NEW YORK — This may come as a surprise to his music fans, but Sean "Puffy" Combs is a contender for a top honor in the fashion industry. That's right, fashion.
Combs, better known as music mogul Puff Daddy, is one of three new menswear designers nominated for an American Fashion Award. The winner will be announced Thursday by the Council of Fashion Designers of America at a gala at Lincoln Center.
As a representative of hip-hop culture, Combs has set a tone for fashion that made it a natural for him to move into the garment industry. He is chairman and chief executive of the line called Sean John, after his first and middle names. The collection is targeted for males 12 to 40 and is designed by a professional staff. In its first year, the line, including jeans, shirts and T-shirts, had sales exceeding $32 million.
"Men's fashion was boring, to be honest," Combs said. "And it still is. I just felt it was unfair for us to not have fun like women get to have. They get to be fabulous and have some style and have an outfit they can put on and feel good about. We're gradually taking men into the zone of being able to feel beautiful but still be able to be a strong man about it."
Combs knows a thing or two about fashion. His white suit, a signature style, is practically transporting.
"The white stuff, to be honest, is like a personal, spiritual thing. White is a color I dream about all the time. I feel safe in white because deep down inside, I'm an angel," he said in a telephone interview.
His first fashion show, in February, attracted a star-studded audience of rappers Lil' Kim and Missy Elliot, R&B veteran Luther Vandross, New York Yankee Derek Jeter, New York Knick Patrick Ewing and comedian Sandra Bernhard.
More typically, Combs is recognized as the Grammy-winning CEO of Bad Boy Entertainment, plus a rap star. He is also owner of trendy Justin's restaurants in New York and Atlanta, named for one of his two sons.
He's philanthropic, too, having founded Daddy's House Social Programs in New York City for homeless and foster children. His record company has a charity division run by sister Keisha.
If that's not enough multi-tasking, Combs plays the leader of a New York crime syndicate in the upcoming film "Made," which is scheduled for release next year.
The mogul with a "Bad-Boy"-tattooed biceps, a penchant for Versace and a platinum-and-diamond cross necklace knows how to combine the brains of a music exec with the style of a rock star.
"I never like to be pinpointed with my style," Combs said. "The complexity of my personality is a reflection of my style."
When it comes to clothes, "I've got a wide range of flavors that I like," he said. What's appealing about fashion, according to Combs, "is that you're supposed to experiment. It's like your supply of color and you're a painter. You're supposed to have fun with it."
For his New York Fashion Week preview in February, Combs, 30, showed bare-chested male models dripping in $14 million worth of jewels and smothered in mink.
"This is a big social message going on," said Council of Fashion Designers president Stan Herman after the show. "When you saw those diamonds, you didn't want to look at rhinestones anymore. He made it natural to see guys wearing diamond necklaces and bracelets. It really worked."
Combs, who was born in Harlem, went from intern at Uptown Records in New York City in 1991 to vice president. He was soon instrumental in creating the debut albums of Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. In 1993, he signed with Arista Records to distribute his Bad Boy label, launching a series of releases that went platinum.
For his fashion line, Combs already has the mandatory celebrity clientele: Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, rapper Eminem, Donald Trump and fellow music exec Russell Simmons, who has his own Phat Farm fashion label.
Combs consulted Simmons, among others, before launching his own line.
"I basically asked for advice," Combs said. "He told me it wasn't easy for a black designer to start a line and be treated seriously."
Beyond that, "you almost have to be a psychic to predict what's going to be in fashion in another year," he said.