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For decades, rap music has served as the arbiter of what is in and hip for the urban community, especially when it comes to style. The 2015 documentary Fresh Dressed details fashion’s significance as a form of identity for hip-hop artists and the fans who look up to them. "Being fresh is more important than having money," said Kanye West at the opening of the documentary. "The entire time I grew up, it was like I only wanted money so I could be fresh." Being able to afford the Salvatore Ferragamo and the John Galliano Cam’ron name-dropped in his songs became equivalent with success.
Young kids and hip-hop heads alike embraced high-end labels because it was something to aspire to. The Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy pretty much put Versace on the map for young black kids. Aaliyah made Tommy Hilfiger a household name in black households after posing in heavily rotated commercials and advertisements for the brand in the ‘90s. However, many of these unabashed signs of affection often went unreciprocated.
Urban apparel lines became hip-hop’s answer to the corporate white world that wanted so desperately to shut them out. The ‘90s and early 2000’s witnessed the rise of the "for us, by us" mentality, an era of innovation and entrepreneurship within the hip-hop community. By staking a claim in the fashion world and turning their labels into multi-million dollar companies, black business owners and rappers rivaled the Ralph Laurens and Tommy Hilfigers of the world by creating label-based clothing their urban customers could relate to.
But somewhere down the line the baggy jeans, oversized sweatshirts, and label-ridden clothing fell off the fashion radar and out of the minds and shopping carts of their customers. Somewhere down the line, rappers stopped donning FUBU hats and started looking back to Paris and Milan, to a legacy that was not created with them in mind.
Here, we take a look at the rise, fall, and current whereabouts of Fubu, Phat Farm, Rocawear, and Sean John today.
Like most urban clothing lines, FUBU was a homegrown venture with modest beginnings. Daymond John was just a kid from Queens, New York with his sights set on hitting it big in the urban apparel market. His first taste of success came in 1989 after making $800 in one day with a batch of wool hats he had a friend sew up for him.
John noticed the cultural relevance of screen-printed T-shirts, and shortly thereafter whipped up a few in response to the Rodney King riots and the arrest of Mike Tyson for rape in 1992. In an interview with The Washington Post, John admitted that the shirts set off a lightbulb in his young entrepreneur-driven mind. "It showed me something about the reason people buy clothes — that when there’s an emotional connection, products sell quicker. That’s when I started thinking about the concept of ‘for us, by us.’"
To expand the line’s reach, the designer teamed up with three of his childhood friends from Queens, J. Alexander Martin, Keith Perrin, and Carl Brown. They moved operations to John’s mother’s house and took a second mortgage on the home to turn it into a makeshift factory, sewing labels onto its signature baseball caps and football jerseys.
Their first celebrity endorser turned devoted FUBU ambassador was the rapper LL Cool J in 1993. FUBU took off after that. By 1997 the line was raking in nearly $40 million; by 1998, over $350 million. LL even wore a FUBU hat in a Gap commercial — unbeknownst to the executives at the family-centric store. Mainstream stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom started selling FUBU.
The brand went on to rack up a handful of awards, including accolades from the NAACP Awards, the Congressional Awards, and the first Essence award ever awarded to a company. But things started to go south when John and his team bit off more than they could chew in terms of production. Soon, excess inventory made its way to outlets and discount stores.
John acquired a handful of brands, including Coogi, Drunk’n Munkey, and Heatherette — all but Coogi have since failed. He relaunched FUBU as FB Legacy in 2010 using rappers like Soulja Boy, Roscoe Dash, and Slim Thug to attract customers. Today, the brand’s website is under construction, allowing potential customers to sign up for updates on future collections.
Phat Farm’s name, a slang word for something that is dope or ultimate, is not the only thing about the brand that ties it to hip-hop. The company’s founder, Russell Simmons, also happens to be brothers with Run-D.M.C frontman and reality television star, Rev. Run.
Before Simmons founded Phat Farm in 1992, his primary focus was music. With his partner Rick Rubin, he launched Def Jam Records just eight years before, signing major rap musicians like The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and of course, Run-D.M.C. Rush Communications was soon created thereafter, and housed Phat Farm, a clothing line Simmons sold at a small shop in New York’s Soho district.
