Crowned in a diamond-studded halo of thorns by Tiffany & Co. and draped in Louis Vuitton, Kendrick Lamar, one of the hottest musicians around, took his seat in the front row of the venerable house’s spring-summer 2023 menswear show in June, next to iconic Black supermodel Naomi Campbell. As men in bomber jackets, baggy pants and other hip-hop-inspired silhouettes sauntered down the runway, the Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize–winning rapper recited a lyrical ode to Virgil Abloh, the collection’s groundbreaking Black artistic director and multi-hyphenate force who died in November.
The scene was a lavish display of the luxury and hip-hop industries’ modern-day alliance. Making the moment celebrating these two Black innovators even more dramatic: The show was held at the Louvre, one of the world’s quintessential repositories of white culture. For those who were around to have witnessed the birth of hip-hop nearly 50 years ago—and the luxury world’s cold shoulder—this venerable house’s embrace of a Black art form was an almost surreal milestone of progress. It’s not, however, a linear tale of traditionally white spaces eventually welcoming Black newcomers but one of push and pull, of appropriation and cross-fertilization, of the inevitabilities of capitalism.
“When you think about the relationship between hip-hop and rap music and fashion houses now, it’s unimaginable,” says June Ambrose, a pivotal figure who styled Jay-Z and Missy Elliott before becoming a creative director at Puma. “You have Cardi B in couture Schiaparelli, Chanel and Balmain. When I was coming up, we couldn’t even get them on the phone. Matter of fact, we didn’t even try. They got on board after we told the story. We didn’t ask for permission. They came after [us] because we had already done everything we needed to do. This is our narrative.”
Rapper and music executive Rick Ross is philosophical about luxury’s slow embrace. “Luxurious brands, they wasn’t always as accepting, which is fine,” he tells Robb Report. “You know, we came from the mud, we came from the bottom, so luxury was always one of the many goals.
So now, us being the most explosive—I like to call them strains, like marijuana—the most explosive strain of music now, we are front row at those fashion shows. Rick Ross, Kanye West—we are the new Mötley Crüe. Rihanna is the new Madonna.”
Clearly, hip-hop’s emergence in the ’70s and early ’80s was far removed from the Parisian ateliers and elegant soirees of high fashion. Instead, it coincided with the onset of the crack epidemic in American inner cities. From New York to Los Angeles, the drug was making both junkies and millionaires of Black men. For the newly minted, jewelry was the preferred signifier of success.
“This is the reality of it,” says Bronx-born designer and stylist K. Tyson Perez, who has worked with models Eva Marcille and Chanel Iman and recently launched a social-media campaign accusing Givenchy of appropriating his designs. “It starts with the dealers. The hip-hop culture and rappers, they were influenced by the streets—by the drug dealers.”
Gold rope chains, four-finger rings, diamond-studded gold watches and Cuban link chains were the choice pieces. For Perez, who saw how quickly precious metal overtook the Afro-centric beaded and wooden jewelry trending in that era, the influence was divisive.
“Any of us could buy a $5, extra-big wooden necklace,” he recalls. “Not everyone could go and afford these chunky rope chains.”
The dealers became celebrities and proto-influencers in communities starved for examples of success. Boys and young men, including hip-hop’s new generation of rappers, wanted to mimic them. So ’80s acts such as Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J, Eric B & Rakim, Biz Markie and more performed in the sportswear of the time, complemented by flashy jewelry. And hip-hop-loving urban youth were quick to follow suit.
“What you wore was your social media,” explains writer and former stylist Sonya Magette, who has worked with Lil’ Kim and Lauryn Hill. “You didn’t have to open your mouth. When you got on a train, you went to the club, you went to school, what you wore was how you easily communicated to people what music you were into.”
But for true fans of the growing genre, both the music and the look dug deeper than surface style. “When you think about the original hip-hop audience, before hip-hop went mainstream,” says Magette, “the lyrics were about all of us growing up poor, and society looking down on us. And so the music was a form of rebellion. The fashion was a form of rebellion. It was an expression so that we could communicate with each other.”
