Hip-hop + Fashion
The late great Tupac Shakur in a bandana. TLC in oversized trousers showing off Tommy Hilfiger boxer briefs. TLC (again!) in condom-studded dungarees. The iconic Lil’ Kim performing Crush On You in head-to-toe red—red hair, red fur coat, and red fur bikini. Hip-hop and fashion have had a long-standing relationship!
We talk a lot at The COMM about how fashion is a means of self-expression, so what does self-expression look like for a marginalised group trying to find success? Before the Nicki Minajs and A$AP Rockys, there was LL Cool J rocking a Kangol bucket hat or a rolled-up trouser leg while playing up the “hip-hop Romeo” persona, Run-DMC was in two-piece tracksuits and adidas Superstars Walking This Way with Aerosmith, and N.W.A was coming Straight Outta Compton with their casual crewnecks and jeans. These musicians pioneered the “started from the bottom” narrative. Reaching the top manifested itself in being able to buy the loudest, most expensive fashion labels—Gucci, Polo Ralph Lauren, and MCM (to name but a few) represented a change for the better. But these coveted brands didn’t just symbolise upward social mobility—they were an in your face rejection of those who thought them unworthy.
But of course, these labels were not readily accessible to the average Joe, and so their only recourse was one of innovation. Enter Dapper Dan, designer and tailor extraordinaire. Hailing from Harlem, New York, Dap epitomised the ingenuity of those in the peripheries. He draped New York’s “hustlers”, rappers, and the odd athlete in bespoke oversized bombers, fur coats, and varsity jackets adorned with the logos of Gucci, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and more. His trademark? Sartorial elegance. Dap’s vision of hip-hop style emerged from a desire to “Africanize” European fashion; his influences came from sportswear as well as Savile Row tailoring. These unapologetic “knockups” gave the otherwise excluded a way to access “mainstream” luxury, and allowed for a visible expression of one’s betterment—or at the very least an attempt to.
With the 90s came the Timberlands, and the oversized everything of the then Puff Daddy and The Notorious B.I.G.—this generation represented a rejection of the “knockups”. Hip-hop style creators and consumers no longer desired to measure their worth with stock luxury brands. But most importantly, there was the creation of the “in-house” hip-hop labels. Wu Tang Clan launched Wu Wear, Diddy created Sean John, Nelly gave us Apple Bottoms, Russell Simmons introduced us to Baby Phat—and let’s not forget Jay-Z’s Rocawear. These “of the people, by the people, for the people” brands attempted to find value in a world of their own making.
OutKast’s Andre 3000 and N.E.R.D.’s Pharrell Williams represented a turn in hip-hop style. It was a marked detachment from the traditional relationship between hip-hop and fashion. Perhaps a hallmark of our ever globalising world, they represented a seamless integration of trans-geographical influences. Pharrell’s looks regularly incorporated youth, skate, Japanese streetwear and backpacks, while Andre 3000 showcased exquisitely tailored pieces with a wild edge—think Jimi Hendrix with a little bit of James Bond and a whole lot of La Sape swagger. Essentially, these artists made it okay to be you—whatever being “you” meant in hip-hop.
The fashion landscape of hip-hop has become less uniform and more about self-expression. Hip-hop artists are now widely accepted as legitimate musicians, their hits regularly topping the charts.
This, in conjunction with the “of the people, by the people, for the people” sense of entrepreneurship, has given birth to the bankable self-branded rapper. Although the boom of hip-hop artist-owned clothing lines may not have taken over the world, it did prove to all that self-branding was a massive tool in the arsenal of a hip-hop artist. It created an environment in which these artists were sought after and their preferences catered to. So now, if Kendrick Lamar wants a custom Fendi jumpsuit—gaudy as that might be—he gets it… from Fendi. And in fact, the eclecticism of the fashions worn by these artists in recent years means that we no longer solely focus on Gucci and Louis Vuitton: Chance the Rapper’s rocking Thom Browne, Wiz Khalifa is in Dries Van Noten, and Cardi B is in Dolce & Gabbana getting into a scrap at the Harper’s Bazaar New York Fashion Week party.
Credit: Taylor Hill/Getty Images
Of course, there is always an exception to the rule, but it seems that this turn has followed through to the street. It does so by retaining the core tenets of hip-hop fashion that were so spectacularly realised in the early days with Dapper Dan—the ability to re-imagine fashion by juxtaposing the opulent and the ordinary that harks to Coco Chanel’s poverty de luxe. So when you see Jay-Z rocking a hoodie (as opposed to a blazer) and a pair of trainers (as opposed to dress shoes or loafers), know that it’s not your run-of-the-mill label. Hip-hop style has evolved into a medium that paints with all the colours in the crayon box.
Written by The COMM