The late 1980s and '90s are often referenced as the greatest period for fashion in hip hop, as logomania, barely there outfits and oversized silhouettes became the go-to looks for artists making a name for themselves on the scene. Thirty years later and the obsession with the era's 'urban' fashion has yet to be tamed. Instagram accounts like @hiphopurbanpop and @stuckintha90s_ invite followers to take a trip down memory lane as they post award shows, films and music videos displaying the best looks the 'golden era' of hip hop had to offer.
One music video that fashion fanatics know all too well is Lil' Kim's "Crush on You", a record from the rapper’s debut album. The video features Kim in now-iconic monochromatic outfits with matching makeup and jewellery, and has been a source of inspiration for content creators and celebrities ever since. The stylist behind that video? Misa Hylton. Known mostly for her barrier-breaking work with Kim, Hylton has also worked with R&B artists Jodeci, Mary J. Blige and, more recently, Beyoncé and Jay-Z on their "Apeshit" video.
Alongside April Walker, the founder of Walker Wear, Hylton is the subject of The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashion, a Tribeca Studios documentary (now streaming on Netflix) which chronicles the influence of Black female talent in turning urban fashion into a global success. Featuring Vanessa Kingori, Kerby Jean-Raymond and many more, the documentary is a long overdue ode to Hylton and Walker after years of them being ignored and sidelined by the fashion industry.
Before Tommy Hilfiger monopolised the oversized denim look and JNCO started specialising in super large jeans pockets, April Walker created the 'rough and rugged' suit. Catering to the needs of a new generation who were less interested in formal dressing and more focused on relaxed fits, Walker's fashion line devoted itself to dressing hip hop’s up-and-coming male artists. Yet as Walker Wear took off, Walker chose to stay out of the spotlight for fear that a female-led brand wouldn’t succeed in such a male-dominated industry. At its genesis, hip hop was a men’s club, often excluding women both onstage and off. "Women are constantly eliminated from most narratives. That is because the authors of the narratives have been male. We need to insert ourselves into the conversation and tell our stories," says Farah X, co-director of The Remix.
These stories, as co-director Lisa Cortés tells me, have been there from the beginning.
"Cindy Campbell organised the Back To School party where her brother, Kool Herc, DJ'd and showcased his unique skills that created the blueprint of hip hop. Despite the barriers, the history shows that in all parts of the business – as managers, label executives and stylists – women were active in shaping the images and careers of these artists."
As hip hop grew and women became more visible in front of the camera, style architects became responsible for creating personas for their clients that would leave a lasting impact. Where most female artists chose to blend in with androgynous styles, Misa Hylton and Lil’ Kim embraced femininity, a trait commonly adopted by present-day rappers including Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B in their latest video, "WAP". Championing a uniform of pasties, mink coats and rhinestone-covered bikinis, Hylton quickly redefined the idea of what a female rapper could look like, all without the help of major fashion houses.
Bevy Smith, former advertising director at Vibe magazine, states in the film that for a long time, "the urban consumer wasn’t seen as a viable consumer". Luxury fashion brands refused to work with hip hop artists on the assumption that urban fashion was a passing trend, forcing stylists and designers to find other ways to create. As one door was closed, pioneers such as Hylton and Dapper Dan – the man notorious for reworking luxury items into pieces for his clientele – found another way to break through, reconstructing fabrics to fit the style and image of the hip hop scene. "[We make] something out of nothing – spinning gold out of hay," says Cortés. Yet it was this creativity that led to the fashion industry pushing Hylton, Walker and Dapper Dan aside.
The very same companies and publications that had considered their work 'ghetto' were now profiting off their artistry, disregarding those responsible for it. As Walker puts it in the film: "We create culture but don’t participate in the longevity of it." After her 'rough and rugged' suit was popularised by the likes of Biggie and Tupac, it was plagiarised by high fashion brands, making it difficult for her to get the credit she deserved. Dapper Dan was forced to shut his business in 1992 following repeated legal challenges, only for his work to be replicated 20 years later by those who had attempted to sue him.
Hylton, meanwhile, the creative mind responsible for shifting the way we see female rappers, was excluded from the conversation when her clients were finally being recognised and celebrated. In the end she had to sacrifice her home.
Black talent has continuously created waves in culture and fashion, leading the way in trendsetting, but it has taken over 20 years for high fashion to finally give these women their flowers. "We owe so much to Black brilliance throughout history that isn’t celebrated in our mainstream culture," says Farah X. The Remix highlights just how essential Black women have been and continue to be to the fashion industry. "We wanted to make a concerted effort to highlight the women in various fields to not only tell the history but also to reveal their own stories as pioneers," she continues.
As integral as Black creatives are to the fashion industry, it seems as though they can never be celebrated without first being exploited. This film acts as a case study, showing that Black creativity is too often forced into a rinse-and-repeat cycle of mockery, disregard and appropriation, making it difficult to achieve genuine success. But Cortés is hopeful that "the triumph of Misa and April’s journeys will inform and inspire creatives in fashion." As her co-director Farah X emphasises, young artists of colour matter: "Their voice matters, their creativity matters and, in the current cultural climate, their existence matters."
You can watch The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashion on Netflix now.