The blurring between “hip-hop fashion” and high fashion has been a decades long process, ultimately culminating with Louis Vuitton’s appointment of Virgil Abloh as the house’s menswear Artistic Director in 2018. This move was so monumental because as the first African American artistic director of a major fashion house, Abloh and his collections have demonstrated the breakdown of the binary between “high” and “low” fashion. As is the case with art, this distinction is unproductive, serving only to hierarchize fashion rather than encourage people to wear whatever they want.
Nonetheless, I take issue with Abloh’s recent assertion that “streetwear is dead.” Wearing brands that you love or saw skaters wear, pieces you saw rappers don or cool things you saw people repping on the street is certainly not dead. How could it be? But the concept of “streetwear” as a standalone genre of dress, unrelated to high fashion (whatever that means), is certainly dying.
The evolution of hip-hop style, especially from the year 2000 to today, is a good indicator of this dissolution of the high fashion/low fashion binary. What we once deemed “streetwear” in, say, 2005, has now become fodder for the design of fashion houses globally. Since the year 2000 and the forthcoming influence of Kanye West, the ubiquity of certain brands/trends/silhouettes have ebbed and flowed constantly, demonstrating the cyclical nature of hip-hop fashion.
As a note, this history is by no means entirely comprehensive. When we track the “history” of hip-hop fashion, we aim to identify trends and moments throughout the timeline, rather than truly define the history completely. There are many rappers not mentioned who had a massive impact on trends, and similarly some whose influence may be overstated.
I won’t pretend to be able to lecture about the origin of hip-hop as a music style in the late 70s and early 80s. That said, I believe the birth of the modern rapper/designer crossover is traceable to the turn of the millenium. When rappers began developing careers as designers (rather than just influencers and curators), it opened the doors of what it could mean to be a hip-hop star. Although RUN-DMC had certainly escalated the cultural capital of the Adidas brand in the 1980s, when Nigo and Pharrell first collaborated on Billionaire Boys Club, they set the pace for rappers who wanted to dive into the fashion world. And especially considering the longstanding animosity between the high fashion world and rappers (an animosity steeped in racism and a latching on to the aforementioned high/low art binary), the move began to change the game for rapper-creators.
There are many brands that come to mind in a discussion of the hip-hop fashion landscape of the early 2000s. The running thread through all of these brands is the founder of A Bathing Ape (BAPE), Nigo, whose influence on the era’s style cannot be understated. The influence of 90s Japanese street style generally is widespread in modern hip-hop fashion. The now defunct Fruits magazine was a landmark publication in the history of street style.
Nigo began BAPE in 1993 but began his symbiotic relationship with American hip-hop fashion in the early 2000s. With the help of rapper/singer/style icon Pharrell, the duo teamed up to create the label Billionaire Boys Club (BBC), which debuted in Pharrell’s “Frontin’” music video in 2003.
This video solidified a growing conflation between hip-hop culture and skate culture. Though skate culture had long been a predominantly white, California-led subculture of the surf lifestyle, the proliferation of street skating throughout the 90s began to link the two initially disparate scenes. The “Frontin” video features skaters repping BBC, interspersed with shots of Jay-Z spitting. In this moment, Pharrell—and his partnership with Nigo—helped bring together elements of hip-hop fashion with aspects of street skating trends, unifying them under the burgeoning umbrella known as streetwear.
Pharrell went on to expand his designer repertoire, adding the label ICE CREAM to his portfolio. The label focused on skate style, and released multiple skate-focused collections. In their myriad of projects, Nigo and Pharrell had teamed up to create a growing kind of street style, one which drew inspiration from the likes of Mark Gonzales as much as it did from Jay-Z.
Of course, the most-referenced example of the crossover between hip-hop and high fashion is Kanye West. With his donning of a pink polo in 2004, West began to destabilize notions of masculinity in hip-hop fashion, encouraging rappers/singers/producers to loosen their grasp on long held concepts of what rappers needed to look like. Between his pink polos, slitted glasses and Polo sweaters, Kanye demonstrated the wide range of outfit possibilities for artists.
Although his style would evolve, sometimes including vivid color and other times maintaining a stark commitment to monochrome, the precedent was set. Rappers no longer needed to merely regurgitate elements of street style emphasizing staunch notions of masculinity; The possibilities of what rappers could wear were becoming endless.
