Cardi B and Anna Wintour? It was this unlikely front-row pairing that got the fashion flock buzzing when American designer Alexander Wang presented his Autumn/Winter 2018 collection at the old Condé Nast offices high above New York’s Times Square in February. After all, the seat next to Wintour, the most powerful figure in fashion, is usually filled by fellow magazine editors, industry chief executives, Hollywood stars — even royalty.
While Wang has long been a fan of hip-hop, the placement of the 25-year-old female rapper — a Bronx native who broke out in 2017 after her track “Bodak Yellow” took the number one position on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart — speaks volumes about how the wider fashion industry has changed its stance on hip-hop, which, in December, surpassed rock to become the most popular music genre in the US.
“It’s important for this generation and the next generation to see people that look like them or that inspire them, because fashion isn’t just for the elite any more,” says rapper A$AP Rocky, who is as well known for his sense of style as he is for his music. “Fashion is for everyone and the more you try to exclude people, you’ll find out that those are the same people you need to include the most.”
Whether it is A$AP Rocky and the rest of the A$AP Mob starring in the latest instalment of Calvin Klein’s #MyCalvins campaign, Gucci paying “homage” (some cried “cultural appropriation”) to Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day in its Cruise 2018 collection or Dior Homme inviting rappers like Future, Big Sean and Metro Boomin to Kris van Assche’s final collection for the house in January 2018, fashion brands have woken up to the reality that hip-hop has replaced Hollywood as the most powerful force in global entertainment culture.
Over the past two years, more than a dozen luxury brands — including Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs — have featured hip-hop artists in their advertising campaigns, while brands like Versace and JW Anderson have taken things a step further by collaborating with artists like 2 Chainz and A$AP Rocky on products.
Hip-hop artists are storytellers and news reporters of the times.
This was not always the case. For many decades, hip-hop was seen to be brand-diluting for major luxury houses, who dismissed the growing power of street culture. When Daniel “Dapper Dan” Day opened his boutique in New York’s Harlem in 1982, he was swiftly sued by Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Fendi, whose lawyers were not amused by his extravagant designs emblazoned with signature logos from their brands and sold to influential rappers, athletes and street hustlers. The store was ultimately shut down in 1992, following a slew of raids and lawsuits.
“In the early days it was devastating, I was attacked constantly,” recalls Day. “They felt that I was infringing upon their brands, but all I was doing was making a statement. You can go on forever about what the line is between appropriation and aesthetic creation.”
Today, following a social media-fuelled outrage suggesting that Gucci had stolen — not paid homage to — Day’s work with its replica of one of Day’s 1989 jackets for its Cruise 2018 collection, the designer is partnering with the Italian megabrand on made-to-order garments and limited-edition products, sold from Gucci’s new Harlem boutique, which opened in January. “A sign of the times!” exclaimed Day in a tweet announcing the boutique’s January 2018 launch.
But beyond working with Day, Gucci has invited rappers like A$AP Rocky and Childish Gambino to its runway shows and dressed artists such as Migos and 2 Chainz, boosting its well-documented success with younger luxury consumers.
Certainly, hip-hop is a powerful tool for reaching Generations Y and Z, who are expected to account for 45 percent of the global luxury spend by 2025, according to Bain & Company.
“It’s a way of reaching young kids that usually would not take an interest in high-end fashion or high-end tailoring,” agrees Kris van Assche. The recently appointed artistic director of Berluti previously spent 11 years as artistic director of Dior Homme, which dresses several hip-hop artists, including A$AP Rocky, Big Sean and Future (these rappers have also made regular front row appearances at Dior Homme’s runway shows). “It’s a way of getting the message over to them.”
“Hip-hop artists are storytellers and news reporters of the times, [and] with hip-hop being the number one music genre, it proves that hip-hop artists drive culture,” says stylist and fashion consultant Aleali May, who has worked with popular rappers including Kendrick Lamar, Lil Yachty and 21 Savage. “Fashion is paying more attention to its consumers now more than ever,” she adds. “The old way of thinking is out the door and, in order to attract the next generation, there needs to be an analysis on what’s driving the consumer.”