Simmons enlisted the help of Marc Bagguta, who ran the boutique, and 22-year-old skateboarders Alyasha Jibril Owerka-Moore and Eli Morgan Gesner, who became designers for the brand. While Simmons does admit that Phat Farm was not an immediate success, losing him almost $10 million during the first six years, he said that once things took off, they really took off, boosting his net worth to $300 million.
Although inexperienced, his designers were spot on in their collections — creating hoodies and T-shirts with the brand’s signature "P" logo. At one point, it was being carried in over 3,000 U.S. retail stores, including Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. However, a 2003 interview with Bloomberg Business stated that Simmons grew frustrated with being stymied into the ethnic brand category.
The label, along with Kimora Lee Simmons’s line Baby Phat, failed in part thanks to oversaturation in the hip-hop clothing market, but also because the lines were never able to reach classic heritage house status. The Freshed Dressed doc cites discrimination against African-American designers as a major reason why these types of labels fail.
Simmons sold Phat Farm and Baby Phat to the Kellwood Company in 2004 for $140 million. Today, Phat Farm shoes perpetually remain on clearance at places like Sears and Kmart.
Before Jay Z, Beyonce, and little Blue Ivy Carter became America’s first family, Jay successfully branded himself as a multi-million dollar rapper, entrepreneur, and music producer. He introduced the clothing line Rocawear alongside his friend and Roc-a-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash in 1999.
The brand offered a wide range of clothing for men, women, and children, including their signature baggy jeans, track jackets, and fur-lined puffer coats. At its peak, Rocawear’s sales reached $700 million. Everyone from Fat Joe to Kanye West, from the rapper Trina to Victoria Beckham attended the label's parties and fashion shows decked out in the apparel.
Rocawear was poetically name-dropped in a handful on Jay’s songs, including "Guns & Roses" with Lenny Kravitz ("Rocawear, I'm the young black Ralph Lauren) and "Take You Home With Me" with R. Kelly ("I think I might wife her/ Y'know, powder blue RocaWear suit, white Nike her"). But after his business relationship with Damon Dash started to come to a close in 2006, so did the popularity of urban streetwear.
The rapper sold the clothing line to Iconix Group in 2007 for $204 million in cash. Rumors of the brand’s demise were shrugged off by Jay Z and Iconix Group in 2012 after sales dipped to $500 million. The rapper hasn’t abandoned the clothing line, having stayed on as head of product development, marketing, and licensing since selling the company, but he has stopped promoting it in his music. He no longer rocks Rocawear anymore, either. It’s all about Tom Ford.
Rocawear is still releasing new apparel today, and it’s being sold exclusively through Dr. Jay’s. The newest collection, Rocawear BLAK, dropped in Fall 2015 with an advertisement featuring the rapper Fabolous and a lineup of hoodies, button-downs, and, I kid you not, "Carlton Sweaters" and matching "Knit Pants."
Diddy, otherwise known as Sean Combs, P. Diddy, Puff Daddy, or just Puffy is known for his many entrepreneurial investments and undertakings. Aside from scouting and starting the careers of several young artists with his music label, Bad Boy Records, he has also tried his hand at fashion by creating Sean John in 1998.
In fact, Diddy’s clothing line of luxury denims and furs was probably taken more seriously by the fashion industry than most others. He utilized fellow musicians in his advertisements, like Usher, Mariah Carey, and Busta Rhymes. His men’s and women’s fashion shows were even listed on the New York Fashion Week schedule, with a front row that consisted of high-profile (at the time) celebrities like Paris Hilton and industry top-dogs like Anna Wintour. Channing Tatum and Tyson Beckford launched their careers as models through the brand as well.
Two of Sean John’s top designers included Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of the current popular brand Public School. With their help, Diddy won the highly-coveted CFDA award for Menswear Designer of the Year in 2004. The rapper even purchased a 50% partnership in fellow designer Zac Posen’s line.
Sean John incurred slight losses through 2008 and 2010 when sales dropped to $350 million from $525 million. He also closed the line’s Fifth Avenue flagship store in New York in 2010. Yet, despite all of Sean John’s successes, it still is not considered cool to wear the clothing anymore.
Today, Diddy is trying to change that by re-launching the line with a new consumer in mind: young millennials. He’s enlisted the help of Empire’s rising star, Jussie Smollett, to model in his advertisements along with his stepson, Quincy. Sean John is currently only being sold at Macy’s, but there’s no telling if it will ever be as big as it once was.