"When I blow up," Justin's saying, throwing a hand out like a rapper, "I'll shit on everyone who didn't have faith in me, on jealous people who hated me, but, like, these niggas" -- he means Shawn and Richie and the rest of his "boys" -- "and people who stood by me, just naturally, for the way I am, they'll live. Everyone will live. . . . "
To "live" is to have fun -- especially the kind of fun they look like they're having in rap videos; it's also to survive. "If you had 24 hours to live, what would you do?" the thumping music's asking the crowd. They burst into cheers and dance.
"Subliminally, in people's heads, it's 1999," Justin's saying, "and it's omigod, it's a new fuckin' millennium, I've got to make moves -- I've got to live -- excuse me a minute." Justin's cell phone's ringing.
"Yo -- "
On a sunny afternoon, Justin's strolling up Sixth Avenue on his way to a meeting for Danücht -- "The New Shit," his start-up clothing company with Shawn and Richie. And he's talking about how people "front." "A lot of people front like they're making moves when they're really not, 'cause it's the thing to do," says Justin. "But with us, we've already proved ourselves, and we're gonna continue to prove ourselves till we're completely successful. But you know," he adds, "it's like the Rolling Stones song, 'I -- ' " He can't remember the words for a second. " 'I can't get no satisfaction'? We're never satisfied."
For Justin-Shawn-and-Richie, the dream is already more than a pipe dream. Danücht is being bankrolled by Richie's uncle Simon Akiva, a pioneer financier of hip-hop fashion (he has a controlling interest in Maurice Malone). When Akiva saw the heat generated by the boys' MODELS SUCK T-shirts in the past two years, he decided to give them a chance to go wide. With no publicity machine behind them -- the boys were selling them on the street, in clubs, out of their backpacks -- they were featured in Vogue, in The Face, on MTV; Naomi Campbell, happily ironic, wore one in Spike Lee's Girl 6. Graffiti-style, SKE members were putting up MODELS SUCK: DANÜCHT stickers all over New York. "We bombed the city with them, the whole shit," Justin says.
"They're streetwise," says Akiva. "They're out at the parties every night; they know what the kids want to wear." Next spring, the Danücht line's anticipated to arrive in stores like Macy's, Barneys, and "better boutiques," says Akiva.
"We have the financial backing. But we still have to work off our asses," Richie says conscientiously. Unlike Richie, Justin and Shawn come from middle-class backgrounds. But these days, Justin says, "we're all in the mix."
The coolness of street style has hardly gone unnoticed by the major fashion houses, which now fight for the consulting services of young people just like Justin-Shawn-and-Richie. Meanwhile, ventures started by Gen-Xers who balk at the idea of being bought out (such as Fresh Jive and Urban Decay, multi-million-dollar hip-hop clothing and cosmetics companies) risk being copied by the bigger outfits, which typically glom onto their styles as fast as they can make them. But Justin-Shawn-and-Richie have what they call a "next level" plan in mind to outsmart the players by diversifying their company from the get-go (surprisingly, the word synergy never comes up in their conversations).
Justin's meeting today is at Right to Execute, a graphic-design company in Chelsea. The office -- in the apartment of the owner, Heather Sommerfield, 26 -- is decorated in purples, throw-pillowy, with a room full of blue-lit Macs. Justin walks in. "Yo, it smells slamming in here." He inhales for effect, nostrils flaring. "Incense burning, music playing, working-at-home-stees," or styles. "This is dope. It feels like the year 2000."
Shawn sits beside Heather at a Mac 8100; they're designing Danücht's line sheets, or specifications for production. Shawn is Danücht's main designer, although he's a film student at SVA and says what he'd really like to do is direct. "I just do the designing 'cause it comes easy to me." With his thick black hair, goatee, and flashing white teeth, he's the crew's more adult-looking member; 21, he could pass for 27 (and once dated the girl they all know as Liv -- Tyler, of course). He's making an independent film now that, he says, "is very much about the lifestyle" -- meaning their lives growing up in New York. He's highly aware of the film potential in the abundance of stories they've amassed in their years as city kids. They hope Danücht will eventually have a film division. "People are writing screenplays right and left."