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A hoops lineup is scoring big

Elizabeth Wellington
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Undrcrwn, an apparel company from Philadelphia, has cleverly entwined hoops with fashion in an attempt to take the sport's biggest fans beyond baggy pants and oversized hoodies. (Ron Tarver/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

For a certain segment of young men, basketball culture goes way beyond the court. It's hip-hop. It's playing late-night video games while eating dry cereal right out of the box. It's the latest retro sneaker.

An apparel company based in Philadelphia's Northern Liberties neighborhood has cleverly entwined hoops with fashion in an attempt to take the sport's biggest fans beyond baggy pants and oversized hoodies.

Undrcrwn -- pronounced Under Crown -- is available in 150 stores including men's clothing salons in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Japan.

Internet buzz is nuts. The company was launched in 2005, and sales last year topped $1 million. The gear has been spotted on celebrities including international DJ Swizz Beatz, Golden State Warriors player Baron Davis and actors Chi McBride and Mos Def.

"If you like basketball, you will like our brand, but if you don't, you will still like our brand," said Dustin Canalin, Undrcrwn's lead designer. "Our goal is to connect with the 30,000 players in the stands."

Undrcrwn was launched by friends Canalin, Jeremy Castro and Pete Small. Canalin and Small worked for Paoli, Pa.-based shoe and apparel company And 1.

This is not a performance line. The collection includes Hawaiian-print basketball shorts, puffy quilted jackets, and sweatshirts made to fit. Camouflage hoodies with embedded images of ballplayers and V-neck sweaters with netting graphically threaded through the argyle are hot.

There are sly references to National Basketball Association players. A yellow and purple T-shirt, for example, has a graphic image of a hog on the front with No. 24 on the back -- think of a certain Laker who grew up in Lower Merion, Pa.

Its designers refer to Undrcrwn as a luxury sportswear line. Prices range from $36 for a T-shirt to $110 for a fleece sweatshirt to $500 for a letter jacket.

It's a niche that has been growing, thanks to lines like Echo Ultd., Lifted Research Group (LRG) and Yohji Yamamoto's Y-3 for Adidas. The clothing typically has a hip-hop aesthetic combined with a sportswear touch: Think hoodies gone upscale.

In December, hip-hop producer Pharell Williams and Japanese fashion designer Nigo opened the two-story Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream Store in Manhattan. Last year, Nigo went into collaboration with Louis Vuitton Fendi.

"These lines are offering something that young men didn't have available five years ago," said Jessica Pallay, young men's market editor for the New York-based menswear magazine DNR. "They are taking into account that this audience is interested in fashion."

Canalin, Castro and Small think of their line as a lifestyle brand with basketball as its core. And with basketball, Canalin says, come the idiosyncrasies of basketball's biggest fans: young men.

T-shirts are packaged in cereal boxes. Undrcrwn's sneaker, the Layup, is wrapped in velvet and placed in a wooden shoebox.

"Everything comes from the culture," said Canalin, 30.

Which means hip-hop inspirations, both good and bad.

Fleece sweatshirts, cargo pants and baseball caps in the holiday look book were worn by five DJs that Undrcrwn termed "The Starting Five" Philadelphia-based spinners King Britt and Rich Medina, along with Prince Paul, Neil Armstrong and the Green Lantern.

And in the coming spring collection is a T-shirt with the image of a scantily clad woman draped in leis -- a nod to the infamous video babe.

Retailers say this is what makes the brand special.

"That's what's hot about Undrcrwn," said Philip Dupree, a co-owner of Made to Order, a Philadelphia men's boutique that carries the line.

"They can always take something in hip-hop and spin it on its head and give it a basketball touch. It speaks to our lifestyle."

Undrcrwn has even developed a copy of the Barcalounger made from a synthetic basketball material. It retails online for $1,600.

"It is definitely a piece that combines basketball and design," Canalin said. "We wanted to take something you don't really see as luxurious and make it a luxury item."

The Undrcrwn line started with Canalin, who began thinking about his own label while working as design director for And 1. He named the company Undrcrwn because he thought his potential customers considered themselves kings of the underground.

In May 2005, American Sporting Goods bought And 1 for an undisclosed amount. That summer, with the help of his friends, Canalin launched Undrcrwn with five T-shirts, two of which featured caricatures of rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. Together, the trio invested about $50,000 in the new company.

The next year, the guys used their And 1 skills to introduce their first sneaker, the Layup. Later, Canalin signed a deal with Adidas, which was looking to make more fashion-oriented shoes with NBA personalities Gilbert Arenas, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan and Chauncey Billups.

That partnership was a big success, with each shoe selling out. "In the end, Adidas was able to place five basketball shoes that weren't getting any love on the boutique level in hot stores," Canalin said. The deal put Undrcrwn on the map.

This year, Undrcrwn has focused on a menswear line, releasing three collections. The line skews more `50s varsity than `80s preppy, a breath of fresh air from the overly collared and pleated pieces.

The company is constantly hustling. Small lives in China, where the clothes are manufactured and he has his fingertips on the latest in sneaker resources. Castro spends most of his time in Los Angeles, where he is responsible for West Coast sales and trend-spotting.

The three usually met up at trade shows in Los Angeles and Barcelona. This fall, however, they opened a studio in Northern Liberties and added Jeff Shieh, 39, and Setfree Richardson, 37, to their management team.

The company is in full swing now designing the fall 2008 line so it will be ready for shows in Barcelona and Las Vegas. The collection will also include a line of clothes for the National Basketball Hall of Fame, set to debut in the spring.

"We are going to license their brand and use images of players who are in the Hall of Fame," Canalin said. "It's going to be a really nostalgic line."

Still, Canalin promises no tighty-whitey basketball shorts.

"Some things should never come back," he said.

For more information, log on to www.undrcrwn.com. The company can be reached at 877-843-2796.

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