Could the culture finally be close to getting paid its dues?
Words: James Nash | Images: Rex Features
Hip-hop and high fashion have a long history of cohabitation. Although different beasts entirely over time they have formed an almost symbiotic relationship, one which supports both industries.
It began in the Bronx, during the seventies, the birthplace of the genre. A community in the grips of urban decay, yet still a thriving cultural hub. Hip-hop represented an escape from the “hood mentality” that entrapped so many black youth. An integral part of this escape is the concept of buying superiority, an endless game of one-upmanship, cool cars, fresh clothes, and clean kicks. As the saying goes, “clothes make the man”, and in this case clothes represented what it mean to be young and black, serving as a symbol of status. As such, international and luxury brands became synonymous with success, with escape, and streetwear came with connotations of poverty, those still trapped.
Dapper Dan began to subvert this culture in 80’s Harlem, creating stunning custom pieces by “remixing” items from high-fashion houses into items that could now represent the status of the wearer without them losing touch with the streets and culture that raised them. His clientele included anyone from notorious drug-dealers to hip-hop royalty, with supporters like Mike Tyson, Eric B and Rakim (who wore Dapper Dan on the cover of their famous “Paid in Full” album), and LL Cool J. Although he was eventually shut down by the brands he’d brought into the fold of black culture, his legacy stands as one of the greatest black minds in fashion and even now his ideas are being recycled by avant-garde fashion houses such as Vetements with their recent “Official Fake” collection.
Around the same time something else was brewing, something that would change streetwear forever. In 1984 the Air Jordan brand was released and sneaker culture began to explode. Michael Jordan, the brand’s namesake, was the best basketball player alive and a beacon of black excellence to boot. The sneakers seemed to carry the same connotation, soon becoming the must-have item in black neighbourhoods across America. Hype culture began to spread like wildfire and with increasing intensity, eventually resulting in deaths over Jordans and in one case a Marmot Mammoth jacket, the same brand commonly worn by Notorious B.I.G.
Yet Biggie is far from the only rapper who contributed to the growing culture. When gangsta rap was at it’s peak in the early 2000s, one man changed everything. The force of nature that is Kanye West burst onto the scene. Far from the man he is today, the old Kanye was a relatable and inspiring figure. Changing the status quo for rappers, his work was unashamedly not about selling drugs, instead speaking to real life problems like education and family issues. This shift in subject matter not only opened the genre up to a plethora of new listeners but also inspired countless black youths who previously thought you had to be a gangster to make rap music. Even more critically, Kanye became noted for his fashionable sensibilities, often rapping about luxury brands, and giving himself the nickname “Kon the Louis Vuitton Don”, after his famous backpack, although it never stuck. This stood in strong contrast to the self-proclaimed “real rappers” of the time, who despised Kanye’s preppy aesthetic. Despite this Kanye stayed true to his streetwear roots, often seen in those days wearing baggy jeans, fresh Nikes, and the occasional BAPE hoodie. This meld of styles would foreshadow the coming changes in both industries, something Mr.West seems to have a gift for.
Rappers weren’t just dressing well either, Jay-Z founded Rocawear in 1999, staying true to his role as a self-proclaimed businessman as the brand took off. Streetwear was growing into it’s own as the 2000s began and brands like Carhartt, Timberland and other former-workwear staples were becoming symbolic of black culture. FUBU was at the forefront of this movement, although it did not share the workwear roots of its fellow brands. The brand’s name was an acronym for “For Us By Us”, a sentiment that meant a lot to the American black community. As streetwear grew in popularity, it also came into it’s own. Existing in it’s own sphere of popularity, it began to shed those connotations of poverty, and soon even suburban white children were dressing in hoodies with baggy, low-slung jeans, a style that stems from penitentiaries. Clothes that had been symbolic of urban black youth now represented a sub-culture that was tied together largely by their love for one thing: Hip Hop.
As the genre began it’s world domination streetwear grew proportionally, rivalling the sartorial styles that had been key to high fashion in the past. And the fashion world took notice. Luxury brands soon began making their own high-end hoodies and sneakers, something previously unheard of. Fast forward a handful of years and that had become the norm, although fashion houses refused to credit streetwear and hip hop for the shift in styles, continuing their long history of appropriation. The two were becoming one, but no one wanted to acknowledge it. At least, not yet.
The next big wave was made by the now infamous Tyler, the Creator. As his mixtape and then his album blew up more eyes were turned to him and his unique attitude and style. Although they'll never admit it, the current king of the streetwear world, Supreme, might have him to thank for their overwhelming success. Tyler’s ecstatic support of the brand brought in a seemingly endless supply of new fans and his overall aesthetic, a combination of skate-culture inspired brands like Thrasher and streetwear icons like Pharrell's Billionaire Boys Club, helped to bolster both cultures’ fanbases and supported the cross-over between them. Finally, Tyler brought pink back to the boys. Even though Camron might’ve looked great in his pink mink nearly a decade before, the colour never had a renaissance in menswear like the one it’s still enjoying. Tyler wouldn’t be the only one to change perception of masculinity in fashion. Young Thug would later inform the world he only wore womenswear, even appearing in a dress on the cover of his latest album, further breaking down boundaries and taking apart the toxic masculinity that had nestled in the heart of streetwear since it’s inception.
We would be remiss if we failed to mention perhaps the most important contemporary rapper in the fashion world, A$AP Rocky. There are arguments for Kanye West to take this throne, but his new position as a designer puts him in a gray area of influence, existing in both spheres simultaneously and as a result fully in neither. Rocky spat a seminal line on his breakout song “Peso”,
“... Raf Simons, Rick Owens usually what I’m dressed in.”
Here was a rapper referencing two avant-garde brands that most people had never heard of prior. He would later release “Fashion Killa” which would name-drop a whopping twenty seven high fashion brands, from household names like Versace to obscure designers like Damir Doma. His in-depth knowledge of fashion and massive popularity would see him attract the attentions of several labels. He modeled for Dior and was seen seated at countless runway shows. His fans took note as well, beginning to step up streetwear outfits by including Givenchy shirts, Rick Owens boots, and other luxury items. Those two worlds were now dangerously close, and something had to happen.
Then it did.
Louis Vuitton, a brand known for monogram bags, collaborated with Supreme. Here was the acknowledgement so many had waited for. Streetwear and high-fashion were on a level, they had made contact. Although it would never make up for the decades of ignorance and appropriation, it was a first step, and a sign of what was to come. Other high-fashion brands had long since integrated with streetwear, HBA & Off-White come to mind, but never the old guard, and never a collaboration like this.
Hip-hop had taken the distant, disinterested world of high fashion and made it visible to the masses, to whom the artists spoke, whose dreams they represented. Finally, fashion seems to be returning the favour and with the precedent of Louis Vuitton and Supreme, no-one knows what may come next.