how hip-hop became the most exciting space for fashion experimentation
Hip-hop is about self-expression and fashion provides the tools now.
Still from A$AP Rocky's Fukk Sleep
From the first minute I started watching the Diana Kunst-shot A$AP Rocky video for Fukk Sleep, I silently prayed that it wasn’t going to be a Calvin Klein fashion film. By fashion film I mean that all narrative and substance would be drained to make space for fashion and fashion only. I silently prayed that Rocky wasn’t going to be overshadowed by the clothes. He wasn’t, but the overall effect of the styling in the video was reminiscent of that of a fashion editorial in an independent youth magazine.
Among the clothes featured I spotted a fireman coat by Raf Simons for Calvin Klein, a chunky sleeveless knit paired with long rubber gloves and a balaclava by Raf Simons, some sequinned shorts by Comme Des Garçons, snake skin pants and hiking boots by Alyx. In some of scenes Rocky wears a silk scarf tied around his face like a Russian babushka -- a look he revisited at a recent appearance at LACMA. It was very Lotta Volkova for Vetements and Balenciaga, but a little more interesting in the way it so rebelliously and gleefully blurred the fashion gender binary.
Personally the last video which left me with the same feeling of fashion editorial was Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money which was styled by Mel Ottenberg, the man behind the Rihanna Fashion Effect – anything she wears becomes instantly cooler, infinitely copied. Fukk Sleep was styled by A$AP Rocky’s stylist Matthew Henson, and Matthew Josephs, the long time collaborator of FKA Twigs. Both videos found the right balance between fashion and narrative. It’s all about balance. When the clothes overwhelm the narrative and the artists involved, it turns into a fashion film, an unexciting four minute advert. A more recent example of the blending of hip-hop and high fashion might be Beyonce and Jay Z taking over Le Louvre in coordinated looks, Versace Couture dress for her, double breasted suits with no shirt for him.
But Hip-hop and luxury fashion have always made good bedfellows. From Busta Rhymes’s 2001 Pass The Courvoisier to Lil Pump’s Gucci Gang, product placement in lyrics is nothing new. It’s been an undeniable fact of the genre for almost two decades of it. I was recently on the phone with my 20-year-old nephew, who is passionate about the scene and hip-hop culture, and asked him what he thought of product names in lyrics and he admitted he didn’t even pay attention to them because they’re so ubiquitous, the way a fish doesn’t pay attention to water. Bragging about your successes or rapping about your ambitions and hustle is part of the hip-hop narrative and that includes mentioning expensive watches, luxury brands and other tropes of the highlife.
Hip-hop has always been about authenticity and honesty, but it is also autobiographical. If you’re beefing with another hip-hop artist you make a diss track. If you don’t live in the hood why rap about the hood? There’s no contradiction in Nicki Minaj singing about Coco Chanel since she gets sent limited edition handbags by the brand. To expect only songs about violence in the hood like some nostalgic gangsta rap fans do, seems not only reductive but boring and creatively restricting. There has even been backlash memes on social media which juxtapose artists like Ice Cube holding a machine gun and 6ix9ine posing in a colourful fur matching his hair with captions “Hip Hop Then and Hip Hop Now”, implying that artists are now image obsessed.
Jacques Attali, in his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, talks about African-American music, and in a passage about free jazz finds a way for us to understand hip-hop, and the African-American condition in a different light: “The black people of America have adopted a more ‘reflective’ political position… It’s unwise to take needless risks, to make yourself obvious, to mouth off on television. That makes us vulnerable on every level, easily identified by reactionary forces.”
This means using music not just for entertainment and self-expression but also for political reasons and spreading your message in a society which gives you little to no platform for self-expression, or will punish you for it. Music has always been part of the language of African-American people. African slaves brought to America used music to pass secret messages to each other that their clueless white owners only saw it as entertainment.
With the rise of social media, artists have more control over their image and personal style, platforms like Instagram allow an unprecedented look into their personal lives, their fashion choices and the brands they like. Their choices influence us, the public, but also the fashion industry. Social media has shifted the power which used to be held by fashion publications. Male hip-hop artists are, for a whole generation, fashion icons to be emulated and admired. You only need to look at Virgil Abloh’s first show for Louis Vuitton menswear: hip-hop artists were not only on the front row but walked the show. Abloh has a thriving DJ career, hip-hop music is an integral part of what he creates and who he is.
Hip-hop allows people to live out their fantasies of excess, hedonism and the unbridled ambition to secure their bag, even if it’s only for the duration of a song. And fashion brands do the same, even if its only for duration of a catwalk show, a loving look through a shop window, some time spent browsing SSENSE.
Hip-hop artists rap about crime, sex, drugs, racism and money, all the subjects western society struggles to discuss openly. And both, when they’re good, deal with politics, gender identity, class and religion to question the status quo or offer tools of self-expression. They allow people to define themselves through the meaning of their clothes. You could say that hip-hop is about self-expression, and increasingly fashion provides the tools. We live, more than ever, in a visual culture, and fashion more than ever, is becoming a way to communicate.
And the fashion industry itself has started to shift and adjust to a generation which grew up favouring the ease and reality offered by streetwear -- a generation that values identity over conformity. Luxury houses, which are now looking to streetwear aesthetics for their product, do not look out of place in hip-hop videos because some of the items, styles and silhouettes and the attitude originated in hip-hop. Things have come full circle. This can be seen with a house like Gucci working with Dapper Dan to produce a line, and not just referencing him. A$AP Rocky’s long explored the possibilities of traditionally avant-garde fashion. Young Thug used fashion as a gender-binary-blurring provocation to mainstream hip-hop machismo. Pusha T rocks custom Craig Green, Lil Uzi Vert references teen mallgoths, Travis Scott stars in Saint Laurent campaigns. That’s without even mentioning Kanye. These Culture-shifting musicians have embraced fashion to the point that it's now integral to both sides.