Sowmya Krishnamurthy Discusses 'Fashion Killa' Book & Hip-Hop's Unshakeable Pop Culture Influence

By Bianca Gracie | March 12, 2024

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Courtesy of Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Hip-Hop has embodied various sectors of pop culture since its inception 50 years ago. From art to politics, the genre has inspired both creative and serious conversations of the way of the world. One of its biggest pop culture ties is with fashion, which music journalist, on-air host and author Sowmya Krishnamurthy has documented in her first book Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster).

The idea initially sparked when working on a XXL article in 2019. That’s when Krishnamurthy realized there wasn’t a concrete timeline of the relationship between hip-hop and fashion. “Although hip-hop is so ubiquitous now, I don’t even say that it’s a part of pop culture, it is pop culture,” the author (who announced her next book Roc-A-Fella Records: An American Rap Dynasty earlier this year) says. “It permeates every aspect of culture, both in America as well as globally. For me, as a veteran journalist, it’s really important that part of my work is to document important stories, and also unsung voices.”

40-A$AP_Rocky.jpgPhoto by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Gucci

I was reading that the idea initially sparked when you wrote your XXL article back in 2019. That's when you realized there wasn't an actual concrete timeline of the relationship between hip-hop and fashion.

Yeah, so that origin was the XXL article. And it's funny, because I remember my editor assigning it and I went back to that original email, and it's about 1300 words. Fast forward, now over 80,000 words about it over the course of three years, so, joke's on him. But it was interesting because although hip-hop is so ubiquitous now, I don't even say that it's a part of pop culture, it is pop culture. It permeates every aspect of culture, both in America as well as globally. The fact that in the literary space, so many of these stories just haven't been told. For me, as a veteran journalist, it's really important that part of my work is to document important stories and also unsung voices, whether they be artists, or designers, or people behind the scenes, who thus far have not been able to tell their story, get their flowers. So that was something that was very important in the conception of this book, and then ultimately, the execution.

I liked that you brought up defining what luxury is because oftentimes, we gloss over the idea. It was important for you to set that foundation.

I appreciate that. That's the feedback I've gotten from a lot of people. But that was one of the debates: should that be a standalone chapter? Is that something that we can pull into another chapter? But for me, it was very important for it to stand alone because it also showcased this much richer conversation around history, psychology, and these larger societal codes that we have to understand before we can dive into hip-hop. Especially when we think about hip-hop and fashion, so many times it's viewed through a very surface-level lens. So it's this very specific archetype of baggy jeans and the baseball cap to the back.

Also just this idea of, in my opinion, hip-hop not getting the respect of being elevated as other art forms. Where someone can write whole books about other genres like rock and roll or jazz or classical music. I feel like hip-hop is often still relegated to either coffee table books or memoirs, which I think are all important touchstones. But history is also important. And as time goes on and on, and a lot of these vestiges of media no longer exist, how is that next generation going to learn? Because a lot of the things I mentioned in this book — music, video channels, and radio stations and magazines — don't exist anymore. Even the archival footage doesn't exist anywhere. So somebody has to synthesize it and put it in writing, or else that's how culture is lost. And that's how incorrect facts and fake news and all that stuff circulate. So I think it's important.

Through your research, what are fun discoveries that you made?

There was so much. I mean, I thought I went in knowing pretty much everything and even I was surprised. So I promise to anybody reading it. If you're a hip-hop head or a fashionista, you will find something that you either didn't know or the story has many more layers than you expected. One of the interesting things is I take a deep dive into Vibe magazine. So this is the venerated magazine by Quincy Jones. It was his idea of essentially a hip-hop Rolling Stone or a hip-hop Vogue. But I didn't know and a lot of people don't know that the original editor-in-chief was actually a white gay man named Jonathan Van Meter. And he came from the fashion world.

When I interviewed him, he told me the whole story of how he went to the fashion magazines and to photographers and stylists and pulled from that pool of talent for those first issues of Vibe magazine. So I thought that was very interesting. Because even the way that the covers were shot, the lighting, and all of it was so elevated. But I had no idea that from day one, the foundation over there were people from the fashion world. Now, of course, later, there were a lot of names that we all know in the hip-hop sphere. But some of those originators their stories have not truly been told. Another interesting part is Tommy Hilfiger. And it's funny as I've been doing press, I can't tell you how many times people are telling me that they thought that that famous rumor in the late ‘90s about Tommy Hilfiger being racist was true. And because of that, they stopped wearing the clothes. They got rid of it. And literally through reading the book, they realized that that had been debunked several times over, but it just happens to continue to have a life of his own.

