By Tracy Daniels
The Museum at FIT is celebrating the birth of hip hop fashion with the exhibit Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style, opening February 8, 2023. Tracy Daniels sat down with co-curators Elizabeth Way, Associate Curator of Costume at The Museum at FIT and Elena Romero, Assistant Professor, Marketing Communications at FIT, to unpack one of fashion’s biggest global phenomenons and examine the core of hip hop’s style roots.
TRACY DANIELS: The words "fresh, fly and fabulous" are symbolic with hip hop style. What’s the meaning behind them?
ELENA ROMERO: I turn 50 [this year] along with hip hop, so I'm very much a part of the hip hop generation. I chose those words intentionally to describe a continuum of iconic moments in our singular unique style.
Let’s talk about the exhibit. How do you design a space covering fifty years of hip hop style and get all these messages across?
ELIZABETH WAY: We are really, really lucky to work with a designer named Courtney Sloane who also worked on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 25 Year Anniversary of Hip hop exhibition. So the perfect person, really. And she conceptualized our space in three different ways.
We have an introductory space where we explore the beginnings of hip hop style. In that first section, we have a space that looks at the club scene and what's happening there. And we have a section that looks at fashion and media, because hip hop and media really conspire to use fashion to promote hip hop. Our main section is split into two themes. The largest piece is called “Around the Way” and is where the large majority of our sub-themes are located. We look at early style, the influence of Black pride from the seventies to now. We look at important categories that have been influential in hip hop. For example, outerwear which is a huge centerpiece of hip hop style in so many instances. We look at the color pink and how different artists, men and women, have used it to transgress respectability politics and other kinds of cultural barriers. We look at the baggy years, we look at the sports influence. And then we have a section that looks at celebrity style and stage style which kind of meld together these looks that I think people will get really, really excited about. For example, we're borrowing Aaliyah’s colorblocked bandeau and baggy jeans ensemble from Tommy Hilfiger which is an iconic look. We have Kanye West’s pink polo as another example of styles hip hop artists made popular in mainstream fashion. And then our back section is our red carpet section which looks at hip hop glam. Because 50 years ago, it was all about Hollywood movie stars, but today it's hip hop stars who are pushing fashion forward.
ROMERO: At the end of the day, if hip hop was not a proven business, we would not see those business extensions in fashion. With the rise of technology, celebrities are now their own brand, so why not invest in them from a fashion point-of-view? They're the ones fans are following and emulating, so it makes both fashion sense and business sense/cents.
WAY: I also think we shouldn't underestimate how far the distance is from the C-suite to the shop floor and how people at the top really didn't think that this was a trend that would last or that we were an important group to be targeting. Or even underestimating how many Black and Brown urban youth were buying their products.
ROMERO: The same artists who were once shunned on Rodeo Drive are now the ones sitting in the front row of every major fashion show internationally.
WAY: Right! I mean, Black and Brown people created this style and with this exhibit we want people to understand where it came from.
What are some iconic pieces that rep the culture?
ROMERO: When we think about early hip hop fashion, it’s typically imagery that is stuck in the eighties. It’s fat shoelaces, large gold rope chains, bamboo earrings, Lee jeans, nameplate belts, Kangol hats, etc. But hip hop style is way more detailed, complicated, and broader than that.
How did the style start to evolve?
ROMERO: In the nineties, there were a wide range of brands representing a more commercialized style of hip hop that heavily featured logo merchandise. By the height of MTV, as hip hop artists became more mainstream and internationally recognized, this early style could have been perceived as a form of self-promotion. Now, you’re seeing hip hop artists’ influence on fashion brands so it becomes not only about the styles they're wearing, but also about the brands. Hip hop style is no longer pigeonholed in traditional denim-related streetwear looks, you're beginning to see luxury-inspired looks, you’re seeing couture, you're seeing gowns, you’re seeing suits with a hip hop flair.
What can you us about some of the iconic pieces in the exhibit?
