FUBU, the streetwear label founded in 1992 by Shark Tank judge Daymond John that dominated hip hop fashion in the nineties, has relaunched in the US via a capsule collection with retailer Century 21 that you can shop now here. According to FUBU Co-founder Carlton Brown, the relaunch with Century 21 provides an opportunity to officially reintroduce the brand to a younger demographic of consumers, while also capitalizing on the nostalgia of millennials who grew up with FUBU, and international consumers who know the brand. What more appropriate time than now, with heritage brands like Gucci, Prada, and Burberry creating designs with racist iconography, than for the label that was “For Us By Us,” to resurface? While John maintains that “For Us By Us” isn’t limited to black people, and that FUBU is intended to be inclusive for all, he also understands the power of blackness as cool currency. “I believe everybody in the world wants to be American and all Americans want to be black to some extent because we control the cool,” John told the Breakfast Club. So, this begs the question: what happened to the black pioneers of streetwear and the sense of community they created between fashion and black consumers?
As we know it today, streetwear is associated with high-end luxury prices but imbued with coolness and street credibility lacking in heritage brands. However, if we go back to the eighties and nineties, we can see that brands like Cross Colours, Karl Kani, FUBU, and Sean John laid the groundwork for current streetwear brands to flourish.
The eighties were a decade of conspicuous consumption prompting many Americans to wear their wealth on their sleeves, quite literally. Underserved Black and Latino communities; although poor, were no exception to the societal pressure to display some semblance of status through fashion. At the same time in one such neighborhood, the Bronx, police brutality, gangs, drugs, and poverty plagued the borough, giving rise to the art form that became rap. Thus, the relationship between rap music and fashion began. However, while rappers were talking about the aspirational lifestyle associated with luxury fashion, giving brands like Ralph Lauren free promotion, mainstream designers weren’t returning the admiration.
“Urban fashion was developed, not only because we were not included in high-end designer’s concepts or ideas of what high fashion and couture were all about, but we weren’t even included as fit models and certainly not considered for any type of affordability or price tag,” says Girlfriends Costume Designer Stacy Beverly. This lack of representation and accessibility created a demand in black and Latino communities for luxury fashion that catered to the desire for mutual promotion, and hip hop aesthetics. Fashion that was for us, by us if you will.
This gap in the market inspired the ingenuity of local designers like Dapper Dan to reimagine luxury fashion for his own people. “My favorite thing about Dap is that he never ever looked to mainstream fashion for validation. He really didn’t look at trends because he knew his community’s cultural aesthetic,” says Bevy Smith, Harlem native and TV, and radio personality.
The innovative style in New York neighborhoods and commitment to the hip hop community gave rise to the iconic brand Cross Colours, created by Carl Jones and TJ Walker, who used the black renaissance taking place in film and television in the nineties to promote their company and gain a presence in retail. Shows like Fresh Prince of Bel Air, A Different World, In Living Color, and Yo! MTV Raps gave a wider audience a glimpse into the culture and fashion of hip hop, helping to legitimize streetwear brands in the eyes of big business. Cross Colours then partnered with Brooklyn-bred independent designer Karl Kani, helping him to secure a $6 million retail order. From the success of Cross Colours and Karl Kani, other brands like FUBU, Mecca, Rocawear, Phat Farm, and Baby Phat were also profitable. But Sean “Diddy” Combs changed the game when he created Sean John. By developing more complex designs in luxe fabrications to compete against established, mainstream brands, Sean John redefined luxury in the streetwear sector and beyond. Diddy’s work earned him the prestigious CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) award for Menswear Designer of the Year in 2004, beating Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors. “What Diddy did with Sean John was amazing because he had an idea of creating a black luxury brand and he built it and had a free-standing store on Fifth Avenue, which was a first. And he was able to build the business to a point where he could sell it, and I think that’s a good example of black entrepreneurship and vision,” says Emil Wilbekin, former Style Editor for Vibe magazine.
So what happened? From the example set by pioneering brands, and designers and big business observing that there was a huge market for clothing made by hip hop artists, many other lines sprang up. From Outkast to Wu Tang’s Wu-Wear to Nelly’s Vokal, the market became oversaturated with lines that carried many of the same products, with little complexity or quality. Hence, most of those brands are now defunct, having also inspired luxury brands to emulate the aesthetic created in Black and Latino communities. Unfortunately, once black consumers saw that heritage luxury houses were creating the looks they wanted to wear anyway, we opted to use our purchasing power on European ideas of aspiration. “Fashion is capitalistic. It depends on aspiration. Aspiration for us means aspiring outside of ourselves, so by the early ought’s these labels just kind of fall out of vogue for a number of reasons, but also because the currency for mobility was not going to be wearing Karl Kani or FUBU,” says Kimberly Jenkins, Professor in Parsons’ School of Fashion and Curator of the art exhibit Fashion and Race: Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities.
When it came to staying power, the relatively young streetwear brands just couldn’t compete in the same market as heritage fashion houses.
“These heritage houses are hundreds of years old, and have established brand equity, so there’s a return on the investment. When you buy some Louis Vuitton, or some Chanel, they’re going to appreciate in value,” says Shelby Ivey Christie, Luxury Media Manager and host of Girl with the Bamboo Earring podcast. “We have to look at buying luxury as an investment.”
With the current ongoing conversations surrounding luxury heritage fashion houses and how Black people have been excluded, appropriated, and disrespected by them, maybe it’s time for us to once again reconsider how we define luxury.