“Here is the exclusive interview from UptownLife.net”.
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop
Don’t call it a puff piece. A conversation with Sean Combs about his Sean John brand and his personal style is serious business. We’ve been listening to music shaped by Sean Combs—from the albums he directed (produced is a woefully inadequate description) for Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, and Biggie to his own turns at the mic, including the elegant Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You”—for so long now that he may always be thought of first as a music impresario. But with his clothing line, Sean John, Puff has truly made fashion history.
By Dream Hampton
We’ve been listening to music shaped by Sean Combs—from the albums he directed (produced is a woefully inadequate description) for Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, and Biggie to his own turns at the mic, including the elegant Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You”—for so long now that he may always be thought of first as a music impresario. But with his clothing line, Sean John, Puff has truly made fashion history.
Perhaps there are those who hadn’t realized how serious he was about style; those who assumed that Sean John was a mere portfolio diversification, a way to explode what was already a rapidly growing fortune. They’d be among the many who’ve underestimated Puff.
In hindsight, there were signs: Even when he was a young executive working for his longtime friend Andre Harrell, Puff’s personal presentation was his morning meditation. The diamond-encrusted Jesus pieces and the one-leg-up sweats belied his serious self-investment. He’d been known to drive his topless Volkswagen Cabriolet to work wearing a cream three-piece suit.
In 1998 he launched Sean John doing what he does in his sleep—transforming round-the-way style into something quality and elegant. No matter how cats in the street felt about its controversial designer, Sean John’s early roomy velour sweat suits became an instant ‘hood classic.
By its fifth year, when its fashion shows became massive presentations in the cathedral-like restaurant Cipriani, Sean John had emerged as a true house of fashion. Graduating from urban to utterly wearable glamour, its presentations rivaled the best in men’s designs.
Puff’s influence as a tastemaker has clearly extended beyond clothes. He almost single-handedly resurrected Saint-Tropez, a sometime sleepy town that had lost most of its mid-century glamour. The infamous paparazzi shots that showed him jet skiing behind his triple-deck yacht wearing shades and a plush terry robe or walking the beach in a seersucker suit beneath a summer umbrella summarized Sean John: Life is a dream. Dream big. And clearly, people the world over want a piece of that dream. Total revenues for the label topped $450 million this year. To celebrate Sean John’s 10th anniversary, Puff headed to the South of France for the Cannes Film Festival. He did it his way, with his oldest friends from Mt. Vernon, N.Y., Howard University, and Uptown Records as his red-carpet companions. In his own inimitable style, he claimed the Côte d’Azur as conquered territory. His stylish descent upon entertainment’s biggest worldwide event signaled at least another dominant decade in the lifestyle business.
I caught up with Puff fresh from his Mediterranean holiday to discuss the remarkable success of his award-winning clothing line, his personal style, and the source of all that fashion swagger.
How would you describe your style?
Urban elegant. Harlem meets the South of France.
You’ve talked about assisting your grandmother, who was a master tailor, when you were growing up. What influence did she have on your fashion sense?
My grandmother helped me to understand attention to detail, how important fit is, how certain fabrics lie, what it means to finish a piece—from the button to the lining—and how a final piece should be presented. She had an enormous impact on my style and consequently on Sean John.
And your mother, Janice? She’s been known to make a fashion statement or two of her own.
I got my flamboyance from my mother. I’m used to being in front of trends. When I was in school, half the kids would laugh at what I was wearing and the other half would get it, but by the next semester they’d all be trying to wear it. Even in hip-hop, they used to call me the “shiny suit man,” but then a few years later at the MTV Awards or the BET Awards, cats were showing up wearing tailored suits.
Your father Melvin died when you were 2. What did you learn about him and his style by looking at old pictures of him?
I learned that fashion is in my DNA. My father was real Harlem ’70’s gangster, but it was refined—he didn’t look like a pimp. He looks elegant in the pictures I have of him. It tells me a lot about who he was; fashion choices always speak volumes about people.
