“Everything is a flashback,” Syreeta Gates said last week. “That’s the way it always is with our culture. Black folks are going to see what’s out there, take it and remix it for themselves and transform it into something else.”
Ms. Gates, the archivist and founder of the Gates Preserve, a core source of historical material from the 50-year evolution of hip-hop, was referring to an art form “created, maintained and valued by nonwhite poor folks.” She was also talking about hip-hop style.
That the genre and its look are indivisibly linked was never clearer than during last Sunday’s Grammys, when a 15-minute musical medley brought together a panoply of hip-hop artists, styles, eras and regional variations, with performers as disparate as LL Cool J, Rakim, Queen Latifah and Lil Baby crowding the Crypto.com Arena stage.
It was a dizzying convergence, musically and visually. And it was one that served, in a sense, as a portal to a yearlong celebration of a genre whose true origins are traceable to a birthday party in the Bronx projects in 1973. Decades afterward, the rap scholar Tricia Rose would note in “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America” how skeptical the mainstream initially was to music most thought was a fad. That is, until the indie producer Sylvia Robinson released the hit song “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979.
Over the next five years rap was “discovered’’ and then ever afterward embraced by a variety of industries, none more enthusiastically than fashion, which mined, adapted and appropriated hip-hop style until, eventually, conceding to it commercial primacy. It is no secret that hardly a designer working today has not at some point dipped into the slipstream of hip-hop for inspiration.
And the unstated goal of “Fresh, Fly, Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style,” an exhibition that opened this week at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (accompanied by a book from Rizzoli Electa), is to track the transformation of an art form born, as the curators Elena Romero and Elizabeth Way wrote, “of the segregation and oppression of communities of color within American urban centers” to its current status as a multibillion-dollar industry and the cultural powerhouse the Grammys put on display.
It is also giving credit where it is long overdue. “The mainstream didn’t acknowledge hip-hop until the likes of Isaac Mizrahi and Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel showed collections inspired by hip-hop on their runways,” Ms. Romero wrote in an email.
While designers like Tommy Hilfiger were quick to make connections to hip-hop with product placement on performers like Snoop Dogg in a 1994 performance on “Saturday Night Live,” and brands like Cross Colours, Karl Kani, Walker Wear, Maurice Malone, Mecca USA and FUBU did somehow penetrate the mainstream, the establishment, Ms. Romero said, “frowned down upon” hip-hop, and for two primary reasons — “who did the designing and who the intended customers were.”
That trend has largely flipped, of course. Multinationals aggressively court fans of the genre, filling ad campaigns and their front rows with rap stars (if seldom staffing design studios with people of color).
Academe has also gotten in on the act, with Harvard and Cornell building archives dedicated to the complex and layered history of the genre. And in 2014, as Ms. Way noted, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History added the rapper and producer Slick Rick’s (Richard Martin Lloyd Walters) birth certificate to its collection, along with a microphone belonging to the incandescent rapper Rakim (né William Michael Griffin Jr.).
In 2018, Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize. And last year ground was broken for a mixed-use development in the Bronx that encompasses the Universal Hip Hop Museum, all of it set to open in 2024.
Yet, even a half century into hip-hop history, there is a sense that in historiographic terms we are at the beginning. “There are so many unsung heroes,” Ms. Romero said. Even among lauded progenitors of hip-hop style — storied designers like Daniel R. Day, whose Dapper Dan collaborations with Gucci brought him global renown — there is an inexhaustible trove of histories yet to tap and discoveries to make.
Last week Mr. Day said that when he was a boy, it was still commonplace for “us poor kids” to swim in the Harlem River, diving from a dock on the Manhattan side of the flow and then paddling to a nearby sandbank.
“We always threw in a stick from a Popsicle to pay attention to which way the current was moving,” said Mr. Day, whose innovative designs fused natty tailoring with home-printed bootleg logo fabrics that copied those manufactured by luxury labels like Fendi, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. “And that was my same philosophy of fashion: Follow the flow.”
Before being driven underground by anti-counterfeit squads, Mr. Day sold his designs to Harlem high rollers from a Harlem storefront. Many of his best customers happened to be gangsters. And some, like the drug kingpin James Jackson, while notoriously feared for their for brutality, were widely emulated for their style.
“All that gold and diamonds people associate with the rappers, all the O.G. stuff, it’s a holdover from people like Jackson,” Mr. Day said. “He always had the flyest furs, the flyest cars, the flyest jewelry. He was the first one to come in with Louis Vuitton.”
Alas, there is relatively little bling in the F.I.T. show, and so perhaps some other costume institution will one day mount a flashy display of massive gold dookie chains and gem-studded brass knuckle rings from Jacob Arabo, a.k.a. Jacob the Jeweler, or else glittering multimillion-dollar Lorraine Schwartz danglers like those that Beyoncé wore for her recent performance in Dubai. Or even the wild dental grills created by the Vietnamese American jeweler Johnny Dang.
What the show’s curators assembled instead, from 50 private lenders, is a relatively low key, although no less affecting, display of designs representative of styles created, adapted or innovated among small groups that tended to find one another almost exclusively through word of mouth. “There would be this one party that five people were talking about all week,” said Ms. Gates, who grew up in St. Albans, Queens, another neighborhood where rap was incubated in its early days. “OK, maybe there was a flyer — maybe.’’
There are Dapper Dan jackets with insets of MCM fabric, Cross Colours knit caps, Kangol bucket hats like those LL Cool J made famous. From Ralph Lauren’s fall 1998 collection there are ski parkas that were once called suicide jackets because, as Ms. Way explained, “if you wore one, you were sure to get robbed.”
There are Lee jeans with the creases sewn in, monogram belt buckles of the sort sold at Times Square novelty shops. There are Afrocentric kufi-style hats of kente cloth like those Salt-N-Pepa wore on tour (with customized varsity jackets, ankle boots and tights). There are shearling coats and shell-toe Adidas, like those worn by Run DMC, and a case filled with the highly coveted record label lanyards that guaranteed backstage access when rap shows were still held in arenas and armories.
There are clothes that look generic to the point of insignificance unless, as Monica Lynch, the former head of Tommy Boy Records, explained by phone, “you understood the subtleties.’’
The “color story” of the early 1980s, for instance, was burgundy, said Ms. Lynch, who consults these days with Sotheby’s on auctions of the hip-hop memorabilia that is increasingly sought by collectors. “Then gray was really big. It was simple things. The Lee jeans were perfectly pressed. The sneakers had to be the right sneakers. People were perfectly turned out on no money at all. They shopped at outdoor circular racks on Fordham Road to get things for $19 bucks.”
They shopped at a place that called itself the “cheapest sneaker store in America,” an all-but-unimaginable concept in an era of astronomically expensive collector kicks.
“They shopped at the Albee Square Mall in Brooklyn or the Coliseum Mall in Queens or on 125th Street,” Ms. Lynch said. “It wasn’t the money. It was what they could do with it.”
Clothes tell stories, and the narrative composed in “Fresh, Fly, Fabulous,” as Ms. Gates remarked, is one built on the sort of accounts history too often overlooks. “There’s this patchwork quilt culture being created by a group of Black and brown young people with few options and fewer resources,” all making their dash for a version of the American dream.
For the photographer and hip-hop chronicler Jamel Shabazz, those early days were jubilant times. “We would gather up on a Saturday afternoon, the D.J.s would come out and hook equipment up to a lamp post,” he said. “Yes, the city was turbulent. And, yes, we still had a problem with heroin. But there weren’t guns yet, and people would go to the barbershop, go to Delancey Street for the flyest gear and then come together for a feel-good time dressed in their very best.”