Hip-hop was poised to conquer fashion - why did it stop short?

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

Bubbles and fizz float on the surface of "Fresh Dressed," an exuberant documentary about the history of hip-hop fashion. Young black men swagger through their frayed neighborhoods wearing vintage Ralph Lauren shirts; creative souls show off hand-painted denim jackets; and, street-style icons extol the primacy of Lee jeans and Cazal sunglasses on the short list of cool togs.

During a single chapter of stylistic history that began in the 1970s and continued into the 21st century, hip-hop culture — the music, art, geographic tribalism and bravura attitude — defined aesthetics for a generation of young men and women growing up in cities. Its influence spread and eventually transformed the culture as it flowed into mostly white, middle-class suburban malls and onto the rarified fashion runways of Paris. By the late 1990s, even haute couture clients could wear their trousers hanging low.

Hip-hop transformed music and informed fashion. It made millionaires, encouraged entrepreneurship and created stars who had the clout and the cash to start trends and move product.

But did hip-hop change the rules? The power structure of Seventh Avenue? The luxury establishment?

"Fresh Dressed," which opens Friday, arrives at a time when music fans are debating cultural appropriation versus minstrelsy, and when Kanye West is decrying luxury fashion's reluctance to welcome him as a designer — not just a customer — into its exclusive club. Meanwhile, hip-hop style — a sanitized version, anyway — is informing the work of some of Seventh Avenue's rising stars, many of whom will put their work on the New York runway next month.

Hip-hop now resides in the conference rooms of corporate America, and a tailored suit is "the uniform you must wear to participate in that game," says filmmaker Sacha Jenkins. But hip-hop hasn't built its own aspirational brands to wear into the executive suite or down the red carpet. Instead, it simply created a cast of wealthy entrepreneurs who can afford the labels of their ever-expanding dreams.

Jenkins, who was born in Philadelphia, arrived in New York just as rap was gaining traction. As a kid coming of age in the 1980s, he was a devotee of the music and the culture, and as an adult, he built a career as a journalist chronicling the music's impact.

He relished hip-hop's creativity and the way that its earliest fans treated their attire with pride and a near obsession for fresh-from-the-box crispness. Hip-hop fashion reflected the insecurities and ambitions of its instigators.

In the beginning, says Jenkins, 43, the point of it all was a desire for freedom: Those early influencers were all fighting for respect and independence. "How you feel about yourself is a major part of how you see yourself," he says.

In the film, Kanye West describes his longing to be stylish and fashionable — to be "fresh." The striving toward wealth — at least in his younger years — wasn't about the money per se, but its ability to keep him in the most desirable fashions. Jenkins interviews a member of the Lo Life gang, a posse of retro Ralph Lauren aficionados, who notes that "I didn't have furniture in my house, but I had Polo."

A sneakerhead stands proudly amidst his extensive collection, lovingly housed in individual translucent boxes, and notes that he could wear a new pair of shoes every day for years to come.

In hip-hop, public presentation — and the respect it attracted — was everything.

Hearing the tales of excess — filmed refreshingly without judgment — is like listening to once-deprived children reveling in a newly acquired pile of toys. But the striving toward stuff, and more stuff, foreshadows a shift in hip-hop fashion that Jenkins depicts with a note of melancholy.

Hip-hop, Jenkins says, took ownership of brands such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Adidas, Puma. Young men gravitated to labels that, within their limited world view, connoted wealth and privilege. And they helped to popularize them through their music and their ostentatious embrace of logos. As hip-hop became not just a tool for creative expression but also a source of revenue, the new millionaires created their own clothing lines and built what for a while looked like an entirely new branch of the fashion industry, driven by a hip-hop aesthetic.

Out of their fashion derring-do came a new department store category, dubbed "urban," that was filled with lines by accomplished hip-hop artists, minority designers with techniques honed on the street instead of art school, and wily entrepreneurs who saw opportunity in oversized T-shirts and jeans.

But a host of those brands quickly faded. And as Jenkins sees it, most hip-hop stars and moguls did not support their own brands — not in ways that would make those labels transformative and aspirational, blessed with a glint of cool and a chance for longevity.

No matter that Jay-Z co-founded Rocawear. By the time he was at the top of his game, he had sold his interest in the streetwear brand and was rapping about Tom Ford suits and luxury Hublot watches. West's early style was defined by preppy Ralph Lauren, but as his fashion world expanded, he was wearing Rick Owens, sitting ringside at Lanvin and crafting rhymes featuring the avant-garde Maison Margiela.

There is a wall in fashion that hip-hop has not been able to demolish. Sean Combs put a hole in it with his Sean John collection, launched in 1999 and marketed with a diverse cast of smouldering male models in sharp tailoring, lavish furs and exotic leathers. The brand has reported volume of $450 million a year, and Combs won a menswear designer of the year award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America — the first black person to win one of organization's flagship honors.

But Sean John remains a mid-priced collection of suits and readily accessible sportswear sold at Macy's. Women's Wear Daily still felt the need to clarify the ethnic breakdown of Sean John customers in a story last year, lest anyone assume it's a label mostly for black shoppers: "The brand's customer demographic is more than 40 percent Caucasian and more than 20 percent Latino." That's not a notation necessary in discussions about brands such as Nautica or Dockers.

Meanwhile, Combs himself is known for favoring Versace suits and bespoke tailoring.

With every step up the ladder of success, aspiration ratchets up. People clean up and suit up. Stars-turned-fashion-entrepreneurs leave what was created behind — sometimes to wither, but often as leftovers to be consumed by their fans.

"I think hip-hop has a very disposable attitude because it has a very disposable sense of self," Jenkins says. "It goes back to this lack of self-esteem."

"When you're wearing hip-hop fashion, people are looking at you — whether you're black or any background, there's a stigma. There's this ghetto energy," he adds. That energy is taboo, and people are drawn to it because it's alluring. "People want a splash of the essence, a few spritzes. But they don't want to take a bath in it because it feels like the funk won't leave you."

Hip-hop fashion is now defined by collaborations and hybrids. Performers such as Jay-Z, West and Pharrell Williams have formed relationships with luxury labels such as Barneys New York, Hublot, Adidas, Louis Vuitton and Chanel — brands that hip-hop once lavished their longing on. Luxury labels enjoy a few spritzes of hip-hop; performers climb a little higher in the social hierarchy.

The ultimate beneficiaries of hip-hop's fashion legacy may well be the new generation of menswear brands such as Hood by Air, County of Milan, Public School, Off-White, Tim Coppens. They are not, by definition, hip-hop brands. But they have an edge sharpened by the rigors of street style and the swagger of hip-hop, combined with a sense of luxury and understanding of technique. Public School's designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osbourne honed their craft working at Sean John, for instance. And Coppens blends the inspiring rhythms of New York with a sensibility borne of a Belgian upbringing.

Hip-hop fashion did not succeed on its own terms. But it was successful nonetheless.