Being able to interview Tommy Hilfiger, his brother and people within that sphere, we’re able to see this much more holistic story of where the rumor originated. Why did it continue to be propagated? Another sort of interesting vignette that I hadn't originally thought of taking a true deep dive into was the lowlifes. So for anyone in New York in the ‘80s would probably know the name the lowlifes, they were known for boosting Polo. And they were based out of Brooklyn. But it was a conversation I had, interestingly, with DJ EFM, trick champs, and we were talking about Miami fashion or something completely unrelated. And he mentioned he was friends with one of the founders of the low lives. And it was fascinating. I mean, just their psychology of why they were so obsessed with Ralph Lauren. And what did that mean to embody the American dream as a bunch of young kids out of Brownsville, and that very much became a much larger part of the book.

Tupac Shakur. I know he's constantly within the zeitgeist, but a lot of people don't know right before he passed, he walked in a Versace show in Milan. Gianni had a lot of affection for POC and so did Donatella. That was very interesting, again, showing Tupac as a true fashion icon, where he's someone who can help kickstart brands like Karl Kani and April Walker. But then he can also wear Versace. Or he can embody this sort of “Thug Life” persona, the fact that he truly was a very interesting chameleon and helped so many different designers from DIY young startup designers all the way to something like a luxury house. I thought that was really fascinating. And I think what's been great about the book is also this opportunity to amplify the stories of women. And that was really important from day one, because even within this space, I have often felt that although we're talking about fashion, the stories are still told, through a male lens and through male voices.

11-April_Walker.jpgPhoto courtesy of April Walker

That was something that I wanted to talk to you about, the importance of having a woman tell this story.

It's been something that I've experienced really throughout my career. As time has gone on, unfortunately, I feel like there's fewer and fewer female voices in the room and especially authorities. So I take that position with a lot of responsibility. It's important when I am in a position to tell a story to be mindful of inclusivity. Because otherwise, it's just simply not there. And I don't know if it's inherently intentional, sometimes it's merely a blind spot. So for me, being a woman and being a woman of color, and also somebody who was born in another country and grew up in a small town. In many ways, I have that outsider perspective. So I took a step back in the story.

And it was important to highlight marginalized voices. It was important to highlight regions outside of just New York, because that's something again, in hip-hop history, I think it oftentimes plagues us to highlight the global perspective. We can't tell this story without talking about Europe and Asia. And these markets are so important now, but they've been a part of history even before the current time. So when it was time to interview people, I wanted to make sure there was a good balance. Of course, you're gonna get the household names because they are a part of the story. But if we're talking about, let's say, The Source magazine, let's talk to some of the Black women behind the scenes who were the fashion editors and stylists there, who outside of industry insiders wouldn't know who they are. But without them, you're not going to get a Tyson Beckford, who then becomes arguably the most famous male supermodel of all time. Similarly, when it came to highlighting female voices, making sure that of course there's going to be people like Lil Kim and Missy Elliott, but someone like Eve who was very much a trendsetter with having her own Fetish line. It's something a lot of people don't remember, actually.

I wanted Fetish to make a resurgence.

Well, it's time to pull out the archives. Even a Kimora Lee Simmons, who, of course, has gotten a lot of publicity as as an influencer and as a celebrity. But outside of that, she's someone who went from a Lagerfeld muse to heading a fashion line. That's a very rare trajectory from the runway to the boardroom. And even in her decision-making of the diversity of the models that she would have walking Baby Phat or the people who worked behind the scenes, that was very important to her. And I want to make sure that those are also things we're spotlighting.

It isn't just beautiful women wearing beautiful clothes, but also highlighting them as businesswomen, as game changers and as decision makers because that's truly important within the hip-hop space. We don't highlight women as moguls. We still sort of put them through a very narrow lens. And I think it's important that the same way we're giving sort of these accolades to their male contemporaries, that if we are going to write the definitive hip-hop fashion anthology, that it has to be inclusive across the board.

Another area is highlighting the contributions of the LGBTQ community. So I have a chapter as we look through the lens of southern fashion. So from Andre 3000 to Young Thug, talking about things like gender and sexuality, and the notion of gender fluidity, and how all of that becomes an important factor in this conversation. Of course, the dialogue is a little bit more inclusive within culture now, but it wasn't always that way. And I do think artists and creatives from those communities are still fighting for their respect within a hip-hop perspective. So that was important as well. Again, inclusivity across the board. And I really do believe it's because I have that 360-degree perspective. I'm pretty sure if a man wrote this, it just wouldn't be there. And it's not something he would be held accountable for. He wouldn't even think about it. It just is what it is. So for those of us who are blessed enough to have these opportunities in these positions to document history, I think it is a responsibility and I take it really seriously.

Who do you think is helping to carry the fashion torch now?

So of course, I'm gonna give a quick head nod to Pharrell, because him taking his role at Louis Vuitton is iconic, What he showed us at the Louis Vuitton fashion shows is now arguably more exciting than ever. He truly has all the goats in his Rolodex. And he might just pop off on the stage and he and JAY-Z are gonna do “Frontin’”. He'll have Rihanna posing in menswear as a beautiful pregnant woman. I mean, he's gonna just do things that the rest of us can't.