That generation of urban youth was growing up against the backdrop of white wealth as displayed in popular ’80s TV shows such as Dynasty, the newsworthy lifestyles of arbitrage tycoons and the rising popularity of European fashion maisons such as Armani and Versace.
“All these images of rich white people were aspirational for Black folks,” says Emil Wilbekin, an early editor of Vibe magazine. “The hip-hop generation took that imagery and made it their own. They didn’t want to look exactly like white folks. They wanted to create their own version.”
Album covers of the era make the evolution clear. Pioneering LPs from the early ’80s showcase artists wearing simple gold chains, T-shirts, windbreakers. But by the decade’s end, the tone had changed. Rap duo Eric B & Rakim’s iconic albums Paid In Full and Follow the Leader, released in ’87 and ’88, respectively, feature chunkier chains and bolder fashion, as did cover photos of the Ultramagnetic MCs and LL Cool J.
Each artist featured something new: what at first glance appeared to be custom Gucci, Vuitton and Fendi ensembles. But they weren’t. Instead, an upstart designer and former hustler by the name of Dapper Dan had set up shop in Harlem in 1982 and began dreaming up his own version of high fashion. Dan tells Robb Report that he grew up wearing hand-me-downs except when his mother “hit the numbers” and was able to buy him new clothes. “My first attraction to luxury was the elevation of self-esteem,” he says, “ ’cause that’s the only thing that separated me not only from white people, but from middle- and upper-class Black people.” In his youth, expensive materials, such as alligator and crocodile skins, signaled status. And when he opened his boutique on 125th Street, he initially focused on those kinds of designs.
But one day, Dan recalls, the “No. 1 gangster in Harlem” came in, carrying a Louis Vuitton pouch filled with $100 bills. Other customers in the store were fascinated by the monogrammed bag. “Oh, I looked at that pouch now, and I had already been studying symbolism and what it meant,” he says. “It’s only $5 with the vinyl. It’s the symbols—it’s what those symbols stand for. And I said if I can get them symbols and take them symbols and use it, then I can get people walking around looking like that pouch.”
Soon demand was rising for his creations crafted with designer logos. These were not the usual, cheap knockoffs illicitly sold on street corners but what Dan calls “knock-ups.” Instead of copying the big fashion houses, Dan created new silhouettes. Puff-sleeve bomber jackets, fur coats and tracksuits were all embellished with Dan’s signature bold graphics—often showcasing logos from two houses on one garment. “I do not dictate fashion,” he says. “I translate culture.”
The shop was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Dan employed only Black tailors. “Twelve sewed in the daytime, 11 at night,” he says. When rappers began coming, “I said, ‘Let me listen to your lyrics. Let me see who you want to be.’ Eric B wanted to be swagged out, so when I made him a Gucci jacket, I swagged it out.”
The year 1988 marked the launch of YO MTV Raps, which televised the hip-hop revolution. Hip-hop was no longer a secret rhythm for inner-city blues but a pied piper for the rebel and the thinker in all classes, creeds and countries. As the music seeped into the mainstream in the 1990s, rappers’ bombastic flair for jewelry and fashion was as much of an attraction as their raw lyrics. New leaders emerged, such as Biggie Smalls, whose penchant for rhyming about luxury labels, from cars to clothes, impacted a generation.
“We literally learned how to pronounce certain things because it was in their lyrics,” recalls K. Tyson Perez.
Biggie’s lyrical emphasis on fashion filtered into the music of other artists from the era, from Tupac mentioning Versace in his 1996 Biggie-diss track “Hit Em Up” to Jay-Z flirting with fashionistas by reeling off such names as Prada and Gucci in 1998’s “Can I Get A… ”
(Another brand mentioned as a badge of honor was this one. Jay-Z, Common and others name-checked Robb Report as a way of adding authority to the choices of cars and accessories regularly mentioned in the lyrics—“Pushed the Maserati Sport/readin’ the Robb Report,” was one example, from Common’s “Drivin’ Me Wild.”)
