‘Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous': Museum at FIT Celebrates Hip-Hop's 50th Anniversary with New Exhibit

By Bianca Gracie | February 23, 2023

V12_5_HIGH.jpgPhoto by Jamel Shabazz

Hip-hop’s cultural influence goes well beyond music and a new exhibit in New York City celebrates the genre’s impact on fashion. The Museum at FIT’s Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style celebrates hip-hop’s revolutionary style by displaying over 100 garments that range throughout the decades.

Co-curated by Elizabeth Way, The Museum at FIT’s Associate Curator of Costume and Elena Romero, journalist and FIT’s assistant chair of marketing communications, the exhibit is free and open to the public and will run through April 23, 2023. The exhibit features notable items worn by the likes of Missy Elliott, LL Cool J, Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, Lil Nas X, Chuck D, Aaliyah and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The designers include Dapper Dan, April Walker, Cross Colours, Karl Kani, Sean John, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Versace.

Below, Way and Romero speak to EDITION about the significance of both the exhibit and hip-hop as a whole.

Lee_Rock,_and_Kool_K_NYC_2018.JPGLee Rock and Kool K. Photo by Jamel Shabazz

Hip-hop started in the Bronx and of course, this exhibit is featured in an NYC-based museum. Can you discuss NYC's grand influence on the genre that's now beloved worldwide?

Elizabeth Way: Many parts of this exhibition focus on key New York City sites, such as the Disco Fever nightclub in the Bronx, an early space for hip-hop music and fashion during the 1970s and 1980s. We also examine the hip-hop style’s relationship with the mainstream fashion industry in New York. Brands based in New York, such as Ralph Lauren, are beloved in hip-hop. Tommy Hilfiger, in particular, was early in the 1990s in playing hip-hop music at the brand’s fashion shows and recruiting hip-hop artists as models. When hip-hop entrepreneurs and artists started their own brands, showing at New York Fashion Week illustrated success. During the 2000s, Phat Farm, Baby Phat, and Sean John showed at NYFW and drew a celebrity front row.

Elena Romero: Hip-hop is a New York story. It is a Black and Caribbean story. It’s a Black and Latinx story. Hip-hop has roots in each of the five boroughs. While historically, Bronx is the borough that earned the right to claim its origins ala DJ Kool Herc’s party in the summer of 1973 for his sister Cindy, every borough has contributors to the music and culture as well as style. Queens has many pioneers from Roxanne Shante to Run DMC and LL Cool J to Nas and 50 Cent. Staten Island is the home of the Wu-Tang Clan. Brooklyn bred Biggie Smalls, Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim, Pope Smoke, MC Lyte and Foxy Brown, to name a few. We can’t also forget Long Island or the neighboring state of New Jersey.

Growing up, what were some of your favorite fashion looks from rap artists and why?

Way: My favorite look growing up was definitely Aaliyah’s Tommy Hilfiger bandeau and baggy two-tone jeans. It was a look that drew on an androgynous silhouette but also incorporated femininity. It was just so cool.

Romero: I grew up in the '70s and '80s in Brooklyn and looked to female emcees for style cues. Important rappers included Salt N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shante and MC Lyte.

HipHop_47.jpgFresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style, installation view. Exhibition design by Courtney Sloane Design © The Museum at FIT

For a long while, hip-hop wasn't accepted on high fashion runways and now we’re seeing more organic collaborations and more Black designers putting their luxe twist on classic hip-hop styles. Can you discuss the significance of this journey to inclusivity?

Way: Black designers have been working in the formal New York fashion industry for generations. We can look to designers like Jon Weston, Wesley Tann, and Arthur McGee who were designing during the 1950s and 1960s. However, fashion as an industry suffers from all the systemic discrimination problems that mainstream society faces. It has been a long journey for Black designers to gain acceptance and access, and hip-hop’s popularity in both music and style has been an important conduit for designers of color to gain attention and respect. The journey is not over, however, we are seeing more visibility for designers of color as American society is grappling with its history.

Romero: Hip-hop is one of the main reasons we saw major diversification on the runway. Hip-hop brought bald heads, braids, cornrows, dreads, platinum blonde hair, voluptuous and curvaceous bodies in every shade to the runway. Male models were more muscular and chiseled. Existing brands had no choice but to collaborate because hip-hop style became global. The journey has been long and we are far from reaching an ideal state, but we are heading in the right direction.

HipHop_45.jpgFresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style, installation view. Exhibition design by Courtney Sloane Design © The Museum at FIT

What song or album made you fall in love with hip-hop?

Way: There are too many to name! But I will say, I love female rappers, from Foxy Brown to Lil’ Kim, Nicki Minaj, and Cardi B, for their powerful lyrics and the way they call out their amazing style and their favorite fashion brands.

Romero: There is not one song or album that made me fall in love with hip-hop. But I would say that the 1984 hip-hop classic film Beat Street really impacted me. I saw my generation and my culture on film for the first time. While the film was fiction, it had many real aspects to it. I was born in 1973, so I am part of the hip-hop generation.

Aside from the exhibit and book, is there anything else about upcoming plans that readers should know about?

Way: MFIT will be holding a symposium featuring a range of speakers on hip-hop fashion. It will be on February 24.

Romero: I wrote a chapter for the Baltimore Museum of Art’s upcoming book on hip-hop that will be coming out later this spring. I will also be working on other hip-hop related projects throughout the year-long celebration of hip-hop turning 50.

Photography by: Courtesy of Jamel Shabazz and Museum at FIT