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Whose Music Are You Wearing?

It's not just about getting a record deal anymore. More singers are dreaming of lucrative clothing lines.

March 09, 2001|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

They don't even have a demo record yet, but the members of a fledgling South-Central musical trio already have dreams of a clothing line.

John "Hard Head" Taylor, 23, Shavoya "Notik" Flucas, 26, and Desi "Twyc" Hines, 21, make up the hip-hop-blues-soul group called S3 and were among the 300-plus people who showed up at d.e.m.o., a Montebello Town Center jeans-wear store last week. The trio came to get career advice from hip-hop music and clothing pioneer Russell Simmons, wearing the first item of their own design--black knit stocking caps embroidered with their S3 logo.

"Once we get the music out there, we're planning on a clothing line," said Flucas, who said his group has a 35-song repertoire.

Musicians aren't just artists anymore. They're entrepreneurs for whom a platinum record is just part of their vision of success. In the years ahead, it's possible to imagine that a compilation of greatest hits just might mention an artist's best-selling jacket.

Music and fashion have often amplified each other, but these days, the association means serious business, particularly when clothing labels can profit as much as or more than the record labels. Collections backed by hip-hop artists and producers are dominating stores' young-men's departments with such bestselling lines as Sean John, Phat Farm and Rocawear. The baggy jeans, rugged jackets and logo T-shirts that early hip-hop and rap singers pieced together and wore with a streetwise edge have become the backbones of commercial clothing lines--some racking upward of $100 million in annual sales. Like a catchy hook in a song, the jingling of that kind of change keeps ringing in the ears of other musicians hoping to capitalize on their own acclaim.

The rag trade's siren song has lured artists as diverse as Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, Outkast and Carlos Santana to test the fashion waters. The thong man, Sisqo, flashed the dragon logo of his upcoming Dragon Collection clothes while he strolled the red carpet at the Grammy Awards last month. Stepping from show biz to shoe biz, Santana recently launched Carlos, a moderately priced collection of women's shoes and boots that will be sold at West Coast Macy's stores and help fund his Milagro Foundation.

In New York, the flagship Bloomingdale's store is converting its Beatles boutique into a VH-1 rock shop. For weeks, Sean "Puffy" Combs, founder of Bad Boy Entertainment and the $100-million Sean John clothing line, has been in the news--both for his flashy $1-million menswear show last month in New York, and for his ongoing weapons possession trial there.

A personality, even one with notoriety, lends an authenticity that connects customers to the clothes. And as important, a celebrity can personify aspiration, said Heidi Muther, divisional merchandising manager for d.e.m.o.'s buying staff. And the music? "That's what brings them in," she said above the store's booming soundtrack. "It's about an experience. They're here and walking around to the beat."

Many hip-hop song lyrics often mention which brands are hot, and the music videos show how to wear them. "The thing about hip-hop, it talks specifically about the culture of the people, as opposed to love songs, which you have to interpret," said Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records. In between signing autographs for the mostly male, teenage fans, Simmons explained that many rap songs, like their jazz and blues predecessors, capture the frustrations and aspirations of the underclass.

"The whole real connection between the artist and the audience is what the culture is about," he said, adding that hip-hop fans "are the best brand-building community in America." He reeled off a list of luxury goods--from limited edition cars to platinum watches--that were first popular within the hip-hop community before they caught on elsewhere. "They are very sophisticated about culture and what they like."

That simplifies the job of the stores, particularly when musicians come already equipped with an advertising campaign: Their videos. "They're the most powerful marketing tool," said Carrie Harris, a market representative for Directives West, a retailing consulting firm. "With videos, it's not like you are taking a risk the way you do when you buy a page in a magazine and hope they see it."

Millions of viewers not only watch the videos, but also soak up every detail, from the lyrics to the tilt of a cap. "LL Cool J wore FUBU hats in all of his videos," recalled Amon Parker, marketing director for Natural Born Star. "The next thing you know, FUBU is a household name."

That magic continues to work. "The musicians wear [the clothes] in the music videos, and they make it look good," said Andrew Kim, 18, of Rowland Heights, who shopped at d.e.m.o. with his Baby Phat-attired friend, Paula Sangco, 19, of West Covina. "You don't have to be into the music to wear it."

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