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From streetwear to red carpets, a new exhibit traces the evolution of hip hop fashion

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

From the birth of hip-hop 50 years ago, the Black and brown kids who created and reinvented the culture have always made it a point to dress well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY ADIDAS")

RUN-D.M.C.: (Rapping) My Adidas walk through concert doors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGE CLOTHES")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Now just change clothes and go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VERSACE")

MIGOS: (Rapping) Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BODAK YELLOW")

CARDI B: (Rapping) These is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes. Hit the store.

SUMMERS: Today, the biggest fashion houses in the world want to put their outfits on the biggest superstars in the world - rap artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SUGARHILL GANG SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

SUMMERS: In hip-hop's early days in the 1970s, the looks might have aspired to such cachet but were understandably less glamorous.

ELENA ROMERO: A lot of it had to do with socioeconomic status, and being able to wear clothes of different brands really was dependent on how much money you had.

SUMMERS: Elena Romero is a longtime fashion journalist and now a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She's one of the curators of a new exhibit at the FIT Museum. It's called "Fresh, Fly And Fabulous: 50 Years Of Hip-Hop Style."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")

THE SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) I said-a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip hip hop-a you don't stop.

SUMMERS: And one of the first things you see in this exhibit is an outfit worn by an early breakdancing legend, the b-boy popmaster Fabel.

ELIZABETH WAY: So we're talking about Lee Jeans with permanent creases down the front, PRO-Ked sneakers, a belt buckle with Fabel on the buckle. We have this beautiful, fine knit sweater and capped off with this white cap. He also includes leather gloves that he danced in.

SUMMERS: That's fashion historian and FIT co-curator Elizabeth Way. Inside the exhibit, mannequins sport dozens of outfits stacked on scaffolding two tiers high. But between limited edition sneakers and Cardi B's bedazzled nails, Way and Romero point out that early hip-hop pioneers found crafty and relatively affordable ways to stand out, like custom belt buckles or fat shoelaces, which brings us to Dapper Dan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SALT-N-PEPA SONG, "SHAKE YOUR THANG")

ROMERO: Well, anybody who was anybody, if they were going to get a custom outfit, they would head to Harlem to this 24-hour, seven-day-a-week shop, where you can get your one of a kind outfit made by Dapper Dan. The logos that he used at the time were the brands of luxury, of high fashion - Gucci, Louis Vuitton, MCM. But the catch was these were not styles that we would have seen on the runway or in your local department stores. This was something that he created. In other words, he was borrowing the luxury brands' logos and incorporating them into his original designs. It gave them a sense of luxury and wealth and status. Early entertainers that would be wearing them would include LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE YOUR THANG")

SALT-N-PEPA: (Rapping) The shirt I wear may be low cut. My jeans fit nice. It shows off my butt. Designer down from head to toe. Oh, my hair, neck and fingers is crazy-glow.

ROMERO: Growing up as a kid, we watched Robin Leach, "Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous." And that gave us an inside look as to what wealth would attain.

SUMMERS: It's that aspirational nature you're talking about.

ROMERO: Very aspirational. So we went from seeing it on TV, thinking it was far reaching to now our celebrities, these hip-hop personas, were doing exactly the things that we thought we could never do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE YOUR THANG")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Rapping) How to catch a groove. It's your thang.

SUMMERS: If at first hip-hop artists were dressing themselves aspirationally, the fashion brands they were representing, or in some cases bootlegging, were forced to pay attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MO MONEY MO PROBLEMS")

KELLY PRICE: (Singing) I don't know what they want from me.

SUMMERS: By the '90s, hip-hop was showing up everywhere. It was on MTV worldwide. And the musicians now had sway. And the growth of hip-hop also gave opportunities for Black-owned companies and designers, some of whom came from the music themselves. An all-black outfit catches my eye with slim cut pants, shiny black shoes and a furry bolero-style cropped jacket over a crisp button down. It's from the musician-turned-mogul Diddy, also known as Sean Combs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIDDY")

SEAN COMBS: (Rapping) Say my name, come on. The D, the I, the D, the D, the Y. The D, the I, D. It's Diddy.

SUMMERS: So tell us about this outfit. This is Sean John, right?

WAY: Yes. So Sean John is a really important brand because I think that this brand did more than any other to kind of marry this idea of hip-hop and mainstream fashion. And Sean Combs was the first designer of color to win the CFDA award for design, the first Black designer. And this piece is from a runway collection that featured all Black models. So he did a lot to change the mainstream fashion industry on 7th Avenue from this very stereotypical style that mainstream fashion looked on when they thought of hip-hop fashion.

ROMERO: What Sean did was not name his particular brand after a record label or a group, but rather now take on his personal name, which is quite risky, but at the same time genius because what he's doing is demonstrating his personal style and swagger to a mainstream international audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVAGE")

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Rapping) I'm that - yeah. Been that - still that...

SUMMERS: At one end of the exhibit, there's a row of full out glam outfits. These red carpet looks are far removed from the streetwear of 50 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVAGE")

MEGAN THEE STALLION: (Rapping) I'm way too exclusive. I don't shop on Insta' boutiques. All them lil' - clothes only fit fake booties.

SUMMERS: I don't think we can leave this without talking about this incredible metallic gown here. These almost look like leaves or delicate feathers on this very structured shoulder. And there's a sequined bralette, and there's some exposed hips on the side. This is clearly worn by someone with some curves.

WAY: This is Megan Thee Stallion's gown that she wore to the Met Gala. She came as the guest of Jeremy Scott, the designer of Moschino. So Moschino made this custom gown for her. And she talked about how she really want to celebrate her body, her figure, her success and stature as a Black woman. And so we see how hip-hop artists have become the celebrities of choice for these very fashion focused, very glamorous events. Hip-hop artists are the avant garde icons pushing fashion forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXACTLY HOW I FEEL")

LIZZO: (Rapping) That's exactly how I feel. That's exactly how I feel. That's exactly how I feel.

SUMMERS: One of the things that strikes me is that, for both of you, this sounds like this is a collection that's incredibly personal. I mean, I wonder if each of you could talk just a bit about what it means to you to be curating this collection and having the world soon be able to see it and take it all in.

WAY: Well, what's important for me is, you know, we think about what American style is, what American fashion is, and hip-hop is such an integral part of that story. I think sometimes it's left out. So it's really important for me for people to come into this exhibition and realize all the ways that hip-hop has affected the way they personally dress and all the looks they see around them.

ROMERO: Hip-hop fashion is real fashion. I think for so long, it kind of gets downplayed because it's casual, it's denim and because it's coming out of the world of youth. So many young Black and brown people from the communities marginalized because of what they wear, how they wear it. And most importantly, it's not just men's fashion. Women have always been and will continue to be part of this fashion legacy. And today, it's the women that are the muses of the most luxurious designers of the world.

SUMMERS: I just want to say thank you for allowing us to get a sneak peek of the space. And congratulations on an incredible collection.

WAY: Thank you so much.

ROMERO: Thank you. And it's just a peak, so you got to come back to see it all in its entirety.

SUMMERS: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOOP")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing) Hey yeah - I want to shoop, baby. Shoop.

SUMMERS: That was Elena Romero and Elizabeth Way, co-curators of the new exhibit at the FIT Museum in New York City. It's called "Fresh, Fly, And Fabulous: 50 years Of Hip-Hop Style." The exhibit opens today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOOP")

PEPA: (Rapping) Here I go, here I go, here I go again. Girls, what's my weakness? Men. Ok then, chillin', chillin', mindin' my business, word. Yo, Salt I looked around, and I couldn't believe this. I swear I stared my niece my witness. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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