Tri Minh Le

In recent years, street culture has transformed the luxury fashion industry.

An uneasy beginning

African-American stylist Rachel Johnson tells the story of trying to get Burberry to dress her client, rapper Ja Rule, for a 2002 music video. The brand flatly refused, even though Ja Rule was one of the most popular rappers of the time, with dozens of accolades from an MTV Video Music Award to multiple Platinum-certified albums. Johnson bought him a Burberry hat anyway, the story goes, and helped kick off the brand’s signature plaid as a hiphop fashion trend.  

The situation has changed dramatically in the two decades since. Major brands are fully aware that hiphop has become the most popular music genre worldwide, with millions of fans hungry for daily updates on their favorite stars’ activities, food and apparel. These days, labels are actively seeking hiphop celebrities for endorsement of their products.

Moving beyond the mainstream, in recent years, hiphop culture and fashion designers have reached the highest realms of fashion.

The story of Dapper Dan

Dapper Dan was one of the pioneers to bring street style fashion to every corner of the United States. Initially, the designer bought and altered products from brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci. His customers absolutely fell in love with his designs and ordered them non-stop regardless of the price.

Dappper Dan became well-known for unique products at the time, such as oversized bomber jackets, long coats, denim jackets and puffer jackets that freely employed the patterns and logos of luxury brands.

The designer aimed to elevate the needs and desires of the African-American community beyond the mainstream fashion world of the time. With his gifted ability to cut, copy and create something brand new, Dapper Dan helped bring diversity to fashion while defining an aesthetic for a burgeoning hiphop cultural movement that was transforming the country.

Items labeled “Made by Dan” appeared extensively on hiphop album covers, on red carpets and even in the ring of world boxing legend Mike Tyson, who dressed in  a jacket emblazoned with “Don’t Believe the Hype” in 1988.

The popularity of Dapper Dan’s creations also brought him legal attention from fashion brands, whose lawsuits eventually shut his Harlem operation down.

However, in the intervening years, interest and appreciation for Dapper Dan grew and he was ultimately approached in 2017 by Gucci to collaborate with the label. The next year, he reopened an atelier in Harlem in partnership with Gucci and in 2020, Dapper Dan was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people.

Reaching new heights

A rare talent whose background was in street style, in 2018 Virgil Abloh was named artistic director for menswear for Louis Vuitton, becoming the first African-American designer to head a French luxury fashion house.

Abloh, who was the longtime creative director for Kanye West, was perhaps the most striking embodiment of high fashion and street fashion finally coming together. Before his untimely death in 2021, Abloh worked to affirm the power of street culture and honor the aesthetics of the African-American community as he showcased breakthrough simplicity in design and ingenious use of color in all of his luxury fashion creations.

From Dapper Dan to Virgil Abloh and beyond, street culture has made a remarkable journey to the very heights of the fashion world.