Dressed to Ill – how hip-hop conquered the fashion world

Words: Leke Sanusi
Illustration: Anna Higgie

Tall and spry, the great KRS-One – looking like a dreadlocked Mendeleev – once broke down the science of hip-hop in an absorbing interview, recalling its four original elements. As teacherly as ever, the legendary Bronx rapper listed the fundamentals of the culture, naming graffiti writing, emceeing, deejaying, and break dancing as its timeless essentials. Reading off his very own periodic table, BDP’s resident Teacha also identified fashion as elemental to the way of life.

As many, including KRS, have asserted, hip-hop has long been synonymous with style. Years before Nas rhymed about ciphers and suede Timbs, Biggie threw on his first Coogi sweater and Tupac fastened a bandanna round his head like a turban, rappers were pushing boundaries and setting trends; elegantly attired emcees like Rakim and Grand Puba taking to dookie rope chains, big aviator gazelles, and Fila velour the very same way jazz’s hep-cats took to pin-stripe suits and punk-rockers adopted the leather jacket complete with safety pins.

Inextricably linked, fashion and rap are as close as family; the two joined at the hip like the conjoined twins of an expressive, image conscious culture. Be it with Slick Rick’s eye-patches or LL’s ski goggles; Big Daddy Kane’s four-finger rings or Queen Latifah’s kente cloth hats, fashion has historically been as much a part of hip-hop as the b-boy’s cardboard mat or the DJ’s turntable. The subversive, DIY spirit of sampling and rhyming over break beats; the creative, ingenious flair of free-styling and spinning records back, just as visible with hip-hop’s repurposing of high fashion and haute couture, as it is audible on wax with classics like The Message and Rapper’s Delight.

If rap gave voice to the rumblings of America’s disadvantaged young, black and gifted, then fashion helped tailor their message; presenting an irresistible, eye-catching show of youthful rebellion and exuberance to the world. For the likes of MC Lyte and Roxanne Shanté, sporting cut-off shorts and gold door-knocker earrings amounted to much more than just a fashion statement – it was a political one, too; the defiantly swagged out rappers of the ‘80s wearing their hearts, homes and blackness on their sleeves as expressions of their identity and pride.

If rap gave voice to the rumblings of America’s disadvantaged young, black and gifted, then fashion helped tailor their message; presenting an irresistible, eye-catching show of youthful rebellion and exuberance to the world.

With fashion so central to the culture, it is no wonder, then, that hip-hop spawned style icons as influential as Dapper Dan – with his famous Harlem boutique – and the Shirt Kings; trendsetters who, in turn, inspired generations of designers and gave rise to the FUBUs, Pelle Pelles and Phat Farms of the ‘90s – rap’s first wave of multi-million dollar apparel companies. The rise of brands such as Diddy’s Sean John and Jay Z’s Rocawear – the famous labels accounting for much of the Forbes Cash Kings’ considerable wealth (the former’s net worth amounting to $750 million; the latter $610 million) – speak to hip-hop’s continued influence on contemporary fashion, with rap’s presence on the runway not just being felt, but growing.

Just a couple of months ago, back in the first few weeks of summer, A$AP Rocky was announced as the new face of Dior Homme’s Autumn/Winter ’16 campaign; Kris Van Assche – the creative director of the legendary fashion house – praising the debonair Harlemite’s “taste” and “personal style” in an interview with WWD. Not to be outdone, Fabolous, staying true to his name, also stepped in front of the cameras for Kith’s collaboration with famed French concept shop, Colette, in early June. Capping off a busy few weeks for hip-hop’s finest, Missy – the Supa Dupa Fly one, herself – was also tapped by Marc Jacobs for his label’s Fall ’16 campaign; serving as a muse of sorts to the former Louis Vuitton artistic director.

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Dressed to Ill – how hip-hop conquered the fashion world

From seasoned veterans to relative newcomers, rappers – and, as a corollary, R&B’s stunning sirens, including leading ladies like Beyoncé – are also pushing fashion forward with their very own labels and lines; Kanye’s Yeezy Season just one of many taking the fashion world by storm. With designers such as Off-White’s Virgil Abloh and Astrid Anderson finding great success playing in the hip-hop sandbox, it’s all too clear that the rap game’s love affair with the rag trade endures.

An accomplished designer at the tender age of 15, Karl Kani – known as the architect of urban fashion – has over 32 years’ experience working in the industry; making him one of the most qualified experts on the subject of hip-hop and fashion.

