Culture

HIP-HOP TO HAUTE COUTURE

Hip-hop music and luxury design are a new frontier for fashion and celebrity culture.

In response to Kanye West attempting to set up a meeting with LVMH CEO to spruik his new creative agency, DONDA (named after his mother), Bernard Arnault reportedly replied: “I don’t understand why we need to meet with you.” Following his recent string of unintelligible rants, West then attempted to persuade African Americans in Atlanta to boycott visiting Louis Vuitton via the radio station on which he was speaking, Power 105.1.

This is interesting, and not because of West’s petulance – that became boring long ago. What it says about fashion, particularly the luxury and designer end, is that it has become more powerful than the celebrities that wear it, and this is new ground for the fashion industry. Of course, fashion and celebrity culture are not mutually exclusive, and there has always existed a relationship between the two. Perhaps the earliest obvious meeting of the two worlds is Wallis Simpson’s wearing of Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous (or infamous?) lobster dress in an image photographed by Cecil Beaton, which as my colleague Alison Kubler suggested might also be seen as a precursor to punk.

The celebrities-endorsing-product thing has continued unabated, so much so that brands went out of their way to design and name products after the actors that wore them, like Hermes’ Kelly bag. Hollywood award red carpets are the most obvious platform for the two worlds to collude, but the tide seems to be turning there, with designers and brands commanding the stars they wish to dress. Saturated presence is no longer the most effective form of marketing, and heads of designer brands now regularly speak about engaging only those celebrities who share the brand’s values, usually of authenticity and timelessness. It would seem even in advertising that there are fewer celebrities in fashion campaigns (and this doesn’t necessarily extend to the timepiece and comsetics industries), with even those used being lesser known (such as the musicians in Burberry and Saint Laurent campaigns), paralleling a return of models as fashion’s biggest stars, products of the system that created them.

Contemporaneously, the music world’s active engagement of fashion, particularly within hip-hop and R and B music culture, has exploded, and there’s barely a song by the likes of West or Jay-Z that doesn’t name-drop Tom Ford, Hermes or Versace.

That hip-hop musicians have so embraced luxury fashion is evidenced by the prolific rise of designer sneakers, which has created a bridge between designer goods and streetwear. It’s very clever on part of luxury brands to hone in on this market, as have done the likes of Lanvin, Dior Homme and Christian Louboutin. As Chris Kyvetos, the founder of luxury sneaker store Sneakerboy, explained to me in an interview for Manuscript, young men are generally intimidated by the apparel offered by such brands whereas sneakers are an accessible entry point in the same way as bags and heels for women. “You can see a picture of Jay-Z and the jeans and t-shirt aren’t recognisable, but the sneakers instantly are,” says Kyvetos. “That’s aspirational for guys.”

What is it about fashion that has these musicians so enamored? There’s certainly an air of cool cultural cache attached to fashion at the moment, as has been further demonstrated by its crossover with the rarefied world of fine arts. If fashion is fashionable in contemporary culture, it makes sense that hip-hop musicians should comment on it. But surely it’s less about cultural relevance than it is about aspiration, which has always been central to the hip-hop music genre, which finds its roots in oppression and injustice. In the early nineties, rappers embraced logo-emblazoned Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger sweaters, so as time changes it only makes sense that the level of aspiration (and dollar value) has grown. That these musicians not only wear designer brands but have made it part of their language is evidence of the cultural shift that has occurred.

But as the luxury industry remains at a remove, as evidenced by Arnault’s disinterest in West’s meeting request, it sends a message that it carries more heft and credibility, more long-term value than a song lyric or celebrity endorsement, which simultaneously ensures its remains aspirational, slightly out of reach. And that, it seems, is the greatest position for a brand to be in, further demonstrated by the slowing sales of “mass luxury” brands in emerging markets like China, such as Louis Vuitton, at a time when the more discreet, lesser-available brands, like Hermes and Celine, are in great demand. In a way, it confirms the old adage that there’s nothing more desirable than that which is sold out.

Image: Kanye West wearing Givenchy for Complex magazine.