It’s been 50 years since hip-hop popularized street style — Black fashion leaders and communities should still be given the credit white celebrities and luxury brands have tried to steal
This story is part of Black Ensemble, a series celebrating Black leaders, innovators, and trendsetters in the fashion industry.
As recently as 20 years ago, luxury fashion was synonymous with formalwear. Hollywood’s elite arrived at awards shows donning Harry Winston diamonds and Dior gowns.
Hip-hop artists, meanwhile, had been blurring the boundaries between luxury and streetwear for decades. In 2003, for instance, Missy Elliott wore an Adidas tracksuit to the Grammys; in 2001, Big Boi showed up to his very first VMAs in pink Nikes and an oversized T-shirt. But luxury brands and white celebrities had not yet fully embraced the growing trend.
Fast forward and streetwear has infiltrated every corner of the fashion world. Billie Eilish wore a Gucci tracksuit to a music event in 2020, Justin Bieber is regularly seen performing in gold chains and sneakers, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner launched a failed Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. vintage-inspired tee line in 2017.
Streetwear was first popularized by hip-hop artists and fans in the 1970s and ’80s, amplifying comfort-casual basics, like sweats and sneakers. As streetwear becomes a larger presence in the mainstream, it is important to remember the communities that gave us this style — and the struggles they continue to face just for wearing it.
Hip-hop meets fashion
Fashion has always been an integral part of hip-hop since the musical genre was first born 50 years ago on August 11, 1973. Grandmaster Flash rapped about Calvin Klein jeans in 1987, while Migos glorified “Versace, Versace” in 2013.
For years, hip-hop’s attraction to luxury brands seemed aspirational. As the musical genre was still in its early days, its stars had not reached the heights of wealth or popularity many enjoy today.
Hip-hop first came up in the South Bronx in the 1970s; at the time, the neighborhood was still reeling from the impact of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which displaced thousands of residents and decreased property values, further impoverishing the community.
In the 1970s and ’80s, hip-hop culture in New York City spawned its own form of fashion that spoke to the lifestyle of its musicians, but also borrowed from luxury houses. Monogrammed prints took from the aesthetic of brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton and placed them on relaxed-wear, like bucket hats, hoodies, and acrylic nails. Doing so challenged standards of respectability politics, which assumed that “respectable” and luxury clothing did not include streetwear staples, which were inextricably linked to Black culture.
Respectability politics were once upheld by Black elites as a tactic to counteract the “negative” stereotypes placed upon the Black community by acting and dressing like conservative white Americans. Streetwear, on the other hand, embraced those stereotypes.
The creators and popularizers of this new breed of fashion mostly hailed from 1980s Brooklyn and Harlem, including designers like Daniel Day, best known as Dapper Dan. Day has dressed clients like Jay-Z, Salt-N-Pepa, and LL Cool J, had a line with Gucci, and is widely considered the godfather of luxury streetwear.
When he first got his start, Day noticed that most traditional luxury brands chose not to respond to the emerging culture of hip-hop. He sought to fill that void.
“For me, fashion came by way of being poor, not having clothes, and clothes being such a huge status symbol,” Day told Insider. “Clothes were the physical thing that could immediately transform you.”
Day grew up in Harlem in, as he describes it, “a roach- and rat-infested building.” Fashion became a way for him to change his story and his status.
“Being poor and growing up having holes in my shoes and raggedy clothes, whenever I was able to get something that made me suitable, that I could fit in — it transformed me,” he said. “That was my first gravitational force that pulled me to fashion — the transformative factor that it allowed you to have.”
Day became famous for screen-printing the monograms of luxury brands, like Fendi and MCM, onto his bomber jackets and tracksuits. At the time, he was treated like a pariah for using fake logos on flashy clothing. Today, he’s recognized as a trailblazer, and his influence can be seen across the industry.
Streetwear goes mainstream
In the 1990s, streetwear saw a big shift from something worn exclusively in Black and brown neighborhoods to a “trendy” look adopted by mainstream celebrities.
The phenomenon sparked arguments about cultural appropriation, which Day defines as someone borrowing, stealing, or taking something from another culture without giving that culture credit for its influence. And while Day certainly agrees that it’s an issue in the fashion industry, he believes there is a way to counteract the problem, so long as brands are willing to work with the original creators.
