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Tracing Hip-Hop’s Fashion History: Sowmya Krishnamurthy on “Fashion Killa”

Tracing Hip-Hop’s Fashion History: Sowmya Krishnamurthy on “Fashion Killa”

Building on her years of innovative and thorough reporting for publications like XXL, Time, Complex, and NPR, Sowmya Krishnamurthy’s Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion deftly traces 50+ years of innovation in hip hop with regard to creativity and fashion. Through interviews with key players and pictures worth thousands of words, Krishnamurthy traces the influence of entrepreneurs like Dapper Dan, Pharrell, Cindy Campbell (sister of hip hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc), Jay Z, and the importance of a pre-social media world that brought to the forefront brands like Ralph Lauren, Sean John, and Polo through pre-Instagram influencers who advertised their wares on shows like MTV’s Total Request Live and BET’s Rap City.   

Both passionate and clear-eyed in her chronicling, Krishnamurthy expertly charts the important history and pop culture and fashion trends that culminate in headline-inducing events like Kendrick Lamar paying tribute to Virgil Abloh in Louis Vuitton’s Men’s Spring/Summer 2023 showcase.

I spoke with Sowmya about trends in hip hop fashion and the ways in which they have been in response to racist laws and practices, the power of ambassadors like Jay Z and Aaliyah and designers from Versace to Virgil Abloh, the evolution of more inclusive practices and views in the fashion industry, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pete Riehl

I wonder about the seeds for this book.

Sowmya Krishnamurthy

Having been in the hip hop space for well over ten years now, it’s really important for me to tell hip hop stories through an elevated lens, through a prestige lens.

The origin of this book was an article I’d done for XXL a couple of years ago. I had interviewed ASAP Ferg and Misa Hylton and all these people. But in my research I was really shocked to find that there was no book about the subject [fashion in hip hop]. There were a few memoirs and coffee table books, but the idea of someone really diving deep, looking into everything from its history to psychology to culture and how they all are woven together had never been told. So, as with a lot of things in my career, when I don’t see the blueprint, I just kind of decide, Well, I’ll do it myself. And that was really the inception of this book.

Pete Riehl

With the 50 year anniversary of hip hop being celebrated now [August 11], it’s impressive that Fashion Killa is not a gimmicky book. It’s not like, Oh, this is really it’s just for the 50. It covers DJ Kool Herc and the party [in the Bronx]-when hip hop had his birthday, so to speak, up to more or less the current day. The book is not arbitrary and gives a truly macro and micro view, which is really impressive. 

Sowmya Krishnamurthy

One interesting thing that I mention in the book is this idea of culture having one definitive starting point is a misnomer, right? Like the idea of hip hop starting only 50 years ago [is incomplete]. You have to look at the Black experience in America and then go back to Africa and percussion and call and response and all of these things. So the idea that hip hop started in August 1973, I think was just agreed upon because at some point you have to put the stake in the ground somewhere. 

What’s really interesting, and why I started the book with that famous Kool Herc party was that Herc was spinning his sister’s party and his sister wanted to throw the party as a way to fundraise for her afterschool wardrobe. It’s this idea that fashion was really kind of the bedrock of this conversation that oftentimes doesn’t get spoken about. A lot of people don’t talk about Cindy Herc [Campbell], yet this was her party where her brother happened to be the DJ. 

Outside of that, yes, it was very important that even in our first chapter, we dive into Dapper Dan, and to tell his story, we have to go back. What is the history of Harlem? Why has that neighborhood specifically always represented Black wealth, Black excellence-not just in fashion and sartorialism, but in art and literature and thought leaders. 

The Harlem Renaissance, for example, you have to talk about these things for us to then talk about guys like Dap[per Dan]. I think that was really important because when this subject is sort of spoken about, it’s often done in a very cursory way, right? Like Dapper Dan logos. Okay, there’s a story and that’s a very important part. But let’s go deeper. What do logos signify? In order to talk about luxury fashion, you have to address this notion of social signaling and the psychology of who gets to wear what. There were once things called “sumptuary laws,” which really were laws about who could wear what. 

So when the Queen proclaims that only royalty can wear this fabric or people of this station can wear these colors, we see that [the policing of clothing] has been going on since the dawn of time. That’s what now trickles down to the idea that a Gucci or Louis Vuitton or whatever logo can only be worn by certain types of people. 

Many editors, when I first spoke to them, really didn’t see the vision. They thought This would be a great coffee table book, or, Let’s focus on just one designer. But I thought, No, there’s a bigger story. “Hip Hop 50” is merely the conversational touchpoint, but because this goes from ‘73 to 2023, literally bookended by Pharrell taking his post [as Men’s Creative Director] at Louis Vuitton, I see this as something that has a really long tail and is very extensive and comprehensive, and that was really the goal that I set out to cover [with Fashion Killa].

Pete Riehl

I don’t necessarily know that I fully understood before I read the book, the whole arc of Jay Z, showing a stylistic shift in the 90s that seems to have been propelled by Pharrell’s aesthetics in Jay-Z videos he directed, like “Change Clothes.” Can you talk about the ways in which a pre-social landscape served up a different type of “influencer,” and particularly how the music channels of the 1990s were so game-changing?  

