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Hip-hop fashion hits the suburbs

By Jeffrey MeyerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 2003


Jersey Gardens is a suburban mall with an urban twist.

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Thousands of Garden State teenagers descend on the cavernous shopping center in Elizabeth, N.J., each weekend in search of bargains at Old Navy and Polo Jeans.

But many teens are increasingly eschewing khakis and plaid shirts for roomy and colorful clothing made by Sean John and Rocawear, two of the bestselling rap-inspired clothing labels.

Christian Osorno, a high school student from suburban Union, N.J., is among them. On a recent Saturday afternoon as he cruised the mall with three friends, he sported a blue-and-white basketball jersey that fell below his knees, a matching cap tilted 45 degrees to the right, and baggy bluejeans that hung below his hips.

Christian describes the outfit as "loose" and "ghetto."

Loose, ghetto, and coming to a mall near you.

Teens living on cul-de-sacs and in small towns are increasingly taking fashion cues from rap music videos. Sales of hip-hop fashion, estimated by the NPD Group, a market information company, to be $2 billion in 2001, are considered one of the fastest growing segments of the apparel industry. That's mostly thanks to mall stores such as Sears, Nordstrom, and Target stocking more urban brands.

Rap artists-turned-fashion designers are responding by expanding the scope and reach of the clothing labels they launched in the 1990s. "Having these brands is about having the bad-boy image," says Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD. "Suburban kids are now thinking 'I don't have to live in nowhere-ville anymore,' "

This commercialization of cutting-edge fashion raises the question: Does urban fashion lose its authenticity - or street credibility - when it goes suburban?

Hip-hop culture began its journey from underground to mainstream in the mid-1970s in the Bronx section of New York City. Hip-hop pioneers were primarily young African-American men. They would express themselves by making and trading rap mix tapes, spray-painting graffiti on buildings and subway platforms, and break dancing.

As hip-hop evolved into a lifestyle, a style of dress emerged. "Hip-hop started with fashion sense," says Nelson George, author of "Hip-Hop America." "It's always been very visually orientated."

For two decades hip-hop enthusiasts appropriated items from mainstream fashion, says Mr. George. Sometimes they would wear accessories in unique ways - Adidas sneakers or Timberland boots with the laces untied. Other times they would lay claim to upmarket brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren.

Black designers began launching labels in the early 1990s. One of the first successful brands was FUBU, which stands for "For Us By Us." The surging popularity of rap music prompted artists Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Jay-Z, as well as Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records, to introduce clothing lines: Sean John, Rocawear, and Phat Farm.

Today, the freshest street fashions emanate from the Jamaica section of New York's Queens borough. Fashion enthusiasts here say the latest look is clean, colorful, and loose. "Gotta be like no other person. Gotta look good," says Allen Elder, a college freshman who lives in the area.

Mr. Elder says that hip-hop clothing is a dress code among his friends: "You're going to be looked at funny if you come out here with torn-up jeans or khakis. Everyone wears baggy jeans, sneakers, fitted hats, doo rags, bandannas, anything with a name brand."

The reactions of urban teenagers to their suburban peers co-opting their style range from pride to indifference to caution. "It makes you know that your fashion has gone far," says Elder's cousin, Patrick Lipcomb, also a college freshman. "It [also] gives you a sense of pride, like: 'Yeah, we started that.' "