Fashion and hip-hop music have always been intrinsically connected.
From the early days of hip-hop music in the 1970s until today, streetwear and hip-hop have influenced each other over the past 40-plus years.
Certain clothing brands were at the forefront of the rap (hip-hop) movement and as the musical genre took root and gained in popularity in the United States and around the world, both streetwear and the music adapted to the changing times, contributing to an even deeper relationship between the music and fashion.
To understand how the two became so intertwined, you have to have an appreciation for the dynamics that initially brought streetwear and hip-hop music together.
The culture of clothing and hip-hop music
“Hip-hop culture is not just about music; it’s also about a lifestyle. Hip-hop is about people who are free to explore their creativity and connectivity, through a free format of words, language, music, visual styles and, of course, clothing.”
That quote is from the documentary Fresh Dressed, a film that examines the history of urban fashion and its relationship to hip-hop music.
The film notes that in the history of the Black culture, especially during the 20th century, a person’s clothing was always a prominent part of an individual’s identity. Fashion allowed one to present themselves to the world in a unique way so that he or she would stand out from the crowd.
Fashion was heavily influenced by religion because when you went to church, you would always wear your Sunday best. Fashion in the church was especially noticeable in the choir, where outfits were as righteous as the music being sung.
The relationship between fashion and music, however, extended well beyond the church walls. This was particularly true with more secular musical genres like blues, jazz, R & B and hip-hop, traditionally dominated by members of the Black community.
Little Richard is credited in the film as being a driving force behind the relationship of fashion and urban hip-hop music because he was an outlandish, extravagant version of Liberace, but “without all of the sequins.”
Comparisons aside, Little Richard was an iconic symbol of freedom for many.
Andre Leon Talley, an American editor-at-large with Vogue magazine, explains in the film the symbiotic relationship between music and fashion for the Black community.
“Music can make you feel free, give you a sense of your freedom,” Talley said, “especially considering what African Americans have experienced in America through the years. Despite that, you can look and feel good. That’s why fashion and style have been significant over time.”
Dripping in style, being free to express yourself in what you wore and demonstrating your individuality have been hallmarks of hip-hop, especially once the art form moved from the streets and into night clubs.
Brands that impacted hip-hop
Hip-hop fashion begins and ends with sneakers. The foundation of any hip-hop outfit, an individual’s entire wardrobe revolves around the shoes on his or her feet.
One of the most influential rap groups to accentuate the relationship between hip-hop fashion and sneakers was Run-DMC with the release of the song “My Adidas” in the mid-1980s.
adidas executive Angelo Anastasio knew of the band’s affinity for the company’s products, including their adidas “rain suits,” which were slick three-striped tracksuits that were ideal for spinning on cardboard.
But he had no idea of the magnitude of the band’s influence on fashion until he went to one of their shows at Madison Square Garden and saw thousands of rabid fans in the crowd waving their adidas shoes and apparel in unison.
Anastasio’s experience led to a $1 million endorsement deal and was a defining moment in the history of hip-hop music and fashion. It was the first time any brand was prominently featured in a music video when the adidas Superstar sneakers got face time in the band’s collaboration with Aerosmith and the remake of their smash hit “Walk this Way.”
At a time when other sneaker brands were gaining in popularity due to the influence of sports figures like Michael Jordan, the world’s most successful rap band single-handedly kept adidas in the fashion limelight, earning the company over $100 million over the next four years and contributing to a half-million pairs of shoes being sold.
In her book, Sneaker Wars, Barbara Smit emphasizes the importance of the adidas/Run-DMC deal because it was the first of its kind and the first time a fashion brand invested heavily in a hip-hop act. The deal would also be the catalyst for other artists to celebrate fashion and eventually lead to the creation of their own streetwear brands.
Another influence in the early years of rap occurred in 1985 when, on the back cover of his debut album, Radio, LL Cool J wore a pair of “Air Jordan Ones” by Nike.
It was appropriate that the hottest new rapper in the genre would rep the hottest young athlete’s new kicks. (Kelly’s song “Air Jordan Ones” featuring St. Lunatics would also lend credence to the sneakers’ popularity with hip-hop fans.)
LL Cool J was an immediate sensation, with a fresh sound and unrivaled charisma who could’ve sold any product, but it was his established Def Jam records label mates who would go on to further jump-start the collision of the rap and sneaker worlds.
