Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Phat Fashion Philosophy

STACI BROWN BROOKS
Birmingham News staff writer

While you can barely get to work without spilling tepid coffee on your shirt, hip-hop royalty holds forth on the 'hood's influence on couture during his morning commute.

"The ideas that come from the streets are the ones that pay the bills in Paris," said uberfounder Russell Simmons, he of Def Jam Recordings, film, cable TV, fashion, financial services, philanthropy, political activism and more.

He was on his cell phone en route from his New Jersey home to the New York office of his Phat Farm menswear label. His brother Joseph Simmons, "Rev. Run" of Run DMC, was with him. The brothers will visit the Riverchase Galleria Parisian this week to promote Phat Farm.

Thirteen-year-old Phat Farm blends country club sensibility and street credibility with its stripes, argyles and plaids; its primary colors and pastels; its ball caps and chinos; its cabled and pique polos; its suits and sneakers; and its aristocratic "P" crest logo. The label's motto is "Classic American Flava."

The garments Parisian carries range from $24 to $85.

"We work on instinct and we work on prediction. But the instinct is what makes us unique, the prediction is what makes us obvious," Russell Simmons said. "We know lavender's hot for spring. You can't miss lavender and be in the fashion business. You couldn't have missed pink last year. But will it be a powder pink? Will it be a softer lavender? Which one? That's instinct."

He spoke briskly but elaborately, using many more words than the guy who tersely dismissed audiences at the end of HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" in the early'90s.

Specifically for this season, Simmons is excited about the fruit of his label's acquisition by $2.5 billion marketer Kellwood Co. that he said puts Phat Farm in the upper echelon of apparel.

"It is by far the greatest quality and the best collection we've delivered. We've wanted forever to be competitive with the big guys," said Simmons, who's up against his pals Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren in department stores. "As an independent designer it's almost impossible to produce the finest quality at the greatest prices."

One of his passions is Phat Farm's oxford shirt, which he said is composed of "always crispy fresh phat fabric." That means wrinkle-free.

"People don't like to use the word wrinkle-free because it sounds cheap," Simmons explained. "We wanted to make an oxford shirt for this generation."

Simmons is also excited about Phat Farm's fashion basics with new denim washes and his Phat Farm Select Sneaker ($65) with a rainbow of accents.

"It's a very dressy, slick sneaker," Simmons said of the white shoe with tips in such colors as lavender, navy, powder blue or brown. The mogul said he always wears sneakers with suits.

Phat Farm's chameleonic ability to blend in at the corner store and suburban soccer games isn't that great of a stretch for those who don't stereotype hip-hop culture, Simmons said.

"The hip-hop community is many different things. You've got Lauryn Hill and you've got 50 Cent. They're both hip-hop," he said. "You've got Jay-Z, and you've got The Game or Eminem. They're different, but they're hip-hop. Rev. Run wears a cape and a collar."

Hip-hop culture validates designers across the board, he said, not just Phat Farm or so-called urban brands. The culture breathed new life into Lauren's brand and its affirmation is what made Hilfiger a success.

"We come from a cool, brand-building community," he said. "It's trend-setting. We choose something, we choose it for the world."

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