Tracing rap's love affair with the luxury brand.
Written by Zandile Blay (@zandile); Additional reporting by Kadia Blagrove (@KazzleDazz)
"Now it’s all about Versace/You copied my style.” Tupac Amaru Shakur sandwiched this barb within a fusillade of lethal lines aimed squarely at his old friend turned rival Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace. When "Hit Em Up" dropped in June of 1996 the streets scrambled to pick sides. But for urban fashionistas, 'Pac's war-mongering single signaled another kind of turning point. This was the era when hip-hop’s passion for fashion transitioned from laid-back (think LL Cool J and Fila or Run-DMC and Adidas) to luxe.
The edginess, the over-the-top creativity, and bad-ass factor is what made Versace so attractive to artists.
The genre found a willing partner in Gianni Versace, the Italian designer who established the iconic label in 1978. The over-the-top opulence that Versace embodied—flowing silk shirts, heavy gold accessories, dark dramatic shades—expressed the aspirations and purchasing power of hip-hop artists and their growing audience. An unofficial ambassador for the brand, 'Pac built a close friendship with Gianni and his sister Donatella. As a result the West Coast rapper enjoyed custom-tailored clothes, exclusive show invites, and one epic turn as a model for Versace’s Fall/Winter 1996 show in Milan. Long before these became standard practice in the industry, 'Pac was the only artists to get such perks—but he wasn’t the only one doing his part to immortalize the brand. Over on the East Coast, The Notorious B.I.G. was doing his part too.
Remember Biggie in a Versace silk shirt on that speedboat boat in the "Hypnotize" video? How about Biggie chillin' in Versace shades in the "One More Chance" house party? Or all those concerts where Biggie rocked Versace accessories on stage? “The edginess, the over-the-top creativity and bad-ass factor is what made Versace so attractive to artists,” says Misa Hylton, the celebrated stylist (and now President of the Misa Hylton Fashion Academy) whose client list has included everyone from Mary J. Blige to Lil Kim. “Versace remained a staple for rap and R&B artists as the genre transformed from aspirational to inspirational. Hip-hop went from music to an international culture—and Versace was there every step of the way.”
Ironically the trifecta of men who laid the foundation for hip-hop’s enduring history with Versace—and as a result, with luxury labels as a whole—were murdered within months of each other: 'Pac in '96; Gianni and Biggie in '97. But thanks to all the artists they inspired, their legacy of luxe remains alive.
Donatella has taken up Gianni’s mantle by personally fostering relationships with artists. As Chief Designer and current Vice President, she doesn't just generously lend clothing, (something that other luxury brands were slow to do before Versace) but makes appearances in videos, invites artists to shows, and participates in fashion shoots. “Donatella knew, just like Gianni did, how to relate to and dress musicians for various aspects of their artistry,” says Alexander Allen, the International Creative, Image and Music Director who has engineered Versace looks for celebrities from Trina to Pink. “Understanding and catering to these artists is just their DNA.”
That intuitiveness has served Versace well as the landscape of hip-hop evolved. By the mid-to-late 2000s, other luxury brands began aggressively courting artists with the same perks Gianni and Donatella had lavished on Tupac nearly a decade earlier. Yet hip-hop’s elite maintained their loyalty.
The family’s personal relationships with artists came to epitomize the concept of “rock-star glam.” Hylton can recall more than a few epic moments. “I remember sitting front row at a Versace show one season with Missy Elliott and hanging out afterwards at Donatella's home on Lake Como—legendary.”
For today’s artists and their audience, that backstage photo with Donatella or that silk shirt—worn loose and untucked—still holds the same weight in 2013 as it did in '96. In fact recent rap releases indicate that the house of Versace is hotter than ever. “It’s almost like Versace is the hip-hop of fashion,” says Hylton. “The music and the brand give off the same energy.”
Let's take a look back at rap's long-standing love affair with this luxury brand.