Home » Transcript: Race in America: Giving Voice with Elena Romero and Elizabeth Way

Transcript: Race in America: Giving Voice with Elena Romero and Elizabeth Way

MR. CAPEHART: Good morning, and welcome to Washington Post Live and another in our series on “Race in America,” co-produced with the “Capehart” podcast. I am Jonathan Capehart, associate editor for The Washington Post.

Well, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, but it is far more than a musical genre. Over these past five decades, it’s become a cultural phenomenon, and you know it’s made a major impact on the culture when a museum mounts an exhibition about it and to celebrate it. That museum is the Museum at FIT, the venerable Fashion Institute of Technology, and the show is called “Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous,” fitting name for an exhibition that looks at hip-hop’s influence on fashion.

Joining me now are the co-curators of the “Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous” exhibit: Elizabeth Way, associate curator of Costume at the Museum at FIT, and Elena Romero, assistant chair of the Marketing and Communications Department at FIT and author of “Free Stylin’: How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry.”

Elena and Elizabeth, welcome to “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.

MS. WAY: Thank you so much for having us.

MS. ROMERO: Thank you for having us.

MR. CAPEHART: I’m really looking forward to this. I was going to ask this later, but I have to ask this now. When I think hip-hop, I don’t think the 1970s, because for me that’s Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind and Fire, disco, Donna Summer. I think of the 1980s when I think of hip-hop. Am I the only one who’s surprised that hip-hop is 50 years old?

MS. ROMERO: 50 years old.

MS. WAY: Well, you know, hip-hip is–and hip-hop scholars other than Elena and I have marked the beginning of hip-hop as August 11th, 1973, and that’s when Kool Herk threw his very famous “Back to School Jam” for his sister, Cindy. And that’s when we start to see this musical, the technicalities of this musical style developing.

But as Elena and I show in the exhibition, early on we see those influences in the hip-hop fashion, from funk, from disco. For–throughout the 50 years, hip-hop heads, these creative kids were always pulling from mainstream culture, always very aware of what was going on around them.

MR. CAPEHART: And so, Elena, you had this wonderful quote in The New York Times. You said, quote, “Fashion is the original sixth element of hip-hop. Aspirations become a reality through what we wear. From nameplates to chains, it’s a way of being seen, and wearing the right clothes is a way to announce yourself to the world.” Is giving that sixth element it’s due what inspired you both to create this exhibit?

MS. ROMERO: For me, this was an extension of a body of work that I had been doing in the 1990s as a fashion reporter for Women’s Wear Daily and DNR. I covered this market really at the point where we saw it transition from being a mom-and-pop and regional specialty store business to being a department store and international business worldwide.

We were able to see that by 2002, this had become a $58 billion industry, and so the industry overall has seen quite a benefit from it, having the celebrities move from just endorsers to actually creating their own lines.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, I’m trying to find in my notes here. If I remember right, Elena, you–it was part of the exhibition. Your own nameplate is part of the–part of the exhibition.

MS. ROMERO: Yeah. I’m proud to say I’m 50 with hip-hop. So this is a part of my culture. I’m [unclear], which is notoriously known for the creation of hip-hop here in New York City, and so my brass buckle nameplate is found in the exhibition. I actually donated to the Museum at FIT along with my name ring that was given to me by my mother in the late ’80s.

MR. CAPEHART: Wow. Wow. I’m trying to find–because I skipped ahead and asked the 50-year question. So now I have lost my place.

All right. So, Elizabeth, hip-hop style is more than baggy jeans and gold chains and nameplates and belt buckles. Your exhibition argues that, in a quote here, “The genre’s artists and fans transformed and popularized streetwear, athleisure, and logomania to name only a few significant and enduring fashion movements.”

So then–and we’re seeing some of the fashion on the screen. So what would constitute hip-hop style today?

MS. WAY: Well, for me, I define hip-hop style as any style that’s worn by a hip-hop artist, a person who identifies with the culture. As long as that person self-identifies with hip-hop, what they’re wearing is hip-hop style. So that means it could be gowns on the red carpet. It could be throwback styles in the 1990s, which we’re seeing a lot of today. It could be a suit and tie. All of these things encompass hip-hop fashion.

MR. CAPEHART: Oh, wait. Hold up. I’m in suit and tie. So would this–come on now. Would this count as hip-hop culture?

MS. WAY: If you are–if you are representing hip-hop in your suit and tie through your attitude, through what you’re doing, through your state of mind, then it is a hundred percent hip-hop fashion.

