Hip-hop’s relationship with high-fashion goes back to the genre’s beginnings. With sartorial milestones stretching from Harlem’s Dapper Dan making custom track suits from Louis Vuitton and Gucci fabrics to the Riccardo Tisci-designed cover of Watch the Throne, representing the best, hottest, and most exclusive labels isn’t just standard practice for a rapper—it’s how you earn respect. With A$AP Rocky and Frank Ocean’s recently dropped “Raf” making the rounds, its hyper-catchy hook isn’t just a catchphrase perfect for fashion nerds—it’s a symbol of how hip-hop’s approach to the fashion world has completely evolved.
Anyone who has listened to even a modicum of rap will be able to recount a bar or two dripping in designer names. Living in an era of hip-hop that’s dominated by Kanye West’s ever-expanding influence, the intersection between fashion and rap is more obvious than ever.
As a musical art form that is—at least in part—about bold confidence, status, and staking a claim for the sake of respect, high-fashion’s perceived inaccessibility makes it the perfect platform for flexing. It’s essentially a club with an exorbitant price of admission—one you pay for every piece you buy. A physical symbol of “have” and “have not,” wearing high-fashion is as much a reminder of how much money you make as it is a declaration of personal style. What’s different about today’s rappers—something especially illustrated within the multiple verses of “Raf”— is that simply owning a fashion designer’s garments isn’t enough; you have to know everything about what you’re rocking.
Say what you will about white girl rappers, but what separates a song like “Raf” from something like the equally fashion-inflected and hooky (but poorly aged) “Gucci Gucci” is that the brag comes in having significant knowledge of the designer before the masses. Kreayshawn’s thesis is she avoids wearing designers because it makes her look basic, but rap style’s new guard add an extra layer: being in-the-know about a designer before he or she blows up is the true stunt. It’s not a battle of style, it’s a battle of cultural taste and ability to foresee trends.
The recipe is simple: insert well-known designer name, brag about housing a ton of said label within your personal wardrobe, repeat. “Raf” certainly embodies that high-fashion lyrical habit (looking, with all due respect, at Quavo’s verse), but the best lines within Rocky’s new single often point out that most don’t really even understand who Raf Simons is. With fashion fanatic (and Grailed fiend) Playboi Carti echoing in the background, “Raf”’s first lines address this thinking directly: “You don’t even gotta ask (For what?) / What are those? What is that? (For y’all).
Look at it like this: Think about who Rocky and company are bragging about. It’s not just a luxury mainstay like Gucci. It’s not Louis Vuitton. It’s not even Ralph Lauren. It’s Raf Simons, a designer’s designer who’s about as “cult” as you can get. Removing your mindset from echo chambers like fashion forums or even major city sidewalks, Simons is a fairly insular designer name. Setting aside the designer’s time at Dior, Raf Simons’ menswear offerings are not well known to the public. While Simons’ work has left a major mark on menswear at large, you’d have be an active follower of fashion to really understand his impact on what dudes wear.
Your non-fashion friends know about Gucci. Your parents know about Louis Vuitton. Your cousin in Montana knows about Prada. The idea that they’d know the name of Belgian designer Raf Simons is unlikely. Here, Rocky doesn’t simply brag about having a large swath of Raf within his closet, he brags about knowing him well before the masses have even hopped on the wave of notoriety this song will undoubtedly bring.
“It’s rare Raf when I wear Raf/
Bare Raf when I wear Raf/
Might invest into some Raf shares/
Lil niggas still share Raf/
Yeah and I’m drippin’ on racks”
Even Uzi chants near the end of his verse: “Yeah, I wore that Raf ‘fore I made it / Yeah, I wore that Raf ‘fore I made it / Yeah, got that Raf all in my basement.”
But while Rocky uses his “Fashion Killa” credentials to direct the song’s fashion nerd flow, he’s far from the only one using his knowledge to stunt on everyone else. Frank Ocean delivers one of the most impressive lines near the close of “Raf (Version 2)”. Calling out Raf Simons’ landmark Spring/Summer 2002 collection, “Woe on those who spit on the fear generation….The wind will blow it back,” Ocean rhymes “I covered my face and I’m bloody / That’s Spring/Summer 2002.”
That abstract reference doesn’t seem impressive on its face, but only those familiar with Simons’ work would understand that Ocean’s nod to covered, bloody faces is a nod that runway show’s models. With covered faces wrapped up like rioting hooligans (which some have retroactively interpreted as a reference to increasing global awareness of terrorism around the turn of the 21st Century) in white, black, and red scarves, Simons’ models literally covered their faces in “bloody” garments. Like that very collection Simons’ showed at an abandoned factory in mid-2001, this song demands attention and respect from its audience. Exploring the aggression within rebellious youth makes no difference whether you’re from Neerpelt, Belgium, Long Beach, California, or Harlem.
Turning aspirational purchases into actual ones is par for the course for people who finally “make it,” and in the world of hip-hop, bragging about blowing cash on clothes is practically second nature. But while countless classics brag about owning high-fashion, few have actually flexed their fashion knowledge and made it as cool as A$AP Rocky. Just remember, if you happen to catch Rocky in public, please don’t touch his Raf.
For a more light-hearted examination of pop culture and fashion, check out the eerie similarities between Christian Audigier’s Ed Hardy and Alessandro Michele’s Gucci.