Hip-hop fashion hits the suburbs

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Jersey Gardens is a suburban mall with an urban twist.

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.

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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.' "

Marty Grams, a college sophomore wearing a loose-fitting Rocawear denim jacket and jeans combination, brushes off the concern. "You're doing you, I'm doing me. I've got too much to worry about doing me."

It's not always easy for suburban students to match the authentic hip-hop look, though, Mr. Grams acknowledges. "When you switch it up they can't do it like you do." To this end, he says he owns 37 pairs of sneakers, and alternates between wearing linen, velour, and denim suits.

But fashion-conscious folks in Jamaica are having to switch their styles faster if they want to stay ahead of the pack. In many cases, there is now little lag time before a new design pops up at department stores such as Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Nordstrom.

Retailers are scurrying to cash in on the urban fashion trend. Later this month, Sears will launch prototype "urban-inspired clothing" sections in 50 stores. The company says it is catering to African-Americans and Latinos by stocking the hottest urban brands in bigger sizes and brighter colors.

But "it's not just city people buying these clothes," says Willy Medina, a Sears spokesman. "Suburban kids are flocking [in] as well." Sales of urban apparel at a Schaumburg, Ill., store outside Chicago are among the company's strongest, Mr. Medina adds.

The allure of hip-hop clothing in the mall and on the street are in many ways similar. In both places, young people want to look cool and look different. But for many suburban teens, wearing the same clothes as rappers spouting violent and profane lyrics on television is a sign of rebelliousness.

"Many white kids feel as locked out of the mainstream as black kids," says Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture" and the forthcoming "Why White Kids Love Hip Hop." "They want to get away from bland and boring American mainstream culture."

Some suburban teens dress in street attire to express a connection with the glamorous and exciting lifestyles depicted in rap videos. But they can "sometimes go to the extreme of fashion," says Sergio Rivera, a teenager from suburban Bergenfield, N.J. Some students at his school "drop $200 or $300 at a time on clothes."

Analysts say that some items - such as doo rags and velour suits - are more difficult for white kids to pull off. But the hip-hop movement has thrived by including different races and nationalities. "It's a big-tent kind of culture," says George.

The success of designer Marc Ecko testifies to the size of this tent. "Marc is a suburban white guy from Lakeland, N.J., ... who grew up a hip-hop fan," says Rob Weinstein, vice president of marketing for Ecko Unlimited. Mr. Ecko parlayed his passions for painting graffiti and listening to hip-hop music into a $300 million-a-year business.

He began a decade ago hawking bundles of mix tapes and T-shirts with graffiti designs for about $20 each to shops along the New Jersey shore. Today, Ecko Unlimited sells men's, women's, and children's clothes. And its rhino logo can be seen embossed on sweaters in Macy's stores across the United States.

Ecko is embracing mainstream consumers in its goal to become a brand like Polo Ralph Lauren. "The company believes it can strike a balance between selling to the masses and maintaining its credibility with the street," says Mr. Weinstein. "As long as we continue to be innovative, we're going to stay popular."

If this is true, Ecko and other urban fashion labels may be here for a long time. Analysts say that as hip-hop culture becomes more ingrained in popular culture, where you're from and what you look like become less relevant.

Adds Allen Elder, the New York college student: "You don't need to be black or white to get a fresh pair of clothes."

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