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Hey, hey, hey: Fat Albert's in fashion

Black pride and nostalgia meet in the hot-selling hip-hop clothing line that stars characters from the '70s cartoon series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.

By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2002

A generation of kids sat in front of the TV in their pajamas on Saturday mornings, cradling their Cap'n Crunch or Cocoa Puffs. They watched intently, their only goal to find something funny. And, without fail, a mischievous crew from the "ghetto" kindly obliged.

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.

Perhaps among the most loved and remembered animated series, Fat Albert (renamed the New Fat Albert Show at one point) aired on CBS from 1972 to 1984 and on NBC in 1989.

Like capri pants and Michael Jordan, the lovable, overweight character has seeped yet again into modern culture.

Members of the "junkyard gang" reign in one of today's hottest hip-hop clothing lines for young adults. Their faces decorate oversized shirts and jeans, boots and baseball caps.

The clothes are made by New York's FUBU and are part of the company's "Platinum" FUBU line -- a name apropos for the garments' high quality cotton and polyester blends as much, perhaps, as for their price tags.

Platinum FUBU can cost from $55 for a T-shirt to $689 for a leather Fat Albert jacket.

No doubt, Fat Albert's resurgence is part of the nation's love of things retro. Bill Cosby, who created Fat Albert in his comedy skits, reportedly has finished co-writing a script for a Fat Albert movie to be released in 2003.

As for the clothing line, it hit national retail markets in fall 2000 and remains among the top sellers in hip-hop apparel.

For some, sporting Fat Albert on their backs is a social statement. The cartoon showcased themes of morality and overcoming odds with a mostly black cast.

But to others, the progenitor of "Hey, hey, hey!" and his wisecracking friends are, well, just the style -- and the retail moneymaker -- these days.

* * *

Department stores with hip-hop sections, such as Dillard's and JCPenney, carry Platinum FUBU and the Fat Albert apparel.

JCPenney began stocking the Fat Albert fashions in October, said spokeswoman Stephanie Brown from the company's headquarters in Plano, Texas. About 10 percent of the stores now carry Fat Albert clothes and the company plans to expand to more venues this year.

They are performing well, Brown said. "Actually, it's performing above our expectations."

At retail chains that specialize in hip-hop, Fat Albert is a top seller.

Reyad Abraham, who owns the Men's Closet/Suit City in Tampa, sold out of Fat Albert leather jackets during the holidays.

People come in and "they want the FUBU characters," they want Fat Albert, Abraham said.

At Baseline, in Seffner, manager Adam Othman raves about Fat Albert.

"It's been our No. 1 seller," he says, adding that Baseline affiliates in Tallahassee and Ocala have seen similar success with the clothing line.

In St. Petersburg, manager Anil Chugani is in the middle of a clearance sale at Looking Good Men's & Boys Fashions. A shirt picturing Fat Albert in a football jersey has been marked down from $98 to $69.99. Velour sweat suits cost $280.

The clothes have been hot since he started carrying them in December 2000, Chugani says. Recently, though, sales have slacked off.

Chugani points out that, in recent months, the Citgo gas station across the street has sliced a piece from the Fat Albert pie.

Citgo manager Christopher Qasim says his $17.99 Fat Albert T-shirts and $20 jeans are selling quite well. The clothes are knockoffs and don't have the Bill Cosby copyright tag of authentic Platinum FUBU clothes. But Qasim says he's not trying to fool anyone. The low price tag gives them away.

"For 20 bucks, a pair of jeans?" he adds incredulously.

Others are cashing in on the knockoff lines, too. In Tampa, a husband and wife team routinely set up a display of $10 Fat Albert T-shirts outside a busy convenience store on the corner of E Osborne and 30th Street. The shirts are not Platinum FUBU, just platinum, the labels say.

About four months ago, Hi Style in Tampa started selling T-shirts with the characters' images for $9.99. Minus Cosby's copyright, this Fat Albert came by way of an assembly line in Jamaica, according to shirt tags.

* * *

With Fat Albert, FUBU built a bridge between the streetwise character of 30 years ago and the sometimes ostentatious hip-hop culture.

Hip-hop clothing proliferated in the 1980s and '90s as young people nationwide saw what New York rappers were wearing in music videos and mimicked the baggy dress and flashy expensive accessories.

The hip-hop culture originated in black communities, and African-Americans soon began to market the fruits of their own ingenuity. Daymond John founded FUBU in 1992 in his home in Hollis, Queens. That's FOO-boo, an acronym of For Us By Us.

Rap artists and producers began to make their own hip-hop wear, broadening the genre's authenticity among music lovers. Jay-Z created "Rocawear," Russell Simmons' "Phat Farm," Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' "Sean John," Snoop Dogg a line of hip-hop chinos and baggy button-down shirts. LL Cool J is featured on FUBU's Web site wearing the company's clothes.

By 2000, FUBU was in search of a niche, something to separate itself in the increasingly popular market. Fat Albert, complete with retro and moral appeal, met the need.

Retailers say people of all races wear Fat Albert. But for some African-Americans, the character is as much a symbol of racial pride as he is a cartoon.

Jamaal Taylor, a 23-year-old political science major at the University of South Florida, reminisces about the Fat Albert characters and their subtle lessons as he leans against a rack of Fat Albert leather bomber jackets in New York New York Plus at Tampa's University Mall.

Russell was the short one; Bucky had an overbite; Mushmouth added a peculiar suffix to his words -- "Heybuh therebuh, Fabbuh, Albert."

Like Fat Albert, says Taylor, he grew up in what was called the "inner city." In the cartoon, that meant a neighborhood in Philadelphia. For Taylor, it was a predominantly black community in Chicago. Back then, the cartoon was one of few that seemed real to Taylor.

"I couldn't relate to the Smurfs," he says.

Taylor says he bought a couple of $55 oversized Fat Albert shirts. FUBU is black-owned, so he likes the idea of giving the company his business. "It's support," he says.

Hubert Dixon, 21, has come to the mall to look, not to buy. His closet already is full with Fat Albert designs. Even today he's wearing a colorful sweater with an oversized image of the chubby-cheeked character's face.

He started buying his collection because the designs were stylish. Now, Fat Albert has so saturated the hip-hop scene, Dixon says, he won't buy any more because he wants to be different. "Everybody's wearing it."

* * *

The original cartoon characters lived humble lives, finding creative and playful uses for junkyard scrap and discarded mattresses.

Fat Albert wore simple jeans and a plain sweater. A hat, a less-than-stylish coat and scarf completed Russell's attire; Dumb Donald had a thing on his head thought to be either a lamp shade or a distorted ski mask. Rudy, with his turtlenecks, vests and cool-daddy hat, was the exception.

But FUBU's Fat Albert has stretched beyond his modest origins. On one sweat shirt, he can be seen holding a pair of skis, apparently at a resort on his "5th Annual Ski Weekend." On other items, the gang zooms on motorcycles. They don bright red, sky blue and brown plush leather boots for $108.

FUBU devised the scenarios to keep Fat Albert "fresh" and with the times, says Leslie Short, the company's president of public relations.

FUBU has a license to use the characters through a deal it made with Cosby and Hallmark Entertainment, both of which have stakes in the cartoon, Short says. Cosby's copyright tag is inside the garments and he previews the designs, she said.

Fat Albert was a role model whose influence knew no racial barriers, Short says. Her company's clothes are like that, too, she says.

In keeping with the positive black image theme, FUBU is launching a spring line of Muhammad Ali wear. The clothes, also part of the platinum line, are in select stores.

- St. Petersburg Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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