What Would Dapper Dan Think?: Rappers and Fashion

By Jaylin Paschal

Lil Yachty for Nautica. Travis Scott for Helmut Lang, and then again with Vic Mensa and Pusha T for Alexander Wang. Young Thug for Calvin Klein. Kanye West for Balmain. A$AP Rocky for J.W. Anderson and Dior.

With all of these, and serval more, rapper/high fashion collaborations, I can't help but wonder what Dapper Dan would think.

Dapper Dan began selling custom-made clothing that remixed the designs of luxury fashion houses, like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, out of Harlem in the 1980's. At that time, high fashion brands weren’t at all interested in collaborating with rappers. “They saw rap music and saw people who were part of the rap culture as negative for their brands,” Dapper Dan explained. Aside from Dapper Dan's custom looks, there was essentially nothing connecting rap to high fashion and couture. Sure, rappers were embraced by urban streetwear brands or sportswear labels (Karl Kani, Coogi, Timbaland, Reebok, Adidas, The North Face), but the major players in the fashion industry regarded rap with the same disinterest and disrespect as the rest of the outside would.

But there's been a major shift. Burberry, who was more than hesitant in the styling of Ja Rule as recently as in the early 2000's (despite kids in urban communities purchasing the brand after seeing Ja wear it the "Always on Time" music video featuring Ashanti), is now working alongside rapper Tinie Tempah and other British artists.

A distinct force behind the shift was, unsurprisingly, Pharrell Williams. Fashion, like all other forces on this earth, loves Pharrell. Williams collaborated with Louis Vitton in 2005, and again in 2008 designing a jewelry line. It was around this time that fashion houses realized that hip hop stars carried with them thousands of fans, who would often follow them into stores.

This brilliant, culturally competent form of marketing and design was good for business. In fact, it might've been the best thing ever for fashion business. Finally, hip hop artists were embraced with open arms into the industry.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves and claim that these collaborations are revolutionary. They're interesting and exciting and culturally relevant, yes. But revolutionary? No. There is nothing at all revolutionary about the use of black faces--particularly black faces in entertainment--to make something sell. Sure, Nautica might really be incorporating and valuing the fashion input of Lil Yachty. It's unlikely, but we'll entertain the idea. Even so, it's critical that we remember that our good friend Lil Boat was not actually brought aboard the ship to help steer. He's there to keep the company afloat. To fill a void in consumerism that will keep Nautica from going under. He's there to attract the buoyancy of young, black dollars.

Some may say that doesn't matter; that his economic gain and exposure is worth it. Some would tell him exploitation is the same as walking the plank; that he might as well abandon ship. Regardless, our friend Lil Yachty is bound to get a little sea sick on this Nautica ride. What do you do with a scurvy rapper?

I wonder what Dapper Dan would say.

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Jaylin PaschalComment