“From the block to the boardroom.” That’s where Sean John, the sportswear line from Sean “Diddy” Combs, is headed, says the hip-hop-mogul-turned-fashion- designer. And Combs is betting big on Macy’s to take it there. Come spring 2011, Macy’s will be the only U.S. department store to sell the 11-year old sportswear brand, which has morphed from an urban, young men’s line synonymous with sweat suits, into a modern collection that cultivates sophistication.
The exclusive deal marks Sean John’s bid to revive its appeal with shoppers who have evolved, just like Combs himself, Sean John and Macy’s executives said. The partnership is also designed to woo younger consumers to the brand and reignite sales of the line.
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In turn, Sean John, which Macy’s has carried since 1999, will be discontinued at department stores such as Dillard’s, Bon-Ton and Belk, as well as specialty stores like Jimmy Jazz. Sean John, the line’s eponymous fashion company Combs founded, is counting on the heft and scale of Macy’s to take the sportswear part of the brand to new heights.
“Macy’s has a huge reach,” said Dawn Robertson, president. “We believe there’s a substantial growth opportunity with Macy’s.” She added: “We would not have given up distribution in department and specialty stores…if we didn’t think we could get a lot of top line growth, because it’s about top-line growth in the end.”
The brand has generated $1 billion in sales at the chain since its 1999 debut, Combs said during a May press event to launch the line at the Standard Hotel in Manhattan’s ultra-hip Meatpacking District neighborhood. Exclusive Sean John woven sport shirts, knits, sweaters, t-shirts, denim, vests, pants, shorts, outerwear, jackets and sport coats will be sold on macys.com and in 400 Macy’s stores next spring, with plans to roll out the line to most of Macy’s 850 doors over time.
“This is one of the biggest business moves of my life,” Combs said. And the Macy’s deal is designed to fortify his fashion-insider status. It’s one facet of Combs’ methodical efforts to burnish an image as a multi-industry renaissance man.
That drive has culminated this year with launch of a new album in June that has him “doing things with my voice that I’ve never done before,” as well as a starring role in the film, “Get Him to the Greek,” said Combs, who apologized for his hoarseness during the press conference.
That’s a far cry image-wise from the “Puff Daddy” of the late 1990s, who was embroiled in a high-profile shooting incident at a New York City club—but was later cleared of all charges. It also brings the 40-year old Combs, who recalled working at Macy’s when he was 16, selling shirts and ties, full circle. “The evolution of the Sean John brand mirrors the evolution of Diddy,” said Kevin Morrissey, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s for Macy’s. “This initially was a line that was targeted at the younger urban customer who has grown with the brand and who now is looking for more modern, professional fashion,” he said.
The line’s appeal spans “all demographic groups,” said Jeff Gennette, Macy’s chief merchandising officer. “Everybody wants to look like Sean.” But in recent years, the Sean John brand had lost some of its luster. After a period of “phenomenal growth,” the collection had hit a wall, and wasn’t growing, Robertson said. The company set out to “reinvent” the brand in 2008, going beyond its urban roots toward a more contemporary collection “that you can wear in most occasions in your life,” she said.
So instead of just offering an oversized pair of jeans, for example, the company added a straight fit. Tailored woven shirts and knit tops were also added to the mix. The customer started to come back along with the brand’s edge, Robertson said, but just as “a little thing called the recession [hit.]” However, “sales growth this year over last year is in the positive column.”
Now the plan is to shepherd Sean John through its next growth phase with Macy’s. “The apparel in Sean John’s sportswear collection will feature new standards for fit and workmanship, and a more elevated fashion sense will be reflected in the assortment,” Morrissey said. The line targets a 25 to 35 year old shopper, and Sean John hopes Macy’s exposure will capture the attention of 20 year olds, too, Robertson said. “We are committed to making this the most successful launch we’ve had,” said Terry Lundgren, chairman and chief executive officer of Macy’s, at the press launch, adding that the chain turns down 95 percent of the offers it gets for exclusive partnerships.
The collection, which starts to trickle into stores this fall, will get the royal treatment at Macy’s on the sales floor.
“In order to maximize on the opportunity, we will give the Sean John collection bigger and better space,” Morrissey said. “Our flagship stores from coast-to-coast will have Sean John sportswear shops. They will also help to communicate the Sean John collection’s evolved aesthetic.”
The idea of marquee, brand stature on Macy’s floor is precisely what prompted Combs, who was knocked out by how the retailer had merchandised its exclusive collection with Tommy Hilfiger, to pursue the deal. The partnership builds on Macy’s string of exclusive vendor deals in recent years—from Martha Stewart home goods to Tommy Hilfiger apparel to an upcoming line from the material girl herself, Madonna, in a quest to stand apart from its merchant brethren.
“Our exclusive Sean John sportswear line gives us the advantage of the ‘only at Macy’s’ reinforcement,” Morrissey said. “Exclusivity is an idea that continues to be relevant and important in the fashion world.” Retailers have been locking in exclusive lines in the battle for market share. Starting this fall, JC Penney will be the only place to buy Liz Claiborne apparel, accessories and home goods; Kohl’s is the sole venue for Vera Wang clothing; and Target boasts a revolving door of exclusive, limited-edition collections from the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and Liberty of London, to name a few proprietary deals.
The exclusive Sean John line is set to bow with an “unprecedented” ad campaign that will introduce a “new style of marketing,” including viral video and social media, Combs said. It will harness “Diddy’s star power and vibrant persona,” Morrissey said.
Combs will appear in the fall Macy’s ad campaign after having been absent from it for a few years.
While details of the campaign have not been disclosed yet, it will leverage Combs’ “fantastic marketing skills,” Robertson said, pointing to his campaign for Ciroc Vodka. “It’s going to be very exciting.”
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