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Spring 2004
Urban Moves

Call it “street,” call it “urban,” the look—almost a lifestyle—is defined by vibrant, sometimes eclectic fashion and transmitted through the channels of hip-hop music, sports and entertainment. It’s about attitude. And American youth is eating it up.

Hip-hop: “the culture of black Generation X… a baggy-panted, inner city, in-your-face world that has found its way into suburbia,” says author Nelson George in the book Hip-Hop America. In the course of the past decade, the definition of urban fashion has changed dramatically. Once referred to as “ghetto” or “black” exclusively, it has become the essence of cool throughout mainstream America. And it seems to have staying power.

Young designers who grew up in urban neighborhoods began creating fashions inspired by the hip-hop scene. Style trends originate in the streets through urban kids who participate in city culture and determine what’s cool and what’s not at any given time. “Streetwear” was first created and later bought by young African-Americans and Hispanics in major urban areas. Celebrities picked up those trends and made them popular, and mainstream American kids imitate their style, starting starting in the ’80s and continuing today with J. Lo, P. Diddy and others.

“Kids look up to celebrities for fashion cues,” says Rachel Roy, creative director of women’s fashion at Rocawear. “But they don’t know that celebrities don’t dress themselves—there’s always a stylist, who gets fashion cues from city streets.”

Even so, suburban kids may not realize they’re copying true “urban style” when they try to look like Mary J. Blige or Nelly, Lil Kim or 50 Cent. Thanks to the Internet, MTV and the enduring popularity of hip-hop, the “cul-de-sac kids”—white kids in quiet, suburban neighborhoods miles from New York, Detroit, Chicago or LA—are influenced by the slang and fashion that was born of and once confined to inner-city streets. Bored with everyday life in middle-class suburbia, these kids want a piece of dynamic city culture, even if their only connection to anything urban is through language, music, clothes, shoes and accessories. Urban style is suburban chic, and a key element in today’s youth culture.

“Urban goes beyond a region—it’s a lifestyle,” says Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, a market-information company. “It’s not a trend or a fad. It’s all about what culture has groomed as cool. It’s about music mixed with style mixed with image.” According to Cohen, the urban fashion market is estimated to be a $2 billion business in the US this year. Clearly, retailers catering to a young market can’t afford to ignore this.

Cool changes

While retailers may find it unnerving to offer a style that’s ever-changing, Cohen says that those who try to reach a youth-oriented market but don’t pay attention to urban trends are “missing the boat.” But at the same time, he warns against selling urban styles that are bad replicas of the real thing. “If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all,” he says. “There is cool, and there is much more that is not [cool]: urban is about ‘authentic,’ not imitation, and if the youth consumer smells imitation, it won’t sell.”

Staying on top of the latest urban looks can be difficult, however, because “urban” means something different from person to person, and styles change almost daily. Young consumers fascinated with big-city fashion tend to be picky and hard to please. It’s often difficult to pinpoint what they’re looking for, and to figure out a style characterized by elusive features such as rebellious attitude or urban-inspired flair.

Nonetheless, urban fashion is a dynamic and fascinating market with huge profit potential. Retailers who want to stay on their game must watch urban trends closely by following style cues from the magazines, music videos, films and Web sites that define and communicate what’s “cool.” Luckily, retailers selling to a suburban market have a slightly easier job. True urbanites usually create their own styles, and it’s practically impossible to guess what kind of accessories or clothes they’ll love.

But most kids in suburbia take their fashion cues from TV and try to copy a look they see on the pop stars they follow. Even though suburban kids love hip-hop music and the urban lifestyle, big clothing labels and haute couture designers offer clothes that are often too hard-core for this group. To fill the gap, Suburban Industries started a label called White Boy, urban clothes that are geared specifically to suburban kids. Joe Shortal, CEO, explains that “whiteboy” is a popular term used by African-American kids to describe a white guy who’s accepted in their community. “It’s contemporary, urban and edgy,” he says. “Suburban kids feel like it really represents who they are.”

Mixing it up

imageThere is no universal definition of urban style. It doesn’t conform to established rules of fashion. It’s created by many subcultures that constantly draw from each other to create this unique, artful blend. So it’s hard to pin down.

Laurent Huttinot, sportswear and entertainment manager at Complex, a multicultural lifestyle magazine rooted in metropolitan culture, says that urban style is all about mixing and matching pieces that don’t belong together, a style dictated by nobody but yourself.

“It’s all about individuality, the whole outfit. The way they put it together is unique,” says Huttinot. It could be something preppy + baggy + haute + chunky.

