Cardi B and Anna Wintour. It was this unlikely front-row pairing that got the fashion flock buzzing at the latest American designer Alexander Wang defile. 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 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$AP Rocky, well known for his sense of style as he is for his music. “Fashion is for everyone and the more you try to exclude people, you’ll find out that those are the same people you need to include the most.” Over the past two years, more than a dozen luxury brands – including Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs – have featured hip-hop artists in their advertising campaigns, while brands like Versace and JW Anderson have taken things a step further by collaborating with artists like 2 Chainz and A$AP Rocky on products.
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, 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, swiftly sued him. “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.” Nowadays, 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” 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). “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.”
But as a “millennial state of mind” takes hold across society, changing the purchasing habits of all generations of consumers, hip-hop is not just about courting the youth. From teenagers lining up to buy the newest Supreme products to traditional luxury customers to the designers themselves, the music of Kanye West or Drake is now resonating with a wide slice of people regardless of their demographics. Indeed, hip-hop now accounts for almost a quarter of all music consumption in the United States, with eight out of the 10 most popular artists of 2017 from the genre, according to Nielsen Music. “Hip-hop in particular has always been an important influence in my life and my creative process,” says Alexander Wang, whose sportswear aesthetic has long attracted rappers. “I continue to be inspired by the genre as it evolves and touches all levels of society and forms of culture today.” Content creation aimed at feeding the all-important social media feed is a big piece of the puzzle. “I would say 90 percent of my artists have their own creative directors, videographers and editing teams [that] get content out that day. That’s the secret sauce,” says Tammy Brook, founder and chief executive of FYI Brand Group, a brand strategy agency that for the past 17 years has connected companies with influential cultural figures, including rappers. But as with any dialogue, it was not just the fashion industry that warmed to hip-hop. Rappers, too, have shifted their stance on the industry and the liberalization of the hip-hop scene was key to the shift. “Hip-hop going mainstream happened a bit earlier, but it became more inclusive quite recently — it used to be exclusive and macho,” explains Fischer. “You now have everyone from queer rappers to female rappers and the market has become a lot less homophobic, which has also led to a lot more hip-hop artists feeling more comfortable with embracing fashion and vice versa.”
“That’s where the partnerships come in,” says Matthew Henson, who has been working with A$AP Rocky on the rapper’s fashion business (AWGE) since 2013. “Some artists offer a unique and valid point of view and can contribute to the overall growth and creativity of a brand. Designers are always inspired by music, art and social movements so if they align with a particular musician, then they collaborate there as well.” And as much as fashion brands are leveraging hip-hop, rappers are using fashion houses to build their personal brands. But it needs to be authentic, says Brook. “The first thing [rappers] have to do to blow up in the fashion world is love fashion, this can’t be fake. You have to know about it and be part of the culture and community. “Second thing is, you put them in a room with the Anna Wintours, the Carine Roitfelds and you get them to a point where they’re credible enough and on the radar,” she continues. “Once they’re in the room, they’ve got to create a real connection that’s direct, because when designers decide who they’re going to put in their campaigns, it’s going to be the ones they really feel the connection with,” emphasizes the brand strategist specialized in collaboration between artists and luxury brands.
On the staying power of hip-hop’s influence within the fashion industry, Fischer says: “This is the new reality. [Rappers] are going to be the most influential brands in the future and if you want your brand to have any relevance with a young audience you need to embrace this, and you need to make it a general part of your strategy moving forward.” He pauses before adding a word of caution: “But shoppers smell bullshit, so the minute it’s perceived as a marketing thing, it’s not going to work.”