Student Shows What’s ‘Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous’ About Hip-Hop Style
An Urban Education student documents 50 years of hip-hop fashion with a hit museum exhibition.
Elena Romero was a few months into her job as a reporter at a menswear industry trade magazine when she broke a story about hip-hop fashion going mainstream. That 1996 article was a crossover moment for the staid publication and for Romero, who continued to break news about brands and trends that the fashion press had long ignored.
“Her dedication to telling our stories made retailers and leading business executives take us seriously,” Daymond John, co-founder of FUBU, wrote in the foreword of Romero’s 2012 book, Free Stylin’ How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry.
Now, Romero, an Urban Education Ph.D. student at the Graduate Center and a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is having another crossover moment. She is the co-curator of “Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style,” an exhibition at the Museum at FIT that captures the fashion that accompanied hip-hop’s birth in the Bronx through its maturation as a multi-billion-dollar industry. The exhibition of over 100 items, from Timberland boots to pressed Lee jeans, has drawn significant press and record crowds. It also brings together Romero’s many lives as a journalist, author, scholar, and lifelong hip-hop fan.
On a Friday in late February, Romero and exhibition co-curator Elizabeth Way hosted a sold-out symposium on the exhibition, and between talks, Romero offered a whirlwind tour of the show and spoke about conceiving and curating it.
In a case near the exhibition entrance is a custom-made, brass belt buckle with “Elena” carved out in large, capital letters. “I was probably about 12 when my mom got that for me,” Romero said. “Black and brown communities have traditionally been marginalized here in New York and around the United States, and one of the ways to attempt to remove that ‘other’ perspective is through oversize statements, whether it was on apparel, or on jewelry, or, in this case, the brass buckle name plate.”
Romero donated the name plate and other items, including her daughter’s turquoise Reebok Freestyle sneakers, called the 5411 for their 1980s price (with tax) of $54.11, on display nearby, to a hip-hop archive that she started at the museum.
She credits Professor Emeritus Stephen Brier (Urban Education, Digital Humanities, Liberal Studies), who taught courses on the history of public education, with inspiring her to create the archive and to conduct oral histories with designers, artists, and influencers in order to document hip-hop fashion.
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Short documentary films featuring Romero’s interviews with hip-hop fashion history-makers, including designers Karl Kani, TJ Walker and Carl Jones of Cross Colours, April Walker, Dapper Dan, and Tommy and Andy Hilfiger, play on monitors throughout the show and are available on YouTube. Romero and Way gathered more stories of hip-hop style in a book of essays and photos that complements the show.
Of the show’s many themes — Afrocentricity, stage wear, customization, shoes, outerwear, the color pink — Romero said she especially wanted to pay “homage to the Black and brown designers that really were critical to creating these styles and are really our unsung heroes.”
Romero also wants people, like her, who grew up wearing hip-hop clothes and following the music to see themselves and their culture represented in the show.
The museum had just opened when we arrived and already the tightly packed, two-room show was bustling with visitors.
Andy Hilfiger stopped by before participating in the symposium. “It’s an honor,” he said, to see the Hilfiger looks — the jeans and the oversized shirts bearing large logos — celebrated in the show. “It was a major part of my life,” he said. Hilfiger was a vice president at Tommy Jeans and linked the company with hip-hop artists in the late 1990s when Romero was a reporter at the now defunct menswear industry trade magazine DNR and then became a contributing editor at Women’s Wear Daily. “She was one of the only ones who understood the [hip-hop] culture,” he said, “and we became good friends then. The editors didn’t really know what was going on, but she did.”
Romero and Hilfiger bantered for a bit, and then she moved away, eager to mingle with other visitors.
Darren Rivera, a graduate of Hunter College and his wife Iliana, also a Hunter graduate, heard about the exhibition on the news and came with their two school-age sons and daughter to see it.
“It’s interesting to see that what I wore 30 years ago is now part of an exhibit in a museum,” Rivera said. He looked at one corner of the room where mannequins were decked out in Polo shirts with camouflage cargo pants. “That’s exactly how I was dressing,” he said. “And I still dress like that. I still have the fatigue pants” — which he was wearing — “I don’t wear them as baggy anymore.”
Rivera wanted his kids to understand his fashion roots, and theirs. His sons, in their Polo and Nike sweatshirts, one with a Yankees baseball cap, had absorbed some of dad’s fashions. And their younger sister, too, sported a camouflage sweatshirt underneath her pink puffy coat.
“I'm 45 years old, and I have a white-collar job,” Rivera said. “I live in the burbs now, but there’s still a part of this that's still a part of me. And I just want to share it with them more than anything.”
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