“Urban consumers have moved beyond wanting to look like the next person. Everybody determines their own style.” It’s a matter of individual taste, and the courage to break away from approved fashion norms that make people look like copies of one another.

One example of this new urban individualism is Herring Green, 22, an artist living in the “Alpha City” section on New York’s Lower East Side. Green doesn’t want to wear labels and logos: he rips them off his clothes, blacks them out with spray paint, or simply cuts them out. Why? Because “it’s the new rebellion to be untagged,” he says. “You can have the look but you don’t have to promote anybody’s line like you’re a walking billboard,” Green says. “My style comes from the street—I’m from the Bronx originally.” If he likes a certain look, he tries to make it his own. “I go for simple items that I distress myself,” he says.

Obviously, “street” doesn’t mean low-end: it means creative, artful and fresh. And designers at the big fashion labels, including haute names like Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, draw inspiration from big-city streets. Roy of Rocawear says “urban” no longer equals “typical ghetto stuff.” Instead, it’s a blend of different cultures with a street twist to it, “a balanced, street-sweet mix with enough street to make you funky and enough class to put you up there with socialites,” she says. “It’s your own personal style mixed with a little bit of high-class and a little bit of street,” she says. “Urban makes you cool because you’re in the know.” The urban girl, she says, “knows how to be cool and hip with class. She’ll buy regular clothes and mix them in a way that gives her a unique, personal touch.”

Gritty city

For guys, urban means comfortable baggy styles that have a certain toughness to them, says Steve Patino, general manager and buyer for Sprint 2, a chain of stores in Queens, NY, that sells a mix of urban, skate and nightlife fashions. “You have to be tough to live in the big city, and these clothes convey toughness—there’s no room for fanciness,” he says. “We’re not selling silk and cashmere, but a utilitarian, ‘construction worker’ look, which is a staple for that market.”

Meticulous color coordination is crucial to creating an authenthic urban look, but the full-blown “tough guy” look is starting to soften—simple button-down shirts (and other nods to classic Brooks Brothers and Polo designs) are becoming the rage in the urban community, Patino says. He attributes this style shift to hip-hop artists and rappers, who essentially dictate urban fashion trends. “They’re fashion icons,” says Patino. Looking like them “gives you a sense of credibility, puts you right up there with multimillionaire rap stars.”

Shock value

imageAsia Dearly, 17, a student at Stuyvesant High School in New York, says she watches MTV to see what the artists and hosts are wearing, but that most of her style comes from what she sees on “real-life” people. To Dearly, urban style is about being seen, noticed. “That’s why my sneakers are orange!” she says. “It’s the cool color now.” And “big earrings are important,” she says. “I like a lot of jewelry because it gives me a ‘rich’ look.”

The styles that fly out of suburban malls might be slightly toned-down versions of true urban wear but still hold big-city allure. According to Roy, kids in the suburbs need styles that are simpler and easier to understand. “Girls in the suburbs don’t go out on a limb as much as city girls.” Cohen says urban trends “remain a step or two behind in the suburban market,” and it takes a while before the middle of America adapts to what’s truly urban.

“It’s the music that brings this style to middle-class suburbs. Kids watch music videos and want to copy the style,” says Ryan Jacob, 19, a freshman at Penn State University. “White kids at my school can rarely pull off a complete urban ‘I’m a rapper’ look, so they’ll pick and choose one or two things.”

Jagoda Tarczynski, a 12-year-old student in rural Pocono Mountain School District, a two-hour drive from New York City, says urban style is a dominating force at her school. “The most popular kids really get into that stuff,” she says. “They say they’re black on the inside and white on the outside.” Last Christmas, a family friend gave Jagoda an expensive knee-length Gap coat with matching flower-embroidered hat and mittens. No way she’ll ever wear it to school: “They’d all laugh at me,” she says. “Nobody dresses like that around here.” A thick North Face down jacket is cool. A long “good girl” coat is not.

But why does mainstream America—especially Gen Y—pick up urban style so eagerly? Why do teenage boys from middle-class homes choose hip-hop and rap stars as their fashion icons? Why do the girls wear tight, short, in-your-face clothes? Huttinot explains that for teenagers living in safe, quiet and, yes, often dreadfully boring suburbs, urban style has a certain “forbidden fruit” appeal. For kids in the suburbs, “it’s all about mall culture. All they get is generic cookie-cutter stuff,” he says. “[So] they look to MTV and magazines for what they want and need but can’t access” through mainstream retail channels locally.

