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The Rise of Hip-Hop in Fashion

By Kames Narayanan

Alim Smith

As the Fall Winter 2017 shows drew to an end in New York in February, the fashion set was held in anticipation of one other major showing — Marc Jacobs. In the past, the designer has been the maestro of awe-inspiring, visual spectacles. But what his Fall Winter 17 show had in store was a sharp departure from the expectations of showmanship laid down at previous seasons.

New York’s Park Avenue Armory and the street outside were his runway and his inspiration, hip-hop. Save for two rows of folding metal chairs aligned in the middle of the hall, the venue was left bare. There was neither music playing in the background nor lights set up to signal the start of the show. The models, walked out one by one, in silence, through the hall and onto the walkway outside — where blaring and honking from the city’s infamous traffic played soundtrack in the background.

Rinat ShingareevKanye West, a darling of Karl Lagerfeld.
Kanye West, a darling of Karl Lagerfeld.

In the show notes, Jacobs explained that the collection is “an acknowledgment and gesture of respect for the polish and consideration applied to fashion from a generation that will forever be the foundation of youth culture street style.” His point of inspiration was the Netflix documentary series, “Hip-Hop Evolution”. It all then falls into place. The hefty gold chains that anchored most of the collection’s looks, mini handbags worn over the neck like an accessory and the baggy tracksuits that closed the collection were indeed an ode to hip-hop. The designer himself stepped out sporting a heavy gold chain with an equally flashy pendant.

Hip-hop and fashion have been longstanding bedfellows but the relationship between the two is now more prominent than it has ever been.

Rinat ShingareevPharell Williams has an established career in fashion – one equal to his music trajectory. He's built a burgeoning fashion empire of his own.
Pharell Williams has an established career in fashion – one equal to his music trajectory. He's built a burgeoning fashion empire of his own.

Delving into hip-hop’s origins in the 1970s when the genre first broke out into the scene, its spirit was steeped deeply in self-expression. Journalist and academic Jeff Chang, in his critically acclaimed book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation”, finds hip-hop to be anchored in the social turmoil experienced in the Bronx in the ’70s. Initially a coping mechanism, the music later developed into a new distinguishable culture of its own.

Pinpointing the origins of an entire culture is akin to finding a needle in a haystack — a near impossible task due to the sheer amount of contributing factors. But where hip-hop is concerned, its beginnings are credited to pioneers like Clive Campbell (known as DJ Kool Herc), Kevin Donovan (known as Afrika Bambaataa) and Joseph Saddler (Grandmaster Flash). It was first distinguished by a particular sound.

“The sun hadn’t gone down yet, and kids were just hanging out, waiting for something to happen. Van pulls up, a bunch of guys come out with a table, crates of records. They unscrew the base of the light pole, take their equipment, attach it to that, get the electricity — Boom! We got a concert right here in the schoolyard and it’s this guy Kool Herc. And he’s just standing with the turntable, and the guys were studying his hands. There are people dancing, but there’s as many people standing, just watching what he’s doing. That was my first introduction to in-the-street, hip-hop DJing,” said hip-hop historian and writer Nelson George in an interview earlier this year.

Rinat ShingareevJay-Z has come under fire for being a commercial sellout. The mogul himself has said that he is, after all, a business.
Jay-Z has come under fire for being a commercial sellout. The mogul himself has said that he is, after all, a business.

These DJs played their sound beyond the confines of any rooms or party. The music was meant for streets, rappers, break dancers and graffiti artists, who have been officiated as key pillars of the hip-hop culture on the whole. When it was initially conceived, these artists were not looked upon as icons of style nor did they boast hordes of followers. DJ Kool Herc, the man who is hailed as the founding father of hip-hop, never attained commercial success, partly because his music was never recorded to begin with.

It wasn’t until later in the ’70s when the authenticity of the craft was diluted by the allure of commercialism. In 1979, four-member hip-hop group The Sugar Hill Gang broke into the mainstream when their song debuted on the country’s Top 40 chart. The world was now acquainted with the genre and, with the recognition, there followed an insatiable desire for more.

Chang words the phenomenon eloquently in his book, writing that “the tension between culture and commerce would become one of the main story lines of the hip-hop generation.”

