Artists like Pitbull have helped introduce urban fashion to the upscale fashion runway. (Photo/Getty Images)

Opinion: Latinos are the trailblazers behind urban fashion trends

Despite the absence of hip-hop designers on the runway at this year’s upcoming Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, urban fashion is very much alive.

Urban fashion today has evolved from its roots and is reflective of the diversity that exists in the hip-hop community. Hip-hop grew out of the cross-fertilization of African-American and Caribbean cultures in the seventies, the catalyst being when Clive “Kool DJ Herc” Campbell moved from Kingston, Jamaica to 168th Street in the Bronx. With the commercial success of rap music and its appeal in popular culture, fashion would be the easiest way to identify who was down with the new sound.

A style once confined to baggy jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps today has virtually every product category there is from ready-to-wear and tailored clothing to accessories and home furnishings.
Companies such as Cross Colours, Fubu, Phat Farm, Sean John, Rocawear and Marc Ecko broke initial retail barriers that helped fuel an industry to $58 billion dollars in 2002, according to market research firm The NPD Group. Those who dared to call it a fad were highly mistaken.

Latinos were never absent from this experience.

Reflecting back on my own teenage years, I can vividly remember how urban fashion played a definitive role in my life. While I listened to a variety of music, my fashion sense favored hip-hop like many urban Latinos who were part of the hip-hop generation. I donned Le Tigre striped shirts, colored Lee jeans, a brass-buckled name belt (that I still own) and shell-top/fat shoe-laced Adidas by age 12 and graduated to a more social-conscious way of dressing— donning the brightly hued, oversized Cross Colours— by the time I attended college. Dressing with a hip-hop flare was about being comfortable, while projecting an individual swagger. It also didn’t hurt that we had Latino designers behind the urban fashion movement.

Born in San Jose, Costa Rica to a Costa Rican mother and Panamanian father, a nurse and entrepreneur, respectively, Carl Williams later known as Karl Kani (as in ‘Can I’) would start a trend out East with his baggy jeans, oversized sweatshirts and metal name plate. Kani attributed his brand’s success to brand exposure on music television shows like “Yo! MTV Raps” with Dr. Dre and Ed Lover and MTV’s “Fade to Black” with Todd 1. It also didn’t hurt to have a fan base that included Tupac, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Snoop Dogg, Redman, Method Man and the late Heavy D.

Looking to become Brooklyn’s version of Harlem custom designer Dapper Dan (he became famous for his knock-off/designer counterfeit outfits), designer April Walker of Mexican and African-American descent opened her own tailor shop called Fashion in Effect in 1988. What started off with custom apparel would eventually evolve into Walker’s own fashion line called Walker Wear. Walker, the first female urban designer, became known for her rough and rugged denim suits, which had contrast stitching, offered bigger cuts, had a longer crotch area and stash pockets. It was those early urban fashion pioneers such as Kani and Walker that would later open doors for fellow Latino urbanites such as Puerto Rican designer Willie Montanez of Willie Esco and celeb designers such as rapper Fat Joe (FJ560) to the multi-talented Jennifer Lopez with her J.Lo fashions. Musicians-turned-designers have not been able to escape heavy criticism but many have long recognized their cross-over appeal and money-making potential beyond endorsement opportunities, which is why fashion makes perfect sense.

Like many music rebellions prior to hip-hop that frustrated adults, urban fashion has had its share of controversy. There are plenty of people and institutions that have voiced their opinions about the current extreme “sloppy” look of hip-hop from Bill Cosby, President Barack Obama to Sen. Eric Adams of Brooklyn who ran the “Stop the Sag” campaign in 2010. At the prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta, their “Renaissance men” are not allowed to wear “caps, do-rags and/or hoods in classrooms, the cafeteria, or other indoor venues” as well as “saggy pants on campus” per the Morehouse College Appropriate Attire Policy. Other colleges, such as Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. also enforce a similar policy.

Despite those who disagree with the extreme looks of the style, there is no question that the contributions of urban designers should be acknowledged and celebrated. Celebrity designed or not, both types of designers deserve respectability because urban style is so much more than a passing fad.

Opinion: Latinos are the trailblazers behind urban fashion trends  romero photo edited people NBC Latino News

Elena Romero teaches at The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and the City College Center for Worker Education. A former fashion journalist, Romero is the author of the new book, Free Stylin’: How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry

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