It was 1985. Hip-hop was entering its golden era, and Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh were putting on what they called “The Show.” On that single’s B-side was “La Di Da Di,” one of the most beloved, and most sampled, songs in hip-hop history. It features Slick Rick playfully describing his average day:
I put the bubbles in the tub so I could take a bubble bath
Clean, dry, was my body and hair
I threw on my brand-new Gucci underwear
When asked if that were true, Slick Rick replied, “They didn’t make Gucci underwear at that point, so you have to fake it or just pretend!”
Throughout hip-hop’s 50 years, style has been a big deal. Slick Rick’s style included an eye patch (the result of a childhood injury), and plenty of jewelry. Rappers didn’t just look cool; they rapped about how cool they looked. And that helped turn hip-hop fashion into a multi-billion-dollar industry.
“Hip-hop fashion’s from the streets, the urban streets, the lowest-income areas,” said Slick Rick. “Those who have that ability to show swag, show swag.”
Sanneh asked, “What does swag mean to you?”
“You move with, like, a certain swag,” he replied. “You do a little personality.”
But to Dapper Dan, it has a different connotation: “Swag for my generation was stolen goods!”
No one knows hip-hop fashion better than Dapper Dan. He literally created it in his shop in Harlem. At first, it was all bootleg, and always spectacular. If Gucci didn’t make a parka, he’d make one. No Gucci drawers? “We do what we need to do. We created all of that!”
Elizabeth Way, a curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, called Dapper Dan “one of the most important fashion designers of the late 20th century. He saw these logos as these powerful symbols, and he married it with streetwear. And that has 100% changed the course of fashion.”
Way and Elena Romero, a professor at FIT, are co-curators of “Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip-Hop Style,” an exhibit that opens this week.
“If we look at what’s happening on runways now, and this idea of creating a dialogue between street fashion in New York and high-end European luxury, [Dapper Dan’s] the one who came up with that,” said Way. “By the 1990s, hip-hop fashion had gone corporate, with companies like FUBU (For Us, By Us).”
In 1997 LL Cool J filmed a commercial for the Gap, and snuck in a reference to FUBU:
Romero said, “It was actually two references. LL Cool J at that time was an official spokesperson for FUBU, and I’m assuming had to contractually wear something related. So, that was where we saw the FB cap. But what wasn’t monitored or noticed was the lyrics that he was able to sneak in, ‘For us, by us, on the low.’ And that signaled a message to those who were in the hip-hop community.”
Hip-hop stars didn’t just change the fashion industry; they joined it.
My Adidas and me close as can be
We make a mean team, my Adidas and me
Sanneh said, “If you think about the 1980s, Run-DMC records ‘My Adidas’ before they ever got any check from Adidas – they were just bragging about their shoes, right?”
“One of the pieces we have in the exhibition is a jacket from Rap Style, which was a line created by Chuck D,” said Way. “And he talks about, you know, ‘I was wearing clothes from other brands, making other brands money, but people wanted to dress like me. So, I’m gonna create my own line.'”
Romero said, “And eventually moguls jumping in, i.e. Russell Simmons, Sean Jean, Jay-Z and Damon Dash with Rocawear.”
Hip-hop style, like hip-hop itself, showed up everywhere. “You’re seeing hip-hop fashion companies actually making real money,” said Sanneh.
“It requires, what? Crossover,” said Dapper Dan. “What Rick and them was able to do through their lyrics was get them young white boys to cross over from Ralph Lauren to FUBU. So, crossover doesn’t necessarily have to be predominantly associated with music. It filters out to fashion as well. You can’t have a half a crossover!”
In 2003, after hip-hop had popularized oversized jerseys and baggy pants, Jay-Z called for change:
And y’all (bleep) actin’ way too tough
Throw on a suit, get it tapered up, and let’s just
Change clothes, and go
People stopped buying athletic jerseys. Dapper Dan said, “Jay-Z singlehandedly changed fashion. When Jay-Z made that record, dudes came to the store, say, ‘Give me two of them Gucci suits.'”
It would take another 15 years before Gucci would acknowledge and collaborate with Dapper Dan. Since then, he’s worked with Gap, changing one letter on their classic sweatshirt (to Dap). He has a collection with Puma. And when he wears Gucci now, it’s the real thing.
In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, success sometimes seemed like selling out. But for Dapper Dan, Slick Rick, and hip-hop in general, it seems more like recognition, and it’s long overdue.
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Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Editor: Mike Levine.