In the late 2000s, Kanye had opened doors for other rappers/artists to expand their style horizon. With the emergence of style icons like Kid Cudi, coupled with the expanding eccentric dress of early-2000s southern-rap icon Andre 3000, hip-hop fashion was beginning to solidify around only one rule: There are no rules.
One of the most important moments of this era took shape in the form of West’s collaboration with longstanding fashion house Louis Vuitton (LV). Long before Virgil Abloh would take the reins of the massive house, the man with the pink polo collaborated with LV on the Don, now one of the most iconic sneakers of the 21st century. This sneaker debuted the same year as Kanye’s first Nike collaboration, the Air Yeezy 1, but the LV collab signaled a bridging of the previously disparate world’s of hip-hop and high fashion. Where the Nike collab echoed some of the longstanding collaborations between rappers and athletic brands (like RUN-DMC and Adidas), the LV collab set a new bar for what was accessible to rappers.
In this era, Kanye began to turn to the world of high-fashion in his personal dress, famously adopting some more upscale looks for events he attended throughout 2009 and 2010.
The turn of the decade also saw an influx of new silhouettes into the spotlight. Rappers like Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa notably began wearing skinny jeans around the turn of the decade; The transition from baggier silhouettes towards skinny jeans was ongoing in this moment. This transition is one of the most momentous in fashion generally between the 2000s and the 2010s, and these two rappers (as well as many others) foreshadowed this growing evolution. The turn back towards baggy pants would not truly begin again until the late 2010s.
The early 2010s once again saw a revival of the conflation between skatewear and hip-hop style. With the debut of Odd Future and Tyler the Creator’s 2011 project, Goblin, the weirdo/shock-value-oriented genre of music, style and performance was emerging as a centerpiece of hip-hop fashion writ large. In the aftermath of Kanye’s heralding of high fashion, this era clapped back against these notions, instead opting for a totally and completely individualistic style, not subscribed to any former “rules.” In their donning of ridiculously colorful articles, Odd Future and its members began to recreate what cohesive style was.
With Tyler’s five-panel hats (which became a staple of the era), shorts and flashy shoes (often skate shoes, rather than basketball shoes), he cemented a new style for youth getting into hip-hop. In this same era, artists like Chance the Rapper and other up-and-comers were similarly subscribing to a colorful, not-cohesive way of dressing. There was a sort of immaturity to the style; It was not based on any previous trends.
Simultaneously, older rappers of the moment (Kanye, Pusha T and Kendrick Lamar, for instance), were sporting a monochrome kind of dress. This is the era of Kanye’s Yeezus, which is arguably one of the most important albums stylistically and visually of the whole decade. With its silvery cover reminiscent of MF Doom and Madlib’s Madvillainy, this aesthetic emphasized cohesion, industrial visuals and, often, darkness.
These two genres of aesthetic, in direct conversation with each other, were part of what made the era so interesting. While many California-based hip-hop stars were embracing mismatched pastel colors and unorthodox silhouettes, some of the already established icons were beginning to develop a more muted style. These two seemingly disparate styles found their footing together in 2015 with West’s release of Yeezy Season 1, which emphasized monochromatic, drapey, fabric-centric pieces interspersed with increasingly informal fits, silhouettes and shapes.
In the earlier part of the decade, rappers like A$AP ROCKY (and the whole A$AP CREW) began to name-drop high fashion brands in their music. Though huge names like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton had long been dropped in flex-tracks, the A$AP crew popularized some designers that had previously been unassociated with hip-hop fashion. With songs like “RAF” and lines like, “I spent $20,000 with my partners in Bahamas/Another $20,000 on Rick Owens out in Barney’s” (from “Excuse Me”), Rocky increased the social capital of these brands in the hip-hop space.
As A$AP Rocky and others began to make their personal style (and their looks) an integral part of their artist brand, more rappers continued to enter the game emphasizing their individual style. The XXL Freshman class of 2016 included a myriad of rappers who are still some of the biggest in the game. Between Lil Uzi Vert, 21 Savage, Lil Yachty, Denzel Curry and Kodak Black, this list sparked a new era of cultural icons. From Yachty’s multicolored grills to Uzi Vert’s face tattoos/piercings, the group continued to fortify a growing individualism in hip-hop fashion.