New Book Reveals How Hip-Hop Became a Multi-Billion Fashion Industry

Hip-hop superstars Kanye West and Nicki Minaj are known for taking fashion risks, for better or for worse.

Brad Barket & Evan Agostini/AP

Elena Romero has much to celebrate. It's been a long road, but the Nuyorican college professor has finally released her first book, titled Free Stylin': How Hip-Hop Changed the Fashion Industry. Comprised of countless interviews and research, the book is a comprehensive look at how hip-hop transitioned from the hood to the runway.

Hip-hop fashion is very near and dear to Romero. For years, she wanted to publish a book that detailed how hip-hop celebs and designers in the genre created their own niche in the multi-billion-dollar fashion industry. It's a story Romero knows very well, having reported extensively on the growth of hip-hop's influence in fashion while it was happening, as a journalist for Women's Wear Daily (WWD).

Both blunt and hilarious (and very pregnant), Romero recently walked us through her own ever evolving fashion sense, as well as some unforgettable fashion moments in the culture. Remember Lil Kim's purple, flower-shaped nipple pasty? Now that's what you call taking risks.

In your book, you go into great detail about how hip-hop and fashion weren't always viewed as a likely combination. Where do you see hip-hop fashion now?

It's [hip-hop fashion] not in its purest form as it was once because now artists, just like people in urban cities, are influenced by more than one thing. You've got urban kids skating now – that wasn't the case thirty years ago.

Right now what we're seeing is a transition. The original hip-hop artists are getting older now; Jay-Z's in his forties, so he can't necessarily dress the way he did when he was 18, but there's still an urban aesthetic that translates throughout.

Let's talk about you. What was your fashion sense like when you were younger?

I was definitely a hip-hop kid, but it depends on the music era that we're talking about and the stage of life I was in. I listened to Michael Jackson, so of course I wore all those Michael Jackson-inspired looks of the 80s – the jackets with the zippers and the shiny socks… which is embarrassing now, to think about it. I was a big fan of [freestyle icon] Lisa Lisa of Lisa Lisa and The Cult Jam – before there was J.Lo, there was Lisa Lisa.

I had the Lisa Lisa haircut with the sideburns, the poofy front with the long straight hair in the back. But yet I listened to hip-hop, so I wore my colored Lee jeans and my Le Tigre shirt – and my brass buckle leather belt… and my shell-toe Adidas. And then you go through your Madonna phase – your Material Girl look. I wouldn't say I was a trendsetter; I was definitely a follower of trends. Even now, being 39, my look is much more mature but I still have an urban sensibility. That's always something that I carry with me.

What trend in hip-hop is the biggest fashion fail of all time?

I almost have to think about that, because it's not easy… you have to put it into perspective. I still can't believe… well, I can kind of believe it – the big MC Hammer pants. I hated those. But guess what? I wore those too – as much as I thought they were horrible! There was also the 90s rap duo Kris Kross, known for rocking their clothes backwards, but that made them stand out.

Who is someone who always gets it right?

I would say Sean Combs [Diddy] is a no brainer. He's always had a sophisticated eye and that can easily be seen in how he envisioned his artists dressing.

In your opinion, who is the best-dressed female rapper – past or present?

I'm going to put things in perspective… I know you want to call it "best dressed," but I don't know if I would call it that. I would call it symbolic more than anything else. I think of Queen Latifah and how she pushed the whole Afro-centric look, and being a queen. The categories of best and worst dressed are kind of funny. Some people dress a particular way because it goes with their image and they want to be outrageous and outlandish. I wouldn't personally wear that, but I understand they're trying to come up with a costume-like persona....

Are you talking about Nicki Minaj?

Yeah! You're reading my mind. And I think about her only because of her wigs and all that stuff. The clothes? That's costume – that's not everyday wear. Would she be wearing that walking down the street? Probably not. But for the stage, it gives people something to talk about. It does make her stand out – good or bad.

You're Nuyorican, so I have to bring up Jennifer Lopez. Thoughts on her style?

J.Lo isn't necessarily hip-hop per se, she is very much influenced by hip-hop from her early days of being a Fly Girl. She's a great example of someone who can easily wear a velour tracksuit one moment, and an elegant gown in another - and still have a certain urban flair and sophistication. Whether it's wearing those clothes or putting her hair in a slicked-back ponytail and the hoop earrings. So you can see how it's not just this cookie-cutter look. People tend to think "Oh hip-hop, it's just t-shirts and baggy clothes," but it's definitely more than that.

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