The advent of Hip-Hop in the early 1970’s not only transformed a new style of beats and rhymes into a world-wide cultural phenomenon but it also created a dynamic shift within the constructs of cultural appropriation. The originators of Hip-Hop including Kool Herc and Coke La Rock used every inch of their surroundings to create a generational sound forever altering the outlook on their place in the world. Tapping into city-regulated lamp posts to power their sound systems they broadcasted hand-spun break beats from earlier musical genres to the delight of their local communities. B-boys and Graffiti artists co-opted public spaces to exhibit their burgeoning art forms and MC’s borrowed from popular culture to help contextualize their new brand of bravado-laced prose. With the rise of Hip-Hop came an evolving style movement that wasn’t only inspired by the music but by its spirit of taking things, which weren’t meant for inner city youth, and redefining their original intent. Luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton who ignored this consumer segment found themselves in the throws of a developing subculture whose love for these labels, while unrequited helped generate urgency and buzz around the product. Throughout the 80’s Harlem designer Dapper Dan built a popular business on repurposing counterfeit Gucci and LV monogrammed canvases and leather into new creations for a highly visible clientele of rap artists and neighborhood celebrities. However it was the love affair with two brands in particular; Polo Ralph Lauren and The North Face that really changed the discourse for generations to come. Originated by the collective known as the Lo-Lifes (consisting of two rival Brooklyn crews, Ralphie’s Kids and Polo U.S.A respectively), the lifestyle built around stealing, boosting, racking and obsessing over brands like Polo set the blueprint for modern day sneaker and streetwear fanaticism. Before there was hype, there was an even greater lure — owning something that was specifically never meant for you to own. Predominantly white Anglo-Saxon themes of polo, tennis, golf, and skiing ran common throughout the various Polo collections during the late 80’s and early 90’s, but they couldn’t feel any further from what was happening in the inner-city neighborhoods of Brownsville and Crown Heights. However that harrowing distance was the driving force. The clothing’s intended references didn’t matter; it was the Lo-Life’s adaptation of the dominant culture that subverted the traditional dynamic of cultural appropriation. By seizing patronage of a brand that was implicitly not intended for them, this Brooklyn crew not only reversed the traditional balance of power between the majority and minority but also showcased the influence outsiders could yield on a heavily guarded brand like Ralph Lauren. What resulted was the foundation for the core tenets of today’s hype driven consumer; be first, be the only one and get as much as you can at whatever cost. Luxury labels have since adopted the limited-edition-drop strategy to gain relevance and specifically target the lineage of consumers molded in the form of the Lo-Lifes. And in a blatant example of the tail wagging the dog Gucci artistic director Alessandro Michele was recently accused of appropriating the work of Dapper Dan from the 80’s. Call it the knocking off of the knock-off; a re-appropriation of sorts which eventually spawned the Gucci “sponsored” Harlem store by Dapper Dan. So it seems everything eventually comes back around. Ralph Lauren celebrated its 50th Anniversary last year by finally re-releasing items from it’s early 90’s collections which were originally made popular by NYC youth and an era which never got credit for their contributions to fashion and youth culture. While the days of being part of an exclusive insider subculture (where style and cool couldn’t be bought) are long gone, these pieces remain as grails for today’s streetwear aficionados and serve as relics from a past where the only way participate was to force your way in.
*"The Radiant Child", Rene Ricard