MR. CAPEHART: Okay. That’s what you say, Elizabeth, but, Elena, is this hip-hop style? Because I’m the last person anyone would see as having any kind of hip-hop style.

MS. ROMERO: I mean, that’s a wonderful question, and as Liz mentioned, it’s not so much about a particular brand or a particular cut but rather also how it’s wearing, your attitude and how you present that. For example, many people when they think of hip-hop style, they’re kind of stuck in the 1980s with baggy jeans and logo merchandise, but there’s a lot of misconceptions. There are many elements of tailored clothing. If we look at it and examine it through history, there’s quite a bit of custom or what we call “one-of-ones” today. So there are many elements of tailored, but quite frankly, your attitude and how you wear it and how you accessorize it will ultimately land you that label if you are wearing it in a hip-hop fashion or not.

MR. CAPEHART: Uh-huh. I’m still having–there’s no way I could have that much attitude and moxie to have hip-hop style.

But, Elizabeth–and let’s keep talking more about the style and to the point that Elena was making about the attitude, because hip-hop fashion is a reflection of Black and Latino identity and creativity, is it not?

MR. CAPEHART: Explain. Go further into that.

MS. WAY: So, you know, hip-hip was created in the South Bronx, 1973. We’re talking about communities of color, African American communities but also this wide kind of diversity of Black communities. We see a lot of influence coming up in the Caribbean, and a lot of that influence is taking European and British style and taking it up into New York City. We see Puerto Rican influence. All of these people are coming together, and this is a time in New York City where they are–you know, they’re facing poverty. They’re facing unemployment. They’re facing urban redlining. All of New York was kind of suffering in the 1970s, but communities of color are especially feeling this. White flight is taking place, and then, of course, we have the crack pandemic coming on in the 1980s. A lot of things are happening.

But these young kids are turning all of this–all the situations they’re living with, they’re fueling it into their art, whether they’re rapping, whether they’re dancing, whether it’s aerosol art communicating visually. And so rap music has always been about kind of documenting what’s happening at the moment, and the clothes reflect that as well. So it’s the creativity of Black and Brown communities who mainstream society is doing their best at this time–some might argue still doing their best–to make them seem invisible. So through their style, through their art, they’re making themselves visible.

Elena’s nameplate belt is an amazing example of that. Literally putting your name in metal letters is a way to declare your presence and your visibility.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, and that gets to a quote that Sacha Jenkins says in the L.A. Times. This was back in 2018–2018, and Sacha Jenkins directed the 2015 hip-hop fashion documentary, “Fresh Dress.” And Sacha says, talking about, you know, just the placement of the hip-hop community and why fashion was so big–and Sacha says, “Because when you don’t have much ownership over where you can land in society, your financial situation, your educational situation, the one thing you can control is the way you look.”

And, Elena, I would love for you to take that ball and run with it, because the roots of hip-hop fashion is in wearing your, quote, “Sunday best.” Talk about that, and explain what “Sunday best” means.

MS. ROMERO: I actually was in that Sacha Jenkins film.

MS. WAY: You know, we’re talking about Black and Brown, you know, youth from working-class backgrounds who have historically been marginalized, who have been othered, and fashion is the–and like the music is the soundboard to be seen. And this is where expressions of individuality come out in custom fashions and accessories, including the brass buckle name belts, where you’re seeing teens put their names, their , the crew, the block that they belong to. Same with jewelry where you see hoop earrings with names, nameplate chains, spray-painted aerosol denim jacket with not only the characters that they idolize but their image and likeness. So a lot of it is about being noticed.

This idea of Sunday best, you know, or, you know, being so fresh and so clean, the idea of being–made sure to be respected. In many ways, the way we dress is how people identify what tribe we belong to and if we’re accepted in one particular space or another.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, you–there’s also a quote from you in that L.A. Times story where you say fashion was a way to showcase your aspirations or your abilities to make it or make it out. Talk more about that.

MS. ROMERO: Sure. So, you know, growing up, many of us watched shows like Robin Leach’s “Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous.”

MR. CAPEHART: Oh, that’s right.

MS. ROMERO: That was our inside look as to what affluence and wealth looked like, and we were not at the reflection of the other side of that broadcast.

When the hip-hop celebrity now becomes mainstream, we are now seeing that we can reach attainable heights that had never been seen before in terms of travel, in terms of wealth, in terms of notoriety and exposure. That’s just one indicator of that success.

