Since its emergence in the 1970s, the evolution of hip-hop has been a truly multifaceted phenomenon. As an art form, hip-hop’s journey has taken it from an expression of the embattled South Bronx to being the defining symbol of popular culture worldwide, and in that time it has undergone some huge changes.
Though many factors have contributed to the growth in popularity (and inevitable commodification) of hip-hop, few are more noticeable than its evolving relationship with the world of fashion. What was once an innate expression of the culture surrounding the music has since grown into something else entirely — a place where hip-hop artists are some of the biggest commercial influencers on the planet.
But how exactly did this happen? Like so many things, it was only a matter of time. Here’s a little look at how that change came about.
Prior to the 1990s and the arrival of “hip-hop fashion brands” (many of which were founded by some of the genre’s earliest entrepreneurs), rappers laid the groundwork for what would become the current fetishization of branded fashion.
In the early days, the prevalence of b-boy culture (one of the four original “elements” of hip-hop) boosted the popularity of sportswear brands such as FILA, PUMA, Reebok, Nike, Avia and adidas. Throughout the ’80s, the emergence of hip-hop-specific record labels allowed for a far wider distribution of hip-hop records both in America and abroad, while seminal films like Wild Style also helped spread the gospel far and wide. And, with all these things, came the fashion.
As hip-hop became more visible, so too did the sartorial choices of its earliest influencers, most of whom maintained some visible link to the life they lived in the communities of the inner-city. Even today, the myriad of stylistic preferences that have come to define hip-hop culture have their origins in the disenfranchised communities that first birthed the genre.
Yet, as rappers, DJs and other evangelists of the movement went on to attain spectacular wealth, their clothing took on an additional symbolic status. This created even more diversity in the scene, and — for the early-adopting retailers, at least — huge profit.
In a New York Times article published in August of 1988, writer Glenn Collins observed the influence of rap music on fashion and advertising, stating,
“Hip-hop’s influence on advertising is unmistakable. A print ad in Reebok’s new $35 million campaign shows 20-, 30- and 40-year-old whites dancing on a graffiti-bedaubed, hip-hoppy city street. A New Way of Writing It and other Reebok ads, adopting the orthography of rap hits like M. C. Lyte’s ”I Cram 2 Understand U (Sam),” proclaim: ”Reeboks Let U.B.U.” Another Reebok ad quotes Theodore Roosevelt as having said: ”Do What U Can, With What U Have, Where U R.”
Collins also detailed how savvy mainstream labels like adidas went about forming relationships with rappers to exploit their commercial potential. As artists cashed in on the world’s growing fascination with hip-hop music, they also began to adopt a taste for brands with a clear “aspirational” standing.
In fact, far before it became the current look of the moment, the hip-hop community was a pioneer of the high-low attitude to fashion. This medley of influences and references is partly why it’s so difficult to define hip-hop style; it is a reflection of personal narratives, regional preferences, disparate conditions, and, in some ways, upward mobility.
Boston-based designer, producer and creative director, Frank the Butcher says that this melding of inspirations is rooted in the fact that hip-hop was the collective invention of a marginalized class.
Frank the Butcher
“Hip-hop was one of the first music genres that was born of the common people. With any other genre of music there was potentially a costume or some sort of uniform that separated the entertainer from the average person. Hip-hop was the genre of music where it was accepted, promoted, and preferred that the artist looked like the fan.”
Branding Branded Fashion
Perhaps the earliest embodiment of hip-hop’s embracing a more “aspirational” aesthetic was the adoption of “preppy” labels such as Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, and the infamous Polo Ralph Lauren. This was matched with an interest in luxury labels like Louis Vuitton and Gucci.
While their high price point was an obvious indicator of material wealth, a big part of the allure of these labels lay in the fact that they did not traditionally market to minorities. One look at Polo’s advertisements, even today, reflects an identity steeped in nouveau-riche aristocratic culture. Such positioning creates a deliberate air of exclusivity, making them a clear indicator of financial success.
Embracing aspirational fashion also provided a sense of escape – much the same way making music did. In this way both hip-hop and fashion became a balm to the harsh realities of life; even if you couldn’t afford a mansion, private jet or Bugatti, you could still have a piece of that luxury, either through having the freshest clothing or living vicariously through your favorite rapper’s music.
