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Rap and fashion: the story of an unexpected convergence…

1910384_com_parental_aThis article comes from the 2013 Antoine Zucchet’s master degree graduation work at the French Institute of Fashion: “Irregular around the margins / American rappers, fashion & luxury brands: a convergence.”

Kanye West seated in the front row at the Vuitton show, posing with Riccardo Tisci in Vogue, then, ASAP Rocky wearing some Margiela outfit… Indeed, the ties between rap and fashion are becoming closer. At the first sight, there is nothing that obvious that could link these two universes: one is the voice of “those we cannot be heard” and the other one is “an aristocratic world for wealthy people”.

The origins of this unexpected convergence came from a place and a context: New York, the 80’s and its ghettos, far from the glamorous fashion week’s events and the fashion shows. Yet, the two worlds have ended up joining and maintain multiple connections. Why? How? Actually, “the street style” has always attracted fashion because of the urban decay, the dark and infamous side of the life in the streets embedded in the “street styke”: “can’t you tell that I came from the dope game?” (Jay-Z, 2007).

Episode One: 1986
imagesThe first time the two universes met was in 1986, the year when RUN-DMC released its third album “Raising Hell” with the famous song “My Adidas”. That soundtrack was a commercial success as much as a cultural phenomenon. But the question is why? Simply because it was a pure revelation for Adidas, but at the same time an opportunity to connect with the rap community. At its career peak, RUN-DMC performed at the Madison Square Garden in New York and this event was recognition: it was the first time that the Rap music was showcased on such iconic stage. Paul Watrous from the New York Times journal went so far titrating “It’s official, RAP is in the mainstream”. In the audience at the Madison Square Garden there was Angelo Anastacio, a marketing manager of Adidas US who was following the performance and was absolutely convinced of the marketing potential of the rap music in terms of influencing lifestyle. He then urged Adidas European management to fly to the US to see and acknowledge the phenomenon.

images jDuring a certain night, an amazing scene occurred: Darryl from RUN-DMC started rapping “My Adidas”, and took off his shoes (Adidas “superstar” model) and rose them up above his head. The 40,000 people from the audience immediately imitated him. The story said that the financial agreement with Adidas brand to give birth to the “superstar DMC” model shoes and to another famous tracksuit was signed in the backstage of this memorable concert in New York during that night… This initiative was a great gateway for Adidas branding to reach out new markets by tapping into a new positioning: from sport to culture and lifestyle. Afterwards, Nike branding quickly followed this growing trend. Thanks to this new trend, the “Hip-hop” culture was gaining visibility and respect.


Episode Two: 1993
1214242757210fIn the beginning of the 1990’s, rap has become a “business” and marketing is a massive weapon. For instance, MTV the television channel played a pivotal role to marketing and promote rap music: MTV was literally a game changer. A unique character emerged in Los Angeles with a model silhouette, a bit gangster, a bit dandy, his name 2Pac (Tupac Shakur). The sour rapper would then become a fashion figure for Versace collection fall / winter 1996. On the East Coast, another key figure appeared: Notorious BIG aka ‘Big Poppa’. He was at the same time a drug baron and an obese lowlands Casanova:

I Love it when you call me Big Poppa / Throw your hands in the air / if you a true player / To the honey playing niggas like dummies / If you got a gun in your waist / Please don’t shoot up the waist’ (Notorious BIG 1993).

Versace became the new muse of the love affair between rap & fashion for these rappers figures. Why Versace? In the first place, because of Italy and because of the mafia power of attraction, but also because of some movies clichés: Goodfellas, Scarface, Casino… Then also because of some actors who delivered terrific performance such as Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro … Finally, Versace and Miami have something in common: their baroque design style, their eccentricity that were very inspiring…. Another angle to better consider the fatal attraction between rap & fashion is the perception of success that was a powerful source in fashion & rap. At some point, in the rap community, success was built-up upon mafia style, in other words: dealing with violence and fierce rivalry. For Notarious BIG and 2Pac it was not a fantasy but the reality. In addition, that rivalry was beyond the characters, it was also territory clash between the East Coast and the West Coast. Unfortunately, that story ended-up tragically with the murder of the two main characters, respectively in 1996 for 2Pac and 1997 for Notorious BIG.

images ooThat event was a turning point for the rap music in the US. In terms of creativity, there was nothing left but an artistic vacuum and it led the genre to the following transition: from the rap music to the mainstream music via radio, television, and clubs. The rappers became superstars, celebrities and Versace took all this rap fame and credibility for its own branding and its positioning. Actually, well before the death of Gianni Versace in 1997, the brand was already under pressure. Commercially speaking, the association to the rap movement was a great business momentum. In the 1990’s, for the Versace brand and for the rap “to be” means “to own”, so Gianni and Donatella Versace saw in Notorious BIG and 2Pac some perfect vehicles for their own American dream: luxury, ostentation, violence, rebellion and success … Although they all came from very different social background, the two universes sealed a lasting alliance and this is still in place if we refer to the collection Versace “Versus” featuring the singer MIA.

Rap like fashion are contemporary dynamics that have the ability to capture the essence of a trend. After the Versace style period and the music transition from “rap” to “mainstream” genre dominated by heavy marketing, it was very important to go back to some basics in terms of music inspiration and image. As a result, the “gangsta rap” trend was a significant shift with a fashion style which was no longer into the embroidered shirts and luxury sunglasses, but more something closer to the origins of rap social movement: the streets and the revolutionary contestation from the streets. So, people wore some baggy jeans, some oversize T-shirts, caps upside down. “Check out my hat yo / Peep the way I wear it” (Jay-Z, 2003). No one better than 50 Cent embodied the street thug image of a bodybuilder artist, whose debut album ‘Get rich or die tryin’ (2003) was sold over 11 million copies.

kanye-west2003 was also another marker for rap industry music because that year was the Kanye West released debut album ‘The College Dropout”. Kanye West is the symbol of a new kind of rapper… Indeed, he comes from a middle-class family in Chicago, so his social background is not as unprivileged as other rappers. His rap style has been fairly accepted by the streets maybe because he was somehow associated to Jay-Z. Kanye obtained some recognition from his rapper peers but also beyond the rap community because he managed to establish an artistic and cultural bridge between street fashion and luxury fashion.

