Styling Up
Prestige Hong Kong|October 2017

From Balmain to Chanel, fashion brands have been on a honeymoon with hip hop. But is this new-found love genuine?

Vincenzo La Torre

Humble is not the first word that comes to mind when you think of Kanye West but, believe it or not, back in 2003 the rapper’s first foray into fashion was very low key. Unbeknown to many, he and a then-unknown Virgil Abloh, West’s sometime creative director and the founder of label du jour Off-White, started out as interns at Fendi, working alongside Silvia Venturini to learn the ropes of the trade.

That fashion and hip hop go way back is no news but things have changed from the days when the world of rap, Kanye West included, was worshipping at the altar of luxury and kept at a distance from it by gatekeeper editors and designers, who thrived on the perceived exclusivity of their industry.

While clothes have played a pivotal role in the history of hip hop from the outset, it was sportswear brands such as Adidas, Reebok and Nike or quintessential US labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren that dominated the closets – and appeared in the videos – of rappers (remember Run-DMC’s 1986 hit “My Adidas”?). While hip hop was always fascinated with high fashion, the love wasn’t mutual and up until the turn of the 21st century, rappers looked at the world of couture with their noses pressed against impenetrable windows.

In 1999 Sean Combs, aka P Diddy, tried to join the big leagues of the New York fashion scene with the launch of his eponymous brand, followed by a personal investment in Zac Posen in 2004. Coverage in US Vogue and industry buzz notwithstanding, his line was never taken seriously and ended up being relegated to the discount racks of Macy’s.

As recently as 2006, champagne maker Cristal was eager to disassociate itself with the bling world of rap: when none other than Jay-Z mentioned the bubbly in one of his lyrics, its CEO was critical of the endorsement and the rapper famously retaliated by boycotting the company, accusing it of being racist. Fast forward to 2013 and not only is Tom Ford honoured to dress him, but his name is also the title of a Jay-Z track that was part of the Magna Carta Holy Grail album. “Who would not be flattered to have an entire Jay-Z track named after them? I mean, come on, it’s pretty rare that something like that happens,” Ford told WWD. “It’s a kind of validation of one’s work, as it means that one has really penetrated and made an impact on popular culture.”

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