WAY: We're very lucky to have pieces representing key moments in hip hop fashion. We have a custom jacket from 1987 created by legendary Harlem tailor Dapper Dan. We have pieces from Shirt King Phade, April Walker, Cross Colours and Karl Kani. We have some custom pieces that 5001 Flavors made for Missy Elliot. Looking at important industry moments, we have a piece from the Sean John Fall 2008 collection. Sean “P Diddy” Combs was the first Black designer to win a CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] Award in 2004 and he really broke open this idea that not just hip hop celebrities, but celebrities in general, could be serious designers. It really changed the way the fashion industry interacted with artists as designers, especially hip hop artists. We have examples from labels like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Christian Dior, which hip hop artists and practitioners were regularly remixing and adapting into their style. We're really excited to show a Versace ensemble that Lil Nas X wore to the Grammys. We have some beautiful pieces worn by Cardi B. We’re also looking at the influence of sports on fashion. But, we’re not just displaying sports jerseys, we’re looking at how FUBU took the sports jersey and made it a signature of their design. Our goal is to create these kinds of conversations with the pieces in the exhibition.
Walk us through the origins of hip hop style.
ROMERO: The origins are rooted in American Black and Brown urban youth of the 70’s and 80s from the South Bronx, New York. We have to put it into social and historical context: youth were dealing with a number of social ills-gangs, violence, poverty, racism, etc. They looked to a variety of people for fashion inspiration to emulate, from the popular drug dealer to celebrities such as athletes. Artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force demonstrated a fantasy/stage style which came from varying influences including funk. As hip hop gained popularity and commercialized, we saw a transition to streetwear as performance wear by artists like Eric B and Rakim, Run-DMC and LL Cool J. There were a number of popular influences including television shows like Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Dallas and Dynasty that painted a picture of success and wealth. These shows magnified what money, success and fame looked like. And when you don’t have much, one way to fit in is through dress.
This is where the admiration for Ralph Lauren Polo comes in and other designer brands of the time like Sergio Valenti and Jordache. We were seeing what success looks like and figuring out how we can interject ourselves in that. Preppy style ushered in this idea of Ivy League and going to college, which seemed far-reaching for so many of us. Fashion and ideas of success were being communicated to us from a White gaze and urban youth had to find a way to add their own unique flavor to what was popular at the time. Some of the early adopted brands came from mixed elements- a combination that was part fantasy and part what was attainable. It was about communicating to the world the idea of never wanting to look like we didn't have anything.
So it became very aspirational.
ROMERO: Absolutely! That was the key to looking fresh, you know, dressing crisp and clean, so as not to be labeled poor or othered. Therefore, you must dress a certain way. It's like living beyond our means as a way to be socially accepted. And we did that through fashion. The brands that we wore reflected this idea of being as close to the grass is greener without actually being on that lawn. Then we began to have our own entrepreneurs, unsung heroes like April Walker from Brooklyn, Karl Kani, Carl Jones and T. J. Walker of Cross Colours out in LA, and Maurice Malone in Detroit. These early designers decided to create brands addressing the needs of the African-American and Latino consumer. They addressed issues of comfort and fit by adapting their clothes to our varying body forms. Because brands we saw on television and in advertisements back then didn't necessarily fit us, they were slimmer cuts for slender bodies. This was long before the current body positivity we’re finally seeing from mainstream brands.
What can you tell us about the global rise of hip hop fashion?
WAY: We were really lucky to interview Sal Abbatiello for our accompanying book. He talked about his legendary Bronx dance club Disco Fever, which showcased many early artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Run-DMC. As early as the late seventies, they had camera crews from Germany and Japan coming in and filming. Then Krush Groove was filmed there in 1985, correlating with a rise in hip hop movies and music videos. So it's not just the music that's traveling overseas, it's also the visuals of hip hop culture.
By the 2000s, we see the emergence of hip hop celebrity culture and it’s translating around the world. They’re influencing musical scenes from Asia to Africa because it's fresh, it's new. The way early hip hop practitioners took what existed and remixed it in their own way was something that other kids could replicate. It's something that's powerful and accessible, and can be adapted in all these different iterations. Subsequently, brands created extensions through licensing and retail also expanded. So it’s no surprise that it's been adopted by global youth cultures because of the popularity of hip hop music and the accessibility of the fashion.
And yet, early on there was a bit of pushback from major brands around the stigma of their clothing being appropriated by urban youth.
