High Fashion Is Finally Acknowledging Rap’s Tastemaking Power

This Tuesday, venerable European fashion brand Gucci unveiled rapper Gucci Mane as a face of their Gucci Cruise 2020 ad campaign. It seems like a no brainer that the brand would link with the iconic rapper who once uttered, “I’m Gucci Mane, you would think that was my clothing line,” on “Gucci Bandana” (naturally). But European fashion brands haven’t been collectively using their brains when it comes to the ways in which they interact with the Black community.

Historically, if Gucci, Louie Vuitton, Prada, and Burberry aren’t engineering controversy with lawsuits and racially insensitive fashion pieces, they’re ignoring artists like Gucci, Kanye West, and figures like clothing designer Dapper Dan who have long extolled the brands as status symbols in the Black community. It looks like the tide is finally changing with collaborations like Gucci’s and Dapper Dan’s. Playboi Carti, Princess Nokia and Travis Scott have been in promotions for Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Yves Saint Laurent respectively. Rappers have been unwitting spokespeople for these brands for years without compensation or even acknowledgment. Many Black people have been conditioned to conflate Eurocentricity with superiority, not realizing how much inspiration designers get from us. It’s about time that “high-fashion” brands start acknowledging and compensating artists as tastemakers.

Ironically, Gucci Mane didn’t adopt his rap name solely because of his affinity for Gucci. He has said he took the name from his father, who didn’t actually wear Gucci. He told HipHopDX in 2007 that, “my grandmother gave my daddy a lil’ country name — she didn’t know nothing about them clothes.” It’s been popularly assumed that he co-opted the name from the clothing designer because Black people have long celebrated European brands as status symbols. The idea is that even if we aren’t afforded the privileges to live the so-called “American dream,” we can wear it.

But while we celebrate the symbolism of high class, the references have historically been inherently microcosmic. We call the biggest, fiercest basketball player in the neighborhood “baby Shaq” knowing they would never get to actually play the real Shaquille O’Neal. Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella records affirmed aspirations to one day be as rich as John D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest American ever, even if there was little chance they could actually reach his estimated equivalent net worth of $400 billion. When Gucci Mane came out with his breakout “So Icey” in 2007, the thought of him actually collaborating with the brand may have been a pipedream.

Things have changed, however. Gucci is a part of American iconography in his own right, as are many rappers. Wear a Coogi sweater and a driver’s cap, or a bandana with a bald head this Halloween, and people will know who you’re referencing. Artists like Max B, aka Max Biggavelli, ascribe to be Jay-Z, Biggie, and Makaveli (Tupac) rolled into one. The playing field is level, which means that fashion brands can no longer have their nose up at rappers as mere customers — they’re ambassadors, whether formally recognized or not. The Balenciaga Triple S sneakers are so ugly that ASAP Ferg had to reference it on “Pups,” but they continue to fly off shelves mostly because rappers have decided they’re “in.” Hip-hop drives the course of street fashion, and its most popular figures have a Midas touch that more fashion houses should tap into.

Kanye West realized this a decade ago. In 2013, the man who once called himself the “Louis Vuitton Don” began railing at Louis Vuitton because then-Vice President Yves Carcelle wouldn’t take a meeting with him and discuss a possible collaboration. In 2015, he told 92.3 NOW that, “while I was out in Paris I wanted to meet with the head of Louis Vuitton, he said I don’t understand why we need to meet with you.” After calling for a Louis Vuitton boycott, he noted, “they think that I don’t realize my power.”

Say what you want about his politics, but he was right. His Yeezy brand is on pace to hit over $1.5 billion in sales in the next five years. The man said slavery was a choice and got richer, proving how entrenched his brand is in pop culture.

It’s unclear if Gucci will be collaborating with the brand on any actual pieces, but it shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility. There’s much to be said about Black people’s need to patronize these brands over Black-owned fashion companies. But as long as the high-fashion craze continues, artists’ love for these brands should be reciprocated by the people in power.

A September 2018 Nielsen study reports that Black people have $1.5 trillion in spending power. The music industry grosses over $15 billion annually. A notable portion of that money is steered by the tastes of Gucci, Kanye, and others. Hopefully, more of these brands will decide to garner headlines not with racist sweaters, but more collaborations with the figures who have kept them poppin’ in the Black community over the past 40 years.