The history of hip-hop style.
It was 1985. Hip-hop was entering its golden age, and Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh were hosting what they called “The Show.” On the B-side of that single was “La Di Da Di,” one of the most beloved and most sampled songs in hip-hop history. It features Slick Rick playfully describing his average day:
I put the bubbles in the bathtub so I can take a bubble bath.
Clean, dry, it was my body and hair
I put on my new Gucci underwear
When asked if that was true, Slick Rick replied, “They didn’t make Gucci underwear at the time, so you have to fake it or just fake it!”
Throughout the 50 years of hip-hop, style has been a big deal. Slick Rick’s style included an eyepatch (the result of a childhood injury) and lots of jewelry. The rappers didn’t just look cool; they rapped about how cool they looked. And that helped turn hip-hop fashion into a multibillion-dollar industry.
“Hip-hop fashion comes from the streets, the urban streets, the lower income areas,” said Slick Rick. “Those who have that ability to show swag, show swag.”
Sanneh asked, “What does swag mean to you?”
“You move with a certain style,” he replied. “You have a bit of personality.”
But for Dapper Dan, it has a different connotation: “My generation’s loot was stolen goods!”
No one knows hip-hop fashion better than Dapper Dan. He literally created it in his store in Harlem. At first everything was pirate, and always spectacular. If Gucci didn’t make a parka, he would make one. No Gucci drawers? “We do what we have to do. We created all that!”
Elizabeth Way, curator at the Museum of Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, called Dapper Dan “one of the most important fashion designers of the late 20th century. He saw these logos as powerful symbols and combined them with streetwear.” And that has 100% changed the course of fashion.”
Way and Elena Romero, a FIT professor, are co-curators of “Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip-Hop Style,” an exhibit opening this week.
“If we look at what’s happening on the runways now and this idea of creating a dialogue between street fashion in New York and high-end European luxury, [Dapper Dan’s] whoever came up with that,” Way said. “By the 1990s, hip-hop fashion had gone corporate, with companies like FUBU (For Us, By Us).”
In 1997, LL Cool J filmed a commercial for Gap and slipped in a FUBU reference:
Romero said: “Actually, it was two references. LL Cool J at the time was an official spokesperson for FUBU, and I’m assuming he had to wear something related by contract. So, that’s where we saw the FB cap. But what was it? He didn’t monitor or notice that the lyric he was able to slip through, ‘For us, for us, on bass.’ And that signaled a message to those who were in the hip-hop community.”
Hip-hop stars didn’t just change the fashion industry; they joined her.
Me and my Adidas as close as can be
We make a bad team, me and my Adidas
Sanneh said, “If you think back to the 1980s, Run-DMC records ‘My Adidas’ before they got a check from Adidas, they were just bragging about their shoes, right?”
“One of the pieces we have on display is a Rap Style jacket, which was a line created by Chuck D,” Way said. “And he talks about, you know, ‘He wore clothes from other brands, he made money from other brands, but people wanted to dress like me. So, I’m going to create my own line.'”
Romero said, “And eventually the moguls got on board, I mean, Russell Simmons, Sean Jean, Jay-Z and Damon Dash with Rocawear.”
The hip-hop style, like hip-hop itself, appeared everywhere. “You’re looking at hip-hop fashion companies actually making real money,” Sanneh said.
“Requires what? Crossover,” said Dapper Dan. “What Rick and they were able to do through their lyrics was get young white people to cross over from Ralph Lauren to FUBU. So the crossover doesn’t necessarily have to be predominantly associated with music. It also seeps into fashion. You can’t have half a crossover!”
In 2003, after hip-hop popularized oversized T-shirts and baggy pants, Jay-Z called for a change:
And y’all (beep) acting too tough
Put on a suit, make it tapered, and let’s go
Change your clothes and go.
People stopped buying sports jerseys. Dapper Dan said, “Jay-Z single-handedly changed fashion. When Jay-Z made that record, guys came into the store and said, ‘Give me two of those Gucci suits.'”
It would be another 15 years before Gucci recognized and collaborated with Dapper Dan. Since then, he’s worked with Gap, changing a lyric on his classic hoodie (to Dap). He has a collection with Puma. And when he wears Gucci now, it’s the real thing.
In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, success sometimes seemed to sell itself. But for Dapper Dan, Slick Rick, and hip-hop in general, it feels more like recognition, and it’s long overdue.
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editing: Mike Levine.