Ice-T, Eminem Delve Into Clothing Market

Rappers infamous for lyrics about killing cops and their own family members might not be the first thing coming to mind when you think of menswear.

But Eminem and Ice-T are both launching their own clothing lines this year to appeal to the ever-growing market for urban streetwear. The rappers join the mounting ranks of artists such as Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Nelly and Master P — just to name a few — who have jumped into the fashion business.

This melding of hip-hop music and fashion, while not a new trend, has been reaching a fevered pitch of late. Pioneers like hip-hop artist and music impresario Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, with his Sean John collection, and Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons, with his Phat Farm label, have shown that youths are hungry for clothes inspired by their favorite musicians.

And many rappers, manufacturers and retailers are eager to tap into this multi-billion dollar market. At MAGIC, the international menswear trade show that gets underway in Las Vegas next week, around 300 exhibitors will be in the streetwear category, a dramatic increase from under 100 just six years ago.

"Every major music personality I can think of is considering or has already considered an apparel line," says Todd Slater, retail analyst with investment bank Lazard Freres in New York.

Rough and Tough Street Tension

Ice-T's line, called Icewear, is slated to hit stores in July and will include items like $40 T-shirts with graphic logos and a $125 velour jogging suit. The rapper and a star of television's Law and Order: Special Victims Unit series teamed up with New York-based manufacturer Americo to produce the line, which will be shown at MAGIC next week. The company is still in the process of choosing national retailers for distribution.

The idea for the collaboration came when Ice-T approached the company about doing a clothing line, says Americo's Vice President of Marketing Valerie Korzec. She adds the singer is actively involved in the design of the clothes.

"He gives it that rough and tough street tension that we would not always have," says Korzec.

Eminem's manufacturing partner, New York-based Nesi Fashion Brands, also plans to launch his clothing line, called Shady, in July. The collection will include T-shirts at around $26 to $28, fleece-hooded sweatshirts at about $50 and jeans starting at around $58.

Retailers have not been chosen for the Eminem line yet, but Nesi's Marketing Director Michael Belluomo stresses the company will be very careful to maintain the brand's exclusive image.

"We don't want to saturate the market even though we know how popular [Eminem] is," says Belluomo. "It would be easy to open every door and throw stuff out there. We don't want to do that."

Catering to the Kids

If successful, these brands have the potential to win the hearts — and dollars — of young men aged 14 to 26, a fickle group that has become increasingly attractive to retailers. Nesi's Belluomo estimates there are more than 32 million in this demographic with disposable income of more $200 billion for music, CDs and clothes.

Marketers and retailers are catering more and more to what is called an urban demographic, which is defined more by cultural interests than any racial or minority group.

Blue Flame Marketing and Advertising, a division of Combs' Bad Boy Entertainment, defines this as a group of roughly 45.3 million 12-to-34-year-olds who wield an estimated $890 billion in spending power. Nearly 60 percent of this market is made up of non-minorities.

"It's so successful because of the acceptance of that genre by a growing number of white suburban kids," says Slater.

Amid a general slump in retail sales, any newness that drives consumers to buy is a welcome trend.

Federated Department stores, which runs Macy's, Bloomingdales and Rich's, among others, is among the retailers who have been actively embracing celebrity-driven clothing lines. Macy's, Rich's, Lazarus and Goldsmith's have been stocking Sean John, FUBU, Jay-Z's Rocawear line and Phat Farm in recent years.

"It's definitely a major piece of what's happening in the young men's business," says Gail Nutt, senior vice president of diversity, urban business development and community affairs for Federated's Macy's/Rich's/Lazarus/Goldsmith's divisions. "We've taken a business that was very low millions to double to multi-millions."

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

But with any trend that floods the market, there is always the risk of backlash. Consumers could quickly become bored with the streetwear genre, leaving retailers scrambling for the next big thing.

"There have been a lot of failures and there are going to more failures this year," predicts Jeffrey Tweedy, executive vice president of the Sean John line.

Tweedy attributes the success of Sean John — which had retail sales of around $460 million in 2002, an almost 25 percent increase from $370 million in 2001 — to the line's broad appeal and fashion sense.

Indeed, with slick runway shows featuring items like a chocolate-colored Italian lambskin trench coat, in addition to more moderately priced items like jeans and T-shirts, the company is more of a wide-ranging fashion brand than a celebrity vehicle.

"We really don't get into what's urban and hip hop; that's really sort of passé, to be honest with you," says Tweedy. "We sort of get carried away with the terms, and what happens is you sort of get pigeonholed."

But that doesn't deter the manufacturers of the new lines, who say their clothes have staying power.

"We're confident that we're going to be out there for a long time," says Americo's Korzec of Ice-T's line.

And for retailers, fickleness is just the nature of the game.

"That's the business we're in — offering the fashion when they want it and not offering it when they're no longer interested," says Federated's Nutt.