In its continuing effort to move to the forefront of fashion, Sears, Roebuck and Co. is putting a spotlight on its urban clothing labels.

Sears, based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., is testing a new urban fashion format in major cities across the country, including Chicago, during the holiday season to see if it can attract more young male shoppers. If successful, Sears is expected to roll out the concept to more stores next year.

Company executives are trying to position Sears as a more fashion-forward place. By catering to fans of urban streetwear -- baggy jeans, athletic jerseys and quilted coats -- Sears can snag a significant share of shoppers. Caucasians represent the largest segment--70 percent--of hip-hop music consumers, and they view the genre as groundbreaking.

"Usually, urban markets are used as a barometer of the coolness factor," said James Ling, marketing director for Southpole, an urban clothing line.

But shoppers don't think of Sears -- with 21 stores in Maryland, including six in the Baltimore region -- as the place for cool, even though it has been carrying Southpole and Percy "Master P" Miller's P Miller line for years.

"People were unaware of the brands that we had," said Willy Medina, a Sears spokesman.

So the company added FUBU, Ice-T's IceWear and Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons' Run Athletics to the mix and carved out a 500-square-foot spot within the men's apparel department.

The urban shops, which feature 15 to 20 clothing racks, are up and running in 14 Chicago-area stores. Overall, Sears is testing the concept in 50 stores.

The surroundings are barren compared with trend-setting clothing departments of its rivals. There's no hip-hop music and no giant video screens to call attention to the area.

Although Sears said it would consider adding those features, right now only large signs and oversize photographs tell shoppers they're in the new urban men's area.

Broadening its appeal

Early reactions show that shoppers like the new setup.

"It's done exactly what we had hoped to," Medina said. "It's raised the profile that Sears is not just Lands' End and Covington."

Skeptics said that Sears, like many mass retailers, is slow to the game. By the time most national department store chains jump on a trend, it is at its peak, said Ed Nakfoor, a retail consultant in suburban Detroit.

"You can get FUBU at other stores, so why is it relevant to Sears?" he asked.

But if Sears can get a jump on new labels, it could put itself back in the game for younger shoppers.

These days, just about every hip-hop recording artist has launched a clothing line --Beyonce Knowles, Eve, Eminem and Jennifer Lopez are just a few. If Sears is one of the first outlets to carry a label, it could get consumers into thinking of it as a destination store for urban styles.

It's not the first time Sears has tapped into a multicultural market.

This fall, Sears launched Lucy Pereda, a clothing line designed by the Cuban-born host of a lifestyle TV show carried on the Hispanic network Galavision. The apparel was introduced in 227 stores and will be expanded to more locations in the spring, Medina said.