Bob Marley (1945-1981), with his guitar on stage in 1979. The late artist's son, Rohan Marley, along with Stefano Aldighieri, have introduced a new clothing line.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File.
image has spiraled far beyond anyone's control."
November 24, 2006
Bob Marley, Fashion Icon
The Reggae Star's Son Goes Up-Market With Clothing Line Beyond Just T-Shirts
By STEPHANIE KANG
November 24, 2006; Page B1
WALL STREET JOURNAL
At Push Emporium, a hip boutique in downtown Los Angeles, a display is devoted to denim jeans ($220), military-style jackets ($310), T-shirts ($50) and other apparel from Tuff Gong Clothing. The new, pricey fashion line was inspired by an unlikely, populist source: reggae superstar Bob Marley.
Despite the Jamaican-born icon's enduring popularity with everyone from political revolutionaries to college frat boys, Push owner Sally Daliege says it isn't easy to sell consumers upscale clothing linked to the musician. "I know what they're thinking," says Ms. Daliege, whose store is currently stocked with $10,000 in Tuff Gong merchandise. "They're thinking 'I can get this on Hollywood Boulevard for $10.' "
Tuff Gong Clothing plans to launch a new line of fashion designed for women sometime next year.
Street vendors have for decades oversaturated the market with unauthorized T-shirts, hoodies and other garments bearing poorly silk-screened pictures of the dreadlocked singer-songwriter, who died of cancer in 1981. Like Che Guevara or Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley's image has spiraled far beyond anyone's control.
Now, the Marley family is trying to restore its authority over his image and move it up-market. Rohan Anthony Marley, one of the singer's children, and his associates have launched Tuff Gong, the first major premium apparel brand created by the Marley family. The company's name refers to one of Mr. Marley's many nicknames; it was also the name of his record label.
The new line goes far beyond the bootleg Bob Marley T-shirts: there are leather jackets, cargo shorts and denim jeans with red, green and gold stitched pockets. On the waistband of the jeans are snatches of lyrics from some of Mr. Marley's songs like "Stir It Up," "Get Up, Stand Up," and "Is This Love."
Most fashion lines launched by musicians -- like those from Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Lopez -- have midrange price points. Tuff Gong's high-end collection costs more, in part, because it uses fabrics from Japan and Europe and is made at a plant in Portugal whose labor standards meet Rohan Marley's ethical criteria. Mr. Marley, 34 years old, says he wanted to team up with factories that offer employees what he considers good wages, overtime pay, and medical benefits.
Rohan Marley (above), one of Bob Marley's children, has launched a new premium fashion line inspired by his father.
Tuff Gong's lofty aims present a host of challenges to Rohan and his partner, former Levi Strauss & Co. and 7 For All Mankind designer Stefano Aldighieri. People think of Bob Marley clothes and they "immediately think cheap T-shirts and the like," says Mr. Aldighieri, who has had a tattoo of Africa on his right calf for years and says he used to play Bob Marley's music as a DJ in Italy.
"We're not going to bastardize my dad's image, like just throw it on anything," Rohan Marley says. "We have to let the people know that this is a family product, and it's quality."
The younger Marley's new line isn't the first to feature Bob Marley-inspired fashion. Apparel company Zion Rootswear, for instance, has a license from the Marley family to make concert T-shirts and other garments with Bob Marley's image. And Cedella Marley, one of the reggae great's daughters, introduced her "Catch A Fire Clothing" line a few years ago, which features women's dresses, denim and other casual wear. But Tuff Gong Clothing is aiming at a more high-end consumer.
Rohan grew up in Jamaica and Florida, eventually playing football for the University of Miami. While he has long dreadlocks now and strongly resembles his father, he wore his hair short in college and was a business-administration major. After school, he played briefly in the Canadian Football League. In recent years, he received attention in the celebrity press for his relationship with Grammy-winning rapper-singer Lauryn Hill, with whom he has four children.
A blue sweatshirt from Tuff Gong Clothing draws from the apparel that Jamaican reggae superstar Bob Marley actually wore.
The younger Marley says he didn't seriously consider starting up a new apparel brand until one day in London, when an old friend of his father's commented that he looked just like his dad. "I looked in the mirror and said, 'yeah I do!' " he said, remembering that he was wearing a shirt and denim jeans from the European label Diesel. "I thought, 'We gotta have this.' The vibe was to create a garment that would represent my father in his image and his likeness."
Armed with start-up money from his more famous older brother Ziggy, Rohan plucked a few favorite images -- his father playing soccer shirtless and another with him sitting under a tree playing guitar -- and hired a graphic artist to sketch the denim jeans, cowboy-inspired button-front shirts and military jackets featured in the photos. Messrs. Marley and Aldighieri then added embroidery and other finishing touches that riffed off elements of Bob Marley's life. For example, 56 Hope Rd., the reggae singer's home address in Kingston, Jamaica, is stitched onto the side of some garments.
After more than a year, Tuff Gong Clothing's track record is mixed. It sells in about 30 stores, including trendy boutiques like Fred Segal and urban mall-based chains like Up Against the Wall. But the brand hasn't yet landed in upscale department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue or Barneys New York and Messrs. Marley and Aldighieri say that many buyers don't yet know the brand. The company's small budget has limited advertising to niche magazines like UNleashed.
Still, the company is planning to rapidly expand its operations, launching a women's line in the spring and a more moderate-price apparel line later next year for those who can't afford the current collection's premium prices. Messrs. Marley and Aldighieri say they are also trying to spread the message of the elder Marley's music through the Tuff Gong venture. "Our goal in the long run is to really try and do something good," Mr. Aldighieri says. To that end, a line of "Know Your History" T-shirts, inspired by Ziggy Marley, features moments of historical significance, such as the birthday of Malcolm X, or the date when the first 20 slaves landed in Jamestown.
A page from a book of sketches used in designing the Tuff Gong collection includes an image of Bob Marley.
Anoma Whittaker, a fashion editor at men's magazine Complex, is impressed with the restraint Tuff Gong has displayed in launching the new line. "It's a sellable way of doing it. The other way is touristy," she says, adding "They're not going the obvious route. You don't just see images of Bob Marley or just lions or tie-dye -- you get an element of that but it's kind of in a subtle way."
What would Bob Marley, who sang proudly of his rough roots in the Jamaican ghetto of Trench Town, think of the new high-price fashion line? "I think he would find it sweetly ironic," says Colin Channer, a Jamaican-born writer, musician and English professor at Medgar Evers College in New York. "Bob himself had a sense that a lot of the very best things cost a good penny. ... The idea that Bob Marley-branded apparel should be cheap so the masses can buy it is an easy way of trying to devalue a brand that should be judged by the same standards as all other iconic brands."
The company says it is trying to figure out how to make a lower-price line without sacrificing its manufacturing standards. "A lot of people who love Bob Marley can't afford [Tuff Gong]," says Mr. Aldighieri. "It would be worse than ironic to come out with cheap products made in a sweatshop."
In the end, Tuff Gong executives realize that the brand's ultimate success will rest on design, rather than the appeal of Mr. Marley. Ms. Daliege of Push Emporium says Tuff Gong is one of the best-selling lines at her store, and has wide appeal among "professionals, preppies and hipsters." "The spirit behind Tuff Gong is strong," she says. "But even if you forget that it's a Bob Marley connection, the designs are still there and it's good."