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In 1992, the urban brand FUBU was founded under the acronym "For Us, By Us," with the overt message that it was strictly targeted at black consumers. Today, that kind of concept is relic of a different era, with newer brands now targeting a wide, multicultural audience with styles that blend street, skate and indie influences — a trend that will continue to shape the category in 2010.
This shift has been largely influenced by changes in the cultural landscape as well as the tastes of young consumers, who cross-shop contemporary and premium labels along with streetwear brands. It's put the "urban" moniker out of favor with many players in the category and forced the big legacy brands like Sean John, Rocawear and Ecko to revamp their design and marketing strategies.
"When the term 'urban' was popularized, I think it was during a time when maybe a black kid from the inner city might have looked a lot different from a white kid from the suburbs. But there are a lot fewer differences now," said Jason Geter, who cofounded the Akoo label with hip-hop star T.I. in 2008. "There's been a cultural and generational shift. Young consumers are crossing over, and mixing and matching."
Akoo, which is manufactured by Virginia Beach, Va.-based RP55 Group, features cleaned-up designs, somewhat preppy influences and premium touches that make it appropriate for a wide range of retailers. Geter himself operates a boutique in Atlanta called Strivers Row, which stocks Akoo and a diverse range of upscale labels like Prps, Jean Shop, Canterbury of New Zealand, Filson and Mosely Tribes.
Greg Selkoe, founder and chief executive officer of online young men's retailer Karmaloop.com, notes that streetwear overall has gone in a distinctly contemporary direction in recent seasons. "Kids who would only have worn sneakers before are now wearing boat shoes and dressy shoes. There's a lot more design and aesthetics involved now. This market has grown up a lot," he observed.
The market has also become a lot more splintered, with a multitude of emerging labels catering to streetwear consumers — as evidenced by the scores of booths in the street and S.L.A.T.E. sections of MAGIC.
"It's kind of like what happened to TV," said Selkoe. "There used to be three channels, and now there are infinite choices. Megabrands like Tommy Hilfiger just aren't being created anymore. This consumer wants to shop lots of cool, smaller labels. We live in an ADD culture, and people pick up and drop brands faster than ever."
For example, Karmaloop offers about 250 brands, and the single biggest seller represents just 8 percent of sales.
The Rocawear brand has evolved with the times. "I think anybody who looks at the collection will see that this is not the Rocawear from 1999," said Jameel Spencer, chief marketing officer, pointing out that at Macy's Herald Square, the Rocawear shop is adjacent to Levi's. "I think this market has transcended the urban moniker. It's not about marketing to a specific race or neighborhood anymore. It's more about a city lifestyle, whoever that consumer is."
Spencer acknowledges changing consumer tastes in the category have presented challenges to the established brands that have long dominated the market. "A lot of players in this zone enjoyed great success with the hook-up, but guys aren't buying that head-to-toe look anymore," he noted.
Still, don't write off the big boys just yet. "The new guys keep us on our toes," said Spencer. "But they come and go. Some come and stay, but a lot more come and go."