MR. CAPEHART: And so, you know, Elizabeth, at the time, you know, when the baggy jeans and the Timberlands and the hoop earrings and everything were considered by mainstream society as that’s for them, that’s over there, and they weren’t always deemed high fashion when worn by us, what are your thoughts on the cultural appropriation of hip-hop fashion? Because it is no longer “other.” It is fashion.

MS. WAY: Absolutely. We see the influence of hip-hop, of streetwear on every single runway when we look at Fashion Week.

In terms of cultural appropriation, what’s so fascinating about hip-hop fashion is that, of course, we have very talented designers who are creating new designs: Cross Colours, Karl Kani, April Walker, 5001 Flavors, Dapper Dan. But so many of the kids started off and continued throughout the 50 years to buy clothing available in the mainstream and style it and wear it in a way that made it special. So they’re taking the same clothes that every other teenager in America has access to, but they’re putting it on their bodies. The fact that it’s the Black or Brown body makes a huge difference in how it’s perceived, but they’re also styling it, oversized or, you know, accessorizing it in certain ways that are unique to their communities and to hip-hop culture.

And I’ll also add that this did not look the same in New York as it looked in Atlanta, as it looked Detroit, as it looked in L.A. We have so many kind of different hip-hop styles.

The transition from hip-hop to high fashion, you know, at first it was just high-end designers looking at kind of these most significant tropes. We have a piece in the exhibition that is a dookie chain designed by Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel from 1991, so incredibly early for a company like Chanel to be taking inspiration from hip-hop. What we don’t see in that time are designers like April Walker or Cross Colours in the magazines being recognized by the mainstream fashion industry.

So appropriating hip-hop style is–I mean, it really took–it really started to take off in the 1990s when hip-hop became mainstream, when hip-hop was popular culture, especially for youth, and, you know, any artist, any designer, they want as wide an audience as possible. White teenagers are buying hip-hop albums as much or more than teenagers of color.

What’s important to us, for Elena and I, is that we show where these trends came from. We want to honor the designers, the kids, all of this creative energy that are not–mostly, not exclusively, Black and Brown people. They gave this style to America, and now it’s American style. And so it’s not that we don’t–you know, there’s not any designer who wants to limit the people buying their things, but we really want to make sure we pay tribute to who created it.

MR. CAPEHART: Right, right. And, you know, I’m just also–the other–the other thing among the many things you donated to the exhibition, Elena, is your daughter’s turquoise Reebok Freestyle sneakers, the 5411s, because that was the price including tax–[laughs]–

MS. WAY: –of the sneakers.

MS. ROMERO: Yes, absolutely.

MR. CAPEHART: I want you to pick up on

MS. ROMERO: Early sneakers–

MS. ROMERO: Yeah, so that was one of the early–that was intentionally designed for women, women that were into aerobics at the time and dance. That sneaker has been in existence and continues to be relaunched, and so the sneakers that we have in the exhibition are iridescent turquoise sneakers. And, of course, the slang terminology of “5411s” really comes from the price tag of $54.11, the ultimate price tag after New York sales tax and shop and buy those sneakers in stores like V.I.M. in New York City.

MR. CAPEHART: Wow. V.I.M. I have not heard that store’s name in–I don’t know how long, but I can see–I can see the sign above the store.

I want you to pick up, Elena, on what Elizabeth was talking about in terms of, quote/unquote, “mainstream” high-end fashion houses appropriating hip-hop style, but talk about the significance of Sean Combs and what happened in 2004. Why was that a watershed–what was that watershed moment, and why was it a watershed moment?

MS. ROMERO: Well, I think, you know, for a long time, the fashion was looked at being more of a trend, something that was going to be short-lived, and we saw longevity early on. You know, these brands at trade shows like MAGIC International Las Vegas were making multimillion-dollar sales season after season.

At the time that we saw Sean Puffy Combs enter the market, he ended up showing not only the traditional casual sportswear that we had traditionally seen in terms of denims, knits, and velours, but now we’re seeing kind of a more adult, mature look and interesting silhouettes that we had not seen before. When Puffy comes on, he has an all-Black male fashion show for 7th on Sixth. That is quite remarkable, and of course, he becomes the first African American designer to win a CFDA Award, really marking a very pinnacle moment, not only in hip-hop style but in fashion overall.

MR. CAPEHART: And so then, Elizabeth, when Sean Combs won that award, what was the impact of that going forward?