As the narrative of the culture shifted, it rewrote itself as a money-making industry. The earliest style influence that hip-hop asserted traces back to the athletic attire of the breakdancers (or b-boys). Their wardrobe choices, primarily motivated by an inherent need for unrestricted mobility, inspired an accidental dress code of nylon track pants, windbreakers with an attached hood, sneakers, and the whole ensemble topped off with a cap or beanie. Inherently, with the prevalence of the dance form, the b-boys set the template for cool in the early ’80s. They were the luminaries of style — the sneaker culture in particular — placing sportswear brands like Adidas, Puma, Fila, Nike and Reebok on the map.

The relationship between the hip-hop culture and sneakers has become intrinsically linked — they might as well have taken an oath to forever. Kanye West’s collaboration with Adidas birthed Yeezy — undeniable one the most coveted footwear lines by both the street style set and the more general mainstream. For many rappers (from Snoop Dogg to Kendrick Lamar), successful sneaker collaborations play sidekick to their musical accolades.

Beyond just asserting an influence in footwear, the industry heavyweights were looked upon as the holy grail of style. When the genre of music was taken from the streets onto the mainstream, along followed the authority of the rappers in the scene. They no longer only held a stronghold within the few block radius of the South Bronx, their authority permeated the mass market. In what can be considered an inevitable progress of the industry, hip-hop grew into a sales strategy.

Alim SmithAs the industry continues to grow with newer names like Conceited (left) and Kendrick Lamar (right), hip-hop's contemporary look is further cemented by artists who take a liking to the fancy.
As the industry continues to grow with newer names like Conceited (left) and Kendrick Lamar (right), hip-hop's contemporary look is further cemented by artists who take a liking to the fancy.

“I’m not a businessman, I am a business man,” raps Jay Z in his guest verse on Kanye West’s “Diamonds Are Forever” (Remix) track from 2009.

The shift in hip-hop’s outlook towards commercialism can be observed on the fashion frontiers. In the earlier days of its debut, urban wear by brands like Cross Colours and Karl Kani was a reflection of a lifestyle that was unique to hip-hop. While Karl Kani was endorsed by one of the greatest rappers of all time, Tupac Shakur, Cross Colours was grounded on the ethos of producing “clothes without prejudice”.

These were designer-made clothes for a cultural moment from the first-hand experience of having lived in it. Today, these brands, once the signifiers of a group identity, bear little relevance save for an occasional nostalgic revisit.

In place, hip-hop artists’ sartorial choices today, take their cues from high-end luxury brands. The industry has taken to an appreciation for the presumably finer things in life. The humility of the streets is consigned to oblivion in favour of luxury. In the 2013 hit song “Versace” by Migos, featuring Drake, the name of the Italian luxury fashion house gets repeated verbatim more than a hundred times throughout the four-minute long song. Jay-Z has name-dropped Gucci — “red and green G’s all on my hat”, “more G’s on me, than a late ’80s Gucci leather” — in his songs enough times for the brand’s name to be etched into the minds of even the fashion illiterate. West, one of the most prominent contributors to fashion, collaborated with the house of Balmain on a part music video, part fashion campaign, for his single “Wolves”.

Bygone are the days when artists’ like Tupac and Notorious B.I.G built their wardrobes around urban wear during what was considered hip-hop’s heyday. What we observe today is an anti-thesis to the unassuming, pedestrian aesthetic of the ’70s and ’80s. Leaving behind the grit of a poverty-ridden past, rappers have cleaned up their act. On the red carpet, they opt for the refined and impeccable tailoring of designers like Tom Ford and Riccardo Tisci.

This admiration is a two-way exchange. As hip-hop artists have taken a liking for the high-end designers, they in turn recognise a commercial viability in propelling these rappers to the forefront as the face of their campaigns. The industry’s newfound obsession, rapper ASAP Rocky, continues to rise up in the ranks as a fashion genuine — on top of a collaboration with J.W. Anderson last year, he most recently fronted Dior Homme’s Fall Winter 17 campaign.

At times, this relationship between designers and their hip-hop muses is taken a step further. The collaboration extends creatively where artists are granted carte blanche to create and conceive collections. In 2008, Pharrell Williams created a jewellery line with Louis Vuitton. The French maison later collaborated with Kanye West on a footwear collection.

Winding back the clock, the idea of having a hip-hop artists fronting the advertising campaign in the high-brow, snooty fashion realm would be scoffed at as wishful thinking. But hip hop has earned its due respect, blurring lines of segregation that have been bound to the genre since its beginnings. Call it a sell-out, or the corner of commercialism — it is, after all a business, man.