilit's marketing strategy? "Right now, our main concern isn't selling," says McCoy. "It's generating name recognition. We're all about throwin' out the shirts for the next few months."

To whom?
"Musicians, skaters, snowboarders, all kinds of professional, extreme-sport athletes, and exotic dancers."

Exotic dancers?
"Yeah, we're spending a lot of time in topless bars, giving out baby dolls and the little aerobic tops. We believe it's crucial to have good-looking girls wearing our product."

Twenty-five-year-old Valley designer Robert Ponce says he plans to concentrate more on car shows and west-side nightclubs this summer when he launches two new lines: Player Racing Companies, a flashy tee shirt line; and FETTI (slang for money), a high-dollar line of hoodies and polo shirts costing $75 to $100.

"FETTI's a get-what-you-pay-for line," Ponce says.
Still, he says, like any successful street-wear line, "the clothes look like they cost even more than they do."

Ponce isn't new to this game. He started several shirt lines in the past, most notably Criminal Behavior, which was quickly endorsed by rap artists Das Efx, Mac-10, the Outkasts, and Above the Law. That line's key design element was Ponce's use of Old English letters, popular with the gang-banger sets. "I had to be careful with the colors," Ponce says. "One time I combined red and blue, and those shirts didn't sell for anything."

Ponce's current line, Evolution, is shirts and caps bearing Chinese calligraphy characters. The hip-hop supergroup Wu Tang Clan's use of Asian symbols and kung-fu theater philosophy has only helped Ponce, who says the best sellers of the 12-character line are knowledge, harmony, power and influence.

Noting the flux of Valley-based urban-clothing lines, Ponce says he hopes to form an "Arizona Clothing Alliance" of independent street-wear designers. "It's a power-in-numbers thing," he says. "We could help one another out with distribution and manufacturing costs and get a sales team going."

Ponce says he's especially eager to work with MosDef. Quincy Ross sounds somewhere below stoked on the idea. "Robert Ponce. Yeah, I remember that kid. I talked to him before I even started, when he already had a line or two going, and I kinda questioned him on what's going on, and how things operate, and he played me to the left, like, 'You can't just walk up and expect me to let you in the door and give away my hookups.' Now he wants to share hookups. Well, I don't know about that. He's a pretty cool kid, though."

Ross says he doesn't consider any of the other Valley clothing lines competition. "Arizona doesn't count for most of my sales, and it hasn't for quite a while. I still promote here. I'm out in the clubs almost every night, but I'm not local. I'm seeing the global picture.

"Still, it's good to have all these companies representing Arizona. You know, we're all doing our entrepreneurial thing, and there's room for more. The kids support these clothes because they have more feeling for the small projects, because it's closer to their lives than Ralph Lauren.

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