From underground to top-of-mind without losing cool

'I want you in my pants.'...

‘I want you in my pants.’

With provocative slogans like this, Steven Debus has built his funky, five-year-old clothing brand into an underground empire.

Ever since he created his Modrobes line of fat, comfy lounge pants back in university, Debus – or ‘Saldebus,’ as he now prefers to be called – has remained steadfastly committed to grassroots marketing, selling directly to customers at skateboarding events, BMX races and rock concerts.

Today, Modrobes by Saldebus Lounge Clothing operates four free-standing retail stores: one in Vancouver and three in Toronto, including a location that opened on trendy Queen Street West in early December. (The new space has a funky vibe, angular walls, and a lounge area where a DJ spins tunes. ‘We wanted to be the coolest store in Toronto,’ Saldebus says.)

The company also has floor space for its product in some 445 retail outlets across Canada, including Athlete’s World and Jean Machine stores. And Saldebus, who now designs a full apparel line, has ambitious plans to build Modrobes into a 20-store chain over the next five years.

It’s a prospect that he admits makes him nervous. And so it should, some youth marketing experts say. For any hip brand that has built a reputation through street-level guerrilla tactics, it’s always a challenge to grow bigger without alienating the trend-hopping kids who made it successful in the first place.

The teens who buy brands like Modrobes enjoy discovering obscure, underground stuff far from the bright lights of mainstream pop culture, says Kaan Yigit, a partner with Toronto-based Solutions Research Group. ‘The minute that obscure thing hits the cover of Newsweek, they move on.’

Tania Koster, creative director of Ground Control Marketing, a Toronto-based promotional agency that works with such youth-oriented clients as Chupa Chups and Skechers Footwear, agrees.

Hip youth brands can lose teens when they shift their messaging in an effort to appeal to a mass audience, she says. When a youth-oriented label like Tommy Hilfiger begins sponsoring high-profile rock tours, for example, it risks being perceived as too slick.

The best strategy for Modrobes, Koster suggests, is to stick with the grassroots approach that has worked for it so far. ‘You’re actually listening to your customers, and participating in their reality,’ she says. ‘You’re not once-removed, which is what traditional marketing does.’

Saldebus says the company has done some advertising in ‘edgy’ subculture magazines like Vice and Tribe. But he doesn’t envision adopting any form of mass-media strategy.

‘I don’t read newspapers, I don’t read [alternative weeklies] like Now, I don’t read or listen to any traditional media,’ he says. ‘So I figure if I don’t do those things, and I’m designing the clothes, then my customers probably don’t either.’

Grassroots marketing will remain the heart and soul of the company’s marketing strategy, Saldebus says. ‘I think we’ll keep doing events. The further you get away [from your customers], the more you get screwed up and have no clue what they want.’

In addition, Modrobes will rely on its Web site (www.modrobes.com), which generated more than a million hits last summer, as a means of getting feedback and finding out what customers like or dislike. (Saldebus says he’s also brought in a former Club Monaco executive – whose name he won’t reveal – to lend some valuable retail marketing expertise.)

For his part, Yigit says he’s not sure a small, underground youth brand can grow to substantial size without investing in more traditional forms of mass advertising. ‘You have to be able to fill the stores – and to do that, you have to go beyond niche marketing.’

Max Valiquette, executive director of Toronto-based ‘youth insight and fulfillment firm’ NRG Solutions, agrees.

It’s quite possible for a brand like Modrobes to establish a beachhead in the mainstream market without being rejected by its core target, he adds. Both Doc Martens and Airwalk, for example, successfully negotiated that transition.

Airwalk, which specializes in footwear for skateboarders and snowboarders, has managed to keep its cool by creating subversive advertising that ‘fucks up the mainstream,’ Valiquette says. One memorable U.S. television spot for the brand parodies Wild Kingdom, depicting a group of snowboarders as a pack of wolves – one of whom is shot by a guy in a helicopter wielding a tranquilizer gun. While he’s unconscious, his boots are replaced with Airwalks.

‘I can hardly imagine someone at Adidas [proposing that],’ he says. ‘It was funny and did a good job of keeping street credibility.’

The challenge for an expanding ‘street’ brand like Modrobes is potentially heightened by competition from major manufacturers. Big brands, after all, crave the approval of young trend-setters as well – and in some cases have launched pseudo-underground sub-brands in a bid for a piece of this target group.

So far, however, these efforts haven’t amounted to much. Adidas, for example, launched an ‘alternative’ sports lifestyle brand called DAS last year, only to abandon the effort soon afterward.

Doug Hayes, president of Concord, Ont.-based Adidas Canada, says DAS was ‘a little bit of outdoor, a little bit of action sports and caught between a number of demographics and target customers. [It] wasn’t going anywhere.’

In the end, says Hayes, Adidas decided to launch instead three new divisions – a performance product line, a middle sports performance range and an equipment line – and will address the DAS target within each of those. The strategy, he says, makes more sense ‘than having another sub-brand out in the marketplace. The new divisions have Adidas all over them…so there’s an inherent equity.’

Levi Strauss & Co. has two ‘alternative’ brands of its own: L2, which it rejigged as a streetwear line in 1999, and Levi’s Engineered Jeans, which made their debut last summer and feature such quirky details as twisted side-seams, big slanted back pockets and angled bottom hems. Neither, however, can be said to have become a youth sensation.

Victor Lam, consumer marketing manager for Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Levi Strauss & Co. (Canada), says L2 will likely be phased out over the next couple of years. And while early sales for the Engineered Jeans have been strong, it’s too early to say whether the brand will meet expectations.

Robert Barnard, founder and partner of Toronto-based d-Code, says brands like Modrobes have no need to fear major manufacturers treading on their turf.

‘Big companies will decide that they want to be cool, so they do the kind of stuff Modrobes has done,’ he says. ‘But consumers are too smart for that.’

Valiquette shares this view. Alternative brands created by large companies won’t flourish, because they simply don’t have authenticity at their core.

‘Modrobes has that, and it’s a massive difference,’ he says. ‘And young people can smell it from miles away.’