High tops to haute couture: Hip-Hop’s fashion evolution

In keeping with this month’s MARKHAM Music powered by JOOX HIP HOP genre, we take a look back at how the genre’s influence became all-encompassing

Hip-Hop’s beginnings were never humble. From its birthplace in the world’s most-hyped city, New York, to its earliest icons, hip-hop has always been larger than life. The same can be said for the fashion and the overarching aesthetic elements that have come to define what is arguably the world’s most influential art form.

 “Me and my adidas do the illest things.”

This influence sprung from the genre’s tendency towards maximalism, even when dealing with everyday attire, like T-shirts and tracksuits. In the right hands, even the most ordinary outfit can be transformed into something stylish. Long before streetwear giant Supreme’s billion-dollar valuation, acts like Run DMC’s tracksuits and bucket hat combo achieved iconic status only when supercharged by gold rope chains and four-finger rings.  The clothes made them identifiable, the accessories set them apart.

Brands like adidas and Kangol never represented a niche. Their alteration and combination with other elements created what could have been considered a distinct fashion moment.

Some acts in the early 90s were gimmicky, and styles from that era have not significantly influenced the public’s taste. What was considered an acceptable expression for groups like Salt-n-Pepa and A Tribe Called Quest back then would be regarded as outlandish today. A necessary step in the culture’s evolution but hardly a milestone.

“I made a Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.”

It was only in the ’90s when hip-hop found its footing as a genre in its own right that it made  its most daring jumps into our collective consciousness. In this era, the quintessential “hip-hop” elements came to the fore and the style that Boomers and casual music fans most closely associate with hip-hop became popularised.

Baggy jeans, baseball caps, Timberlands (in any weather), oversized bombers and regional athletic wear became the de facto uniform of a generation. The inroads that previous generations had made were paying dividends. As the art form evolved, rappers let the music speak more profoundly than the clothes on their backs.

“It ain’t Ralph, though”

While some artists opted for a more bare-bones approach, this period was also significant for other reasons. It signalled the transition from streetwear labels to more luxury offerings like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Hip-Hop’s influence undoubtedly played a role in the rivalry between the two East Coast giants of fashion. The big logos, more oversized fits, and the colour-blocked designs that both brands adopted during this era cannot be considered in isolation. 

So integral to hip-hop’s DNA was Ralph Lauren that it inspired the creation of the “Lo Lifes” (as in PoLO, as in Polo, Ralph Lauren), a social club-cum-cultural-movement of fervently obsessed super fans.

The 90s were not only the decade where heritage brands tapped into hip-hop’s burgeoning success, but they also saw the beginning of the artist-owned label. Phat Farm, from Russel Simmons, Sean John by Diddy and Roca-Wear from Jay-Z were the first significant moves into fashion for established artists. They also created the tried-and-tested model that so many musicians adopt when expanding their empires.

The shiny logos and premium sweats – in-step with the flashier face of hip-hop – coincided with the bling era. Hip-Hop artists of the early 00s had far outpaced the potential of their forbearers; they were becoming moguls, and what they wore needed to reflect this. 

“Rap is the new Rock.”

What artists like Jay Z and Diddy did for Hip-Hop fashion was far more significant than the handful of collections they put out each year. The success of their labels showed big brands the commercial value of artists. This opened the floodgates and unleashed the torrent of collaborations broadly categorised as hip-hop x everyone. Kanye, Pharrell, Drake, 2 Chainz, Travis Scott, 50 Cent, Skepta, The Weeknd, Nas and Future are just a few artists who have parleyed rap stardom into lucrative clothing contracts with the world’s biggest brands.

Every noteworthy fashion collaboration of the past five years has, in some way, involved a rapper or mined the broader cultural cache of hip-hop to produce a product by and for a music-loving audience.

Hip-Hop’s influence on fashion is now ubiquitous; it extends to every corner of the industry. A$AP Rocky embodies the effortless cool of high fashion. Tyler the Creator’s normcore aesthetic is as at home in the pages of GQ as it is Thrasher. Carti’s reinvention has seen him morph into a leather-bound vampire leading an army of waifish goths, and Young Thug’s gender-defying style was turning heads long before Harry Styles ever put on a Gucci frock.

Hip-Hop’s position as the vanguard of popular culture seems unlikely to be challenged anytime soon. But that’s fine – hip-hop is not a monolith. It’s brash and subdued, flexible and dynamic. Its evolution is still well underway, and it will be exciting to see what it delivers next.

Yours in style.


*Images courtesy of Unsplash