Having this kind of outlet was important. Often, the quality of life in the communities where hip-hop originated was grim – particularly in the ’70s and ’80s when urban decay reached its peak in the South Bronx. At that time, many residents were living in conditions that can only be described as inhumane – they lacked basic necessities like running water, heat, and electricity. There were also so many abandoned buildings, brought on by the mass exodus of former middle class occupants, that it brought an influx of squatters, addicts, transients, etc. In fact, the crisis was so extensive that over 40% of the area was either abandoned or set ablaze between 1970 and 1980.
At the same time certain parts of the industry were reaching upwards, other corners of hip-hop began to embrace American workwear and outdoor gear. Brands like Timberland, Carhartt and The North Face suddenly found themselves coveted by a market they had never even acknowledged before.
Yet, in many cases, the influx of the “hip-hop consumer” was met with hostility and resistance. In 1994, The New York Times published an article titled “Out of the Woods,” in which writer Michel Marriott chronicled the begrudging recognition of the “urban” consumer, and Jason Russell, former director of marketing at Carhartt, was quoted saying, “The youth market came after us. Fine, they like to wear what we make. But we will never go after that market aggressively.”
Yet, while the hip-hop market remained resolutely outside their visible advertising campaigns, its influence was no doubt acknowledged. Former Source magazine Fashion Editor Julia Chance weighed in on the debate, stating, “they think that if their clothes are celebrated in the black, urban community, with all its ills, that it will cheapen their brand names…I see the stuff on the runways, and I know they are inspired by black folk, and now some of these companies are saying our dollars don’t count.”
It was around this time that entrepreneurial minds like Russell Simmons, Sean Combs and Jay Z began venturing outside the boundaries of music and into the world of fashion.
Whether the rise of hip-hop-specific brands was directly a result of the thinly veiled rejection handed out by more established labels on the market, or because these budding business moguls simply wanted to establish alternate streams of revenue, isn’t entirely certain. Whatever the case, the birth of labels like Rocawear, FUBU, Phat Farm and Wu-Wear paved the way for rappers to be viewed not simply as recording artists, but as tastemakers, influencers, and successful businessmen.
Frank the Butcher
“Hip-hop had become one of the biggest forms of transcultural expression. It became the biggest vehicle to sell things. So while these rappers were getting more and more acclaim they were essentially discussing the brands they liked in their music, and those brands saw a spike in revenue. The combination of these brands not understanding the culture or the clothes, and these artists being aware that they did understand the culture, opened up unique business opportunities. People like Jay-Z or Russell Simmons were asking, ok what happens if I say Rocawear, Akademiks, Fubu or Phat Farm in my music, will these kids still gravitate?”
The early success of these labels proved that kids did, in fact, still gravitate, and that hip-hop was one of the most fresh and powerful marketing tools of the time. This, coupled with mainstream brands’ eventual capitulation to (and, in some cases, active courting of) the “hip-hop consumer,” opened up even more opportunities for business and profit.
Frank the Butcher
“I really started to see a change when labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Polo accepted hip-hop. Hilfiger actually publicly stood next to, supported, and styled rappers. Before that no one would ever have imagined a leader in fashion, in that realm of menswear, would to reach down and put hip-hop on the same platform […] When Tommy Hilfiger was like, ‘come stand on this platform with me,’ it was a confirmation of how powerful the culture was. This was during an era where kids were still signing up to hip-hop. It wasn’t like today, where it was just there. I think at that point companies realized it was a force to be reckoned with.”
A Decade of Defining Fashion
While it’s clear that rappers have been unofficial tastemakers since the birth of hip-hop in the ’70s, it has really only been in the last decade that they have emerged as such in mainstream cultural consciousness. The blueprint set by entrepreneurs like Jay Z, Sean Combs and former graffiti artist Marc Ecko has been emulated and perfected by the likes of Kanye West, Pharrell, Tyler, The Creator and many others.
