Free Stylin': How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry

Free Stylin': How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry

Free Stylin': How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry

Free Stylin': How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry


For years, designers and manufacturers took cues from the streets to enhance their clothing lines, but before the 1980s the urban consumer was never recognized as a viable demographic. In a push to appeal to young customers, the fashion industry began hiring and backing talented African American designers and entrepreneurs. This seemingly unconventional union made business sense: seasoned fashion executives brought proven track records, while aspiring designers provided street credibility and a fresh perspective on design. The end result: a multi-billion dollar industry.

This book traces the fascinating unfolding of hip hop fashion from its roots to the present day. It explores how hip hop transitioned from "the hood" to the runway; how race, ethnicity, and culture played into commercialism; how celebrities impacted the fashion industry; and what ultimately led major department stores to jump on the urban bandwagon. Utilizing the author's journalistic lens and based upon interviews with urban fashion designers, entrepreneurs, fashion veterans, trend forecasters, and hip hop celebrities, each chapter is akin to an oral history that provides not just facts but also invaluable analysis and historical perspective.


Growing up in Hollis, Queens, I remember hearing the early sounds of hip hop from Spoonie Gee (credited for the origination of the term “hip hop” and “yes, yes y’all”) and The Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 classic “Rapper’s Delight.”

I was about 12 years old when I fell in love with fashion. At first, I was into the labels that were popular at the time—Puma, Pony, Ellyse, and Kangaroos for sneakers; Lee’s and Levi’s for jeans; and sweatsuits by Le Coq Sportif. I remember the first hip hop artists wearing some really crazy outfits like Grandmaster Melle Mel and Afrika Bambaataa, wearing stuff like George Clinton, Parliament, and the Funkadelics on stage.

Hip hop attire on the streets was actually simple between the early to mid-1980s. Those of us who followed the music found a way to trick it out and make it special by customizing our wares. B-boys were a great example for practicality, function, and style. As dancers, their pants couldn’t be too baggy so b-boys either tapered jeans by putting pin tucks or permanent creases down their legs or took shoe laces and stringed them up to their thighs. To stand out, sneakers could have dyed soles or checkerboard laces.

Each New York borough had its own unique flavor. As Queens guys, we wore Adidas shell-toes because of Run-D.M.C. and donned a BVD look, which consisted of a BVD short-sleeve T-shirt with a BVD tank top over it. We would head to Jamaica Avenue to the Colosseum Mall for sweatsuits and airbrushed gear by The Shirt Kings. Local Jamaica . . .

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