WAY: Absolutely! Only recently have people and corporations started to take note of the pervasive racism in this country and really take a self-reflective view of that. In the past, everyone wanted to maintain this level of luxury and this exclusivity. And what did that mean in the 1980s? What did that mean in the 90s and the 2000s? If you're going to be exclusive, you have to exclude somebody, and these corporations followed mainstream ideas about which people were worthy and which people were unworthy. Racism had a huge role to play in it. But it's not only a fashion industry wide issue, it's reflective of the larger culture. And we’ll only start to see this getting better when we start to see society as a whole taking a more self-reflective look at how we are branding people.
ROMERO: It’s also important to recognize the issues around racial profiling, from law enforcement to retail, and what that looks like when it incorporates the brands and styles that have typically been associated with hip hop, as well as the bodies who wear those particular styles.
WAY: It’s so deeply seeded that it's only when we collectively take a very hard and very self-conscious look that some people can even realize what’s happening. It's a huge issue that has been going on for the entirety of the hip hop movement and certainly long before that.
Why is it important to exhibit such a broad range of styles?
WAY: I think it's really important that we show how hip hop artists and people who follow the lifestyle draw from many different influences, just like most designers. They look at what's around them and they filter it into their own unique style. The way in which they play with color and silhouette, which other designers get a lot of credit for, reminds you of how much hip hop style influences fashion trends. We wouldn't have streetwear if we didn't have hip hop. We wouldn't have athleisure if we didn't have hip hop. Of course there are other factors that went into these, but hip hop is such an important influence, it literally affects the way every single person dresses today in a Devil Wears Prada cerulean blue kind of way.
ROMERO: It's also important to note that hip hop style is American style, the same way hip hop music is American music. And those words and that framing are not something that we're used to hearing, but it's important that we send that message loud and clear.
How has hip hop fashion been categorized and labeled over the years?
ROMERO: In retail, hip hop fashion classification stemmed from the young men's and juniors’ markets. The labeling of the category changed over the years in terms of the terminology used and what's been considered politically correct or acceptable within the fashion industry.
Hip hop style has been called everything from ethnic and Black to the term urban, which became an acceptable term during its commercialization up until the early 2000s. Today, it’s morphed into the broader category of streetwear. And as such, you now wonder if we’re starting to erase the original roots of the style because it’s getting watered down with all these other subcultures of fashion and influences.
WAY: In this idea of globalization, I do think different groups around the world have latched on to something in the culture that resonates with them, in the music, in the fashion, in the dance. We see it all over, especially in Asia, and it's a way to embrace something so different from their own culture, something that's American. And "American" still has cachet around the world. So this idea of watering it down, I think in some ways the genie is out of the bottle and there's no way that we can pull it back. That’s why it's so important to Elena and me, with exhibitions like this, that we show people where it came from. It's not that we don't want K-Pop to exist, but as the culture evolves we want those people and those fans to understand that this is actually a take off of hip hop and its origins lie within American Black and Brown youth culture.
How have women influenced hip hop fashion? Because originally it was a very masculine style.
ROMERO: In the early days of hip hop, girls commonly dressed like the boys. The only difference would be in our accessories or hair. So our jewelry or how we did our hair and our makeup made us distinct and we did that with intentionality. There weren’t any women’s hip hop-inspired brands targeting us until the late nineties. That was mainly because those who were creating hip hop brands and afforded entrepreneurial opportunities were mostly men. And only after the men proved themselves did they decide that they wanted brand extensions. Even then, women’s wear was almost an afterthought because they were deciding to create women's fashion from a male point of view.
Did this change with the popularity of artists like Mary J. Blige and Lil Kim?
ROMERO: No question there's a direct connection to the music. As we saw more women succeed in hip hop and move through the channels of commercialization, the fashion industry reacted to that. Cardi B is a great example through her collaboration with the late Thierry Mugler. It reflects the evolution of female artists having access to work with any designer of their choosing. And now we’re seeing brands offering not only women's brands, but also a wide range of fits and silhouettes to accommodate our sensibilities.
WAY: Today the biggest hip hop fashion stars are definitely women. We think about the Met Gala and how many of those hip hop artists are the stars of the show. And they're not just wearing beautiful gowns, they’re wearing avant garde styles that are pushing fashion forward.