During that time the styles, of course, have changed. The past 10 years have seen the increasing abandonment of purely street-specific fashion (such as sportswear and workwear) in favor of more high-end tastes. Although rappers have been mixing luxury labels with more affordable brands since the very earliest of days (when people like Dapper Dan were bootlegging Louis Vuitton sweatsuits and Notorious B.I.G. was famed for his love of Versace), back then it was often done as a statement of pure material wealth. These days there’s a far more pointed meaning.
For someone like Kanye West there is a clear desire to convey more than just the size of his bank account — for him it’s about showing off his broad cultural awareness and level of taste. As someone who considers himself more of an influencer than a mere musician, you get the impression that getting dressed each day holds the same gravitas as it would a senior fashion editor at Vogue (perhaps more so, given how scrutinized his every move is). That is to say, style is as much a part of his life as music, and he wants to let the world know that.
On the other side of the divide, high-end fashion brands have responded in kind, actively courting the interest of rappers and leveraging their participation to boost profits. At the onset of the new millennium many brands finally recognized that rappers were more than performers, they were conduits of an increasingly relevant culture they knew nothing about. As a result, a kind of symbiotic relationship developed in which artists became powerful marketing tools that enabled luxury labels to authentically speak to the very same consumer they had formerly excluded.
In 2008, when Pharrell designed a jewelry line for Louis Vuitton, it was a signifier of a change in the perception of hip-hop. The following year Kanye West also collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a collection of sneakers — a product the brand wasn’t traditionally known for. Since then the effect has snowballed; you only need to look to the current offerings of brands like Givenchy or Balmain to see how completely hip-hop culture has permeated.
Still, many argue that the commercialization of hip-hop has affected its authenticity. In 2004, Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip-Hop Generation, wrote an article for Black Book Magazine titled, “Jay-Z: Hip-Hop and High Society” in which he charts the evolution of the “bourgeois rapper,” and details how Jay Z’s monetary success led to questions about his authenticity, and inevitable conversations about “selling out.”
“We didn’t sell out. We brought the hood to the suburbs, Jay-Z tells me, explaining that he hasn’t acquiesced to the status quo. “Out of nothing we made something,” he says repeating a phrase he’s incorporated into his lyrics on several occasions. Then, references his King of New York predecessor, the Notorious B.I.G., he adds, “We went from ashy to classy.” It’s a fine line and raises two important questions. First, has hip-hop betrayed it’s ghetto origins as a voice for the voiceless? Second, has hip-hop’s arrival in mainstream culture changed what it means to be bourgeois?
Despite arguments about hip-hop’s loss of authenticity, it’s hard to deny that music and fashion have always moved hand-in-hand, and rappers have simply replaced bands and popstars as the new tastemakers. What’s more, their position makes a lot of sense. The ethos surrounding much of contemporary hip-hop celebrates lavish living and material wealth, which is an inherent part of any luxury lifestyle.
It’s also hard to deny that hip-hop is no longer a genre that speaks explicitly to a niche community; it’s a cultural hallmark that can be heard in the furthest corners of the world. What’s more is that the “hip-hop generation,” as Kitwana describes the first generation of African-Americans to grow up in post-segregation America, no longer drives the conversation around the genre. Now, people on every end of the socioeconomic and cultural spectrum have infused their own narratives by participating in the culture.
The success of artists like Jay Z, Andre 3000 (whose Benjamin Bixby line re-appropriated “prep” brands specifically for the “urban” consumer), and Pharrell (who melded hip-hop and skate culture in a way no one had before), in breaking through the glass ceiling brought two ends of the spectrum together.
In fact, an artist like Jay Z is a perfect reflection of the duality of hip-hop. Sometimes he raps about private planes and owning real estate most of us could only dream about, but we also know he wasn’t born into those conditions. So for those who cannot identify with that part of his life, he can still resonate as an example of the potential to make a better future.
This kind of duality allows hip-hop to thrive in the most affluent environments and the least. And artists, as ambassadors of the genre, carry this duality. Many times it allows them to transcend traditional labels and bring together demographics who would otherwise never come into contact.
And that is a valuable marketing tool if ever there was one. It just so happens the fashion industry has finally recognized this truth.