But insofar as younger artists, I think someone like Tyler the Creator is really interesting. Seeing his evolution from the baseball caps and the t-shirts from the Odd Future era to where he is now being more experimental. He's someone who's created this idea of gender fluidity and I think his fan base, probably more so than other fan bases, is also just very progressive, very avant-garde. So I gotta give him props. I love Cardi B. She is someone who could wear Fashion Nova or Schiaparelli and it just works for her. But this goes back to what we were talking about earlier about authenticity. She's just always herself, where no matter what she's wearing. It can be $20 or it can be priceless. She just seems really comfortable. She's always having fun. And that's what fashion is about. The fact that she's one of the names of who's going to shut down the carpet every year tells you everything you need to know about Cardi. Seeing that whole evolution from where she started to where she is now is very interesting. And I'm gonna, of course, give some kudos to the namesake of my book: A$AP Rocky, the fashion killa.

He's someone who truly redefined New York rap when he came up during the blog era. And he showcased what it meant to be someone who lives and breathes fashion. it's not even a question of whether he's a Sartorialist. I sometimes joke when I interviewed him years back, he was the one rapper where I actually had to think about what I was going to wear. So I knew he was going to be judgmental, and he was very complimentary. And that was the biggest compliment I could get where we were both talking about a streetwear line.

Right now, we're in an era where so many artists feel pressure to embrace fashion. And because of social media, there's a look that has to be put out there. But you can tell the people who are wearing the clothes versus the clothes wearing them. To me, Rocky is someone who when he just goes out to pump gas, he probably looks like a supermodel. So it also doesn't surprise me that his partner is Rihanna; it makes total sense. Their whole lives are a Vogue cover story. I just love that it’s truly the first couple of fashions, where they are going to take risks that none of us can wear. We are absolutely not going to wear a quilted blanket to a red carpet. But it just works. And I think they when you're such a trendsetter and a risk-taker, everything's not going to hit. Some are going to be misses. But that's just who they are. And I think that's really cool. They keep it exciting and interesting. And that's what passion is about. It should be fun.

33-Tyler,_the_Creator.jpgPhoto by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images for Louis Vuitton

Now that the book is out, do you have a deeper appreciation for hip-hop?

Well, my love of hip-hop has been there since I was a kid. So I'm just very grateful and appreciative to be able to give something evergreen back to the culture. Oftentimes, when you have a byline and you do different work in different mediums, t could be here today and gone tomorrow. But this is something that will last the test of time. I can't wait to see who else is reading it and referencing it. And what else it inspires, whether it's a documentary or a podcast or movie. The sky's the limit there. So in that case, I'm just very thankful. And I'm just excited because the feedback has been great. An interesting fun fact, there were a lot of publishers who passed on this book. I actually like to joke that this is my Reasonable Doubt. So the way that everyone passed on JAY, everyone passed on me. That's not hyperbole; that's facts. It was a young editor who unfortunately, has left the industry, but they saw the vision and so many other people were like, “Well, we don't get it. We think it's too niche.”

Isn't that ironic, though? Because there was a point in time where hip-hop wasn't allowed to be part of high fashion, even though it directly impacted what's happening on the runway. So for you to tell me that people didn't understand the book is the whole embodiment of it.

Yeah. And it's funny. I was trying to tell people about hip-hop 50. And I can't tell you how many people were like, “I don't get it. I don't see how this is a book.” In my mind, if something isn't in the marketplace, I see an opportunity. But I think you need to be inherently a risk taker. And a lot of people aren't and it's funny now that it's come out, we've gotten all this critical acclaim and best of 2023, and all this great press. Again, it's a blessing. But in many ways, it's like “I told you so.” But my hope is that books like this open up the market for other books, other anthologies, other authors. I desperately want more women, especially women of color, to be hip-hop authors. Because I'm telling you, it is a very lonely chat. So please join me.

It's so important because everyone has a different perspective. And I also don't like the notion that female journalists should only cover women in hip-hop. Which, again, if that's your passion and your beat, that's beautiful. But we should be able to tell all types of stories in the same way our male counterparts, not only are allowed to, but they feel the privilege that they should.

I appreciate everybody who's bought it, told a friend and shared it on social media. It really is like the little book that could, and so much of as people who finally do see the vision. I can tell you for real, it truly was JAY trying to sell Reasonable Doubt out of the trunks in ‘96. So, believe me, JAY, I know. I sold a few copies out of out of a Louie bag. That is not romanticized; it has happened. But again, it always takes that first to come through the door. My hope is that this opens opportunities for other people too.

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Photography by: April Walker; Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster; Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for Gucci; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images for Louis Vuitton