The last few years have seen a boom in rapper-branded clothing lines, redefining the concept of merchandise and increasing the backing artists’ clout in the fashion industry.
Although hip-hop and fashion have long been intertwined — with artists endlessly name-dropping fashion labels in their songs and those same labels often featuring the artists in their campaigns — these new labels are largely independent endeavors, driven by artists’ visions alone.
The most obvious example is Kanye West, who has shown his ready-to-wear Yeezy line at fashion week for the last three years and whose hot-ticket items sell like the average Supreme drop. “He’s helped to break down the barriers,” said Rob Markman, the head of artist relations at Genius. “High-end fashion designers used to turn their nose up at hip-hop; now, they have to respect the influence [it wields], whether they like it or not.”
“Kanye’s really the innovator here,” agreed Ashwin Deshmukh, insights director and co-founder of the digital agency Hungry Inc. “He wants more than an endorsement deal; he wants control and to be seen as not just a face of the brand, but integral to the brand itself.”
A lookbook shot from Jay-Z label Roc96’s collaboration with Madeworn
Last year, Jay-Z took a cue from West when he launched the clothing label Roc96with partners Kareem “Biggs” Burke and Emory Jones. They’ve since collaborated with MadeWorn on handmade jackets and hoodies that sell at prestige retailers including Barneys and Revolve, ranging in price from $160-$4,000.
Not to be left out, Drake has OVO, the clothing and lifestyle brand he launched in 2008 that has grown to include three retail locations and a women’s collection. The rap group Migos backs Yung Rich Nation, a line of streetwear inspired by ’90s hip-hop style; the rapper YG has his recently relaunched 4 Hunnid line — and the list goes on.
“People always thought of 4 Hunnid as merch, so we want to present it in a different way for people to perceive it differently,” 4 Hunnid’s creative director, Gavin Mathíeu, told WWD of the brand’s relaunch. “We really want to create a fashion brand.”
Indeed, that seems to be the goal for a rising number of rappers and hip-hop artists, who, once relegated to industry endorsement deals, are hoping to tackle fashion on their own terms.
“Since the early days of hip-hop, rappers have been using their influence to boost the credibility of fashion designer and apparel brands,” said Markman. “In the 1980s, it was Lee Jeans and Adidas; in the 1990s, it was Polo and Versace; but as we began to roll into the 2000s, rappers found that launching their own brands could be even more beneficial.”
Rapper YG models his recently re-launched 4 Hunnid line
It may come down to the struggling music landscape: Album sales in 2016 reached record lows, despite the fact that streaming numbers increased by a whopping 59 percent from the year prior. That number has little effect on the artists, said Markman, noting that streaming splits aren’t very favorable. As a result, “artists are forced to look for new revenue streams,” he said.
What’s more, a clothing brand allows artists to maintain their relevance (and income) between frequently spaced-out album releases and tour dates.
“You can make X amount of money for a show, but if you can diversify your brand with a clothing line, that’s a less taxing way to make money,” said Jian DeLeon, editorial director of HighSnobiety. “You don’t have to go on tour to promote the line.”
And, after years of rappers like West trying to gain the approval of the fashion industry, many seem to have recognized how much weight they can pull in the space without the esteem of its higher-ups.
“It’s a way of saying, ‘Look, my brand is more powerful than any other brand out there because of the gravitas and cultural relevance that I have,’” said DeLeon.
“They already have what every brand wants to create, which is a real, organic audience,” added Deshmukh.