Black goes with everything!
Since the infancy of the hip-hop movement fashion/style has always been the “5th element”. It’s something about the way we the youth of the South Bronx laced sneakers and tilted their brim. They took the clothes of the impoverished and wore it in a way that was rich in pride and swagger. Again and again, taking nothing and making it everything!
It wasn’t until the 80’s when the pubescent carefree movement began to notice the power of its intellectual achievements.
I remember seeing an interview with Russell Simmons describing an epiphany he had on stage standing beside Run Dmc. Before Jay drops the beat to the classic “My Adidas”, Run asked “who got on they Adidas?”, a crowd of thirty thousand goes crazy. Everybody to a man takes off one of their shelltoes and hold it high in the air, at that moment Russell saw the future of fashion. He immediately sought to secure the bag from Adidas. Along with the timeless aesthetic of the Nike Air Jordan’s, the momentum of street fashion would begin to build and so would the obvious windfall for the two respective athletic companies. These two styles were first embraced by black kids, and of course, the rest of the world followed and they still do to this day.
One would argue The most influential pioneer of the era is not a DJ or MC, But the one and only Dapper Dan. A Harlem native, tailor/designer/entrepreneur Dapper Dan is The Godfather of luxury street wear. He would use counterfeit Gucci, Fendi, MCM prints to make anything his high roller, celebrity clientele desired. Rappers, Athletes and Crack era Hustlers shelled out thousands for exclusive Dapper Dan works. From sweatsuits to coats to car interiors all made in his 125th street boutique that stayed open all night for 8 years straight. Oddly, his designs were never degraded as “fake” but lauded in the streets for bringing luxury to a demographic that was largely ignored. Before those major fashion houses sued him out of business and stole his ideas, he solidified his place in street and fashion lore all while foreshadowing the lucrative direction of the artform.
There has always been black fashion designers/labels but in the 1990s as hip hop culture was entering its 20s and becoming more mature and self-aware, It began to unlock its infinite potential. The (seemingly) new found consciousness bought about a paradigm shift in the world of fashion. Brand loyalty to European designers in ‘ivory towers’ fabricating trends and dictating styles for the elite, started to fall out of favor. Why? Mainly because it became painful obvious that these labels exploited the ‘hoods devotion by regurgitating their creativity while publicly ignoring their very existence. Although “The Streets” (boosters, scammers, bootleggers) always find a way, the impractical price points ghetto kids were willing to pay just to stay fresh made no sense. This was yet another glaring example of how millions of dollars were siphoned out of our communities with little in return.
This era was the beginning of a decades long war to get the culture back in the hands (and pockets) of the disenfranchised young geniuses that created it.
The era would see an explosion of grassroots labels and black designers to address (and dress) the new star-power of the day. Brands like cross colors, Karl kani and f.u.b.u (for us by us) to name a few became all the rage, not so much because they were black owned, but sizing, bold color and the obligatory rapper cosign showed that they were a lot more in tune with the youth they served. Although I shied away from such brands because they were simply too popular for my distinguished taste, I did respect their hustle and unifying spirit. Dismissed as “urban” these innovators didn’t replace ominous classic European fashion houses. However, it laid the foundation for a movement that would loosen the grip of outside forces on our communities and insured we wouldn’t be ignored by the fashion mainstream ever again.
Around this time I was honing my skills as a shopper and fashion connoisseur. Alongside my best friend/brother Rahmaan, we scoured every obscure boutique, brand flagship store and sneaker joint we could find, just for outlandish and exclusive wears. We’d challenge each other (as good friends do) to strive for excellence. We were in an intense fashion arms race against each other and our ever expanding circle of associates, friends and enemies. We elevated getting dressed in the morning to an artform (e.i baked fresh daily). Our quest for fashion immortality took us everywhere our limited means could take us. We took Weekly trips to Manhattan, the far reaches of the suburbs and even the once bustling outlet Mecca of Reading, PA, just to stay steps ahead of the pace.
