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FASHION : Hot Urban Cool

July 24, 1992|WILLIAM KISSEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fourteen-year-old Jeffrey Henderson is a showcase for hip-hop fashion: a pair of oversized Cross Colours denim shorts hang precariously from his skinny hips, his Malcolm X baseball cap is worn backward, and his red-green-and-white denim shirt recalls the colors of African tribal flags.

"The look is cool," says Henderson, who is white and grew up in Glendale. "And besides, all of my friends dress this way."

That's good news for black-owned-and-designed menswear labels such as Cross Colours, Karl Kani, DMD and Positive Wear, whose urban sportswear has struck a nerve with American teen-agers. Along with director Spike Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule--which introduced its first complete sportswear collection this year--these companies are getting mainstream recognition that hasn't been afforded African-American menswear designers since Willi Smith created his largely successful Willi Wear line in the late 1970s.

"We feel that our clothes have a lot to say to people," says Carl Jones, who, with T. J. Walker, created Cross Colours, a boldly colored collection of denim jeans and jackets, hooded sweat shirts and T-shirts plastered with statements condemning racial segregation and gang violence.

Retailers "used to put us in their 'ethnic stores'," says Jones. "In L. A., that would be Crenshaw and Fox Hills Mall. We thought the label might eventually be accepted by other races, but we didn't really target a crossover business. We were targeting the black market.

"We thought if only the black consumers bought Cross Colours, we'd eventually be a $20-million company. But with the crossover, the potential is certainly much greater."

That's putting it mildly. In 1991, Cross Colours' first full year in business, retail sales hovered at just under $15 million. In the first six months of 1992, the company has sold more than $25 million worth of merchandise, and the owners expect to top $50 million by the end of the year. Those figures represent one of the highest sales volumes of any black-owned apparel company on record.

Karl Kani's signature collection of pieced-together and printed baggy denims is expected to reach the $6-million sales mark in its first year. (Analysts say most new apparel companies average less than $500,000 in their first year.)

And indeed, retailers sound confident. "In young men's sportswear, the inner-city look is a pretty dominant trend," says Derek Tucker, president of Oaktree, which operates more than 300 stores nationwide and nearly 50 in the Los Angeles area. "Forty percent of the store is made up of these looks. We even took some of Cross Colours' ideas and did our own versions at a lower price."

Macy's San Francisco and Bullock's South Coast Plaza did so well with Cross Colours and Spike Lee's 40 Acres this past season, the chains will offer both lines in half of their stores this fall. At the 950-store Merry-Go-Round chain, president Michael Sullivan says hip-hop fashions are "definitely on an upward trend" and he expects nearly three-quarters of the stores to carry Cross Colours, Karl Kani and look-alike labels by the end of summer.

J. C. Penney has tested the urban streetwear trend sparingly. "While it may be reaching maturation in the city, the suburbs are just picking up on it," says John Larranaga, brand development manager for young men's sportswear. Nonetheless, he predicts Cross Colours look-alike lines will represent nearly 20% of the store's merchandise mix beginning this fall.

At 40 Acres and a Mule, which Spike Lee began as a way of distributing memorabilia from his films, clothing was--at first--limited to T-shirts, baseball caps and a few jackets. But a complete sportswear collection will be on sale this fall, and business is expected to jump to nearly $4 million this year.

Macy's Northeast and Macy's Atlanta have 40 Acres departments in 16 stores. This fall, the 40 Acres line is expected to be launched in some Dayton Hudson and Marshall Fields stores. It will also be offered at Nordstrom and in five Spike's Joint stores, including a Melrose Avenue shop that is scheduled to open soon.

In addition, the company recently signed a licensing agreement with Cedar Japan, a distribution company that plans to market the label in five Spike's Joint stores in Japan.

While Cross Colours takes credit for instigating the hip-hop sportswear trend, most fashion observers say the look started in the mid-1980s with the success of rap music. When rappers such as MC Lyte, LL Kool J, May May Ali and Joe Public, as well as more mainstream groups such as New Kids on the Block, started wearing hip-hop clothes in their music videos, their fans had to have them, too.

Although store buyers have long recognized the link between music and fashion, many felt the looks borrowed from inner-city streets--where rap music was also born--were too offbeat to sell in large volumes to middle America. But stagnant retail sales convinced a few stores to take a chance. Their coffers have been overflowing ever since.

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