Double dose of cool

Special to The Times

In a downtown photo studio, Lupe Fiasco thumbs through a rack of jackets, letting out an appreciative “Hi-yoooo!” as he notices a patchwork piece in orange military nylon and black leather, and then another constructed from vintage green army coats and duffel bags, handles dangling from its sleeves. They’re all the creations of Darren Romanelli, the L.A. designer and branding guru who creates clothing under the Dr. Romanelli label.

The most spectacular jacket on the rack combines elements of a red-and-white marching band uniform: metal buttons across the chest, decorative braid, embroidery down the sleeves, with supple brown leather and a bomber-style collar and cuffs. Spectacular, yes, but Fiasco wore it in the video for “Superstar,” the first single off his new album, “The Cool.”

And Lupe Fiasco never wears the same thing twice.

Considered a fashion trendsetter since he kick-pushed onto the scene in 2006 as a skateboarding nerd wearing Maharishi hoodies and Cartier frames, the 26-year-old Chicago rapper approaches his wardrobe like an art collector, flying around the globe in search of the most cutting-edge styles and developing loyalties that border on compulsion. Fiasco takes most of his cues from high-end Japanese street culture, in which brands such as Visvim, Neighborhood, Fragment, Fenom and A Bathing Ape confer as much cachet as Prada or Gucci.


Fiasco, who wore “Romanelli from head to toe” last December when he was named GQ magazine’s Breakout Man of the Year, has hired Romanelli’s marketing agency, Street Virus, to help him take “The Cool” to the next level -- and a new market. He may have the muscle of Atlantic Records behind him, but as a practicing Muslim and avid reader, he’s never been shy with his critiques of hip-hop culture or the music industry, and his plans for “The Cool” go far beyond urban radio.

Released last week to high praise, “The Cool” is partly a concept album about a hustler who dies and comes back to life, but songs “Superstar” and “Dumb It Down” speak of disillusionment and alienation within the hip-hop scene. No surprise that Fiasco thought his label might not fully “get it.” Enter Romanelli: Referring to himself as the rapper’s “brand ambassador,” Romanelli aims to connect him with a larger, global market through irresistible design, enviable products and highly styled public appearances.

Fiasco is not alone in his sartorial appetites. Musicians including Jay-Z and Pharrell (both of whom were involved with Fiasco’s three-time Grammy-nominated debut “Food and Liquor”) and Linkin Park’s Joe Hahn, are all equally obsessed with Japan.

Hahn, who also owns the street wear boutique Suru on Melrose Avenue, notes that “it’s only recently that musicians like Jay-Z, Kanye and Lupe are exposing the high-end side of street fashion. In Japan the worlds have been colliding for quite a while.”

Marvin Jarrett, editor in chief of Nylon, launched Nylon Japan four years ago. He explains the cult appeal this way: “Somehow, Japanese street designers, whether it be somebody like Nigo from A Bathing Ape or Hiroshi Fujiwara who works with a lot of different companies, are able to take the best of American pop culture and maybe even influences from London or Paris, and then synthesize that and turn it into something that’s better than what we do here.”

This is status at its most understated: It may look like a black sweat shirt or a pair of dark carpenter’s jeans, but the quality and craftsmanship -- and the price tag -- tell a whole other story. It’s considered a point of pride to know a brand’s back story, and Fiasco readily admits that he would pay an extra $100 for the same white T-shirt, just to buy into the mystique of a Japanese label. “That comes with a history and prestige, and you’re wearing that even more than you’re wearing the shirt.

“It’s very irrational,” he concedes. “It’s like . . . why don’t you just go to the Gap and be good and have clothes? But it’s no more irrational than a group of jazz musicians sitting around talking about the sixteenth beat.”

In a sense, Romanelli’s work is a perfect fusion of luxury and street -- taking something totally utilitarian like military gear or your basic track suit, and reworking it with fine leather and hardware. In a very small field, he’s “the cream of the crop,” says Hahn. “It’s not like just anyone can go out there and say, ‘I’m gonna mesh these two things.’ He’s able to have an idea and execute it in a very strong way.”

Romanelli will be selling a collection of the reconstructed military jackets -- dubbed Surgical Strike and priced from $1,800 to $2,600 -- at Maxfield next month. But ironically, his name is better known in Tokyo than in his own hometown. Instead of courting L.A.'s celebrity market -- “I don’t do pulls, and I don’t have a showroom,” he says -- he’s concentrated on Japan and Asia, “strategically launching collections, aligning myself with the right people, getting press in the right magazines, selling at the right stores. It’s a tricky market, there’s a craft to it,” he says.

Romanelli, whose marketing clients include Disney and Helio, understands the intricacies of the consumer market.

Recognizing the appeal that Fiasco holds for what he calls the “tastemaker, influencer tier,” Romanelli is working with Nathan Cabrera, a graphic designer and toy sculptor who introduced him and Fiasco, to develop collectible toys based on “The Cool’s” characters -- a hustler-zombie among them -- featuring USB ports loaded with multimedia content.

He created a dazzling, red-and-gold satin letterman’s jacket for the rapper’s CD release show in New York this week, as well as limited edition, chain-stitched tour jackets for “The Cool” in collaboration with London-based Maharishi; street-wear blogs such as Hypebeast have been buzzing with anticipation for months.

One of the biggest challenges a musician faces in the age of digital downloading is expanding the experience for their audience, Hahn says. “The world has changed, but people haven’t,” he says. “You have to figure out a new language to communicate with people, and I think Lupe really understands that.”

Indeed, it seems that he might even speak more than one language at once: Fiasco’s incidental, barely-worth-mentioning side projects include a novel with chapters named after street-wear lines, and a fashion collaboration with the Japanese brand Swagger, which he describes as “just me playing.”

“I think this thing with Lupe is going to be special,” Jarrett says of the forthcoming “Cool” roll-out. “There are certain people who sort of transcend hip-hop as just music, becoming more like pop culture personalities, and Lupe is one of them.”

Forget personality: Fiasco, who in his notebook likes to argue with Nietzsche, says the individual is a brand unto him or herself. “You’re no different than a company, trying to articulate yourself to a consumer, get them to buy into what you believe.”

In that spirit, he is constantly honing his brand, whether he’s pronouncing himself less impressed by Picasso and Basquiat than the graffiti artist Brostar or asserting that “skater nerd” is “a cool place to be.”

Hanging out with Romanelli after the photo shoot he announces that he’s decided upon a new eyewear concept: Having already ditched his gold Cartier frames for rimless shades from a line called Goldenwood, he’s about to make another switch. “I’m going straight Akira Kurosawa, Japanese director, round black frames for the rest of my life,” he declares.

Romanelli, however, has another idea. “But have you seen Eric So’s new line of eyewear?” he fires back, referring to a toy designer from Hong Kong. “You know what an amazing sculptor he is. You have to check it out, Lu, it’s sick!”

Fiasco’s eyes light up; this is the first he’s heard of it. “Oh, it’s new,” he says, nodding approvingly. You can practically see the gears start turning in his head. “You gotta love some good new.”