Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Hip-hop sleek

By Wendy Tanaka
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

In the hip-hop world, the clothes are often oversize and baggy, and the sneakers are distinctive. And you might expect the stores that sell them to be cluttered.

Yet the vibe inside Kicks USA, a growing Philadelphia retailer that has found a niche in selling hip-hop fashion, is Kobe Bryant-meets-Luke Skywalker. Walls and floors are white. Clothes and shoes are displayed neatly in white plastic and glass cases. The space is bright and uncluttered.

"A lot of retailers think, 'It's the urban market. We don't need to spend money,' " said John Lee, 45, who opened the first Kicks store in North Philadelphia's Rising Sun Plaza three years ago. "It's underserved and deserves more respect. That's one way to differentiate ourselves."

Today, Lee has six Kicks stores in Philadelphia and Cherry Hill, featuring clothing brands such as Rocawear and Akademiks and a selection of sneakers including Nike and Adidas.

Many national retailers and department stores now carry hip-hop items. But independent chains such as Kicks and Reading-based Sneaker Villa, which has eight stores in the Philadelphia area, as well as some mom-and-pop outfits focus exclusively on the baggy tops and pants and high-end sneakers that have come to define the hip-hop style.

NPD Group Inc., a Port Washington, N.Y., market research company, estimated that sales of hip-hop clothing, shoes and accessories were $1.3 billion in 2004 and could reach $2 billion by 2007.

NPD analyst Marshall Cohen says some of the growth is coming from suburban customers who have embraced the fashions. Lee expects the trend to continue, and he envisions as many as 20 area stores over the next few years.

Kicks - the name is slang for athletic shoes - opened its first suburban store in the Cherry Hill Mall last fall. Others are in Roosevelt Mall, Olney Plaza, the Gallery at Market East, and Quartermaster Plaza, plus the original store in Rising Sun Plaza.

Within the next three to four months, Lee expects to open stores in Ewing, N.J.; Cheltenham Square Mall; and on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia.

Lee, a Korean who owned an import and export business focusing on Asian markets for 14 years, learned retailing after taking over the Samsun shoe store chain in Philadelphia from his in-laws a decade ago.

In early 2002, he opened Ubiq on Walnut Street. The store started as a purveyor of cutting-edge fashion from Japan, and it has morphed into an eclectic retailer of high-end hip-hop and skateboard apparel, as well as items from pricey designers such as Marc Jacobs. Ubiq also carries figurines from Japan, and art books.

Ubiq, though, was not a concept the masses could embrace - or afford - so Lee came up with Kicks. At Kicks, pants and tops cost around $40 each; most sneakers range from $65 to $80 a pair.

Lee funded the first four Kicks stores with his own money and store profits. Bank loans helped him open the others.

It costs about $500,000 to open each store, he said. In all, the stores employ about 140 full-time and part-time workers.

If Kicks hits the 20-store mark locally, Lee said, he will consider bringing in investors to expand nationally.

He would not disclose revenues, but he said his goal was to have $100 million in annual sales in four years. Profit margins are around 40 percent.

"We're trying not to operate like a mom-and-pop," he said. "We analyze numbers, turnover rates, sell-throughs."

Lee describes the Kicks look as "a Japanese, minimalist, clean design."

Shopper Zahrah Ali, 26, who was browsing the store in the Gallery recently, said it looked "like a little stadium, with the lights."

Ana Vazquez, 42, appreciated feeling welcome.

"The guy at the door - the first thing he said was 'Hello,' " Vazquez said. "When you've had a hard day at work, the last thing you need is a nasty attitude."

Lee, who lives in Yardley with his wife, Susan, a doctor, and their three children, is the picture of a suburban dad, so he has hired buyers who understand hip-hop trends.

"I understand where the business is going," Lee said. "I don't necessarily understand where the fashion is going."

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