On Aug. 11, 1973, the then 18-year-old DJ Kool Herc hosted a “back-to-school jam” in his parents’ rec room in the Bronx: a party now known as the birth of hip-hop.
What many people don’t know about this famous night, according to music journalist and author Sowmya Krishnamurthy, is that this party was for Herc’s sister Cindy Campbell, who had organized it to fundraise for her back-to-school wardrobe. Since that moment — hip-hop’s genesis — fashion has been integral to the genre. This is where the story of Krishnamurthy’s new book, “Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion” begins.
“Fashion Killa” is a comprehensive history of the relationship between hip-hop and fashion, from hip-hop’s origins at the Campbells’ famous party, to current events, like hip-hop revolutionary Pharrell Williams taking over as the creative director of Louis Vuitton Menswear following Virgil Abloh’s passing.
In the book, Krishnamurthy discusses the transformations this relationship has undergone — namely how hip-hop’s access to fashion has changed.
“Over time, as we see in the book, hip-hop started as an outsider (of luxury fashion), and then later became a consumer,” Krishnamurthy said in a Zoom interview with The Michigan Daily. “Now I would say we’re in the era of collaborator, where fashion lines like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Saint Laurent all understand the power of hip-hop. Where having somebody like a Pharrell Williams, or an A$AP Rocky at the forefront of a house lends not only to this sense of cool and an ‘it factor,’ but also to the bottom line.”
Early moments of high fashion that draw inspiration from hip-hop, like Chanel’s Fall/Winter 1991 collection featuring chains and streetwear, were essentially cash-grab caricatures of hip-hop’s style rather than a genuine appreciation for its culture. Krishnamurthy expressed that luxury fashion has a history of problems regarding racism and classism, and brands now have to step up to change this pattern.
“When it comes to hip-hop creators or even just Black and brown creators, oftentimes, they aren’t properly credited; they’re certainly not compensated,” Krishnamurthy said. “So I think when there is that idea of pulling from a certain culture or tipping one’s hat, it is also to make sure that there is representation, whether it be on the design side or on the corporate side: If you’re going to be influenced and inspired by hip-hop, make an actual long term investment in the culture, in people.”
“Fashion Killa” gives due credit and tells the story of the people and places where hip-hop and fashion innovation bloomed. Much of the story focuses on New York, particularly Harlem, which, Krishnamurthy argues, is the most fashionable neighborhood due to its rich history — Harlem has birthed several prominent fashion figures and important cultural movements.
“Harlem is the home to Dapper Dan, the father of logomania, and artists like Cam’ron and Dipset, and later A$AP Rocky and A$AP Ferg, and it’s always been a place of confidence and flamboyance,” she said.
In “Fashion Killa,” Krishnamurthy delves into the neighborhood’s history and components which fueled that creative atmosphere, looking to give readers a newfound appreciation for the community.
“We have to look at Harlem as this very magical place. Whether it be through the lens of the Harlem Renaissance, or the Black church, this idea of upward mobility and success and art and all of these happening at the same time created a very unique neighborhood in New York,” she said.
The book features interviews and anecdotes from iconic figures in hip-hop and the fashion industry, such as Pusha T and Tommy Hilfiger. It also highlights the unsung heroes of these worlds from whom Krishnamurthy learned the most, such as fashion editors Julia Chance and Sonya Magett.
“Or someone like a Thirstin Howl III,” Krishnamurthy said, “who was part of the Lo Lifes, which was this notorious gang in New York City that used to steal Ralph Lauren Polo. Talking to those names really created a holistic perspective of what this story is.” She promised that even those who think they know everything about hip-hop or fashion are bound to find something new in her book.
Krishnamurthy has been covering hip-hop for outlets like XXL and Rolling Stone for more than a decade, having interviewed artists from J. Cole to Tyler, the Creator. She was grateful to be able to tell the story of “Fashion Killa,” especially during hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, as it was a tale that had yet to be told.
“In the literary landscape, (hip-hop) is still very much … marginalized,” she said. “Telling these kinds of stories … in a very introspective, smart and comprehensive way elevates hip-hop and really brings it the light I think it deserves. (…) For me, this in many ways is a love letter to hip-hop and to the contributions that it’s given around the world.”
Looking at fashion today, Krishnamurthy has a few hip-hop artists she thinks are the most influential. She first named Pharrell, citing his 2023 takeover at Louis Vuitton.
“In the book, I track his history starting with his affinity for trucker hats and skinny jeans, to the rise of BBC, and now where he is at the top of one of the most respected luxury houses in the world,” she said.
When it comes to women, Krishnamurthy was adamant that any conversation about fashion must include Cardi B.
“She was the first female rapper on the cover of American Vogue, and what I love about her is that she truly is herself,” Krishnamurthy said. “She’s the epitome of high-low (fashion) where she might be wearing Schiaparelli at Paris Couture Week but also wearing some fast fashion brand. And it seems just very organic — that’s who she is, and I love that.”
Another artist on her fashion radar is Tyler, the Creator, whose style she has tracked from Odd Future to where he is now.
“I think he’s somebody who likes to play with fashion,” Krishnamurthy said. “He likes to take risks, and his fans have seen really how important aesthetics are to his artistic evolution.”
The rapper whose closet she said she would most like to steal from, though, is Pusha T.
“He’s able to do off-duty very well, he can be on a red carpet, he can be front row at New York Fashion Week, (he’s) able to sort of have something for every season while it’s still very much him,” she said.
Krishnamurthy looks to give hip-hop creators their flowers with “Fashion Killa” and give a voice to the culture that revolutionized fashion.
“To me, hip-hop is pop culture,” she said. “It has overtaken other musical genres, and other facets of entertainment and celebrity and culture — its influence cannot be denied. I don’t think there’s any way high fashion or any other industry could play in this sort of sphere of being cool, having an ‘it factor,’ being on top of trends, without embracing hip-hop.”
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Dore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.