Hip-hop fashion reigns as a distinctive style that was originally formed by African American kids of the South Bronx and beyond in NYC; it later expanded to cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. It complements the expressions and styles of hip-hop. It is a physical expression forged through the influence of the styles and brands of big-name hip-hop artists. It is fueled by a sense of personalized identity and the idea of freshness. Despite its humble origins, it has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. Throughout its journey to the top, hip-hop fashion has continuously promoted a strong sense of identity for its most loyal fans.
Sacha Jenkins displayed the origins of hip-hop fashion through his documentary Fresh Dressed. The film opens with a scene reviewing the best church styles worn by African-Americans during the time of slavery. According to historical 18th century records, slaves would dress their best to rebel against enslavement and assert their freedom and individuality. The documentary flashes scenes from the jazz age to 1970s Manhattan—where Jenkins says hip-hop fashion originated.
The South Bronx witnessed urban decay during the 1970s. An overflow of abandoned buildings led to approximately 40% of neighborhoods being abandoned, ransacked, or set on fire. It was during this time that gangs like Savage Skulls began customizing their denim outfits with adornments like badges. Their rebel look soon transformed into B-Boy (breakdance) styles, which led to the popularity of sportswear brands, like FILA, as street style, and finally the establishment of hip-hop fashion brands.
The creation of big-name hip-hop centric companies in the 1990’s led to this fashion style’s establishment. Brands like FUBU (For Us By Us), Rocawear, Coogi, and Phat Farm benefitted from the enormous popularity of hip-hop music in 1990’s. The success of hip-hop brands, however, tended to be short lived: too many brands formed by rappers took over the fashion market, which led to fatal competition and conflict. After the end of the “fubu” labels, artists obsessed over European houses like Givenchy and Louis Vuitton. In addition to luxury labels, hip-hop artists turned to preppy labels, such as Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, and Polo Ralph Lauren. Still, high-end European brands reigned as the materialistic signals of wealth and status. This trend of favoring high-end tastes over street-specific fashion remains prevalent in today’s hip-hop culture. However, as hip-hop artists shifted to join forces with these European brands, 59 hip-hop fashion morphed into a monopoly and the tables were now turned. Several luxury brands com - pete to create dynamic collaborations with the hiphop community and other urban artists.
In February 2015, the first season commemorat - ing the partnership between Adidas and Kanye West culminated in YEEZY Season 1. In the collection’s press release, Adidas + KANYE WEST was described as a “Yeezy branded entity creating footwear apparel and accessories for all genders across street and sport.” YEEZY Season 1 saw the release of two revolution - ary sneakers: YEEZY Boost 350 and Boost 750. Fans went crazy over the sneakers, and they sold out almost immediately. Since then, YEEZY Season 2, Season 3, and Season 4 have been released. Adidas + KANYE WEST has seen tremendous success for both the hiphop artist and the German sportswear brand. For his YEEZY Boost 350, Kanye was awarded a “2015 Shoe of the Year” by Footwear News. Kanye was also award - ed an Adidas team to create more YEEZEY branded products. Adidas scored big financially as a result of the collaboration: A MarketWatch report found that Adidas won 29% of the secondary sneaker market following the YEEZY collaboration. According to Adidas, this “unprecedented new alliance makes his - tory as the most significant partnership ever created between a non-athlete and an athletic brand.”
These are just two examples of the growing trend of hip-hop and urban artists pursuing long-term collaborations with brand-name fashion powerhouses. In the 90s, collaborations were temporary partnerships that involved the release of a particular item, like Reebok and Jay Z in the creation of the Reebok S. Carter sneaker. Companies would usually release one limited-edition item with a big name hip-hop artist as a collaboration. Now, as seen with Rihanna, companies are establishing artists as creative directors. These long-term partnerships now not only involve the strict release of a single product, but allow for artists to have the freedom to innovate and release clothes, shoes, and accessories.
In the end, everything concerning hip-hop fashion comes down to one word: fresh. Fresh is something that is new or rare, something that is highly desired, something that screams to be looked at. According to director Sacha Jenkins, fresh is displaying that new limited-edition clothing item—proudly proclaiming that you have money and can afford to buy the best. Both hip-hop artists and fans alike go to great lengths to maintain their clothing, to look as fresh as possible. Being fresh represents your notion of money. For many hip-hop fans who come from impoverished backgrounds, being fresh is the only way to maintain identity. Damon Dash, who set up Rocawear with Jay-Z, says, “if you go home and you got roaches and 10 people living in an apartment, the only way you can…feel some kind of status is [with] what you have on your body.” Hip-hop fashion provides a sense of identity, and for many, that identity offers an escape from reality by creating an illusion of great wealth, power, and status.
So what does it actually mean to be fresh in 2017? Fresh in 2017 is wearing that Yeezy Boost 350 or that faux fur hoodie by Rihanna. Fresh in 2017 is flaunting that FENTY logo or that YEEZY signature touch, and then noticing people double dip as you walk by. Hip-hop fashion has reached a point where artists are creating their own clothing lines with big brand names. Even in 2017, hip-hop fashion is still centered around the self—deciding what clothes and overall appearance you flaunt. Although hip-hop fashion appears to be peaking in 2017, the underlying idea of individuality originated in the ‘70s with kids from the South of Bronx just wanting to stand out. Who would have known that this style would grow into a global sensation.