“We are culture. Rap is the new rock 'n' roll. We are the rock stars.” — Kanye West
From Karl Kani and Cross Colours to Rocawear and Fubu, the hip-hop community has been involved in fashion since before its emergence into the mainstream. The birth of modern streetwear, and the ability for brands like Supreme to coexist with brands like Ralph Lauren, have artists like Damon Dash, Jay Z, Puff Daddy, and many others to thank. Even though these brands have their origins as early as 1989, it wasn’t until recently that rappers were able to break into the high-fashion world. Designer fashion is a completely different beast from brands started in houses and garages. Something that goes along with designer brands is the idea of status: when a customer buys something from Louis Vuitton, they are not always buying it for the pattern itself, but rather because the pattern says something about the quality of their life. Brands like Gucci and Versace are considered to be high class, and hip-hop artists have long been considered to be of a lower class than designers, its the concept of old-money vs. new-money. Things have long been this way, but are beginning to change. Rappers are finally entering into the fold with regard to designer fashion. It's long overdue.
It really was not until late 2008 when an artist like Pharrell was able to have a jewelry collaboration with Louis Vuitton. That was quickly followed up by the brand's 2009 collaboration with Kanye West. Still today, only a few houses have admitted their influence and appeal to hip-hop culture (Rousteing and Tisci at Balmain and Givenchy come to mind). 2016 has been a much-needed year for hip-hop stars further disrupting the fashion industry. To highlight a few, A$AP Rocky was named as one of the faces of Dior Homme’s FW16 campaign (and has had successful collaborations with J.W. Anderson and GUESS), Young Thug and Frank Ocean were shown modeling for Calvin Klein, and Travis Scott appeared in a Yves Saint Laurent video. Saint Laurent under Hedi Slimane was often criticized for having a very whitewashed runway show. His Spring/Summer 15 show featured one black model, who was essentially in a Jimi Hendrix costume, and they have not had many more since. So, Scott’s appearance in the video was a much-welcomed surprise.
The fashion world is changing: Internet forums, Instagram, and other sites are becoming an integral platform for sharing what’s popular in fashion around the world. Consumers are taking cues from hip-hop artists and buying into the status association of wearing the same thing as Kanye or A$AP Rocky. Looking back at last year, the biggest question I’m left with is this: Why haven't more designer houses taken cues from Balmain and Givenchy to work with hip-hop artists?
Mainstream popularity drives business, and there’s no denying that hip-hop qualifies as mainstream. One of the most pervasive themes in hip-hop is the idea of conspicuous consumption, and whether designers like it or not, these artists are ambassadors for the brands and are driving sales. It makes sense to me to utilize them as a marketing tool. It’s instantly visible when I’m browsing sites like Grailed for clothes and I see a picture of a highly coveted item worn by Kanye, or Rocky being used as a selling point. It is hard for me to not think about how many extra wallets and bags are sold when Lil Uzi Vert raps “Hunnid bands on the Goyard” in his song, “Of Course We Ghetto Flowers,” or how many more people looked-up the mentioned brands when Rocky says “I see your Jil Sanders, Oliver Peoples/Costume National, your Ann Demeulemeester” on “Fashion Killa” and then proceeded to save up for a pair of shades or boots.
To me it sounds like unrequited love: Loving something so much, only for it to not feel the same. That’s the relationship between hip-hop and designer-fashion in the world today. It comes down to class, like I previously mentioned: In the world of high-fashion, the hip-hop community is still viewed by many as a dangerous other. While I don’t know what the solution here is, it’s time for major fashion houses to recognize that they are cannibalizing their own sales by continuing to marginalize such a successful group of customers and all of their fans.