As I further explored my individuality (much like the music of the time) I began to experiment with altering the Function, color and silhouette of my wears with the help of my neighborhood dry cleaner/tailor, Ms. Kim. I would come to her with a repurpose concept and she would bring it life. I didn’t stop there, my fascination with timeless style drove me to obsessed with the art of (what we now call) thrifting. This mix of old and new, mainstream and odd, is a formula that has served me well even to this very day.
The 2000s found the culture fully submerged in its adulthood and in its wisdom, becoming more focused on its influence and legacy. Almost every Rapper with a hit album and dedicated fan base began to tap into the previously unrealized earning potential of their brand. Dropping a clothing-line became the new normal for multi-platinum Artist and label bosses. Heightened visability took the aforementioned 90s labels worldwide, while Rapper clothing lines took the baton and ran with it to bigger profits to fund new endeavors, musically and otherwise.
As the culture became ubiquitous, so did the fashions, which led to a lack of exclusivity. Much like some of the music, fashion became more style than substance and ushered in an era of ‘disposable art’ and the emergence of “clothing superstores” and “fast-fashion”. Traditional department stores began tapping respected designers to rebrand their in-house labels to compete in the ever-fickle fashion industry. The Art of staying fresh was in jeopardy of becoming banal.
Now closer to middle age, at the height of its strength, Once again hip-hop has saved the day. Currently, the Explosion in Vintage and customization is direct backlash to the fashion establishment. Trends come in cycles, so it’s no surprise millennials have embraced the spirit and styles of the 90s. The combination of hand picked designer thrift, customized items and traditional haute couture brings a smile to my face.
Social media has enabled us to too reach fashion creatives worldwide regardless of size and scope. Brick and mortar shops now compete with online shops for your attention and dollars, which allows the consumer with unprecedented freedom of choice. That freedom has heighten our sense of individuality.
The ghetto has always inspired those in the upper echechlon of society to “borrow” ideas from the true artist, and today is no different. I remember when Kanye West was on ‘The breakfast club’ worked up to a lather about his struggle to gain fashion biz independence and the establishments refusal to “let him in”. He went on to explain that his power and boundless creativity was unrecognized. The truth in his declarations was that the ‘powers that be’ have always tried to pigeonhole the emerging minds just to remain in power. He eventually settled in with a lucrative partnership with Adidas. His frustrations seemingly fell on deaf ears as it was dismissed as “rich nigga problems”. . Well, I heard him loud and clear and now the world does too. His clothing line was initially ridiculed as simplistic and overpriced but a few seasons later, you see his influence (oversized, distressed) in designers from Osaka to Paris and everywhere in between. As for his award winning sneaker line? Well, his use of the seamless neoprene sock and clean color ways have set a new standard in footwear. Despite the elitist price point, his designs are instant classics and the most anticipated release in all of fashion.
Take a look around todays fashion landscape, and you’ll see plenty of grassroots labels taking chances. They’re gambling on themselves economically and that freedom is showing in their unbridled creativity. We don’t have to follow trends anymore, we are leading. In recent seasons, established fashion houses like Gucci have even incorporated “street style” into their legendary luxury designs. They’ve even partnered with former adversary the legendary Dapper Dan, presumably to keep an “urban” edge.
Labels started for, by, and in urban communities now have a somewhat fair shot at reaching the masses. No longer does Paris, Milan and London tell us what to wear, besides we never listened to them anyway. As a fashion patron, if you’re willing to do the leg work (or hire me to do so, shameless plug), you’re options are limitless. Strike out on your own and remember you control your look. Use the resources available to empower yourself and like minds thru your consumerism. Buy black. Not just for the principle of Ujamaa but it has been proven time and time again, that’s where The Wave is. Keep your hand on the pulse of the streets. In the words of my life long friend and fellow fashion plate, Rahman,