ROMERO: People might be surprised or even shocked to see so many gowns in our exhibition. But it's about breaking this stereotypical idea of what is considered hip hop style. If hip hop stars wore it, then they wore it their own way, and that's what makes it hip hop.
I’m suddenly reminded of the time Diana Ross cupped Lil’ Kim’s breast on the red carpet.
ROMERO: (Laughs) I was there, I remember this event quite well. I was covering the VMAs in 1999 for the fashion trade newspaper Daily News Record (DNR). That was one of the first times that you really saw the spotlight on a hip hop stylist, even though Misa Hylton had been dressing Lil’ Kim for years. Stylists like Misa should be given a lot of credit because they were infusing not only what was being seen in the streets, but also mixing luxury and contemporary designs that were not readily accessible to these young people that were making the music.
It was groundbreaking because early hip hop women often wore male brands, like TLC known for wearing Cross Colours. Lil’ Kim had people shook when she wore that purple pasty one-sleeved jumpsuit made of iridescent Indian fabric, but it put women’s hip hop style on the map. In that moment we went from baggy to high fashion and pasties!
ROMERO: And we haven't gone back!
Do you find hip hop fashion becoming less gendered and more inclusive today ?
WAY: Definitely! Early on women in hip hop were doing a unisex thing which was an important cultural and fashion moment. Now we have men experimenting with what it means to be in things considered feminine. Kanye West was wearing skirts in the early 2010s and people were kind of shocked by that. Today you have Lil Nas X and Kid Cudi openly embracing genderless fashion. For younger generations, it’s not shocking to them. They’re transforming hip hop culture by putting their own spin on it with different ideas about what it means to be gendered and what it means to dress.
ROMERO: Today’s hip hop stars are also redefining what it means to be inclusive. You look at what Rihanna is doing with Savage X Fenty. And how the late Virgil Abloh bridged his streetwear roots with luxury clothing as the first African-American artistic director at a French luxury house when he joined LVMH. The hip hop influence throughout Pyer Moss’s designs, which incorporates activism and social commentary among other devices, is reflective of how designers of color transform high fashion while creating dialogue around the political and socio economic climate of the day.
One thing that hasn’t changed is hip hop’s influence on the fine jewelry market.
WAY: Absolutely! You think about how they play with scale and how they play with color. I think all of that has been influenced by hip hop. There's a real idea of showmanship and one upmanship that's all about standing out from the crowd, rejecting respectability politics. And this progression of fine jewelry being more and more iced out is an expression of that.
ROMERO: Again, it’s a way of cementing your social status, in this case through fine jewelry. It started with gold and now it’s all about diamonds. That goes equally for women and men who have spent millions on custom pieces uniquely made for bragging rights.
I thank you both for making this dope style and essential history available for all to see.
WAY: The exhibition opens on February 8, 2023 at The Museum at FIT in New York and will run through April 23rd. Leading up to the exhibition opening in November 2022, we’ll have programs with guest speakers like stylist Misa Hylton and we’re working with the Apollo Theater on a program with choreographers from the Hip Hop Dance Conservatory (H+) and Keep Rising to the Top (KR3Ts) dance company. During the run of the exhibition in spring 2023, The Museum at FIT will host a symposium. If you’re a true hip hop head, fashion aficionado or even history buff you don’t want to miss it!
ROMERO: Best of all, the symposium and the exhibit are free and open to the public.
WAY: Yes, and we hope everyone will check out our accompanying book published by Rizzoli coming out February 7, 2023. It will include hip hop fashion’s fifty-year history along with some beautiful photos.
Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip hop Style opens February 8, 2023, at The Museum at FIT, 227 West 27th Street at 7th Avenue. For more information about the exhibit and other events, visit fitnyc.edu/museum/exhibitions/hip-hop-style.php. To learn more about Way and Romero's companion book, click here.
A version of this article was published in Honeysuckle's milestone 15th print edition. Click here to get your copy now!
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Featured image: Piece by Dapper Dan of Harlem for The Roots, 2009. The Museum at FIT, on loan from Rebecca Pietri. (C) The Museum at FIT.