Biggie also influenced Lil’ Kim, who not only name-dropped labels in her lyrics but also made sure she was dripping in them for every photo shoot and video thanks to her then-stylist, Misa Hylton, who mined the rapper’s closet—and her own—when pulling designer samples wasn’t an option. For what has become one of hip-hop’s—and fashion’s—most iconic images, Lil’ Kim showed her love for Louis Vuitton by posing in the altogether, the LV logo painted all over her body, for photographer David LaChapelle in 1999.
Fashion wasn’t the only category shying away from rappers back then. Buttoned-up watch brands—which are, even today, stiffer than fashion houses—weren’t quite ready to embrace the marketing potential of doling out watches for music videos or publicity appearances. But that didn’t stop artists, such as Warren G and Busta Rhymes, from capitalizing on Rolex and Cartier—brands almost synonymous with luxury from the ’80s onward. “Rolex watches and colorful Swatches/I’m digging in pockets, motherfuckas can’t stop it,” read the lyrics of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Gimme the Loot” from 1994.
Although many were already capable of buying their own Rolex if they wanted one, they also flocked to more accommodating establishments. Jacob Arabo of Jacob & Co., known as Jacob the Jeweler, built a hefty business catering to the stars’ tastes by customizing watches in diamonds and creating the oversized gem-set medallion chains that became the artists’ calling cards.
Rick Ross has been known to indulge not only himself but also his friends with Rolexes. “As far back as I can remember, Rolex was always being hailed as the finest,” he says, though he also laughs about having a “drawer full of Casios.” “I’m in a position where I’ve spent over $3 million for Jacob Billionaire timepieces, but Rolex has always been most consistent, timeless.”
But others no longer view Rolex and Cartier as elite enough. More exclusive brands, among them Patek Philippe, Richard Mille and Audemars Piguet—all averaging five- to six-figure price tags—are the new name-drop standards. “Virgil got that Patek on my wrist goin’ nuts,” raps Drake in Future’s “Life Is Good” in 2020. Shortly there-after, he posted his new Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5726 covered in emeralds… to the point of blocking out the brand name—a post-purchase customization. The now-discontinued model, in its original state, retailed for $45,930 but goes for over triple that figure on the secondary market. While the skyrocketing value is not entirely down to shout-outs, the hype has contributed. As Pusha T says in “Hard Piano,” a 2018 song with Rick Ross, “Hard to find other ways to invest/’Cause you rappers found every way to ruin Pateks.”
Despite barriers early on, stylists created iconic, luxurious looks for hip-hop artists that forced fashion houses to take notice, not least because of a new development: urban fashion brands. Though hip-hop culture had adopted European labels and classic American brands, such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, it was now ready to assert its own fashion identity.
In the ’90s, Phat Farm by Russell Simmons, FUBU, Sean John by Sean Combs, Rocawear by Jay-Z, and Baby Phat by Kimora Lee Simmons took center stage. These Black-owned businesses targeted Black consumers with collections that were authentic to the culture—indeed, FUBU stands for “For Us, By Us.” Despite, or perhaps because of, that authenticity, they also attracted an unintended audience: the mainstream. The labels’ popularity in white America mirrored that of the music that inspired them. A 1994 article in Advertising Age reported that “roughly 75 percent of rap records are owned by white teenagers.”
“Hip-hop kind of took over entertainment on many levels and became very mainstream,” says Mickey Boardman, the longtime editorial director at Paper magazine. “And you see white kids singing hip-hop, talking hip-hop, dressing hip-hop though they’re from the suburbs or elsewhere. It’s doing the opposite of [rappers] adapting this kind of European luxury.”
As images of white teens wearing velour tracksuits and sagging jeans proliferated, the luxury industry began to question its snub of hip-hop. “In the end money is always the impetus,” says Boardman. “It’s not that somebody wants to be nice or somebody wants to do the thing that is socially correct. I think they saw that there were mainstream consumers who had money but were also fans of hip-hop. In the end, if that’s who’s buying the bags or buying the clothes, you have to learn to live with it—and adapt with it.”