Inspired by the music, block parties and rooftop events of rap’s formative years, Karl Kani – then Carl Williams – set about designing his own clothes, establishing his eponymous label in 1989 with the goal of making it the Ralph Lauren of rap. Reportedly the first black-owned hip-hop fashion brand, Karl Kani has since gone on to open ten flagship stores in Japan; the company distributing to over 25 countries across Europe, having dominated the ‘90s and styled the looks of several icons including Nas, Tupac and Aaliyah; even penetrating the upper-echelons of American politics, with then president, Bill Clinton, eyeing up the fine stitching and colour palettes of Kani’s ’99 collection at the White House Afro-Latino Summit. Taking urban-wear from the streets of Brooklyn to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Kani stresses that hip-hop – and its gifted craftsmen and women – have come a long way.

“Hip-hop has made such an indelible impact on the fashion world because we – its fans, creatives and creators – are the kings and queens of the universe” Karl Kani

“Hip-hop,” he says “has made such an indelible impact on the fashion world because we – its fans, creatives and creators – are the kings and queens of the universe,” speaking with all the confidence you’d expect of a man widely regarded as the godfather of streetwear.

“Hip-hop is success,” Kani asserts. “It’s flamboyant. It’s expensive. It’s timeless; without limits. Through music and all of the various art-forms associated with the lifestyle – including fashion design – hip-hop pushes you to think deeper, to want more, and to be better. It allows you to believe you can accomplish whatever you want.”

Over the years, Kani says, hip-hop style has only gotten better. “We’ve seen it grow from the baggy jean era to the fitted looks of today. It’s amazing how versatile fashion can be. There are no rules to this shit. We as designers just try to make sure our stuff (is) dope and original. That’s the key to our success.” Watching from his unique vantage point, Kani has also seen rappers evolve as style icons. Where MCs were once local, hometown heroes, they’ve since blossomed into global superstars; world-famous celebrities recognised for their sartorial choices and rhymes. Rappers have become so influential in this regard, the mere sprinkle of their stardust can transform the fortunes of a middling fashion label.

“In my opinion, there is no better form of PR than an ad or spot featuring a popular, trendy rapper,” the 48-year-old designer contends. “This is something we – Karl Kani – have had a lot of success with in the past; the holy trinity of Tupac, Biggie and Nas sporting our gear for a few publicity campaigns. Recently, we’ve worked with all sorts of artists, including Waka Flocka, Angel Haze and Migos. I really do believe engaging with hip-hop’s biggest and brightest – the stars of today – is crucial to getting your message across, realising your vision and setting your brand apart.”

Lauren Matthews, senior account manager at Concrete Projects – a global menswear PR communications agency based in London – agrees. “Celebrity relationships can change a brand overnight,” Matthews says; and having worked with everyone from Drake to Tinie Tempah; Craig David to Beyoncé and Rihanna, she’d know.

“Although a celebrity endorsement or partnership is less about actively promoting a brand than it is about aligning labels with celebrities that will be a good fit for them, an A-list fan can drastically raise the awareness of a brand.” Case in point: “Tinie Tempah and Rihanna are both incredibly well regarded within the fashion and music industries, which naturally makes them incredibly important to brands. Both have very loyal fan bases who aspire to look like them and respect their wardrobe choices.”

Affiliating with an artist like Rihanna, who – whether carrying the torch of TLC’s tomboy chic or teaming up with a historic house like Dior – garners so much press coverage and attention, is a attractive proposition for designers. Eager to cash in on the appeal of such stars and influencers, more and more labels are turning to enigmatic performers like Stormzy, Wretch 32 and Skepta (recently named the seventh most stylish man in Britain by GQ) for inspiration, as well as creative collaborations.

Working with companies such as James Long, ADYN, Christopher Shannon and Natural Selection, Matthews reiterates that this is very much the case; pinpointing “an increased interest in grime artists like Skepta; artists who have a very unique personal style.”

As labels and fashion houses take to the gritty glamour of hip-hop’s street style, it’s only natural that runways from London to Rome; Paris to Milan bear increasing resemblance to rap videos, artwork and album covers. Just browsing through the latest look-books of some of this season’s hottest brands drives home the fact that the taste-making power of hip-hop shows no sign of abating

Matthews and Kani certainly think so. Hip-hop, they argue, is primed to make even more headway in high fashion circles – and it is easy to see why. The worlds of fashion and rap share so many similarities and common grounds; share such chemistry, the rapport between the two almost seems scientific – like something KRS-One would spend hours lecturing on. Whether tied by creative, familial or ionic bonds – one thing is certain: rap and fashion make an eye-catching match, going together like the perfect ensemble.

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