What’s the sociological explanation for urban style allure? Its indisputable ability to raise eyebrows, says Michael Holman, urban anthropologist and professor of screenwriting at Howard University. Holman says that imitating the style of rap stars, with their in-your-face, often violent, anti-woman lyrics and materialistic “bling-bling” aspirations, is a great way for teens to act up and rebel. “Since the beginning of humankind, teenagers’ main ambition was to shock their parents,” says Holman. “Now how do you shock parents who smoked pot and were the most rebellious teenagers in the ’60s? Rap and hip-hop, with its angry voice and ghetto flavor, is a great rebellious tool for that.”

Plus, “kids don’t want to be nothing,” says Holman. Teens never want to blend into the background, and urban style gives them a way to stand out and be noticed. “They instantly recognized that what they were looking at and listening to was crafted by disenfranchised, rebellious people just like them,” he says. “Even white kids in the South… have all embraced hip-hop.”

Tyler Adel, 15, a student at Paramus (NJ) High School, says “ghetto” and “street” often equal “cool,” and the more ghetto, the better. “Enyce [pronounced en-ee-chay] is the most popular brand at my school,” he says “It’s a ghetto-ish kind of name, and that’s the look kids are trying to do.” While it’s just a 20-minute bus ride to the streets of New York, Paramus teens—like their counterparts all over America—take their fashion cues from TV, mostly music videos, says Adel.

Hip-hop top pop

Hip-hop music is the top music genre among young listeners, and it’s impossible to ignore its huge influence. Rap and hip-hop emerged from largely impoverished African American neighborhoods in the Bronx, the “New York City borough where hip-hop was born and raised” (rapdict.org). It has since grown into an entire way of life dominating youth culture, first there and now everywhere. Its reach is worldwide.

For teens and young adults, hip-hop is the way to make a statement and differentiate themselves from their parents’ generation. For marketers, it’s a great tool for boosting sales of a wide range of disparate but desirable products from soft drinks to cell phones, credit cards to cars. And of course, clothes and shoes, jewelry and make-up and more.

According to BusinessWeek, a stunning 25 percent of all discretionary spending in the US is influenced by hip-hop. “There’s hardly a major consumer company around that isn’t trying to cash in on hip-hop’s singular popularity, if not its edgy authenticity,” writes Susan Berfield in the magazine’s online profile of Russell Simmons, founder of Phat Farm. “Hip-hop music and its signature style, rap, grew into an entire way of life, and today dominates youth culture.” Apparel companies such as Phat Farm, Ecko and FUBU (which stands for “For Us, By Us”) have their roots in that culture.

Wearing a Phat Farm shirt doesn’t mean you’re endorsing every aspect of hip-hop, says George in Hip-Hop America. It means you just think the shirt looks cool. But most parents put hip-hop
fashion on the same scale as hip-hop music, with its often violent, misogynistic and X-rated lyrics, and would rather their kids wear “nice” preppy clothes. Most parents, of course, are losing that battle.

Hip-hop brands walk a fine line between sexy and vulgar, alluring and dangerous, cool and offensive; and they have to do it carefully. On the flip side, many companies try to avoid the “urban” label because they’re aware of parents’ sentiments, and/or believe it perpetuates stereotypes. They want to adopt the cool side of “street” without seeming to endorse its drug-dealer culture or violence.

Starting young

Even before they enter school, kids in America get a sense of urban-inspired fashion. Toy makers have taken notice, responding to and reinforcing the reality. Following the huge success of Bratz, MGA’s street-wise fashion dolls, Mattel brought out Flavas, a line of highly successful hip-hop-themed ethnic dolls.

Camille, a fashion-conscious 5-year-old who always wears color-coordinated outfits, already knows that pants should be low-rise with flared legs, and that coats with faux-fur collars are really cool. And she has dolls: not Barbies but Bratz. “You want a sticker?” asks Camille. “Keep it. I have tons of this stuff.” The sticker featured an inner-city girl with dark skin, braided hair, pouty lips, heavily made-up eyes, a very angry look, and urban attitude. “Forget ‘u then” the “sticker starlet” declares in big, glittery, yellow letters. Dressed in curve-hugging, low-rise jeans, oversize sneakers, bright red crop-top and beaded bandanna, the girl on the sticker is the essence of urban style and spirit.

Who would have thought a little girl in rural Pennsylvania would be surrounded with urban everything. But that’s the phenomenon that is urban style: its magnetism pulls on everyone, and the demographics are all-encompassing. From 5-year-olds on quiet cul-de-sacs to rebellious teen boys on bustling city streets to adult professionals of both genders, consumers across America want to be on top of the trend. In a mere 10 years, “urban” has become “universal,” managing to transcend race, economics, social strata-and geography. Hip-hop is here.


Kasia Dawidowska

Dawidowska writes frequently for both trade and consumer magazines. She can be reached at kasia76@gmail.com.

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