However since 1997, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and Peter Marino, were mixing luxury codes and street style to influence fashion and lifestyle. The Louis Vuitton brand collaborated with a diversity of artists such as Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Yayoi Kusama … The boundaries between pop culture and culture, between industry and art are no longer as tight as before. Luxury is a fast follower of trends to catch-up with the times but also to be ahead of trends. Tradition and legacy are no longer sufficient to legitimize trademarks whose turnover is based more on accessories and fragrances. Rap culture has enabled Louis Vuitton to follow a luxury democratization that has been taking shape since the early 2000s.

images ggg“Before me, there was no ready-to-wear, no shoes, no jewelry no man. There was nothing “(Marc Jacobs interviewed in the magazine Dazzed in 2013). Louis Vuitton found a new energy and some great inspirations into the streets codes and into its subcultures. For example the “graffiti” printings started to appear on some Louis Vuitton burlap. The encounter with Kanye West looks like a movie scenario: all protagonists tried to intimidate each other; thrill and suspense were revealed to the audience with tension and drama. All went well so long Kanye West was under control. Their collaboration gave birth to the launch of some red blood sneakers sold nearly $ 500 in 2008. Louis Vuitton did not take any risk working with Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. These two artists represented the new face of a soothed, globalized hip-hop scene from New York to Tokyo, opened to fashion and middle upper class.


Episode Three: Givenchy

The third phase of the love affair brings us to the brand Givenchy. The luxury French brand has been owned by LVMH Group since 1995. Several designers before Ricardo Tisci made a significant impact on the brand image: John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Oswald Boateng, Julian McDonald… They all tried to revive the myth of Audrey Hepburn, the legacy of Hubert de Givenchy, the tradition of sewing… without success. Perhaps that legacy was too heavy to carry. Ricardo Tisci, who came from Puma, has been more impactful at Givenchy by bringing a dark street wear approach fueled by his love for rap music, his perception of the grandiloquence of the 1990s and his years of studies in London, where the punk style and the controversy were rampant. Ricardo Tisci broke the brand codes, ruffled the branding and above all, he reinvented the brand image using an iconography style inspired by the rap culture (starry sneakers, Rottweiler dogs, oversized crosses, nose piercing and floral printing as Versace reminiscent of 1990s).

Nevertheless, in order to respect its legacy and its tradition, the brand via Riccardo Tisci keeps providing the “Zeitgeist”, by creating a space of mediation between rap and fashion, between the “avenue Georges V” in Paris and the “Marcy Avenue” in Brooklyn, NYC. Everyone agrees to depict the end of the 1990s as the fashion “porno chic” period with its influencers: Carine Roitfeld, Tom Ford, Kate Moss…Nowadays, the most fashioned trend is the “high-end street wear”. When you talk about the “streets”, you naturally relate to “hip-hop”. While the men’s fashion market continues to grow in importance, the baroque aesthetic of rap is representing a huge pillar and market driver far from the high couture or the ready-to-wear. In 2008, Kanye West attended a Givenchy fashion show in Paris, thanks to its reputation, he directly helped to draw some attention on a brand that bloggers and buyers had forgotten. This micro-event cannot explain everything but still, he played a key role in the recent history of Givenchy.

imagesppBefore opening a corner at the second floor of the “Printemps de l’homme” store in 2012, Givenchy was located in the store area reserved for designers. There, we could find some Rottweiler hoodies, some outfit with Madonna motifs printed, but on the label of those items it was carefully indicated “Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci.” We had to go to the fourth floor where formal and high couture clothing was displayed in order to find a “Givenchy” label on suits for example. The mention “by Tisci” on the label is a sign that the Ricardo collection was considered as limited in time for the brand.

This is very much the essence of fashion to take advantage of the “cons-cultures” or even to try to own them (for example the punk style with Saint Laurent, the “indie” rick with Dior…). Partnering with fashion may be a gamble. When the Louis Vuitton brand distanced itself from Kanye West in November 2013, the rapper responded by calling out his fans to boycott the brand (“prices are too extreme,” he said). Of course Ricardo Tisci and Givenchy have to acknowledge the contribution of Kanye West in their commercial development; however, there is another risk for the fashion brands which is to blur-out the brand positioning. The partnership between Jay Z and LVMH suffered from this confusion. In fact there is an uncontrolled image association between “brand & rappers” which makes few brands reluctant to explore this partnership. The champagne brand Cristal Roederer, or the cognac brand Courvoisier are some examples to illustrate that business case risk.

The future of this love affair remains to be written with new influencers both coming from rap music and fashion design. Nowadays, there are still some rumors saying that Ricardo Tisci will be leaving the French brand to join Gucci, and he will be then eventually replaced by Haider Ackerman. As you can see from the industry, the future of this trend is very uncertain if the influencers are no more shaking the standards. However, the transformation of brands such as Givenchy and Kenzo with Carol Lim and Humberto Leon who are some big fans of hip-hop style of hats or sweatshirts, or the emergence of brands such as Hood By Air or Nazir Mahzar, tend to suggest that the connection between rap and fashion can still find its own way against the stereotypes and the clichés…

Antoine Zucchet

Translation and editing – Sanza Bulaya