A lot of folks laughed at the kiddie rap duo Kris Kross when its members hit the scene in 1992 wearing baggy jeans and oversize baseball jerseys. Yeah, they wore their gear backward, but their steeze was the genesis of the urban fashion movement that defined the '90s and is setting the tone in the 2G.
The influence of peeps from the 'hood on the fashion industry ain't nothin' new. Black folk in America have always had an impact on the fashion industry with the fly way they wear their clothing, but until the '90s it was never considered a booming business.
Clothing lines specializing in urban gear are popping up like dandelions in a vacant lot. Several young cats (FUBU and Karl Kani, rappers (Puffy's Sean John line and Busta Rhymes' Bushi line), and former graffiti artists (PNB and Ecko) have started clothing lines inspired by urban America. Meanwhile, mainstream companies (Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren) have been feverishly copying the culture in an effort to keep up with the ever-changing hot styles that affect the market.
Standing on the corner of 19th and Vine, you have no doubt that you're at one of the cultural centers of urban lifestyle in Kansas City. Every Tuesday night the vibe is all about hip-hop, and Club Mardi Gras pulsates with energy as heads socialize, spit darts, bust hot dance moves, and flaunt the latest in urban gear.
"The urban clothing market has taken off in Kansas City," says George Forte, promotions director for Kansas City-based Paradise Apparel Group. "Just go out to any mall or any club and check out how everyone is dressing and you'll see the popularity of street gear."
The Kansas City metropolitan area is home to several up-and-coming companies that are jumping into the fashion game with street-wear lines. They aren't big pimpin' yet, but they're learning the hustle quite well.
Kamate (Konscious Awareness Made Available To Excel), based in Kansas City and Dallas, serves the public a nice mix of men's sports apparel and denim products. CEO Tearod Robertson and president Shaun Pugh founded the company in 1995 while attending Tuskegee University in Alabama. Another local company, Skinobe Fearless & Co., was founded last year by Calvin McMiller, who created the name from the phrase "skills, knowledge, and belief."
The hottest company in the area is Paradise Apparel Group Inc., which has been testing the waters since it was established in 1996. The company sold its first garment in 1997 and has increased profits every year since.
Its showroom, located miles outside the urban core in Leave It to Beaver land (Blue Springs, Mo.), is loaded with vibrant jerseys, T-shirts, and ball caps that feature a futuristic-looking "P" -- the company's logo. Paradise ain't strictly sports apparel; the company also produces casual wear and high-end pieces.
"We design every garment from scratch. We choose the fabrics and build the specs, then we work directly with manufacturers," says founder and president Heath Porter. Not long after the company's initial push, its founders made a conscious decision to nurture the business.
"It's been a hell of an education," says Travis O'Guin, vice president and treasurer. "We learn something every single day about the business." Paradise's focus is on men's garments, but women comprise almost 30 percent of the customer base. Plans to create a ladies' line are in the works and scheduled to drop in 2002.
Representing the Midwest, the company has hit the national trade shows and impressed industry insiders. Paradise gear is in specialty shops in 12 states, Canada, and Japan. Locally, Paradise clothing is available at Manhattan's Men's Wear.
Paradise is negotiating with several major retail outlets. The company turned down offers from Kmart and Sears. "We could have been rich pretty quick, but we didn't feel that was our niche," says O'Guin. "That's not the image we are trying to put out there -- no offense to those stores. We consider ourselves high-end sports apparel." A Paradise baseball jersey costs $75, and a cap goes for $30.
Traditional advertising has not been a part of Paradise's attack thus far. The company is creating a buzz with street-level marketing. The company has put its garments in the hands of local rappers, R&B artists, and professional athletes. The highest-profile celebrity model is rapper Tech N9ne, who can be seen wearing Paradise clothing on his The Worst CD sleeve and in a recent profile in The Kansas City Star. Rappers The Veteran Clique, Zigg, Grant Rice, R & B group Monie, and Chiefs running back Donnell Bennett also serve as walking billboards for the company.
According to O'Guin, the company's success is rooted in its dedication to quality. "Everything from the zippers, buttons, trim, material, and seam work has to be perfect and appeal to our consumers," he says.
The urban clothing market is hot, and Kansas City companies are beginning to heat up. They may be in their infancy, but they are learning to walk and soon will run with the big boys in the competitive market of clothing inspired by the hip-hop generation.