Street-wise rappers are muscling in on the fashion dollar

White people have always exploited black culture, whether it be Elvis Presley stealing their music or Quentin Tarantino copying…

White people have always exploited black culture, whether it be Elvis Presley stealing their music or Quentin Tarantino copying their dialogue.

It's long been a tenet of the fashion world that what today's black inner city kid is wearing will tomorrow be on the backs of preppy white suburbanites on the look-out for some "cool" clothes.

For over a decade hip-hop fashion was dominated by the predominantly white and mainstream fashion houses of Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren. In the last few years though, a number of independently-owned black American labels are muscling in on the fashion dollar and giving the big boys more than a run for their money. Leading the field is a nine-piece rap crew from Staten Island called The Wu-Tang Clan, a critically acclaimed group whose two albums to date have sold more than 15 million copies. When they were playing live gigs they would find themselves staring at an audience bedecked in bootlegged T-shirts bearing the legend "Wu-Tang Clan".

In an effort to beat the bootleggers, they set up their own merchandising company called Wu-Wear which has become a mini-phenomenon in the fashion world. In 1997 -their second year - Wu-Wear notched up $12 million (£8.45 million) in gross sales and it's expected to top $30 million in gross sales for 1998.


Wu-Wear produces simple, straight-up but edgy fashions that include T-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts and baseball caps. Now that they're selling more T-shirts than records, it's obvious Wu-Wear has an appeal far beyond the band's musical fan base. It also helps that big names like Bjork and Nine Inch Nails regularly parade themselves in front of the cameras decked out in Wu-Wear finery. As street fashion goes, Wu-Wear is currently so hot you need gloves to touch it. Wu-Wear's president and CEO, Mr Oli Grant, says: "All our people [black people] used to buy Tommy Hilfiger, Polo and Nautica. My thing was to emulate that, because to me they had the best stuff. That's what everybody in the hip-hop community and from all over was buying."

Mr Grant adds: "Once the group attracted mass attention and various offers for projects or investments came along, we decided to explore the business opportunities for ourselves. A lot of artists might get caught up in the hype of it. But we can't be rappers all of our lives. Now we explore all the avenues. Instead of always giving the deal to someone else and making them rich, why not keep it for ourselves?"

With five specialised retail stores in the US, including the flagship store in Staten Island, Wu-Wear also has a lucrative deal with a department store conglomerate, Federated, which places its clothes in stores like Macy's and Bloomingdales. They also sell well abroad, including in the Republic, where the brand is available in the predominantly hip-hop fashion shop, Urban, which is at 30 Drury Street, Dublin.

According to staff at the shop: "Wu-Wear is a very popular brand, it sells a lot. In the early days they used the T-shirt like a beach-head to establish the company but now they have hoodies and baseball caps and other wear. A lot of the reason for its popularity is the fact that it's excellently manufactured and it really is cutting-edge fashion. All their clothes stand up as viable products and Wu-Wear have shown that they have the capacity to operate in the marketplace - they really do use the best manufacturers".

With start-up costs of just $50,000 for a storefront and merchandise, the company, just three years old, is now one of the major players in the lucrative urban teen/college student market. It targets the 12-28 age group and has the added advantage of being able to include a mail order catalogue for its clothes in CDs (when you sell 15 million records worldwide, that's more than a bit of a help). It's not just plain old fashioned name-branding which has built the company, but rather its awareness of the synergy between the hip-hop lifestyle and clothing. A lot of its customers are attracted by the authentic, high-drama lives of black rappers. The standard white middle class kid buying a Wu-Wear T-shirt is not just buying a piece of cotton with the band's name on it, he's also buying into a sub-culture - and all the better if his parents and teachers don't approve of it.

Designers such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger have benefited from hip-hop's influence on fashion mainly because they're often name-dropped in rap lyrics. According to a recent report in Forbes magazine, Tommy Hilfiger has reported a 40 per cent jump in sales to $491 million, with earnings climbing 47 per cent to $64 million.

Lining up beside Wu-Wear are other black boutique labels like FUBU (which stands for "For us, By us"), Naughty Gear, Phat Farm, Pure Playaz and UB Tuff - all of whom claim a closer connection with street fashion then the more mainstream (and usually white) names. Street cred and funky logos have helped them all become players in the $5 billion male/female urban-clothing niche.

Starting off, all these labels would regularly send off free samples of clothing to leading black celebrities, hoping that exposure of their label name on an MTV video would kick-start sales. It worked remarkably well - LL Cool J wears FUBU, Dr Dre from the band Niggers With Attitude wears Karl Kani and rising rap star Busta Rhymes wears Ecko. When LL Cool J appeared on a popular chat show wearing his FUBU wares, the television station was inundated with phone calls asking where they could buy FUBU clothes.

Because these labels are ostensibly closer to "the street" than the mainstream names, they say they can adapt more quickly to new trends such as the rush for inside logos and slimmer fits.

Rapidly expanding, Wu-Wear's range will increase next year to include velour suits, footwear, fleece suits, jewellery, denim suits, nail polish, socks, underwear, bags, wallets, mugs, keys and chains.

And like Chanel and Armani before them, they're even going to have their own perfume.

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes mainly about music and entertainment