MS. WAY: Well, you know, when Sean Combs launched Sean John, he had immediately the support of people like Anna Wintour, of people like André Leon Talley, fashion insiders in the, quote/unquote, kind of, you know, “ivory tower” of fashion, and that was a lot different from brands that had launched previously, like FUBU or Phat Farm who were, you know, going from a more kind of–more in the hip-hop kind of what they called “urban fashion” at that time track.

But what’s interesting about Sean Combs winning the CFDA Award is that the next designers of color to win were from Public School–Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne–and these two designers met each other and trained at Sean John. So not only do we see him kind of breaking all of these–all of these stereotypes about what it means–what urban fashion means, what a celebrity fashion line can look like, how it can be taken seriously by the industry, he’s also creating a pipeline. And I don’t think we talk about that enough, about all of these designers who were kind of labeled “hip-hop,” kind of pushed into a parallel industry, the important pipeline that they created for designers of color.

We have a piece in our–in the exhibition that was donated to us by Mimi Plange, who got her start working at Rocawear and now has a beautiful kind of collection of her own.

Looking at Dapper Dan, you know, we interviewed him for the exhibition, and he talked about how, you know, if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have had Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton. You know, these designers, even though the mainstream industry wanted to push them into a different category for so long, they really laid the groundwork for the diversity that we’re starting to see in fashion today.

MR. CAPEHART: If I’m remembering right, what–wasn’t Sean John–Sean Combs had a brick-and-mortar store. If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t it on Fifth Avenue and 41st Street, like right across from the New York Public Library? Am I remembering–

MS. ROMERO: Correct. He did have a flagship store.

MR. CAPEHART: Go ahead, Elena.

MS. ROMERO: Yes, you are correct. He had a flagship store.

I want to kind of take the conversation a little bit back. So as we are examining the roots and the evolution of hip-hop style and giving and celebration and commemoration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, we also have to look at the complex relationship that hip-hop has had with the fashion industry, thinking of these conversations around shopping while Black and the policing of Black bodies walking into high establishments in the fashion industry. So I think there’s a lot of conversation that could be had, not just in terms of the style but in terms of the shoppers, and how things have changed since its early inception.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, I’m glad you brought that up, but talk more about that. How did, you know, shopping while Black and either being followed around high-end stores or shoppers, customers, potential customers not feeling welcomed to even cross the threshold of those stores simply because of either the color of their skin or what they were wearing?

MS. ROMERO: I mean, we were seeing a lot of things take place. I mean, when we think about the popularity of Ralph Lauren Polo, you know, you have to give credit to the Lo Lifes that extended out of Brooklyn and Brownsville.

But those earlier moments where that brand was being popularized was a moment where there was what we called “boosting,” where they were shoplifting. They were breaking into department stores. So there is validity in some of that, but every single shopper is not exactly going in and shoplifting.

So where do we draw the line in how are consumers profiled is an interesting conversation, how that might be, you know, low–they’re sagging their jeans, what shoes they’re wearing. There’s an assumption that they’re not coming in to shop just like everyone else because they’re young, because they’re into hip-hop, and that’s where the conversation gets muddy.

MR. CAPEHART: Elizabeth, I would love your thoughts. I see you nodding in agreement.

MS. WAY: Well, again, like talking to people like Dapper Dan or Misa Hylton, you know, Dapper Dan talks about in his shop, he would sit there, and as soon as a customer walked in, he went to the door, and he greeted them. He started a conversation with them, because he wanted them to have a fundamentally different experience than they would have on Fifth Avenue shopping at some of the luxury brands. He wanted to make sure that they felt seen, that they felt valued as customers because of that contrast.

Or we have stylists like Misa Hylton working, you know, from–in Uptown Records, Uptown Records from the ’90s, talking about how the high-end designers were not only not kind of throwing clothes at her to style her clients–and we see this the same with magazine editors like Emil Wilbekin, not only are they not, like, you know, having all of these kind of products thrown at them to be featured in music videos, in magazines for free advertising, they’re having a really hard time accessing that at all.

And so we do see this level of creativity and this kind of FUBU attitude for us by us come out of that, but we also see a lot of missed opportunities. You know, we had to wait till 2017 for Gucci to partner with Dapper Dan and create this amazing collaboration, but what he did in opening up this dialogue between European luxury labels and American streetwear has been incredibly influential. And it was–it was a lot of–I mean, it was just racism. It was just kind of prejudices against this customer base and the assumptions that people made about them that really limited a lot of creativity and growth that could have happened in the fashion industry.

