Hip to the game
Has the success of hip-hop killed Black-owned fashion companies?
Kevin Kapenda // Hall of Famer
When Lavar Ball told the media outlets that him and his son, Los Angels Lakers guard Lonzo Ball, would reject endorsement deals from Adidas, Nike or Under Armour in preference of a licensing deal for Big Baller Brand, he was characterized as foolish by multiple news personalities.
However, while the establishment scoffed, many people rushed to Ball’s defence, including notable African-American athletes, both playing and retired, as well as other prominent Black figures. This support was built on the desire to see more of what we used to have and strive for: Black-owned apparel and shoe companies.
Early hip-hop in the late 80s was crucial in popularizing novelty or sports apparel as everyday clothing, like jerseys and baseball caps. For example, late 80s and early 90s hip-hop group N.W.A. have been credited with popularizing the Starter brand baseball caps of the Los Angeles Kings and Raiders, whose black and white silhouettes fit the group’s style better than the purple and gold attire of the more popular Lakers.
In the 2015 CNN documentary Fresh Dressed, the film traces the origins of hip-hop fashion, particularly the lengths urban youth went through to customize their denim, tops and shoes. This work, along with the high prices of brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, is what spurred the growth of hip-hop or “urban” fashion brands in the late 80s and early 90s.
Brands like Coogi, Cross Colours, Ecko Unlimited, FUBU, Karl Kani, Phat Farm and Pelle Pelle all owe their success to two factors: the sudden pervasiveness of hip-hop in Black communities, as well as their embrasure of its artists, and most importantly, Black people as a population. Each of those brands would become legendary in their own way.
For instance, Coogi is actually not a Black-owned company, but an Australian outfit whose busy sweaters resonated with hip-hop culture and African-Americans. Ecko’s rhino logo would be synonymous with the Lacoste’s crocodile or Ralph Lauren’s horse-riding polo player. Cross Colours is of course known for its diaspora-inspired colour block clothing, popularized in the 1990s by the likes of Kris Kross, Will Smith and TLC, as well as the TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Martin. FUBU, Kani and Phat Farm would become some of the most recognized two-syllable brands in America, with the latter’s signature “P” logo on t-shirts, denim pockets and sneakers especially becoming iconic. Pelle Pelle is widely considered to be the pioneering brand of baggy jeans.
As the popularity of those brands grew, and artists sought to become moguls, rappers quickly got in on the fashion act, too. The Wu-Tang Clan launched Wu-Wear in 1995. Sean “Diddy” Combs released Sean John as Puff Daddy in 1998 and Jay-Z would launch Rocawear in 1999. However, while these brands clothed the culture and its people into the New Millennium, as rap became more mainstream, hip-hop would leave them behind by the 2000s and early 2010s.
There are a few reasons for this. Many of those urban brands were associated with Black poverty because of racialized capitalism. Since Blacks were being excluded from economic prosperity and the luxuries that defined it, those brands were created to serve a low-income market. Furthermore, they ended up serving more as a form of resistance to societal Black impoverishment, rather than submission, by stylistically demonstrating you could look fly despite your socio-economic status. However, as African-Americans continued to excel in a variety of fields, FUBU and Kani just didn’t cut it anymore, as vocalized in the songs “Just throw it in the Bag” by Fabolous, “Off That” by Jay-Z and “The Glory” by Kanye West. In each of these songs, these MCs discuss how they can afford the most expensive apparel and accessory brands money can buy, with Jay-Z’s song literally stating that Blacks are “off” baggy jeans and the brands we were once associated with, including his own.
While I am no exception to this trend – growing snobbier with the spirits and wine I imbibe by the year, I am concerned with my people’s lack of ambition in fashion. With record endorsement deals, such as James Harden’s 13-year $200 million deal with Adidas, or even just the lure of being clothed or shoed for free by the likes of Nike or Supreme, I can see why we no longer want to stress ourselves with conceptualizing, designing, manufacturing and selling our own brands.
But when I buy Air Jordans or Nike’s, I do so with the ambition that I will one day sell to my community (and hopefully others) what Phil Knight has sold to the world. Everyone wants to dress like us or buy the shoes bearing our names, yet we do not own the companies getting rich off our style and bodies.
Often, our people are confronted with challenges that we have no blueprint for. Taking back our fashion and ensuring we profit off it shouldn’t be too hard. We did for two decades, before white designers said ‘oh actually, please do wear my clothes’.