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by Caletha Crawford

It’s been a rough year for the apparel industry, as by and large consumers opted to reach deeper into their closets rather than their wallets when it came time to get dressed. Across the board, designers were forced to re-evaluate their offerings and prices in an attempt to woo this new skittish, bargain-hungry consumer. The churn of new trends slowed as brands decided the best course of action was to offer familiar looks with a twist in the hopes that shoppers would be more receptive to items that would mix well with their current wardrobes. Whether it worked or whether the sameness provided would-be shoppers with further reason to continue their miserly ways, is unclear.

One thing that is apparent is it was a much more interesting year for the urban market. This segment of the apparel industry made the biggest strides, as labels raced to keep up with their maturing customer base. Fueled by a more sophisticated consumer with ready access to fashion news and information thanks to the Internet, 2009 marked a new chapter for the urban segment. “The customer has grown up in the last year more than I’ve ever seen the customer grow in the past,” said Dohnn Ball, men’s assistant buyer at the Boston-based Karmaloop clothing store. “The manufacturers know that and they’re working hard.”

In many ways, the changes in urban fashion reflect the changes within the hip-hop community that birthed it: Gone are the iced out, flamboyant rappers of the 80s and 90s as are the in-your-face logos and head-to-toe color combinations that, for years, defined the category. Today even former bad boys have cleaned up their acts. Think Puff Daddy circa 1996 vs. Sean Combs of today. Fresh to death is the look. It’s clean and refined, and the brands that stacked the most chips in 2009 were the ones that recognized this movement.

Urban’s New Spin

This design evolution has broadened the urban aesthetic. “Street is not just coming from hip-hop. It’s about other things now,” said Andre Warren, vice president of merchandising for the Magic apparel trade show, who has a ring-side seat for the styles and brands that create buzz with retailers six months before they hit stores. “That market is maturing.” Rather than donning over-sized emblems and exaggerated shapes, now the market is moving in what Warren calls “a collegiate almost prep” direction reminiscent of Tommy Hilfiger or Ralph Lauren—with an edge. The look was demonstrated most notably by the influx of sweater vests and crests in 2009.

Sam Glaser, buyer for Life and Death Clothing of San Francisco and Las Vegas, says forget about head-to-toe matching and baggy jeans. The more refined look of today, which he calls “sophisticated urban” comprises “tighter fits, complex layering, eye-catching fabrics, specialty details such as technical features or metal hardware and color balance of details like logos and accessories.”The brands that adapted to this look with more structured, sophisticated silhouettes charted the best sales in 2009. “Our customers pay close attention to fit and respond to a luxury look,” said Ball. “They pay close attention to fashion houses out there. Before, a brand could survive on graphic tees. Within the last year, tees haven’t carried the business.”

Ball points to labels like Obey, which has graduated to fitted fleece jackets, sweaters and skinny jeans, as well as 10Deep and Cooks and Castle, which have remixed their selections to include cut-and-sew garments. Similarly, Glaser says an emerging generation of brands like Orisue and Joyrich have gained ground thanks to adapting to the new urban. While the shift has presented opportunity for up-and-coming lines, many urban stalwarts have been able to capitalize on the evolution as well. Tim Bess, men’s fashion director for the Doneger Group, a fashion retail consulting firm, points to brands like Sean John, Coogi and Rocawear, which he says offer trend-right merchandise. Bess says FUBU’s relaunch in the fall will have a similar aesthetic, while Glaser says upcoming collections from Karl Kani are also in this vein.

Crossover Appeal

In addition to making fashion sense, designing apparel with a wider appeal also makes good business sense. Just as hip-hop and rap stars have found their greatest success with tracks that pair them with R&B artists, fashion houses have found that folding in outside influences—found anywhere from the inner city tastemaker to high-end fashion gurus—have afforded them a wider customer base. Think Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. Years ago, rappers were derided if they opted for poppier tracks; now songs that combine styles are the bread and butter for all manner of former thugs. Similarly, gaining new consumers is the best route to growth in urban fashion, though it’s not without its hazards in a market that puts a premium on authenticity. “On some level, brands might lose some credibility [when they become mainstream], but the upside is bigger for them in terms of market share and penetration and gaining credibility in different arenas,” said Warren.

Likewise, brands from mainstream America are on track to pick up steam in this new urban market, according to Bess. The preppy look as well as the woodsmen and lumberjack aesthetics permeating all of men’s wear has opened the door for Americana dressing that’s prime to foster the reemergence of lines like Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica—or at least brands that are able to emulate those designs. “These are iconic American heritage brands,” stated Bess. “You may not see the brand itself, but street is being inspired by them. I’m already seeing the urban kid wearing Ralph [Lauren] again, which is fabulous.”

Urban’s expanding market and influence also includes men’s wear, which is experiencing a trickle-up effect as the hip hop kids of yesterday grow into men with educations, jobs, relationships and mature tastes. In response to what he saw as an under-served market, fashion mogul Russell Simmons bowed men’s wear brands Argyle Culture and American Classics. “We see these brands as the evolution of the Phat Farm customer. Compared to when the brand started in `92, those young men are men now,” stated Myorr Janha, senior vice president of marketing and public relations for Rush Communications and Simmons Design Group. “After a certain point your tastes change.”

The timing for the lines, which both launched within the last two years, was perfect given that Simmons had long stated he wanted Phat Farm to be seen in the same vein as Ralph Lauren, the label that epitomizes cleaned up, preppy attire. With Argyle Culture, which is sold exclusively at Macy’s and Wal-Mart’s American Classics, Simmons continues that aesthetic for what he terms “urban graduates.” While any comparisons to Polo might be welcomed, Janha said the lines offer an edge in terms of their treatments and color play. He hopes the new year brings more lines into men’s wear which can strike a chord with former young customers who are looking for something a little different.

The Numbers Game

The recession this year obviously impacted the fashion market, increasing competition as consumers looked to mainstream labels for better pricing. In response, brands like Sean John, Akademiks and Encye have all lowered their prices, according to Bess. The pricing strategy of fashion labels and their reaction to consumer concerns played a big role in the success of fashion lines in 2009, according to Ball of Karmaloop. “A lot of brands have improved their retail price. The streetwear customer is more price conscious than ever,” he said. “He knows which brands offer the look for less.”

Fast fashion chains like Uniqlo, Topman and Forever 21’s Heritage line were all positioned to lure this customer, according to Bess. These stores, along with staple brands like Levi’s, are appealing to a customer who is less label conscious than in the past. “That kid is not brand loyal at all. It’s all about a look not a brand,” he said. “Fast fashion is really going to influence the urban and street kid because even if they don’t have a lot of money to spend, they can get a lot for their money.”

No longer churning out flamboyant styling, the top designers stacked chips by sampling a wider range of looks for a broader appeal.

Look for price to continue to play a role in 2010, as labels deal with budget-conscious consumers with high expectations. Insiders predict it will be another year of shifting fortunes as retro brands re-emerge and more underground labels make their mark on a wider audience. One thing is for sure, things aren’t slowing down. “In young men’s, the trends are a lot faster than they used to be,” said Jahna. “So as a retailer, you have to be really quick and on top of your game to keep the younger customers in your stores.”

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