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Miskeens' urban designs are taking off

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Source: REGINA MEDINA, Philadelphia Daily News

Hip-hop fashion was in a funk a couple of years ago, which led clothing entrepreneur Yaniv Zaken to itch for something original.

The sports-jersey craze was in fifth gear - Jay-Z sporting a retro Redskins jersey in his "Girls, Girls, Girls" video - and everyone donned a similar look.

"The athletic revolution came and everything looked like one big basketball court," said the 32-year-old Israeli immigrant, referring to the sports-jersey craze that still hovers on the fashion radar. "I felt like my customers started to get bored."

Zaken, a buyer for Dr. Denim and other boutiques owned by his brother, Ilan, went on the prowl for a fresh idea. It came in the form of a hand-painted T-shirt made by an artist who happened to be walking South Street trying to sell his creation.

The abstract look of the tee's artwork turned off another South Street vendor, but Zaken knew it was "something hot." He ordered 200 shirts on the spot.

The shirts sold out in three days, he said.

Soon, the Zakens had invested in T-shirt makers Miskeen Originals. And Miskeen - which means "poor" in Arabic, an ode to the starving-artist concept - hasn't stopped since.

The company has dressed the likes of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Lil' John, Andre 3000 and Big Boi from OutKast and Ludacris, according to the firm's chief executive officer, Ari Fruchter.

These days, Miskeen has a staff of 55, including 24 artists, and the company expects sales of more than $10 million this year, Fruchter said.

The company is selling in more than 1,000 stores. Of course, that includes the 21 stores that Ilan Zaken owns - including Dr. Denim, USA Boutique, Unica and Net stores - in the Philadelphia area, Baltimore and Atlanta.

In addition to men's T-shirts, the company has branched out to include jeans and sweat suits for both genders. The women's line launched in February. T-shirts sell for $70 to $90. The hand-decorated jeans retail for $80 to $120.

In April, Miskeen split with four of the company's founders, who had run the company day to day. Soon after, Miskeen filed a lawsuit against the four, claiming they had stolen Miskeen's money and launched a competing line of clothing with the "specific intent" of trying to destroy Miskeen's business.

James Elam, attorney for the four, said that they intend to respond to the lawsuit and that "when all the facts come out in this matter, a completely different story will be told."

Meanwhile, Miskeen had outgrown its Philadelphia offices at 11th and Market, and in April moved into what a press release calls a "contemporary art house" on Wright Avenue in Camden. The 30,000- square-foot warehouse was converted into an office space that resembles a piece of art. Architect Shimi Zaken, Yaniv Zaken's younger brother, headed the renovation, which included eclectic offices, vibrant-colored walls and a vast work space for Miskeen's artists.

Last week, the artists - mostly young men, with the oldest one clocking in at 30 - teamed up to design and paint a mural on the corner building's brick facade. The mural features the Ben Franklin Bridge, the "Miskeen" signature and the company logo, a kind of high-five-looking hand. Of course, the muralists made sure to put illustrated jeans and T-shirts in the mural.

It was a weeklong visual jam and, to borrow from Juvenile, hmmm, they like it like that.

The artists, many of whom are from Philadelphia, say they're happy to be getting paid to do something they love. Also last week, they got to sign up for health insurance and the company's 401(k) program - artistic expression, with benefits.

"This is the best job in the world," said Northeast Philadelphia artist Jay P, waiting for his latest creation to finish air-drying on the rear pocket and lower leg of a pair of women's jeans. "Time flies because I love what I'm doing. This is the best place for artists."

But Jay P. (real name: Justin Pross) and the 23 other artists just can't paint/illustrate their whims. A definite Miskeen vision has been set, and they have to adhere to it. They receive training in the art of the Miskeen signature and hand logo, as well as the science of color.

"The Miskeen style is very urban and graffiti-oriented," said Monica Huelgas, a marketing associate with Miskeen. "It reflects that lifestyle, but at the same time, they want to bring art into [it]."

That's when the riffing begins, the artists say.

"We vibe off each other," said Jay P., a former Art Institute of Philadelphia student who came to Miskeen in February.

Raheem Johnson says he learns every day. "It comes with the flow," said the 22-year-old artist, who met Yaniv Zaken at the Source Awards in Miami last year.

Sha Goodwin, 28, one of four women artists, recalled how one art-school professor warned her that it would be difficult to earn a living as an artist. She added, "This is a blessing, to come to work and do what you love."


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September 3, 2004 at 08:12 AM | Permalink