MR. CAPEHART: And so then, Elena, given what Elizabeth just said, have you seen or has there been any improvement in that treatment, in that outlook, in the acceptance of hip-hop?

MS. ROMERO: Absolutely. Really no choice. I mean, what we’ve seen is that hip-hop style is American style, and rappers are a part of America’s story. We cannot continue to ignore them.

So over time where artists had to dress themselves because they didn’t have access to designer brands, now they’re being, you know, ushered in not only to sit on the front row and participate as models in runway shows, but now they’re doing a lot of collaborations with luxury brands that they idolize.

I mean, I think a lot can be said not only in terms of the legacy that Virgil Abloh left behind, but the naming of Pharrell as the head of Louis Vuitton and the creative direction.

MR. CAPEHART: Right. That took me by a surprise. Did it take either of you by a surprise? Pharrell? Really?

Can’t hear you, Elizabeth.

MS. WAY: Can you hear me now?

MS. WAY: Okay. I was just–great. Pharrell has a long history of working with brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton as a spokesmodel. He’s, of course, noted for his personal style, and he has successful companies like Billionaires Boys Clubs and Ice Cream. But I think–I think The Washington Post’s own Robin Givhan did a really thoughtful piece on kind of what it means for a celebrity to step into a design role like that. So I’ll let Robin kind of–her words speak for themselves. But it certainly does speak to how important hip-hop is for these luxury brands in their marketing, in their customer bases, and how they need to position themselves socially and culturally.

MR. CAPEHART: So, Elena, we’ve talked about musicians. We’ve talked about, you know, folks who came up in fashion, but I’m just wondering, how did athletes contribute to the popularization of hip-hop fashion?

MS. ROMERO: In our exhibition, we also have a section that looks at sports, and so brands like FUBU actually had licensing deals with the NBA. Willie Esco had a licensing deal with MLB. Mitchell & Ness had tremendous success with their throwback jerseys. So those are just a few examples of how the fashion industry and sports really were able to benefit from that connection to hip-hop.

MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. So this is a question for both of you, and we’ve got less than five minutes. So I’m going to put–have you put on your–take out your crystal ball. Elena, I’ll start with you. How do you see hip-hop fashions evolving? And this is where you need the crystal ball. What’s going to be the next trend?

MS. ROMERO: Ooh, that’s a really loaded question.

MS. ROMERO: I’m going to go out on a limb and think about how these luxury brands going to start financing and supporting the celebrities in their own business ventures. I think, you know, one of the missing links here in why so many brands have not always succeeded long term is this idea of infrastructure and finance, and I think if celebrities are doing collaborations with the brands, it would be interesting to them to go one step further and actually support them in creating their own brands and moving them into that next stage of their careers.

MR. CAPEHART: Interesting.

Elizabeth, what do you think?

MS. WAY: So Elena talks a lot about business, trends in business. If I’m thinking aesthetically in terms of fashion, we’ve already seen this amazing push from Gen Z towards gender fluidity, towards androgyny, this adventurous way of dressing that in which gender is no longer kind of this limiting factor. And so I think we’re going to see a continuation of that in a huge way.

We’ve also seen hip-hop style kind of just grow and grow and grow in terms of luxury, in terms of kind of this over-the-top luxury, and I think that we will see a reverse of that in, you know, the way fashion always cycles out. We’ve already seen a lot of 1990s and 2000s inspiration. I think we’ll go even further back, maybe to the ’80s or even the ’70s in these trends. But these are just my speculations.

MR. CAPEHART: This has been a fascinating conversation. The biggest thing I took out of it is that I could actually be–I could actually be considered hip-hop, which is not what I–

MS. WAY: Well, Jay-Z could wear a suit just like yours, and he’s certainly making it hip-hop. So there’s no reason why you can’t either.

MR. CAPEHART: That is a–that is a fair point. This has been–this has been really terrific, and I wish we had more time. And I can’t wait to get up to New York to see the show. Elizabeth Way and Elena Romero, the exhibition at the Museum at FIT is called “Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous,” just like this conversation. Thank you both very much for coming to Washington Post Live.

MS. WAY: Thank you so much for having us.

MS. ROMERO: Thank you for having us.

MR. CAPEHART: All right. And thank you for joining us. To find out more information about upcoming interviews and programs, please go to WashigntonPostLive.com.

Once again, I’m Jonathan Capehart, associated editor at The Washington Post. Thank you for watching “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.