Sowmya Krishnamurthy

It’s this idea of an underground culture genre, and you soon just start to see it swell on the commercial level. Of course, gangsta rap had a huge influence on that and the explosion of MTV and shows like TRL [Total Request Live] and on BET’s Rap City. It was all of these different factors coming together where hip hop was making a lot of money. They were commercially viable. You had this group of these young entrepreneurs like Sean Puffy Combs, like Dame Dash, who not only wanted to wear high fashion, but they wanted to be high fashion. So why are we supporting other people’s lines? We should have our own. 

Then there were music videos 24/7 propagating these images. For those kids who didn’t grow up in the 90s, you came home after school, and from like 3:00 to 7:00, you just watched music videos and music content. And it wasn’t just your favorite artists, like it is now with YouTube and Spotify and things like that, where you get to select and listen to only what you like. If you wanted to watch, let’s say, a Mace video, you might have to watch five other artists before you see that video. 

So we all became these pop culture generalists where we knew what was going on in pop and rock and country and on this idea of pop culture, we all kind of agreed. So if you asked five people who’s the biggest artist or what’s like the song of the summer, we would say the same thing. Now it’s so much more segmented and there’s this idea that every person is sort of a micro influencer. But back then, the music video magazine covers, radio, these things really were the gatekeepers and helped us figure out who was the best dressed. It wasn’t shocking, then, that many did want to dress alike, because it was understood These are the influencers, and we all kind of took notes from them.

Pete Riehl

The book has such a great pace to it. The first chapter starts with Dapper Dan, and the book ends with Dapper Dan. You reference Virgil Abloh and the Kendrick Lamar show (a tribute at Louis Vuitton’s Men’s Spring/Summer 2023 fashion show in Paris) and how, finally, high fashion was listening.

There’s a clear bookending of it, the first chapter. You wrote in the book a lot about Harlem and its tradition and Dapper Dan, and then later, with Ralph Lauren and others, they made a big deal of making the logos big-these were not understated logos. 

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Sowmya Krishnamurthy

I think for Dan it was this idea that he was designing for his clientele, which initially were like drug dealers, athletes, because they were the only ones who could afford it. Rappers could not afford Dapper Dan stuff. That was the aesthetic that they wanted, and then over time, getting into the Tommy Hilfiger era, those clothes really helped differentiate, because Tommy would have his name emblazoned on your chest, right? Whereas you look at something like Polo, where the horse is pretty small. 

Then they [the various clothing companies] realized, Oh, people like these big logos and I think it was initially Tommy–I don’t know if I mentioned my book or not, but a buyer at one of these major retailers was like, “Do not have a huge logo,” but Tommy said, “I’m keeping this logo.”

This choice ended up being game-changing for him, as that was really the era where your body was like a walking billboard for these companies. It’s funny, because right now in fashion, it’s this notion of quiet luxury, so you look at a show like Succession where they’re basically billionaires, but you don’t see logos. 

Pete Riehl

The book covers all the way up to 2021, 2022. What do you see for the future, meaning, what’s left to do musically and fashion-wise? It seems like it’s all been done, but obviously it hasn’t. What do you see for the future of fashion and hip hop and maybe you can speak a little bit about the aesthetic?

Sowmya Krishnamurthy

I would love in the future to see a hip hop brand become an iconic American heritage brand. So in the same way we talk about Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan–these brands that were created by a person but ostensibly have the legs to sort of live on forever–I would love to see it happen where a brand isn’t inherently just tied to an artist having a moment. Or as simply a trend. It really is like it becomes part of the larger fashion zeitgeist. 

I think Sean John came really close even just by calling it “Sean John,” right? He didn’t call it “Bad Boy,” he called it Sean John. Like, This is going to be the elevated version. You’re going to see suits and fur and suede and things of that nature. I think that kind of opened the door. We still don’t know what the future is for Yeezy. That’s kind of a big question mark, right? I’m not sure, but it seems like [Kanye West] is the type of guy who also wants a line that can sort of live beyond his time-his time in this industry and his time on Earth. I would love to see that, where artists are really in control from that perspective. 

I would also love to see more diversity in the industry, from the C-suite (a company’s top management positions) to behind the scenes. You’re starting to see more of what Virgil [Abloh] was doing or Pharrell is doing, but I’m hoping to see where [these positions are] not only open to celebrities, but that jobs of the designer, the tailor, the seamstress-all of those things-marketing, PR, all of these facets of the industry, open up more to people of different backgrounds. Fashion, similar to a lot of industries, is still very insular, with a high barrier to entry, because in the beginning you’re not making a lot of money. So it’s almost relegated only to people who come from money. Very male dominated, right? You talk about Donatella Versace, but [the fashion industry] is still very male-dominated, very white man. 

But I mean the women who were behind the scenes doing the great work. Even to this day, people often say that with fashion, it’s like clothes are designed through the lens of a man, like what a man wants to see on a woman’s body. And how does that reconcile? So I’m hoping to see more inclusivity on the runways and sizing. I think there’s so many opportunities, but for hip hop specifically, I would love to just see a rapper or a hip hop line being elevated to the position of simply an iconic American brand.

This interview is excerpted from Episode 208 of the Chills at Will Podcast. Listen to the complete conversation here

Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion
By Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Gallery Books
Published October 10, 2023

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