Chanel was one of the first. For fall 1991, then-creative director Karl Lagerfeld debuted what has come to be known as “the hip-hop collection.” It featured quilted baseball caps and copious amounts of solid gold and denim.
As Steve Stoute, a former music-industry executive and manager—who brokered some of the early deals between artists and big brands—and, more recently, ad exec, entrepreneur and author, wrote in his book The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy, “that Lil’ Kim was literally wearing the brand and nothing else was a watershed moment, catapulting Louis Vuitton… [and] pushing luxury brands further into prominence. What’s more, it pushed the psychology of needing luxury brands even further into the cultural mind-set that already embraced the idea of needing luxury brands to establish who and what you stood for.”
Car marques, too, have come to appreciate hip-hop artists’ fondness for luxury rides—and for sharing that fondness via their lyrics. Hundreds of songs have featured odes to the Maybach, known for its big-grille opulence—Rick Ross even named his record label Maybach Music Group. “We talking about top of the line, top tier. When I say Maybach, I was thinking of just the manufacturing of the best,” he says. “I compared the way they put their automobiles together [with] the way I will put my records together: one step at a time, only the finest.”
The average age of Rolls-Royce customers has dropped from 60 a decade ago to 43 today, according to a company spokesman, who says that more youthful affinity comes hand-in-hand with hip-hop’s vocal embrace of the marque. The relationship, he adds, is authentic, and the company does not give away cars. “Drake sings about a Rolls-Royce because he owns one. DJ Khaled sings about a Rolls-Royce because he owns one.” But sales were not enough to sway some brands 20 years ago. “I remember being at a dinner with the sales team, with Prada, and [an in-house exec] saying, ‘Prada will never advertise in Vibe,’ ” Emil Wilbekin says. “I left that dinner so disheartened.” Armani, Gucci and Versace had all begun to advertise. “So there was interest. But it really hurt me. I left that dinner like: I’m gonna show you.” Prada Sport did eventually buy ads.
That experience was far from unique. In December 2000 and January 2001, for example, Paper put two rappers on back-to-back covers at a time when hip-hop stars were still rare on such key real estate. “We had Snoop Dogg, wearing, like, diamonds and furs, and then we had Eve,” Mickey Boardman recalls. “And so a big luxury brand decided they maybe didn’t want to advertise with us anymore, because we were ‘too hip-hop.’ We were going in a direction that wasn’t what they wanted to be in. That was a little bit offensive, but that was the reality of the time.”
By the early 2000s, hip-hop was approximately 30 years old and still struggling to impress an industry that had benefited from the culture through artist promotion, media industry support and cold hard cash. In 2006, Frédéric Rouzaud, the chief executive of Louis Roederer, makers of hip-hop’s Champagne of choice at the time, Cristal, implied in an interview with The Economist that he didn’t appreciate the patronage and promotion that came with these artists name-checking it in their music. Asked if the association was a bad thing, he responded: “That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.” The backlash was immediate. Jay-Z released a statement, saying he considered Rouzaud’s comment racist and would boycott the brand, no longer serving it in the chain of upscale sports lounges he owned, and the wider hip-hop community followed suit. Whether the boycott had an impact on Cristal sales globally is debated, however, as the United States accounted for a very small part of its export business, but the cultural implications were significant.
It’s a far cry from the VIP treatment rappers enjoy today. Rick Ross says Givenchy and Vuitton make house calls. “They order me everything that’s available before it hits the floor,” he says. “Years ago, they wouldn’t have my size, or would just tell me they didn’t, and now they go out of their way to make sure they have my size.”
Recently, too, the rise of social media has given Black culture a welcome channel of communication and helped fuel the growth of independent Black brands with luxe appeal, including Public School, Telfar, Pyer Moss and Virgil Abloh’s Off-White, the last of which is now majority owned by LVMH, the largest luxury conglomerate on the planet. Abloh’s stardom—and his genius at turning hoodies, sneakers and other street-style staples into coveted luxury goods—prompted his ascent to the prestigious post atop Vuitton’s menswear. Perhaps nothing underlines hip-hop’s entrée more.
