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SPENCER MICHELS: It is an hour before show time at a rented hall on Manhattan’s West side. For PNB nation, the eight- year-old clothing company that is putting on this show, a lot is riding on the evening: Fashion writers and fashion buyers are on the guest list, eager to see what this African American-founded firm will offer to try to increase its small share of the booming youth clothing market. All the principals at PNB are under 30, including President Brue McHayle.
ROGER “BRUE” McHAYLE: We have our finger on the pulse of what’s happening, and understand how to reach that consumer.
SPENCER MICHELS: PNB Nation is competing for a share of the growing and lucrative youth market. 60 million Americans fall into this 13- to 24-year-old group, and in a booming economy, those kids find the money to spend on trendy items. They spend $103 billion a year. There’s been an explosion in stores catering to teens, where a pair of baggy jeans can cost $60 to $80. At schools across the nation, including College Park High in suburban Pleasant Hill, California, this so-called “hip hop” style of dress is practically universal.
MALE TEEN: A lot of my friends do the hip-hop thing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Which is what?
MALE TEEN: Baggy pants.
SECOND MALE TEEN: Baggy pants.
THIRD MALE TEEN: Shoe stuffing.
SECOND MALE TEEN: Yeah, stuff the shoes.
SPENCER MICHELS: Shoe stuffing?
TEEN: Stuff the shoe with socks.
TEEN: Yeah, people roll up a sock and stick it in their shoe.
TEEN: Like that, Jared? Right there.
SPENCER MICHELS: Show me.
TEEN: Show him.
SPENCER MICHELS: That’s amazing. Now, why do you do that, if I can ask?
TEEN: I don’t know. It looks better. It makes the shoe look better.
TEEN: It makes it look all, like, pumped up. They don’t all flat and squished down.
SPOKESPERSON: …At jams 105, we jam…
SPENCER MICHELS: PNB and other firms are using a technique called urban marketing to reach youth of all races. It relies heavily on African American-inspired street culture, including music, like rap, and hip-hop clothing, like baggy pants.
SPOKESMAN: PNB is what I’m talking about.
ROGER “BRUE” McHAYLE: We want any kid that’s inspired by the cities, who really wants to express their identity, and is inspired by what’s happening with the urban cities today.
SPENCER MICHELS: On a photo shoot in a Manhattan Alley, a model plays up the streetwise, tough, edgy look that the kids seem to like, for a company called RP55. A few years ago, mainstream marketers, fearful of association with the angry message of gangsta rap, wouldn’t touch urban or hip-hop culture. But today, all sorts of companies have embraced it, and the youthful rebellion it represents. Byron Lewis is CEO and founder of Uniworld, a large, African American-owned advertising agency that uses hip hop in various forms, like this commercial for Mountain Dew.
COMMERCIAL: It’s busta!
COMMERCIAL: It’s crazy Larry.
COMMERCIAL: Hey, it’s busta!
BYRON LEWIS: Hip-hop in particular has brought young people closer together, because there’s something magical in the way that people now dress alike. They emulate the icons. Hip-hop has crossed over, and it’s been the culture of this generation. And it’s white, it’s black, it’s Asian.
SPOKESMAN: So the reason is, he’s being chased by an obsessed fan, but…
SPENCER MICHELS: The creative team at Uniworld is turning to the role models of this generation, including, for example, vastly popular rapper Busta Rhymes.
SPOKESPERSON: Black youth culture is currently leading all youth culture.
SPOKESPERSON: So that if it’s right for our market, it’s generally just going to be right for young people.
SPENCER MICHELS: What ad agencies and marketers contend is that this African American-based culture connects to youngsters of all races by being “real.”
BYRON LEWIS: They see life differently than you and I. They see it in its raw terms.
SPENCER MICHELS: How does this kind of advertising appeal to a white suburban kid in Westchester, or in Contra Costa County in California?