Affinity for sneakers by rap artists was also evident in Nelly’s song, “Air Force Ones.” Released at the peak of Nelly’s career, “Air Force Ones” was a love letter to the brand, making it as high as number 3 on the Billboard charts’ Hot 100. The resulting sales spike further solidified Nike’s relevance as one of the go-to brands for hip-hop artists. (For more on hip-hop and sneakers, check out this article by the source.
When it came to clothing, Run-DMC’s influence on hip-hop fashion was felt there too.
While other bands in the early days of rap music were wearing expensive Armani suits, fancy leather outfits, and elaborate African-inspired fashion, Run-DMC wore onstage what they repped on the streets of Queens, New York.
Run-DMC connected with youth on a personal level since most inner city kids could not afford expensive clothing. Since band members dressed down, preferring casual attire to stuffy suits and fancy alligator shoes, their streetwear style resonated with young people. The band’s casual gear would also influence the fashion sense of many other rap musicians who followed in their footsteps.
The trio’s classic look included their adidas shoes sans the laces, Cazal glasses, with or without lenses, gold chains, big trainers, head-to-toe tracksuits, since they were perfect for breakdancing, and Kangol hats, the latter being one of the most recognizable fashion icons in the history of hip-hop music.
From LL Cool J and his furry red ‘Bermuda Casual’ bucket hat to Slick Rick on the cover of The Rulers Back, the inner-city superheroes were influencing an entirely new counterculture for the headwear company known as Kangol. Kangol has been on display by so many prominent rap artists, including MC Shan, Notorious B.I.G. and Missy Elliott, among others.
Designer brands and hip-hop
One of the most influential designers in the early days of hip-hop fashion was Daniel Day (a.k.a. Dapper Dan).
The Harlem tailor who dressed every 80s rapper that mattered. His creations, which he crafted from other high-end luxury brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Fendi, were immortalized on the album covers of Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full and Follow the Leader, as well as Salt-n-Pepa’s Icon. Dan also created looks for Bobby Brown, Big Daddy Kane, Jam Master Jay, KRS-One, Salt-N-Pepa and The Fat Boys as well as other sports figures and celebrities.
Hip-hop was all about sampling, re-discovering old funk and soul records to flip into something new and fresh, and Dapper Dan applied those same methods to his fashions.
Dan would import bootlegged fabrics or screen-print logos onto luxury leather, then turn them into one-of-a-kind, street-inflected pieces like oversized bomber jackets and fur-trimmed coats.
Opened in 1982 in Harlem, Dapper Dan’s Boutique was often open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to cater to hip-hop artists and other clientele. His business flourished until his illegal use of logos in his custom-made designs led to counterfeiting raids and litigation from the designer labels he had ripped off. These issues negatively impacted his business and his store closed in the late 1980s.
Dan coined a term for what he did in the 1980s: “blackinize” fashion and his work would define hip-hop style for nearly a decade. Oversized and influenced by sportswear as much as luxury tailoring and designed to make street sense for African Americans. It was clothing infused with swagger and for a rapper on the up-and-up, repping a Dapper Dan meant you had made it.
After nearly three decades of working as an underground designer, Dan’s career underwent a resurgence in 2017 when Gucci, another popular brand with hip-hop artists, made a jacket based on one of his early pieces. The success of the jacket led to Gucci’s top management inking a deal with Dan to design clothing under the Gucci label.
The deal with Gucci brought Dan’s life in fashion full circle. While he never enjoyed the high-profile notoriety of other designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren when his store was open, his craftsmanship was celebrated by Jay-Z in his song titled “U Don’t Know” from the album The Blueprint and by way of other references in pop culture.
Tommy Hilfiger & Polo Ralph Lauren
Between 1984 and 1989, Ralph Lauren was king of the hip-hop culture. When Tommy Hilfiger was released in the early 1990s, both brands battled each other for the hearts of musicians and the attention of hip-hop fans around the world.
Polo Ralph Lauren was one of the hottest clothing labels in hip-hop. In addition to rappers, the label was also worn by the Lo Lifes, a prominent crew made up of two Brooklyn gangs – the United Shoplifter’s Association and Ralphie’s Kids.
The Lo Lifes emerged from the neighborhoods of Brooklyn in the late 1980s as teens engaged in a competition to out-dress each other by wearing the sharpest sneakers and clothes. Their desire for bright, colorful and showy Polo gear set them apart from their peers, turning that competition into a shared passion for streetwear merchandise.
Hip-hop and urban youth gravitated toward Lauren because it represented wealth and status, with pieces going for a hefty $100 or more. When Hilfiger came on the scene, his clothing went for $40 to $60, which spoke to the sensibility and the affordability of most kids in the city.
