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Opinion: Is High-Fashion Hip-Hop Good For The Culture?

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Hip-hop’s consumers used to scream over pricey Jordans and Versace gear, but in retrospect those were frugal fashion entry points as your favorite rapper now plugs brands priced for the 1 percent. VIBE sounds the alarm

Words: Kim Rose

My, how we’ve all grown.

Commemorating two decades of VIBE is like facing a mirror, a full-length framework of the cultural journey we’ve traveled through sound and style. That is, the clothes we rock have always been reflected in the music we rock to; but somewhere along the way, rap’s breeches got too big for its bitches.

Flipping through the earliest issues, it is obvious that fashion was perhaps one of the most essential fabrics of ’90s hip-hop. Lyrically, rappers have always been evangelists of freshness, conspicuous consumers preaching what to believe, how to dance, what to say and, naturally, how to dress. There is proof that exists today in the cobwebbed corners of closets and bowels of basements, where gold ropes have turned an eerie tint and bamboo earrings rest in peace. Still, those years represent an awkward adolescence soon followed by an abrupt growth spurt.

“Buying new gear, nothin’ but the best/Forget Levi’s, strictly Polo and Guess.” —Mobb Deep, “Peer Pressure,” 1993

When rappers started showing up with new homies like Ralph Lauren (although gangs like Brooklyn’s Decepticons had long put the brand on a pedestal), we took notice. Soon everyone wanted “Tommy” emblazoned across their chest like Snoop Dogg did on Saturday Night Live. Hilfiger and Polo were the aspirational fashion brands, and folks were actually able to attain them. Their clothes sold within a range of relatively reasonable price points, allowing even broke heads to hurry to Marshalls or T.J. Maxx to cop a logo on the cheap. Bad Boy helped us grow out of that, though.

“I put hoes in N.Y. onto DKNY/Miami, D.C. prefer Versace/All Philly hoes go with Moschino/Every cutie wit a booty bought a Coogi.” —Notorious B.I.G., “Hypnotize,” 1997

The Puffy era ushered in a multimillion-dollar sensibility; and since the shoe fit, rappers began walking around looking like a million bucks, too. Shiny suits be damned, punctuating a fashion statement could still be paid in full then, even if it meant a moderate dent in your bank statement. This was largely by design, since so much of what we wore at that time was spit straight from the creative minds of our rap models. It was nothing to hit up New York’s trendy SoHo neighborhood for a Phat Farm sweater, and soon after Rocawear drawers and Sean John velour suits.

“Red bottoms by the barrel/Pop the Giuseppe tags like it’s American Apparel/$20,000 up in Barneys, haters’ll never harm me/Rick Owens on me, bombers for my whole army.” —Rick Ross, “Super High,” 2010

Those were the days. Twenty years in, and the currency of chic is currently set in the boldest of prints. Rappers are stunting on steroids, and the perception-enhancing dress code is ultra-high above street level. The music has morphed into “luxury rap,” with haute lyrics laced with labels nobody can pronounce and designers few can reach. Yet, while Jay Z and Kanye West and the like hobnob with Rick Owens and Phillip Lim, issue new watch alerts and reign as filthy rich style icons, the masses are in a money grab for survival. Rap appears recession-proof, pricing out the cash-strapped consumers who are the driving force of the industry.

“Couture-level flow, it’s never going on sale/Luxury rap, the Hermès of verses.” —Kanye West, “Otis,” 2011

In some ways, we rely on the Jays and ’Yes to forge ahead beyond class lines to report back; to pioneer trends and ideas and aesthetics, planting a “We Were Here” sign as proof for the ledgers that hip-hop existed in rarified air. But where does that leave the rest of us? With a $1,000 bag with no cash in it, precisely as Kanye calculated from his high(-end) horse. Back at the bottom, shit is real. Hard-knock economic times loom large for young people approaching entry into the workforce, where jobs are sometimes as scarce as black billionaires.

“I see your Jil Sander, Oliver Peoples/Costume National, your Ann Demeulemeester/See Visvim be the sneaker, Lanvin or Balmain.” —A$AP Rocky, “Fashion Killa,” 2013

Elevating unattainable brands turns hip-hop into a fiscal fantasyland that is impossible to sustain. The masses will soon grow tired of striving for unicorns and the tide will turn, at least for a season, the way of the Macklemore: frugal-fly. Rappers, however, will probably never stop chasing the Carters. So can you really blame a kid who’s in debt a hundred stacks over an education she’ll never use for wanting to blow a refund check on the cheapest Louis accessory she can find because she heard Wiz Khalifa immortalize it? Fashion is that notch of proof that we exist in this time and place, a reflection of the music we’ve grown to cherish.

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