SEAN JOHN COMBS, the rap and clothing impresario still best known as Puff Daddy, a sobriquet he has now abandoned, stood before a conference table in his company's Midtown Manhattan headquarters recently, addressing his designers.
Dressed in a black baseball cap, a black T-shirt and black cut-off denim shorts - his only flash a large square diamond stud in each earlobe - he projected a decidedly serious mien. The designers listened intently. When he paused, as he did several times, there were no questions. They knew to wait until he solicited their advice.
"There will be only three 'Sean John' T-shirts in the coming collection," he said. A few designers let out wispy sighs at such a seemingly self-destructive edict; after all, clothes with the Sean John name, initials or crest make up a big slice of his company's sales. "I'm putting you on rations," he said, laughing. "From now on, I want people to read the name without seeing the name. You get me?"
Messing with the name is no small gamble, nor is it the only one he is taking. Sean John is already a well-known brand - at least in households with teenagers, who spend about $42 billion a year to look good.
Mr. Combs's company, Sean John, has about $400 million of that business, most of it from urban styles like baggy, crotch-at-the knee trousers, conspicuously branded T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts, or "hoodies." But Mr. Combs, who sometimes goes by the rapper name P. Diddy but is known to associates as Puffy, is looking to expand well beyond the urban niche.
A stack of other rap and rhythm-and-blues celebrities from Snoop Dogg to Beyoncé have decided they have the style to create clothes, but Mr. Combs is the one who analysts say has the best chance of making the transition to the mainstream.
That could be particularly lucrative for Mr. Combs, who, unlike most of his competitors, has maintained control of his company. (By contrast, Russell Simmons, another rap impresario, sold his Phat Fashions to Kellwood, a giant clothing producer, for $140 million last year.)
"Sean John felt he has the heft to go it alone," said Eric M. Beder, an analyst at Brean Murray & Company, a New York investment bank.
Going it alone, though, will mean having to tackle some serious problems, starting with two years of more or less flat sales and a net loss last year. That is compounded by signs that the urbanwear trend is past its peak, and by basic business problems like disorganized distribution. Then there are the distractions inherent in being part of an informal miniconglomerate that has at times included businesses as diverse as music publishing and advertising and restaurants.
Mr. Combs has started to address each of these issues. He began by parting ways with a longtime friend and the executive vice president of Sean John, Jeffrey Tweedy, and replacing him with Robert J. Wichser, the former chief executive of the Joseph Abboud Apparel Corporation. Mr. Combs is also moving to expand beyond urbanwear - first into a line of women's clothes, and next into a host of licensed products, including leather sneakers, belts and wheel rims.
The success of this strategy is far from assured, but Mr. Beder, along with other analysts, bankers and even competitors, says Mr. Combs stands a good chance, in part because he is so personally involved. He directs his own designers, and Sean John makes 70 percent of its own clothes; most celebrity-branded gear is made under license by other companies. "If he can get the women's working, he can become a true lifestyle brand," Mr. Beder said. "Sean John can become more than just Puff Daddy's company."
Before he hired Mr. Wichser in May, Mr. Combs held the title of chief executive. Mr. Wichser had said he wouldn't sign on to run Sean John without that title - and the authority to match. Mr. Combs has also hired Jon Cropper, a former executive of Quincy Jones Productions, as chief marketing officer of Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment,...
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