Hilfiger and his brother Andy took notice of the unlikely endorsement of the Black community and started building relationships with hip-hop artists and dropping their brand on the streets of New York City for free.
Soon, they were dressing such artists as Aaliyah, Grand Puba, Raekwon, Snoop Dogg, and TLC. Raekwon and TLC were placed in ad campaigns and invited to walk in runway shows for the brand’s sportier offshoot, Tommy Jeans.
Rappers like Grand Puba and Raekwon helped shoot Hilfiger’s popularity into the stratosphere when they rapped about the brand in their songs.
In 1992, Grand Puba wrote lyrics for the Mary J. Blige’s song “What’s the 411?” and mentioned Hilfiger because that’s what he was repping at the time. Puba said he gave a shout-out to the brand because rap artists recognized “whatever’s fresh, whatever’s dope.”
The same can be said of Raekwon, who sings of his love for Hilfiger in such songs as “Criminology” and “Ice Water,” both released in 1995 on his solo album “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.” A former fan of Lauren, Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan fame said he pivoted to Hilfiger because “it fit well and that brand was fresh while Lauren had grown old.”
Another salient moment occurred in 1994 when Snoop Dogg wore a Hilfiger shirt on Saturday Night Live and the shirt sold out of New York city stores the next day.
Founded in 1989, Cross Colours was geared toward young African Americans to help promote pride in their ethnicity. Based on the principle of “clothes without prejudice,” Cross Colours is one of the most iconic brands to embrace hip-hop culture.
The company was one of the first to specifically target women and female rap groups like TLC. Founded in 1990, TLC was one of the first girl bands to sport Cross Colour fashions. Cross Colours also gave away their clothing to such rap stars as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and their fashion was worn by the cast of the groundbreaking television show In Living Color.
It’s marketing savvy and appeal to urban culture helped the company earn $100 million in its first four years. Company officials knew that people like to embrace celebrity and the line’s appeal to celebrities propelled the brand to the top of streetwear.
The label, whose baseball caps, baggy jeans, and social message-bearing T-shirts were proven to be influential, also introduced such future designers as Karl Kani, who would also become one of the most prominent designers for the hip-hop community.
Known as the godfather of urban streetwear, Karl Kani, whose name is Carl Williams, helped shape the look and feel of the burgeoning streetwear culture in the early 1980s. As a designer and entrepreneur, he was one of the initial adopters and arguably the creator of the revolutionary style called “baggy jeans.”
After seeing that so many Black customers would buy baggy, larger jeans just for the oversized, comfortable feel, he designed his own denim that kept the waistline properly sized, but made his pants bigger.
After moving to L.A in the ’90s, he dressed the likes of Tupac, Dr. Dre and Snoop, influencing the now-iconic rapper look that is still prominent today.
Kani’s place in the annals of hip-hop legend was cemented when he reportedly asked Tupac how much he would charge to model his gear and Tupac refused to take his money, telling Kani that “you’re Black. I don’t charge my people for anything.”
For Us, By Us (FUBU) was the clever acronym for one of the earliest streetwear brands for the hip-hop community. Founded by Daymond John, of Shark Tank fame, and other investors in the early 1990s, the company was earning over $350 million annually by the end of the decade.
The FUBU collection consists of baseball caps, denim jeans, sports jerseys, rugby shirts, T-shirts and sweatshirts, all embroidered with the FUBU logo. Over the years, FUBU has offered various lines such as Platinum FUBU, FUBU footwear for men and women, intimate apparel, activewear, swimwear, watches, FUBU suits, and even FUBU tuxedos.
FUBU has won numerous awards and has the distinction of having over 5,000 stores carry their collections and more than $6 billion in merchandise sold in the retail market.
Hip-Hop streetwear labels
Beginning in the 1990s and continuing until today, many hip-hop artists have started their own streetwear lines.
The first to have skin in the game was Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu Wear. Founded at the height of the group’s popularity, Wu Wear was launched as a full-on lifestyle brand. Eschewing the notion of collaborations with other companies, the band opted to sell its own branded clothing to capitalize on their success. Wu-Wear was the first in many future clothing lines started by rappers and continues to be one of the longest-lasting hip-hop brands.
Although its aesthetic has changed, notable collaborations with companies ranging from ALIFE to Nike as well as that iconic “W” logo have made it one of the most recognizable rap-inspired brands.
Hip-hop artists have embraced this trend, realizing that having their own streetwear clothing line affords them the opportunity to increase their income, control their brand and have their own identity, which has been a hallmark of urban fashion and hip-hop music since the first time the music and fashion came together.