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Secret Weapon

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sometime this fall, rapper-actor Beanie Sigel will join the growing ranks of hip-hop fashionistas when his clothing line debuts in Macy's and Hecht's stores across the country.

State Property Wear will feature the requisite pieces for any self-respecting street person -- baggy pants, T-shirts, jeans and quilted jackets. But to distinguish the line from the plethora of existing hip-hop brands, Sigel is touting one specific detail -- deep pockets in the pants that offer hiding places for guns.

"You know how you put your gun in your waistline and you gotta worry about it slipping? With these clothes, you don't got to worry about that," Sigel said last week to AllHipHop.com.

"You ever been on the block and everybody was like hustling and you had your [gun] stashed in a phone booth or something like that and you got to go get to it?" added Sigel, whose line is made by Rocawear, rapper Jay-Z's clothing company. "With these clothes, you don't have to worry about going to the phone booth and all that."

Representatives for the clothing line laugh off Sigel's talk as a hustle itself, but police say they are not convinced, or amused. And fashionistas insist the whole thing is a tempest in a T-shirt, since most of the clothing will end up not on street thugs but on the suburban kids who just want to look tough.

Hip-hop artists who have ventured into fashion have long marketed clothing that bolstered the tough-guy style that's been crucial to their street cred. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs offered the ghetto fabulous clothes he favored in his music videos. Wu-Tang Clan's Wu Wear line sells the shirts and jackets with big logos and baggy jeans that are practically a uniform for many rappers.

But with dozens of stars from Jay-Z to Snoop Dogg entering the fashion field, the urbanwear market has become saturated. It peaked earlier this year, and its appeal has been waning.

To successfully sell a hip-hop line these days, rappers like Sigel are finding that they need fresh marketing methods. And, sometimes, it seems the answer may just lie in the same thuggish posturing that they've used to sell records.

"It's frightening," said David Wolfe, creative director of Doneger Group, a fashion and retail consulting firm in New York. "One of the problems in fashion in general, and not just in this urbanwear group, is that we really don't have positive role models. Sex and violence seem to be the only thing we can come up with to interest young customers."

But State Property makers insist that violence isn't meant to be a part of the marketing.

Dana Hill, Rocawear's vice president of marketing, said the deep pockets Sigel mentioned aren't designed to conceal weapons.

"It's really just for the times you want to put your pager away instead of having it sitting on the outside," Hill said of the pockets that are just inside the waistband. "The line is definitely not supporting gun carrying or drugs or anything like that.

"People should know that, oftentimes, artists' words are taken out of context," she added. "They're just looking for controversy, but controversy can be good because any talk is good."

And, often, the biggest purchasers of urbanwear don't have firsthand street experience but just want to live -- or, rather, wear -- the dream.

In the Baltimore area, the line will be sold at Up Against the Wall stores in Annapolis and Hyattsville come November. The T-shirts and pants will come in sizes from XL to 5X and will cost between $25 and $150.

"Look who's buying the line -- Macy's and Hecht's is not selling to the urban market," said Thomas Cunningham, senior editor at Daily News Record, a men's retail magazine. "It's selling to the suburban market. It's not that different from the music situation, where the biggest buyers of hip-hop music are young, suburban white kids. Most of these bigger urban labels do an enormous amount of business in suburban stores."

So, when Sigel raps, "I pull the 9 out my pocket, I'm lyin'/ I pull the Mac out the closet, start firin'," in his early 2002 single, "Roc The Mic," it makes marketing sense to then unfurl a line of pants and say they're equipped to hide these weapons.

"You can stand there and don't worry about having to run from the police neither, because State Property can stand the search," Sigel said to All HipHop.com. The clothing "has all kinds of hidden pockets, pockets inside of pockets, pocket[s] behind pockets. That's my word."

Even if it is just a marketing ploy, that kind of talk doesn't sit well with law enforcement officials.

"It poses a concern for the safety of our officers," said Ragina C. Averella, Baltimore Police spokeswoman. "Police face enough dangers on the street without having to worry about clothing and concealed areas on the attire of people they have to search."

But rapper-designers like Sigel often realize that sensational claims are not the key to longevity in urbanwear. Successful companies like Sean John and Phat Farm, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons' line, have found the winning formula to be diversifying to offer suits and almost-preppy casual clothing in addition to the baggy T-shirts and jeans.

And if that still doesn't work, industry observers say, the fault may not lie with the hip-hop designers.

"What's really interesting is that [Combs'] line is beautiful," said celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch, who hosts the weekly "Style With Phillip Bloch" segment on CNN. "He makes beautiful suits with great detailing. But it's a shame that only a percentage of what you see on Sean's runway is in stores. Why is it always the jeans and T-shirts that are in stores? The market and the stores don't support the urbanwear company that makes a smart, tailored pant or a beautiful sweater. ...'

"The retailers don't buy it; they just promote the thug thing," he added. "We have to ask, 'Which came first -- the thug or the egg?'"

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