Who are your style icons?
My father. Frank Sinatra. Fred Astaire was one of the baddest. Slick Rick.
What’s the best advice about fashion you’ve ever gotten, and from whom?
I can’t remember who said it to me first, but everyone says it—less is more. I know I went through a period of decadence and over-the-top indulgence when I first got some money. I look at some of those pictures, and let’s just say I’m glad I pulled back [laughs]. Ultimately I want my look to be timeless.
What’s the one item of clothing you can’t do without?
I can’t live without a fine tailored suit. That’s what will separate me in the end. I want to be timeless and elegant. I want my picture in the books next to Sinatra and Quincy Jones. I can do the ghetto thing all day. I can be on a yacht in the South of France with my shirt off wearing a big diamond chain, you know what I mean? I definitely know how to do that! But at the end of the day I feel most relaxed in a custom-tailored tux.
Have you reached your long-term goals for Sean John?
I’ve reached my goals with the men’s line. With the women’s line, it’s been more challenging, especially the way I want to do it. I haven’t achieved what I’d call success with the women’s line yet.
What do you consider success to be?
Success is when I’ve perfected the quality, the cut, and the design. When I’m walking down the streets and I see women wearing my designs, looking confident and elegant. When Sean John has become a part of women’s lives. That’s already happened with the men’s line, so the current challenge is to make that true for the women’s line.
Are you involved in the design process?
I try to be present at every phase, from pattern making to production. I love giving talented, emerging designers some of their first major label experience, but at the end of the day it’s my name on the label.
Sean John is said to have revenues of almost half a billion. How important is the company to your overall portfolio, beyond numbers?
I won’t be satisfied until Sean John is a billion-dollar company. Ralph Lauren—that’s the blueprint.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America named you menswear designer of the year a few years back. Of the many awards you’ve won, how important is that one?
I’d say it’s second only to the Grammy, almost more important in terms of me being the first African-American designer to win one. It was an affirmation that I’m not just a “celebrity” designer, but that my peers were taking me seriously, placing my work next to Michael Kors and Armani and designers I’ve respected for decades.
What kind of clothing do you like to see women wear?
I like for there to be something left to the imagination. My favorite period for women is the ’50s. I wish we could go back to that time, with women wearing gloves and hats, and as you undress them there are even more secrets—slips and garter belts and silk stockings. I like it when the clothes lead me to wonder what’s going to happen next, when there are small surprises layered beneath what’s visible.
You’ve said that when a man falls in love with a woman she inspires his style, and changes the way he looks. How have the women in your life affected your style along the way?
The way I dress, the records I make are all for my woman. I want to please her. When I get dressed, I need some sort of reaction—not from everybody, but from my woman. I need her to tell me “that’s sexy” or “that’s cute” before I even leave the house.
In February, you made history when you responded to Bethann Hardison’s criticism of the dearth of black models on the runways by casting an all-black Sean John show for Fashion Week. What message were you sending?
Fashion, like music, should be a true reflection of what’s going on in the world. To not have black faces on the runway is a lie. We have a huge influence on fashion and style—the way we make something out of nothing, the way we realize our dreams through fashion. Everyone, from Tom Ford to Alber Elbaz at Lanvin, looks to us for inspiration.
Acting seems to be the next frontier for you—you’ve taken it seriously and slowly. Who are your inspirations? Have you seen yourself grow as an actor?
I’ve definitely seen myself grow as an actor, especially since A Raisin in the Sun. I’m truly proud to have been a part of some stellar productions: Monster’s Ball won an Oscar; when we did Raisin on Broadway we won Tonys—we’ll win Emmys for the TV production of it. At the same time I’m not shy about saying I know I can be better, that there’s room for growth and improvement. Screen actors get better in front of the camera, so the more opportunities I get, hopefully, the more I’ll grow.