Hip-Hop lines go from bling to black tie

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The baggy-pants set at Bergdorf's? Urban designers are betting if the hoodies are cashmere, they will come.

Hip-hop apparel brands are moving up with higher-priced products adorned with fewer logos in a bid for entree into the booming luxury retail arena. Following Puffy's push into couture with Sean and Marc Ecko's own Cut & Sew, Phat Farm this fall will unveil the first of its artist-inspired premium collections, Andre Harrell Champagne & Bubbles, in Bloomingdales and Bergdorf's. The line's female counterpart, Baby Phat by Kimora Lee Simmons, will likewise leap into luxury with its KLS line beginning with high-end cosmetics this spring and an apparel line filled with silk, cashmere and $175-plus denim for fall 2006. Rocawear is soon to follow with the development of its own S. Carter line.

"Urban brands are just taking a page out of mainstream fashion's notebook ... they've upgraded and are looking to service every segment of the urban market and even transcend beyond traditional `urban' demographics," (read blacks and Latinos), said Beverly Smith, fashion editor at large for Vibe magazine.

Nikki Strong, product manager for Phat Farm, said indeed the newest men's line under the Phat Fashions umbrella is intended to take advantage of the customer who "wants to spend all that damn money." To that end, it's developing more Euro-cut styles, silk and cashmere fabrics that it hopes will resonate beyond the hoodie-and-jeans set to the Brad Pitts and Benjamin Bratts of the world.

Currently, the Champagne & Bubbles line-inspired by music mogul Andre Harrell, friend of Phat Farm founder Russell Simmons-is being seeded with A-list celebrities outside the hip-hop set, including Jamie Foxx and TRL's Robin Thicke, to gain traction before making its way to stores. Andre Harrell is just the first of many artists and celebrities that Mr. Simmons will feature as inspiration for the line each fall, Ms. Strong said.

Baby Phat spokesman B.J. Coleman offered that the new KLS line is taking advantage of a new "urban luxury movement" typified by the glamorous looks of singer Beyonce and the more sophisticated styles worn lately by hip-hoppers Usher and Jay-Z (looks expected only to grow now that the NBA enforced its business-casual dress code). "Girls that have been buying Baby Phat since they were 16 now want a more mature look," Mr. Coleman said. KLS will cater to the 18-to-38 set (vs. 15-to-28 for Baby Phat) and prices for the line will start at $175.

Doneger Group retail consultant Tim Bess suggested that diversifying is key to urban apparel marketers and that the next big growth opportunity will come from catering to the "semi-urban post-college set growing up a bit and can't get into clubs in the long white tee."

Rocawear is indeed planning to take advantage of the new buttoned-up urban look its CEO Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter helped spawn with his avowal last year that "you can't be running around in jerseys when you're 30 years old," but still without alienating its more hard-core urban youth, said Jameel Spencer, Rocawear chief marketing officer. The company is in development with an S. Carter line (expanded from Mr. Carter's Reebok shoe line of the same name) for those, Mr. Jameel said, "who grew up with Rocawear but now has a job and wants that cashmere sweater."

Pam Danziger, president of luxury consulting firm Unity Marketing, expressed doubts that upscale retailers like Saks, which cater to the super-affluent, would be interested in carrying items for the urban consumer. But other observers disagree.

Tom Julian, a trend analyst with Fallon Worldwide, said that "there is a customer base and an opportunity here because these [urban] designers have created a tremendous impact over the last 12 years and luxury retailers believe they can bring a different audience to the equation." That is, he warned, as long as the products are truly top-tier.

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