The rise of hip-hop and its fashion legacy

In the concrete jungles of the 1970s New York’s suburbs, a cultural uprising was brewing, one that would soon drape the world in its rhythm and style. 

The rise of hip-hop and its fashion legacy

From the street corner to the world stage, hip-hop has not only emerged as one of the world’s most influential musical genres, but has also evolved into a cultural force that touches almost every aspect of modern life. The origins of hip-hop trace back to a subculture and art movement born in the Bronx, in a time of post-industrial decline, evident in the dwindling economic landscape of the city. The aftermath of the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, coupled with the decline of the manufacturing industry, saw a significant exodus of the white middle class to the suburbs, leaving behind neighborhoods predominantly populated by African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Caribbean immigrants.

A group of breakdancers, 1984.

These urban environments, riddled with the challenges of rising crime, gang violence, and palpable poverty, witnessed the closing of many businesses and the evaporation of conventional recreational outlets. But from this socio-economic turmoil, a resilient urban youth sought solace and expression. Abandoned buildings and desolate parking lots transformed into vibrant hubs of creativity, hosting block parties that would lay the foundational stones for early hip-hop culture.

While several figures played pivotal roles in shaping hip-hop, the ‘Holy Trinity’ of the genre – DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash – stand out as the most influential pioneers. They took the helm in the orchestration of a cultural symphony, weaving together the core pillars of hip-hop: DJing/turntablism, MCing/rapping, B-boying/breaking, and visual/graffiti art.

DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash.

The transition from the 1980s to the 1990s witnessed an evolution of hip-hop. No longer a niche subculture, it erupted into mainstream consciousness, defining what is now nostalgically remembered as the ‘Golden Age.’ Independent labels, sensing the genre's potential, championed its growth. Tommy Boy, Prism Records, and Def Jam became household names, eagerly releasing records that resonated with the youth.

Yet, hip-hop wasn't just confined to the beats and lyrics; its influence was all-encompassing. The most conspicuous was its seismic impact on fashion – of course. The eclectic attire of hip-hop artists wasn't just a style choice; it was a bold statement of their origins, aspirations, and defiant resistance against societal norms.

Hip-hop's foundations were rooted in a quest for self-expression. Young individuals, many from marginalized backgrounds, sought ways to articulate their lived experiences, challenges, and dreams. From oversized garments, bold colors, to the deliberate repurposing of luxury brands, the fashion choices of these artists became statements of identity and resistance.

Michael Ochs Archives.
Jamil GS photographing New York’s hip-hop legends before they were famous, 1995.
Jamil GS photographing New York’s hip-hop legends before they were famous, 1995.
Early independent hip-hop.
Tupac Shakur in a Karl Kani denim suit and t-shirt attends the premiere of “Poetic Justice” at the headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, 1993.

Brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, traditionally associated with preppiness and affluence, became intertwined with the hip-hop narrative. These brands became more than just clothing; they were aspirational symbols. Hip-hop artists and their fans, many from multicultural working-class neighborhoods, viewed these luxury brands as status symbols, representing a glamorous lifestyle once thought unattainable.

In the 1980s Tommy Hilfiger's preppy designs were worn and endorsed by hip hop stars – today's stars are more likely to create their own brand.

Hip-hop lyrics have long declared the importance of fashion in the genre. In 1992, Mary J Blige released What's the 411? as part of her eponymous debut album. The single featured a rap by Maxwell Dixon that explicitly shouts out the US designer Tommy Hilfiger. Then came a Saturday Night Live TV performance by Snoop Dogg in March 1994. Snoop broadcast the brand to the world, wearing a red, white and blue striped rugby shirt with 'Tommy' emblazoned across the chest. 

The phenomenon of ‘logomania,’ an overt display of luxury brand logos, further solidified hip-hop's influence on fashion. Fashion designer Daniel R Day, known as Dapper Dan, considered the founder of logomania, opened Dapper Dan's Boutique in 1982 in Harlem. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it soon became a must-go-to spot for hip-hop stars such as LL Cool J and athletes like Mike Tyson. Dapper Dan's custom pieces often used the logos of fashion houses such as Gucci, Fendi and Louis Vuitton, printed in excess across his creations.

Beyond the U.S., hip-hop's tendrils reached the eclectic streets of Britain. Hits like Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight made waves internationally. Again, the global impact wasn't just musical. Dapper Dan observed a fascinating trend: Europeans embraced his designs long before many in America did. This underscored hip-hop fashion's universal appeal and its ability to transcend geographical boundaries.

Dapper Dan faced legal battles, leading to the closure of his renowned boutique. But in a poetic twist, decades later, luxury brands that once distanced themselves now courted him. The Gucci collaboration in 2017 was emblematic of this transformation. Hip-hop's influence had come full circle, from seeking acceptance to commanding collaboration.

Dapper Dan was a lead proponent of logomania in hip hop's early days – now he has a more official association with brands, including Gucci.

The most prominent luxury labels now collaborate with many contemporary hip-hop musicians and designers with scene affiliations, placing them in leadership roles, as Louis Vuitton’s appointment of Pharrell Williams as a Creative Director. His predecessor Abloh was also known for his close ties to hip hop, and his fashion label, Off-White, has been worn by many contemporary rappers. This shift marks a new era. Instead of merely wearing and endorsing the designs of established brands, black musicians are creating their own pieces and have a direct say in the fashion houses they've long admired.

Pharrell Williams's appointment as creative director of Louis Vuitton menswear is part of a general shift in the fashion industry.

Hip-hop's journey became a testament to cultural evolution, recognition, and empowerment. It underscores the potential of a movement, rooted in rhythm and poetry, to redefine the contours of an industry. As hip-hop continues its global odyssey, its symbiotic relationship with fashion promises further innovation and inspiration…