Shirt Happens

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."

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse