Ex-Levi's exec takes reins at Rocawear unit

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If urban-apparel brand Rocawear succeeds in moving mainstream, it will do so under new marketing management.

Following a bitter dispute between CEO Damon Dash and David Gensler, CEO of the Native/DBG unit created as Rocawear's in-house agency, Mr. Gensler has departed along with five other Native employees, and marketing at the growing brand is now being spearheaded by former Levi Strauss & Co. executive Roy Edmondson.

The dissolution of Native last month-a joint venture formed by Mr. Dash, Mr. Gensler and Kareem "Biggs" Burke little more than a year ago-came about as a result of "differences in management styles and vision," according to Mr. Gensler, who has started his own marketing consulting business with former Rocawear VP-marketing Aki Spicer.

expanding portfolio

Native was designed to expand the stable of apparel brands, including the $300 million-plus Rocawear label, beyond the urban market. It also was responsible for marketing ROC's growing portfolio of film and record labels, Armadale Vodka, America magazine and other products.

Despite rape allegations that cast a specter over Rocawear's efforts (AA, Feb. 2), Mr. Edmondson said that expanding through alliances forged with outside partners is still very much the plan.

"The model is similar to Richard Branson's with Virgin, albeit with strong roots in urban culture," said Mr. Edmondson, a Brit whose resume includes marketing at behemoth Philip Morris Cos. (now Altria Group) and 15 years at Levi Strauss & Co., most recently as director-worldwide presence marketing.

Instead of being wary of the controversy surrounding the hip-hop scene he has entered, Mr. Edmondson sees it as "a crazy and inspiring new world" free of the red tape of classic marketing and a "completely new and refreshing opportunity to do things differently." As for the rape charges, he said those have "disappeared," and as the company moves forward it has to be true to its roots in the urban market, where core values include supporting family. "And the truth is, not everyone in your family behaves well all the time," he said.

Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at research firm NPD Group, cited Rocawear as one of three urban brands (along with Phat Farm and Sean John) that he believes will make it to the mainstream. The challenge, he said, will be "how to remain true to the urban consumer while you're busy playing in Sheboygan, Wisconsin."

multiple personalites

Doing so, Mr. Cohen said, will require "taking on multiple personalities" through branding, marketing, media and entertainment, branching out into various businesses and partnering with mainstream manufacturers as Russell Simmons has done so successfully for Phat Farm. Mr. Dash's behavior is less important to marketing the Rocawear brand in suburbia than P. Diddy's is to his apparel brand, Sean John, Mr. Cohen said, because he is not nearly as recognizable a figure.

Mr. Edmondson said that in fact the company's expansion is based on the view that "we're operating in a colorless world where we can be different things to different people."

Since he has come on board, Mr. Edmondson has executed advertising and promotions Native had in place to build the company's Rocawear, State Property and Team Roc apparel brands as well as its new WashHouse denim brand. He is in the process of "staffing up," having hired a director of communications and a sponsorship and promotion manager among others, and expects to "get the ship sailing in the right direction" within six months.

"The blend between music, film and clothing is quite an exciting opportunity for people, and we have the chance to market that in a unique and different way," he said.

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