“Virgil Abloh wasn’t the first to merge luxury with streetwear, but he did it brilliantly and evolved it as a dominant approach to modern luxury for a younger customer that will influence luxury and high-end design through the 2020s,” says Roger Tredre, a master’s-degree instructor in fashion communications at Central Saint Martins in London.
For Tredre, Abloh shared this ability to innovate with his sometime collaborator Kanye West, who has also emerged as an arch disrupter in luxury fashion. “The Boost 350, with its amazing knitted upper, was simply the most influential sneaker of 2016,” says Tredre. “And the Yeezy marketing policy of small, regular drops has had a huge impact on fashion, including luxury.”
Seeing West’s growth is a full-circle moment for Umindi Francis, who runs a brand-consulting company. Francis was on Louis Vuitton’s communications staff in 2004, when West requested a backpack from the house for a video for his debut album, The College Dropout.
“Somebody needed to tell them, ‘Yeah, give it to him,’ because if I wasn’t there to tell you that he is of the moment, then things get ignored,” says Francis, who notes diversity within fashion houses has been a powerful factor for progress. For too long, “you didn’t have people of color in there to tell you what was of the moment. So the moment was missed. The brands that were able to align themselves with the moment were the brands that thrived.”
Today it’s clear both that hip-hop has become the mainstream, and that luxury has fallen in step with its power to influence. Tiffany & Co. made Jay-Z and Beyoncé the faces of its 2021 ad campaign, while today’s most coveted items are often collaborations between designers and hip-hop artists or seem to be inspired by the work of Dapper Dan decades ago, including Yeezy Gap Engineered by Balenciaga, Gucci’s “hacking” of Balenciaga and collaboration with the North Face last year, and Fendi and Versace’s Fendace mash-up this year. And Dapper Dan’s story, too, has come full circle: After Fendi filed a trademark-infringement case against him, he closed the shop. But his life changed when Gucci sent a distinctive jacket down the runway in 2017 that was uncannily similar to a puff-sleeved one Dan had made in 1989. Gucci smartly dug itself out of a hole by signing Dan for a brand partnership and a new atelier in Harlem. “I know who we are,” Dan says now. “I know how we feel, and that’s what I bring to the table.”
Wilbekin rejoices in the ability “to see how this idea [of luxury and hip-hop] has manifested, and that we actually see Black people like Virgil Abloh, like Pharrell Williams, like Swizz Beats, like Jay-Z and Beyoncé, actually living this realized life of wealth and abundance and power through a Black lens, and actually forcing luxury to reimagine itself because of the Blackness and the realness that we brought to the table.”
Today hip-hop artists no longer bounce between persona non grata and flavor of the month at fashion houses. They are guaranteed front-row access, featured in ad campaigns and styled in luxury items happily loaned by maisons. Artists have proven that they are the gateway to a multibillion-dollar industry that encompasses not just boys in the hood and boys in the suburbs but also the men and women who nurtured them.
For Wilbekin, it was the active push for progress from every facet of the hip-hop industry that made a difference. “[In a way] this was civil-rights work,” he says. “This was social-justice work, almost like what Black ministers do in the church. It’s repetitive. You stay on the word and you repeat it, repeat it, and you don’t leave.”
And for the community at large, the push persists. A new generation understands wealth as less about showing off bling and more about ownership. Billionaire Kanye West collaborates with Adidas but maintains creative control of his Yeezy brand; billionaire Jay-Z sold a 50 percent stake in his Armand de Brignac “Ace of Spades” Champagne to LVMH for a reported $630 million; billionaire Rihanna partnered with the conglomerate on her Fenty brand. Today audiences know these artists as much for their luxury portfolios as for their musical output. Hip-hop’s take on capitalism is a radical remix of the tune it once played but may come to be remembered as its greatest hit. And it may finally ensure that the once-icy relationship between luxury and hip-hop will always be warm.
Additional reporting by Kareem Rashed and Paige Reddinger
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