The A-list celebrity-cum-king of commerce is determined to replicate Sean John’s US success in Europe.
It’s such an A-list interview cliché but after more than a three-hour delay holed up in the penthouse of London’s Sanderson Hotel in Berners Street, Sean Combs is still not prepared for the Drapers photoshoot, which has been crammed into just 15 minutes of his whirlwind stop in London to launch his fashion label Sean John to Europe.
“He wouldn’t have worn this black suit,” his people say. “He’s ‘doing’ sportswear not tailoring at the moment, that’s why he looks uncomfortable.”
Uncomfortable no. Immaculate yes. He’s a bit of a peacock and takes a great picture, giving more of his personality away with a quick flick of the Vs in front of the lens than he will when faced with a Dictaphone and the Drapers editor for his first interview about the UK launch.
In fact, considering Combs has just flown into London overnight and must be suffering severe jet lag, he is frighteningly well groomed and can turn on his sex appeal image in front of the lens in a flash - his beard trimmed to perfection, hair perfectly coiffed and skin glowing almost unnaturally. That his photography “approver”, a lady called Capricorn, thinks his face is “puffy” or he looks fat and/or grey in most of the shots is just bizarre.
His whistle-stop trip to London this week - to court major European retailers to stock or partner with his Sean John fashion brand, which generates annual sales of $525m (£332m) in the US, is not the crazy, half-hearted celebrity circus one might expect.
While controlling his image is certainly everything to the shrewd marketeer that is Combs - think brand Beckham multiplied - his passion for product is evident and genuine too.
And his fashion ambition knows no bounds - he cites Ralph Lauren, the designer behind the global multibillion-dollar superbrand, as a man he hopes to emulate with his Sean John brand. Yet he manages to make such a grand statement while maintaining a cooler-than-thou aura, a laid-back vibe punctuating his well-rehearsed brand chat with long pauses and a New York drawl. It’s far more like interviewing a super corporate executive than a superstar producer and actor - frustratingly so at times, as Combs is so controlled it overtakes any hint of a personality and overshadows the charisma that undoubtedly got him to where he is today.
In fact, his company and brand are as slick as he is from top to bottom.
The collection itself couldn’t be more different to the stereotypical hip-hop African American “baggy, sag-off-your-butt type of clothes” Combs says the industry and consumers expect of him. He is right. It features US-style sportswear, much of which is tailored and fitted close to the body, including white combat detail shorts, washed beige jeans, granddad cardigans, Airforce-influenced shirts, desert boots and sneakers. In addition, Sean John has a premium-looking suiting and dress shirt range sold under the Sean John Tailored banner.
Combs says: “[The success of Sean John] has been down to the product and not allowing the brand to be put into a box or a stereotype. I am proud to say that the line has a level of aspiration and sophistication and edge that makes it completely unique and surprises people who have a preconceived notion because I am a hip-hop artist. And also, getting straight to the point, because I am African American. The fit and the fabrication is probably some of the best in the business,” Combs explains, defending his achievements over the past 11 years, which include being named menswear designer of the year by the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 2004.
The menswear collection, which is far stronger than its womenswear counterpart, sells largely to 12- to 35-year-olds in the US, “Sometimes up to 40-year-olds,” adds Combs before again hitting out at the “stereotypers”. He says: “And it’s a very multicultural consumer. The majority of our consumers are not African American, which comes as a surprise to people.”
In the US, the brand is stocked by more than 800 retailers, and Sean John recently signed a deal with US department store group Macy’s to enter 400 of its stores with an exclusive men’s sportswear collection. Prices range from $25 (£15.80) to $500 (£316), in the US. UK prices have not been finalised.
How or where it will land in Europe, and the UK, is unknown. Executive vice president of licensing and brand development Jeff Tweedy won’t be drawn on which retailers attended the launch. “I’d rather wait to announce,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to get preconceived ideas.” He does say Sean John is prepared to license the brand to a partner in the UK, or sign up a distributor.
Combs says: “We’re looking for the right strategic partner out there that knows the market place, and really likes to take their time to do things. We’re not looking for immediate gratification. We’re looking for the long term.”
Combs has few concerns about the current tough European retail climate insisting there are opportunities right now for new brands that take risks.
He says: “When times are challenging people look for something new. Now it’s time to broaden our horizons… It’s just as important to be aggressive in these times. Of course, you have to work with a level of conservatism but at the same time if there’s an opportunity and space in the market place…” he trails off.
Combs is confident the brand and its collections will translate to the UK market, but says he is open to making changes to products to ensure success and relevance. He believes there are lots of similarities between the US and UK markets.
“This [the launch] is the introduction [to the UK market]. With any business you have to do your due diligence. We will make the right decisions with the right partners.”
He says: “The fit is similar, the design is even more similar. Details and tweaks and changes can be made to make sure the line is successful [here]. A lot of the time brands aren’t open to [doing] that, but we are.”
He adds: “If anything, the way we use colour-blocking really complements British fashion. The colours we use, the type of fabrications… British fashion has always inspired me as a designer because I like to dress up and Britons like to look smart.”
Until three years ago Combs himself was head designer - but he has since brought in Steve McSween from Gap as vice-president of design for sportswear and licensed collections.
Combs says: “I work with a design team. They develop a broad concept and then I come in and add my details or touches. I’m following in the footsteps of people I admire and respect like Ralph Lauren and even Tom Ford, who need a team to help the brand evolve.
“But I’m not just a celebrity that looks at the collection and says: ‘Oh it looks nice.’ I’m involved in every detail and also involved in the actual blueprint and formula of the brand,” he says.
So is he a marketeer? A producer? An actor? A designer? “I would describe myself as an entertainer and a businessman. And I kind of know how to combine art and commerce. That’s my niche, that’s what I am good at - being able to make great art that’s commercially appealing.”
With more than $500 million of sales in the US and Ralph Lauren’s mantle in his sights, Combs must have some ambitious sales and profit targets for Europe. He plays anything to do with numbers down though. “The goal for the brand is to emulate the success we have had in the US,” he says. “To me it’s never been about reaching a number. It’s about being consistent and pleasing a customer. We would like to follow in the footsteps of a Ralph Lauren, a Tommy Hilfiger. We would love to do that but we want to do it our way.”
For all of his rehearsed marketing spiel answers, he is convincing. Such has been his success in all walks of his business life, Diddy is seemingly a man with the Midas touch.
He closes the interview crisply, wearing a determined stare that matches his sharp black Sean John business suit: “We’re going to do this right, take our time and be smart businessmen and women.”
Sean John milestones
Sean John launches as a men’s sportswear collection
- Sean Combs is awarded menswear designer of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America
- Opens first flagship on New York’s Fifth Avenue
- Launches his first fragrance Unforgivable. His three fragrances, Unforgivable, Unforgivable Woman and I am King, have gone on to be best-sellers and are stocked in Boots and premium department stores
- Signs deal with Macy’s for it to be the exclusive department store stockist of a men’s sportswear collection
- Announces plans to launch in Europe, including the UK