“If companies are willing to work with you, that will allow you a platform to involve you in what that appropriation is. That can open doors and create possibilities to show who is actually the creator,” he said.
But that’s rarely the case.
Take Marc Jacobs’ Spring/Summer 2017 NYFW show, which featured predominantly white models flaunting faux locs, a style in which hair is twisted, coiled, or palm-rolled into rope-like strands. When asked about his inspiration for the hairstyle, Jacobs credited white director Lana Wachowski’s pink locs. Jacobs’ hairstylist, Guido Palau, cited 1980s rave culture, Boy George, and Harajuku as his main cultural influences.
While locs date back centuries — from ancient Egypt and the Incan civilization in Peru to being written about in Vedic scriptures in South Asia — in the past 50 years, the hairstyle has become synonymous with Black culture. But when Jacobs spoke of his show’s hairstyling, there was no mention of the Rastafarian movement, native to Jamaica.
While Jacobs, a white American born and raised on New York City’s Upper West Side, might have truthfully been influenced by the grunge and street style aesthetic of the 1980s and ’90s, omitting Black culture entirely from his use of locs is a form of “racial plagiarism,” to use the terminology of American cultural theorist Minh-Ha T. Pham.
Pham argues Marc Jacobs’ locs do “nothing to increase the acceptance or reduce the surveillance of Black women and men.” Rather, by removing Black culture from the conversation, locs become a non-Black style and, when placed in association with expensive, luxury clothes, they are exalted and framed as something desirable.
Appropriation vs. appreciation
Black fashion, hairstyles, and culture continue to be appropriated under the guise of “appreciation.” But there’s a fine line.
“Appreciation should give credit to the source of the inspiration,” Elizabeth Way, an associate curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told Insider. “Showing understanding and intellectual curiosity and a sensitivity to the culture really defines appreciation, and a lack of that can really result in appropriation.”
“Hip-hop and Black American culture was a huge influence in moving our whole culture to more of a streetwear aesthetic,” Way said. “But because these are styles that were born out of existing items of clothing, it’s really the styling that has the cultural resonance.”
As Way explained, everyone wears jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers, but Black Americans changed their presentation and their cultural context.
“The fact that these styles were vilified by mainstream society — whether it was oversized jeans, hoop earrings, or over-the-top nail art, things that were considered déclassé and outside of the norms of mainstream taste — Black and brown people were discriminated against for their style, until we started to see mainstream celebrities, influencers, taking on these styles and rebranding them,” she said.
Today, streetwear has become revered. New sneaker releases have led to mobs and riots. Virgil Abloh, the late creator of the beloved streetwear brand Off-White, became one of the most sought-after designers of the decade and was given the reins to luxury powerhouse Louis Vuitton in 2018. A 2019 report by PwC and Hypebeast estimated that streetwear had taken over 10% of the global apparel market.
Yet, as streetwear continues to grow in prominence within the mainstream, many within Black and brown communities are still being targeted for wearing the same styles they originated.
In 2019, Anthony Childs was fatally struck by three bullets while being pursued by a police officer trying to stop him for violating Shreveport, Louisiana’s “saggy pant ordinance.” Two years later, in 2021, luxury brand Balenciaga started selling $1,190 sagging sweatpants.
Over a decade since Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood-watch captain who identified Martin as looking suspicious and wearing a “dark hoodie,” the hoodie has continued to be politicized and racialized, while luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Prada still charge thousands of dollars for their versions of the garment.
“The issue of appropriation is not just being discriminated against for the way you dress, but oftentimes that led to very real violence, very real consequences in people’s lives in terms of employment, and other ways they were perceived,” Way said.
“So when you take those styles that were really important to communicating individuality and communicating community within Black and brown neighborhoods, you all of a sudden rebrand them and make them positive for a mainstream audience, that’s a real problem.”
Streetwear is constantly evolving and growing bigger by the day. As long as the fashion industry recognizes the style’s influences, gives back to the communities slighted by appropriation, and centers Black voices, streetwear has the potential to make the fashion industry more vibrant and more inclusive.