BYRON LEWIS: I’m glad you asked me that. This may sound cynical, but maybe the middle class and upper class youngsters don’t have many challenges in their day-to-day life. Maybe that’s why “keeping it real” appeals to them.
SPENCER MICHELS: One company that paid a heavy price for failing to connect to today’s youngsters is San Francisco-based Levi-Strauss. Its sales declined 13% in 1998. Levi’s refused to talk to us about today’s marketing attempts to youth. But after it closed half its North American plants and it laid off nearly 6,000 workers, the company chairman commented, “we took our eye off the consumer. We weren’t as nimble as we should have been.” (Playing Marvin Gaye’s “let’s get it on”)
SINGER: I’ve been feelin’…
SPENCER MICHELS: Today, Levi’s is straining to reconnect with teens. It has hired a new CEO from Pepsi, and recently restructured its marketing division. It has opened trendy, company- owned stores in New York and San Francisco, where “cool” is everything. But industry insiders aren’t sure if the firm that began making jeans during the California gold rush can recover the youth market. Molly Knight is market editor for the Daily News Record, the bible of the men’s fashion industry. She has covered the Levi’s story for two years.
MOLLY KNIGHT: Definitely, its product has not been up to speed, and with the youth market, we’re in a fashion cycle right now. The kids, they don’t want a basic pant or a basic shirt. They want fashion, they want something cool. It has to have a cell phone pocket, it has to have a, you know, cargo pocket here and there, the more the better. And when everybody else was coming in, the Tommy Hilfiger, and Abercrombie & Fitch, and competitive brands with very clever marketing tactics, Levi’s fell behind.
SPOKESPERSON: Every morning when I get up, I walk through and see what the kids are wearing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Appealing to youngsters involves more than instinct. Market researchers and trend- watchers like Liz Dipilli of New York visit neighborhoods and parks for companies who want to crack the youth market. They’re mostly wearing kind of grungy looking clothes.
SPENCER MICHELS: It isn’t like they’re fashion plates, or anything.
LIZ DIPILLI: Very baggy pants, and knapsacks and things like that might look grungy to you, but to them, it’s the height of fashion.
SPOKESMAN: It’s a run, it’s a run.
SPENCER MICHELS: We talked to some teenagers during a time-out in their flag football game. So what’s cool today? What’s good to buy, what kind of brands?
TEEN: Like what we got on.
TEEN: Like Polo?
SPENCER MICHELS: Whatever happened to pants like Levi’s? (Laughter)
TEEN: Like Levi’s?
TEEN: They’re tight and all.
TEEN: We like to be comfortable, like, baggy.
TEEN: Baggy clothes.
TEEN: Not too tight on us.
SPENCER MICHELS: What do your parents think about the way you dress?
TEEN: They think we’re hoodlums.
SPENCER MICHELS: They think you’re hoodlums?
TEEN: Yeah, the stereotype. I’m pretty sure when they were in the 70′s and the 60′s, wearing those bell bottoms and stuff, their parents didn’t approve, so it’s the same thing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some firms, like Fubu– for us, by us– preached that because they were originally black-owned, they were real. But Fubu has partnered with a larger firm, and so has PNB Nation, which is now partly owned by Perry Ellis International. That partnership, they say, has made it easier for PNB to supply clothing to the booming youth market.
MAN: Definitely gonna help you on your down board.
SPENCER MICHELS: At PNB’S fall fashion show, it was a sign of success that liquor companies like Heineken and Bailey’s were eager to associate themselves with the urban look, by supplying the drinks for free. PNB’s boss, Brue McHayle, claims his success is more than just about selling clothes.
ROGER “BRUE” McHAYLE: We felt there was a need to show how complex this lifestyle is, that it’s not just about rap music. It’s about jazz, it’s about poetry, it’s about history, it’s about, you know, literature. It’s all about, you know, the evolution of all those things coming together, and it’s much more sophisticated than what people give it credit to.
SPENCER MICHELS: That’s a lot to ask of a pair of jeans, but marketing today is not what it used to be.